One week from today – from the very moment I am writing these words – the launch of my first novel is scheduled to occur at Union Avenue Books in Knoxville, Tennessee. What a surreal sentence that is to type. In elementary school, as I wrote and illustrated my stapled-together “books” made from lined notebook paper, I certainly imagined such a moment. I certainly dreamed of it. But I am rather bemused as to how I actually got here. I’ve spent some time thinking about how it happened—there have been moments of magic, I can’t deny, and some great, good fortune—but it’s also been a matter of putting one foot in front of the other for years and years and years.
No matter where you the writer may be along your own winding, exhilarating, exasperating journey with words and with their crafting, you surely dream of your date with publication, too. So—here are insights to share, as I look back over the terrain I’ve crossed, remembering. These are hardly earth-shattering, groundbreaking discoveries—you’ve heard variations on them a million times before—but they’re intended as simple things to encourage all writers along their ways. (And they’re not all of my own invention, either—I’ve learned from others, too.) As I reflect, I suppose this is how it happened, how it must have happened, what I did, what you can do, too.
Write. You cannot finish what you never start. You cannot revise what you never finish. No matter how good or bad, perfect or awful it is. Write. Don’t just talk about it. Don’t just wish for it. Write. If you are a morning person, write in the morning. If you are an evening person, write in the evening. If you have an hour a day, write. If you have fifteen minutes a day, write. There is no right and there is no wrong way to do this. Writing makes you happy, it makes you frustrated, whatever, but your life is not complete without it. So write. Don’t wait for the perfect time—it may never show itself. Write in the time you have. I’ve written in the car in the mornings before going in to work. I’ve written on my lunch breaks. Get creative about finding a time, finding a way. Write.
Learn. Avail yourself of every opportunity to learn more about writing. No matter how much you learn, how much you exercise your writing “muscles” and improve, you can always learn more, you can always get better. Read other books—books in your genre, books outside your genre. Read books on writing. Study how to write a query and a synopsis. Attend lectures, attend workshops. Engage with a writing community like the Knoxville Writers’ Guild and spend time among your fellow students. Take yourself and your writing seriously, seriously enough to be as professional about it as possible, no matter whether you are sixteen or sixty. One of the greatest gifts I was ever given was a mentor who taught me how to do just that. In high school, I didn’t want to write well “for my age.” I wanted to write well, period. If you share that desire, wonderful! Roll up your sleeves. I’m right there alongside you.
Revise. This looks like writing—and is writing—but also is different because it requires the use of different skills. Writing is not all instant inspiration. Sometimes it involves gaining some distance from your work and approaching with a new set of eyes—not the eyes that first saw the sublime visions that you frantically, ecstatically translated onto your computer screen, but the eyes later reading what you actually wrote there. In my experience, the best way to get this kind of perspective is to participate in a writing group. Over time, as you read and react to others’ writing, it becomes much easier to read and react to your own writing in the same way, as impartially as possible. And once you figure out what needs reworking, you rework it as many times as it takes to get it right. You tweak the same sentence over and over until you never want to see it again. But often this is where the magic happens. That has been my biggest recent discovery. Don’t be afraid to put in the elbow grease—it sure feels good when you see the gleaming, shiny results.
And repeat. Persevere. Keep writing, keep learning, keep revising. Send out your work. Get it rejected. Send it out again. Another rejection. Collect enough rejections to paper a wall, every wall of your house. It’s part of the process. Learn from it. But don’t stop. Keep your cheerleaders handy, the ones in your writing community, in your writing group. And keep going. Repeat, and repeat, and repeat.
Writing is challenging, no doubt about it. Each of these topics can easily become a book in itself. But sometimes it helps, when the way gets wearying, to remember what you started out to pursue in the first place—writing, your love of writing, making your writing the best it can be, writing in the hopes of being published someday—and to focus again, in the most basic sense, on what it takes to get there. Write and revise, learn all you can, and commit to doing those things until you reach your goal.
Though I can’t tell what new adventures may lie ahead in the days and weeks to come, I know some of what awaits. Already I am sending out stories, revising, hoping to stretch myself in my work, accumulating rejections right and left. I need to take my own advice and stop avoiding the half-finished chapter sitting on my desktop. If you’ve neglected a writing project, too, drag it out, and dust it off. Let’s get to work.
A native of Kingsport, Tennessee, Melanie K. Hutsell grew up listening to family stories of ghosts and tales of recalcitrant women. Her debut Appalachian magic realism novel, The Dead Shall Rise, is from Celtic Cat Publishing, an award-winning Knoxville publisher founded in 1995. The first two chapters (in slightly altered form and under a different title) won first place in the Tennessee Writers Alliance Novel Competition in 2001, awarded at the Southern Festival of Books. The Dead Shall Rise is available at Union Ave Books