by Robb Grindstaff

What I’ve learned about writing would fill a book. But a guest post on Michelle’s blog will have to do for now. First, a quick recap of my fiction journey thus far.

My second grade teacher asked all her students what they wanted to be when we grew up. I said, “An author.” I have no idea where that came from. Obviously something had been brewing in that little still-developing brain. She asked me, “What have you written?” I said, “Nothing yet. I’m not grown up yet.” She said, “You’re not an author until you’ve written something.”

So I went home and wrote something. A story, fit on a single page. Perhaps I invented flash fiction but didn’t get the credit. I showed my mom, who gushed over it and said what a wonderful story it was and what a great writer I was. My first review. She posted it on the fridge. My first publication. I’d never been prouder.

This continued, but by high school I realized there weren’t a lot of paying jobs for writers. I took journalism and joined the school newspaper—a paying career until I sold my first best seller. Went to college and majored in journalism. Went to work for a newspaper. Got married. Had kids. Got a mortgage. Writing fiction sort of fell by the wayside as life took over.

Good thing. I needed some life experiences before knowing how to write any fiction that might resonate with readers other than my mom.

Then, kids almost grown, an additional twenty years of life, and the fiction bug bit again. Bit hard. I began writing a novel.

The story flowed out of my fingertips. The character took over my mind. The thrill, the obsession, the joy of writing changed my life from that point forward.

I had almost finished the novel, and I’d read lots of articles about finding an agent and getting published. Read books on the subject. Researched agents. Attended a writers’ conference. Pitched my book to an agent at the conference.

Lesson #1: Do not pitch an agent until you’ve finished writing the book. He loved the pitch, wanted to see the opening chapters. I sent him the opening chapters, emailed about midnight that evening. Figured I had a few weeks to finish writing the novel. He emailed back at five a.m. wanting to see the whole manuscript. I finished writing it that weekend.

Lesson #2: When you’ve finished writing your novel, you’ve just begun. It’s not a novel. It’s a first draft. I didn’t realize that. I thought it had fallen perfectly onto the page the first time.

I joined a writers group to learn more about writing, the craft and the business of getting published. An incredible bunch of writers, all of genres I never read. I learned more from this group in a year than I knew was possible. How to build a world from the fantasy writers. How to stir the emotions from the romance writers. How to build suspense from the mystery writers. How to shock and surprise from the horror writers.

Lesson #3: Associate with other writers. You need the camaraderie of those who share the passion. Non-writers cannot understand what goes on inside your mind.

Lesson #4: Read outside your genre. It broadens your scope of writing tools.

Lesson #5: Learn to take critique and criticism from other writers. Don’t just look for people to tell you how wonderful you are or you’ll never get better. And when the criticism really starts to get under your skin and make you a bit defensive, even angry, that’s a good time to really listen carefully. It’s probably hitting close to home. Thank them for ripping your soul to shreds. It needs it if it’s going to improve.

I revised and edited and rewrote based on feedback from the writers group. I queried more agents. And more. Some form rejections. Several asked for partial chapters and a synopsis. Quite a few asked for the full manuscript. I got glowing letters back saying how great it was, how the character was mesmerizing, the writing impressive, the story compelling, but . . .

Lesson #6: Learn to accept rejection and not let your emotions go on a rollercoaster ride (a partial, I’m excited; a full, I’m deliriously happy; a rejection, I’m depressed to the point of never writing again). Allow yourself a reasonable amount of emotion for a reasonable amount of time, wallow in it, and then move on. Keep querying.

I joined an online writers community for more feedback. I learned how to participate in an online group. I learned what, and who, to avoid in online groups. I made some writer friends for life whom I’ve never met in person.

Lesson #7: Be judicious with online groups, and with what you allow yourself to say. Your words online live forever and can be searched by prospective employers and agents.

While still querying my first novel, I’ve been writing my second. I found it amazing how much better my writing is—from word choice to character arc to plot development to scene-setting to the novel’s organization, pace and flow. I didn’t realize how much I had learned about the craft of writing during the writing and revision of my first novel. Beta readers often say something to the effect of, “I liked Carry Me Away, but I love Hannah’s Voice. Have you finished it yet?”

Lesson #8: Keep writing something new while querying the finished work. It keeps honing your skills and keeps your creative juices flowing, which helps to offset the emotional rollercoaster of queries and rejections. You might even realize that your second book is so much better than your first that maybe your first isn’t as great as you thought it was. Maybe your first book will never be published. Or your second. But with each novel you write, your art is honed and your craft is polished. Many of the greatest writers we know today wrote several novels before ever getting one published, and often that was after dozens or even hundreds of rejections. Why should it be any easier for you?

Lesson #9: Never, ever, ever give up.

You need to write. Your soul requires it of you. And there are readers out there waiting to read what you have to say. They need to read it. As soon as you learn to write it the way it’s meant to be written.

Lesson #10: Looking back on the journey thus far and how much I’ve learned about writing, I realize this: what I have yet to learn about writing would fill a library.

Robb Grindstaff is managing editor of an international English-language daily newspaper. He writes short stories and novels, and does freelance fiction editing.