“7 Things I’ve Learned So Far” (this installment written by Loretta Ellsworth, author of STARS OVER CLEAR LAKE) is a recurring column where writers at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction, as well as how they got their literary agent—by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.
1. Find your peeps.
You need all the support you can get, and not just from family members and friends, although it’s nice to have that, too. You need support from other writers who know what you’re going through (and what you will go through), who understand when your dream agent has just rejected you. And find a good writer’s group. They’re often the ones who keep you going and encourage you to produce pages to bring to the next meeting. Hopefully you have a writer’s group that is able to provide honest, valuable critique of your work without being discouraging.
This guest post is by Loretta Ellsworth. Ellsworth grew up in Iowa and lives in Minnesota. She’s a former teacher and a graduate of Hamline University with a Master’s Degree in Writing for Children. She’s the author of four young adult novels. Her adult novel STARS OVER CLEAR LAKE, will be published in May by Thomas Dunne Books. The novel is about a farmer’s daughter who meets a German POW working on her father’s Iowa farm. At the same time, her brother is off fighting Germany in WWII. The characters meet again years later at the iconic Surf Ballroom.
2. Make connections.
Because writers work in a very solitary environment, it’s important to find ways to connect with others in the industry. Many writers find their agents and editors at conferences and workshops. Having the ability to put a face to a manuscript can make all the difference in the world. Plus you learn a lot, and you often come away feeling a renewed sense of excitement about your writing. Also, connecting with other writers is priceless in your journey toward publication. You might even make some lifelong friends in the process.
3. Don’t give up!
Not enough is said about persistence. I consider myself the queen of persistence. I submitted to over 200 literary agents before finding one who wanted to represent me. Now it seems almost over the top—how did I keep going and not give up? I did get nuggets of advice along the way, and a lot of close calls and “almost there” types of responses. Maybe I just don’t know how to give up, but I do know too many talented writers who gave up too quickly—writers who couldn’t handle rejection, sometimes after sending to only a handful of agents. In a tough business like this, persistence is often the key.
4. If you do need to let go of a project, allow yourself to do so.
Even though I embrace persistence, I have several novels that were never sold. Some I still like to go back to; others I no longer have an interest in (that may be a key to knowing when to give up on them). I don’t consider any of them failures, though. Each novel taught me valuable lessons and made me a better writer; they were an important part of my journey.
5. Revise, revise, and revise again.
Usually books are rejected because they’re not ready for publication. I continued to revise my novel when responses from agents resonated with me, and when I received similar objections to my work. I workshopped it with my writer’s group, and hired an independent editor as well. When it was finally accepted by an agent, I revised it again based on her suggestions. And when it was accepted by an editor, guess what? I revised again. The reason I spent so much time revising? I loved this book and was convinced that the plot and characters were worth the time and trouble. And I figured that after spending three years writing my book, what were a few more months spent in revision? It was worth it. My book is so much better because of the time I spent revising it.
6. It isn’t all just luck/who you know/timing.
Yes, those things can play a part, usually a very small part. But it’s the hard work you do every day—learning your craft and revising your book until it’s absolutely the best work you can submit—that will ultimately get you an agent and a publishing contract.
7. Pay it forward.
No man is an island. No author is, either. From the moment I started writing seriously I have been the benefactor of other writers’ knowledge and wisdom. I’ve taken classes and workshops, attended conferences, and belonged to critique groups—all that resulted in the improvement of my craft. My gratefulness for my publishing success is the reason I try to pay it forward for other writers. What are the best ways to do that?
- Volunteer to be a mentor (I volunteer through SCBWI and my local library).
- Support independent bookstores and libraries. They’re the ones who push your books into customers’ hands and recommend your books for awards.
- Visit book clubs and schools. Encourage young writers and tell them about the writing life, both its ups and downs.
- Teach what you know. I teach at Young Writer’s Conferences and do workshops at The Loft and local libraries. Any beginning writer will value your hard-earned knowledge.
- Support your friends. Help them find an agent or editor. Encourage them when things don’t go well. Appreciate their stories. I read that bestselling author Lisa Scottoline once gave every attendee at her Thrillerfest session a referral to her agent, complete with a personal email address. How much more could you give your own writing friends?
- Blurb other books. Do it because you love the book and want to help new authors. (Don’t do it if you hate the book; you can politely refuse.)
- Be supportive online.
- Read books written by your friends and those written by other authors at events you’re invited to. Pat Conroy was known for buying books by all the other authors at events he appeared at.
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