Where to Look

lynx baby060

If you’ve spent any time around infants, you recognize how much of their waking existence is focused on where to look. Grownups look mostly out of necessity—for hazards on the road they’re driving, for the words they’re typing on the screen, for the next item on their to-do lists. Infants look out of wonder, delighted at each new discovery. Visual cues make for great distractions. Mom leaves the room, baby cries. Flash a toy in front of baby, and she’s utterly captivated.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, our job as writers is to show readers where to look. The entails first looking closely at our world, either fictional or actual. Knowing more than we tell, we then bring forward the most salient details. Look here, we signal to readers.

In the drafting stage, we may not know which way we want readers to look. But as we work, certain parts of our work draw attention, often ensconced in slightly elevated language that says look here. As we revise, the elevated language may need to be altered, even dialed back, but our subconscious has made its point.

As we hone our craft, much of what we’re doing getting better at showing readers where to look. Threads emerge, and we tease them forward. We set up signposts. Pacing, proportionality, structure, nuances of character and relationship—at the core, these are all ways we help readers know where to look.

Working our way through a project, we may revert temporarily to an infantile state of wonder. The delight in what we’re discovering, in what we’re seeing as if for the first time, infuses our work with energy. But as we revise, we’re mindful of our role of directing the reader’s attention. Where our points of wonder become distractions, we figure out how to better connect them to the whole, or abbreviate them, or even eliminate them in favor of the stronger insight or plot point or character development to which they’ve pointed us. To this end, writing partners and editors lend a fresh set of eyes to help us find our way, showing us in turn where to look.

Named by Library Journal as “one of Alaska’s leading storytellers,” Deb Vanasse has authored seventeen books. Her most recent novel, Cold Spell, “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds” (Booklist). Wealth Woman, her “deeply researched and richly imagined” gold rush biography of Kate Carmack, was named a True West “Best of the West” selection.

Deb Vanasse | Complicated Characters

deb filming carcross
Deb filming Kate’s story

When I launched the project that would become my book Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold, one of the first people I told was my friend and fellow author Claire Rudolf-Murphy. Claire and Jane Haigh wrote Gold Rush Women, where I first read about Kate.

There was a pause in Claire’s response. “Oh,” she said. “Kate’s…complicated.”

I have to admit, this gave me pause. I knew there were vastly different takes on the person Kate had been—that was a prime motivator for me to dig deeper into her story. But complicated sounded ominous.

Much research and a manuscript later, I realized how helpful it is for an author to explore complicated characters. Kate was indeed complicated, but I was able to sort the facts of her life into ways that made sense for readers. The public has embraced her in all her complexities.

Since the book came out, Kate, who was a Canadian citizen, has received coverage in prominent Canadian news sources. She was nominated to be on new Canadian currency. In the Yukon, a big mural has been painted, depicting her life’s story. She’s being inducted into the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame, and I had the privilege of being filmed in her hometown as part of a video that’s being made in conjunction with that honor.

Not bad for a complicated character.

Still, I’ve had to remind myself now and then that complicated characters are good for stories. The project I’m working on now features a character described as “dogmatic, logical, intemperate, courageous, tactless, idealistic, and fundamentally quixotic.”


But I know he’ll be great on the page. I just need to keep front and center a few tenets of writing about complicated characters, whether they’re real or imagined:

  • We learn in school about heroes have a tragic flaw. But in truth, we all have multiple flaws. No sense oversimplifying that.
  • Don’t get so attached to your character that you pussy-foot around her negative traits. Negative traits create tension in your narrative, especially as your character develops some self-regard.
  • Look for complications that you may share with your character. Those places of emotional connection can serve your work well. But keep in mind also that your character isn’t you. Give her space to be herself.
  • Be wary of assumptions. We tend to think one dot should lead clearly to the next. A narrative is more interesting when the journey is complex, as are many of our own life’s journeys.
  • Your job as a writer is to show readers where to look. You can’t just dump a bunch of random, disparate traits on the page and leave readers to sort everything out—that’s simply not satisfying enough for the reader. Even complex characters need simple tags for readers to hang onto.

Named by Library Journal as “one of Alaska’s leading storytellers,” Deb Vanasse has authored seventeen books. Her most recent novel, Cold Spell, “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds” (Booklist). Wealth Woman, her “deeply researched and richly imagined” gold rush biography of Kate Carmack, was named a True West “Best of the West” selection.


The Self-Destructing Story


Banksey made news again last week when his painting “Girl with Balloon” sold for $1.4 million at auction and then promptly self-destructed via a shredder that was built into the frame.

Self-destructing art isn’t as unusual as it may seem. My son-in-law is an ice artist, creating intricate carvings that he knows will last only a few hours. Our stories, too, self-destruct, though not so dramatically as Banksy’s painting, nor as intentionally.

As a teacher and editor, I’ve seen stories, essays, and novels self-destruct because their authors couldn’t bring themselves to finish them. It’s all too easy to write yourself into a hole and become disoriented. A good critique partner or writing coach can often help you find your way out.

I’ve also seen stories self-destruct because their writers had too much ego involved. They had trouble separating their stories from themselves, and the stories suffered for it.

But in other ways, self-destructing is part of the natural life cycle of our work. We hope our work will outlast us, but in truth, books go out of print. Libraries discard their copies. Work that’s available online may be cached forever, but as years pass, it’s less and less likely that anyone will look for it.

We may as well acknowledge that our stories and poems and essays and books will slowly self-destruct, becoming more and more obscure. Knowing this, we can let go—and move on to the next project.


Unfit for Fiction

Let’s say you’re writing a novel, and somehow—maybe owing to the 24/7 news cycle or to the protest signs leaning against a wall in your garage or to the hours you’ve spent organizing indivisible enthusiasts—you come upon the idea of writing a narcissist into your fiction.

Don’t do it.

A narcissist operates like a wrecking ball. Oblivious to the harm he’ll inflict, he runs roughshod over anything that stands between him and his desires, which center on a singular goal—preserving his fragile self-esteem.

Ah, but he’s a conflicted character, you say. A bloviator, yet fragile within.

Conflicted, yes, but the fact that he’s incapable of acknowledging this internal conflict makes him uninteresting.  A narcissist can never allow himself to admit to weakness. He has zero self-regard. He’s incapable of humor, which demands the ability to laugh at one’s self.

The narcissist is a master of projection, accusing his opponents (and they are legion) of the very faults he’s incapable of acknowledging in himself. Manipulation is essential to his psychological survival, and yet his own internal fragility, his insatiable need for affirmation, makes him an easy target for manipulation by other nefarious types.

Maybe this sounds interesting, but in fact it’s all too predictable.

A fundamental tenet of fiction is that readers need to empathize with your characters. You might think backstory will come to the rescue—the character feels inferior to his father, unworthy of the fortune he inherits, resentful of having been shipped off to a military boarding school, intellectually unequal to his peers.

It’s true that backstory can add emotional depth to a character, helping readers to empathize with his plight. But empathy is a two-way street, and the narcissist only travels in one direction, toward himself.

Sensing this, readers gravitate toward characters with the capacity to return empathy. In this regard, the narcissist will always fall short.

Even the “save the cat” strategy doesn’t work with the narcissist. He only saves the cat if there’s something in it for him, if it makes him look good.

You can’t even rely on a narcissist to be a good fictional villain. He’s flat, a character type with a large potential for destruction, like a tornado or some other freakish force that must be reckoned with. If you need this effect in your novel, write in an actual tornado or hurricane or wrecking ball.

In the face of destruction, the intriguing character isn’t the narcissist who unleashes it but the courageous resistor. She’s flawed, of course—we all are—but in confronting the chaos, she discovers the depth of her passion for justice and truth.

Don’t write a narcissist into your fiction. And while you’re at it, don’t choose one to lead the free world.

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored seventeen books. Among the most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds; and the “deeply researched and richly imagined” biography  Wealth Woman. After thirty-six years in Alaska, she now lives on the north coast of Oregon. The opinions expressed here are solely her own.

Balancing Act: A Writer’s Priorities


Confession: I obsess over goals.

Well, maybe obsess is too strong a word, but I’m definitely in the habit of using the turning of one year to the next as a prompt to look back over what I’ve accomplished and jot a few notes about the projects I hope to pursue in the year to come. I make these notes in the back of my daily to-do notebook so I can reference them now and again, especially when I’m facing a decision about where to focus my energies. It’s a New Year’s ritual.

I’m pretty sure you’re not supposed to forget a ritual, but this year I did. Maybe it happened because everything changed in November. Priorities shifted. Things that had been taken for granted couldn’t be anymore. If felt a lot more like a reset than the turning of the calendar from 2016 to 2017.

A week into the New Year, I re-seized the moment. I pondered the year behind and the year ahead, and my part in them, as a writer and as a person—a citizen of the world and of America, yes, but also wife, sister, daughter, mom, grandma.

Not that these roles are mutually exclusive by any means. But a writer’s life is a balancing act. Writing consumes a tremendous among of time and energy, yet for those of us driven to do it, there’s really no choice.

Looking back on 2016, I was struck first by the things I didn’t do. These weren’t failures (though I always have plenty of those). They were conscious decisions to quit peripheral activities I didn’t enjoy. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has to learn this lesson over and over.

When we were in the throes of birthing a lovely organization now known as 49 Writers, Andromeda reminded me that the instructions about donning your own oxygen mask before assisting others make for good advice on the ground too. If we don’t stay healthy—psychically, emotionally—we’re of little use to ourselves or others.

Health begins at home. As Jonathan Reiber points out, “Our best defense against a dark world lies in wrapping ourselves around our loved ones and friends and committing to love them, and ourselves, unconditionally.”

Health also involves setting boundaries. Sometimes we have to say no, even when our first inclination is yes. Social media is a good place to start. In a recent opinion piece in The Guardian, writer Lindy West talks about quitting Twitter after deciding it was fit only for “trolls, robots, and dictators.”

You’ll still find me on Twitter, but I limit how (and how much) I engage. Wading through the larger deluge of information that assaults us via all forms of media, I set toxicity boundaries—only unhyped sourcing of news, filtering based on whether there’s action I can take.

These are my survive-and-thrive tactics. You’ll have your own.

On to the juggling act that is a writer’s life. For me, there are the usual peripheral activities—teaching, freelancing, editing. These I enjoy, but the new year is a time to remind myself to set limits on these, too, reserving time and energy for the creative work that sustains me. I like to clear the table of all preconceptions and re-evaluate my work-in-progress as well as others in queue. This year, I weighed the potential of these projects against three watchwords for my year of writing and living: meaningful, engaged, inspired.

“Writers are the most powerful people on the planet,” says Lisa Cron, “because story is the most power communication tool in the world.”

Let’s make the most of it.

And there’s this: If you agree with PEN America that our democracy is at risk, sign on with Writers Resist #WriteOurDemocracy. There are events all over the country on January 15, and a similar event in Homer on January 16.

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored seventeen books. Among the most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds; and the “deeply researched and richly imagined” biography  Wealth Woman. After thirty-six years in Alaska, she now lives on the north coast of Oregon, where she’ll be teaching Jumpstart Your Writing on Jan. 14 at the Seaside Library. She’s looking forward to reconnecting with Alaska writers in May at the North Words Writers Symposium in Skagway.



Writing with Purpose

camusBefore November 8, I mostly refrained from posting anything political on social media. As an author, I didn’t want to offend readers, believing that while we might not agree on politics, we could still share a love of story. I believe this still. But post-election, my posting policy did a 180. Polite silence was no longer an option.

Let me say straight out that I don’t assume that everyone reading this reacted as I did to the election results. Such assumptions are polarizing, and Lord knows we have enough polarization aplenty. If the news that made me weep caused you to cheer, I respect your right to your opinion. The health of our democracy depends on divergent perspectives. There’s room enough on social media for all of us, and I trust that as some of us reset our personal rules of engagement—mine include sharing thought-provoking posts and links from respectable, documented sources—we’ll make our own choices about which ones we read.

Even if your politics mirror mine, you may have your own reasons for not going public with them. That’s fine. I’m not here to dissuade you.

What I want to talk about is the idea of how we as writers contribute to the broader discussions that further whatever type of change we hope to see in our nation and in the world.  I want to talk about how we “reckon honestly with our role in shaping the American psyche,” as Barbara Kingsolver urged in a recent op-ed piece published in the The Guardian. What role does this reckoning play in the creative process? How does it affect our choices of topic, format, and audience? How concerned should we be about the interface between literary and popular culture? To what extent can we reckon with the ways in which the American psyche shapes us as writers?

These are too many questions to address in a single blog post, so I’ll begin with the first and save the rest for future entries. Reckoning of any sort may feel as if it’s at odds with the spontaneity and freedom of the creative process. But if we’re attentive and honest, if we follow our instincts as concerned and empathetic humans, the reckoning will out itself in our creative work.

I write because I love the process, but these past few weeks, I’ve also thought a good bit about the extent to which my work matters. In particular, I’ve thought not so much about my most recent novel and biography, though I’m happy with both, but about Totem Tale, a children’s books that I wrote years ago during a phase of my life when I simply didn’t have time to write anything with a big page count.

In no way did I set out to shape the American psyche with this book. I admired the craftsmanship of totem poles, the way in which the poles were themselves a narrative format. I posed the classic writer’s question, “what if,” and imagined what might happen if the totem animals came alive. Until teachers and reviewers pointed it out to me, I hardly recognized that I’d written a story about cooperation. That’s the beauty of the creative process—if we allow it to do its work, the best of our thoughts will rise, whether or not we’re immediately aware of their implications.

We hear a lot about writers and ego, but the truth is that self-forgetfulness, also a critical component of empathy, is vital to the creative process. When you get lost in your work, you’re in what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a “flow state.” Author and geneticist Dean Hamer elaborates:

Self-forgetfulness means having this type of ‘flow’ on a regular basis. People often experience flashes of insight or understanding when they are in this frame of mind. Creativity is maximized, originality is fostered. Even the most ordinary things seem fresh and new.

The trick, then—if we care to frame our process in such terms—is that we recognize the responsibility that comes with having a readership, and then, having formulated the recognition, we let go of it, as we dispense with self-consciousness in general. From awareness, we yield ourselves to the flow state in which we trust our creative processes to generate works of beauty and power that will help to shape the psyche of our nation and, with any luck, leave the world a little better than we found it.

Beyond yielding to the creative flow, literary agent Donald Maass offers practical suggestions to those of us concerned about how our work matters. In “Putting Your Purpose on the Page,” he proposes questions that help authors identify their purpose:

Ask yourself: What is wrong with our world?  What injustice do we need to see?  What trend should cause us alarm?  What aspect of our human condition do we timidly suffer or ignore?  Who looks different to us who is really the same?  To what irony should we pay attention?  What do we need to remember?  Where may we find inspiration when we’re not looking?  What is good about us when everything around us makes us feel bad?  If we get nothing else right, or are able only to do one thing noble in our lives, what would that be?  What makes it okay for us to die and leave this Earth?

And this: If after experiencing your novel, your readers will be inspired to do one thing differently, what will that one thing be?

In his post, Maass also explores four ways to integrate purpose into narrative (spoiler: preaching and judgment aren’t part of the mix). He concludes with a challenge:

If your intention in writing is to “illuminate” or “explore”, or simply to entertain, why are you aiming so low?  Make a statement.  Declare yourself.  Teach us what we don’t know.  Show us how to accomplish that which we are afraid to do.  Don’t just challenge our thinking, change it.  Don’t just create conflict, shine a light on injustice, stir our timid hearts, make us want to leap up and act, show us the better world in which we could live.  Don’t just warn us, inspire us to change.

Deb Vanasse has authored seventeen books published with six different presses. Her most recent titles are the novel Cold Spell and a narrative biography, Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold. In addition to her published work, Deb works as a freelancing editor, teaches creative writing workshops, and speaks at conferences on topics related to writing and publishing. After 36 years in Alaska, she now lives and works on Oregon’s north coast.


Writing Through Tears


It’s not easy, writing through tears.  Harder still when you can hardly sleep, when despair strikes head-on at each fitful waking, and you wonder (selfishly, you chide yourself) whether the effort you’ve poured into your passion, your work, is an utter waste.

The whole idea of relying on something so flimsy as words in an attempt to craft meaning from human experience seems, at such times, remarkably suspect.

But you are a writer. When your tears are spent (and after you’ve actually slept a little), you’ll return to those flimsy words, if only because, alongside love and hope and compassion, they’re all you’ve got. You’ll return to them because even in a world run amuck, words matter.

You are a writer, and you understand that sometimes illusions are perceived as truth, and that—maybe, perhaps—when probing those dark, uncomfortable margins of experience, yours and ours, the light you shine will illuminate something bigger.

You are a writer, and you bear witness to the hope contained in the smallest of things, to the extraordinary concealed within the ordinary.

You are a writer, and you will fiercely, courageously defend your right, and the right of every person, to express the thoughts and feelings that define them, even when those thoughts and feelings are clumsy and hurtful. Yours are the words over which you have control, and you will use them for good.

You are a writer, and you will not be silenced.


The Book, Reimagined

Short Editions vending machine dispenses a story. Image: www.travelandleisure.com

I’ve become rather notorious for reading the latest sensation, the must-read pick of the season, a good ten to fifteen years after everyone else does. I could try to convince you that I do this on purpose, in order to savor the story after the furor has diminished, in order to make my own judgments, but that would be a lie. I’m simply slow to get around to the buzz books.

The most recent on my late-to-the-party list is Margaret’s Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, hailed as “the first great novel of the new millennium,” which proves exactly how later I came to it. Atwood is brilliant—you already know that. In The Blind Assassin, she reimages the novel by embedding a story within a story within a story. She intersperses period-style news clippings, seeding many of them at the beginning, the result being that it’s only after thirty-plus pages that we attach to a narrator and a voice.

Could you or I get away with opening a book that way? Not likely. When she penned The Blind Assassin, Atwood already had proven herself in the industry. She had (and has) a substantial following, and therefore publishers are willing to trust her to her readers. She also proved her chops with traditional storylines, as in The Handmaid’s Tale, perhaps her most well-known title, proving the adage that you need to know the rules in order to break them.

As authors reimagine the book, so do publishers. In a two-part series recently published in the IBPA Independent, I explored the ways in which new technologies are nudging us to think differently about these packages we call books. E-books are old news, my friends. Vending machines now dispense short stories. Response-friendly formats on platforms such as Wattpad and Medium are playing a larger role in digital publishing. Mobile devices allow stories to be told in nonlinear ways.

By reimagining the book, authors and publishers enjoy opportunities to collaborate in exciting ways. Peter Brantley of the University of California, Davis, predicts that in the future, e-books and other digital publications will function as well-designed websites; after all, he points out, the Kindle is actually a small, thin linux computer. Who knew?

Through platforms such as Leanpub, Gumroad, and Patreon, authors can satisfy fans with serial versions of their work—and fans can participate in the development, encouraging and energizing authors. Meanwhile, working groups of publishers continue to refine digital publishing standards.

For the writer, all of this translates to possibility. “When more authors and publishers realize and leverage the exhilarating freedom of digital publishing, we’ll see wilder experiments, startling moments of brilliance, and mass audiences where no one ever expected to find them,” says publishing expert Josh Brody.

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the author co-op Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse is the author of seventeen books. Among her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest, and What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion, as well as Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold. Visit www.ibpa-online.org to read the full content of “Updates from the Digital Frontier” and “Breaking Out of the Box.”



Book Deals: What Authors Don’t Ask Their Publishers


word map

I’ve been at this publishing game for a while now—twenty years, seventeen books, six different publishers. From a writer’s perspective, it’s a complicated business. You may think your contract spells out everything related to your book deal, when in fact many details that can make or break your publishing experience won’t be covered in your contract at all.

That means you need to ask questions—lots of them, through your agent, if you have one, or directly if you don’t. Among the most crucial:

As an author, do you have to pay for anything? With the advent of digital publishing and print-on-demand (POD) technologies, publishers are springing up everywhere. They may vet submissions, but if they charge authors any fees at all, they are “author services” publishers who have little more clout in the marketplace than you would have on your own if you self-published. Weigh all factors carefully, especially your budget, before signing on with an author services publisher. Don’t overestimate sales—competition in the book market is fierce.

What will the cover price be? If your book is overpriced for the competition, it won’t sell as it should. A publisher can’t nail down an exact price until the details of the book are firm, but you should at least be able to agree on a range.

What services (editorial, design, publicity) are outsourced vs. provided in-house? There’s nothing inherently wrong with outsourcing, but you’re more likely to get an inferior editor, proofreader, designer, or indexer if the work is outsourced.

What’s the anticipated market for this book—and how does the publisher intend to reach it? You may assume your book will be sold in bookstores and purchased by libraries when in fact the publisher has no means of procuring shelf space or library sales. “Available” in bookstores only means that it will be in a digital catalog from which bookstores may or may not choose to order it.

Will the book be printed and warehoused, or will it be printed as copies are ordered, using print-on-demand (POD) technology? If a book is published using print-on-demand (POD) technology, Barnes and Noble won’t order for store pick-up—the title has to be shipped directly to the consumer. On the other hand, a POD book can be printed and delivered in minutes at Powell’s and other bookseller who’ve invested in the proper equipment.

What sort of marketing budget can I expect? As with the cover price, these details won’t be firmed up until the book goes into production, and they’ll shift as the market responds favorably (additional marketing money will appear in the budget) or with less enthusiasm (marketing will slow or cease). But based on your advance, the publisher has a rough idea of how much will be allocated to marketing—in general, the more that’s invested up front (your advance), the more the publisher is likely to invest in making sure it succeeds.

What types of contacts will the publicist/marketing specialist have? Publishing is a relationship business, and if your prospective publisher doesn’t employ a publicist with a broad reach, your book may be all but invisible in the marketplace. Believe it or not, I’ve run into marketing personnel who admitted to having no relationships with bookstore owners in a major market.

Who will distribute the book? How many sales reps? Publishers who aren’t signed on with major distributors will have a hard time getting your book into bookstores. Even if there is a distributor, you need to know how many sales reps will be out there promoting your book to retailers in the markets where it’s most likely to sell.

In what formats will the book be available—and when? Your contract will cover all rights—print, digital, audio, foreign—as well as rights to formats that have yet to be invented. But that doesn’t mean the publisher is going to make use of those rights. Ask about their plans for digital, audio, and foreign. If they’re sketchy, you might want to keep those rights for yourself, provided you know what to do with them.

For which awards will the book be submitted? The publisher will hedge on this question, deferring the answer to post-publication, when it’s clear how the book is being received. Nonetheless, you should have some assurance that award submissions will happen.

How financially stable is the company? Authors who published with the now-defunct Alaska Northwest Publishing know the importance of assessing a publisher’s financial stability before signing on.

How long is the book likely to stay in print with active distribution? Larger publishers will say this depends on how the book sells. Smaller presses keep their backlist in print for a long time, and they’ll often continue to distribute actively, which means you get more royalties—and more readers—over the long haul.

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored seventeen books. Among the most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds; and the “deeply researched and richly imagined” biography  Wealth Woman. After thirty-six years in Alaska, she now lives on the north coast of Oregon, between Astoria and Seaside.










Writing Mistakes I’ve Made (so you don’t have to)


Not surprisingly, one of my most popular all-time blog posts is about publishing mistakes. I expect every author has made a few, some more than most. The same goes for mistakes involving our writing. In no particular order, here are five big errors I’ve made:

Not specializing: No one likes to be pigeonholed, and yet readers expect a certain consistency from the authors they love. I’ve been all over the map, publishing two YA novels, five books for younger readers, and three travel books before honing in on what I most wanted to publish, fiction for grown-ups. But even that fiction is in the general category—genre would have been a much better idea. Then I published narrative nonfiction, a biography. Oh, and there are those two books on writing. Now I’m working on historical fiction. Don’t follow my bad example. Figure out what you most want to write, figure out how to best reach that audience, and stick with it.

Believing I’d arrived: After achieving success with my first two novels, I figured I’d arrived at exactly the place I needed to be. Granted, I wasn’t exactly sure how I’d written those novels, and I hadn’t made much of a study of what actually constitutes success for writers, and for myself in particular. Writer’s group? Didn’t need it, I thought. Further study? Nope—just needed to keep doing what I’d been doing. Wrong-headed thinking, but it took me a few years to figure that out.

Running on impulse: Writers are risk-takers, and risk takers tend to trust their intuition, which is a very close cousin to impulse. I find it all too easy to get excited about a project and dive in without considering how viable it might be. This practice leads to good books for which there aren’t all that many readers, and also to books that are well-crafted but just don’t work because the premise is flawed. These days, I try not to get too far into a project without drafting sell sheet and query, an exercise that helps me think about readers. Early in the draft, I also turn a critical eye toward the premise and the characters, to make sure they have legs. Impulse has also led me to sign onto projects that rob me of writing time—I’m working on saying no as often as yes. Just because I can do something doesn’t mean I should do it.

Relying on the status quo: My first book came out nearly twenty years ago. At the time, authors were mostly unempowered—we relied on our publishers to connect us with readers. In hindsight, my career would have benefitted had I had the foresight to start connecting with readers early on. Instead, I acted only when the status quo shifted and authors were expected to reach out to readers through blogs and a social media presence. Today, I’m thinking differently about the status quo. I covet my creative time, and I’m more discerning about committing to projects that are distant from my creative work, even if they’re things everyone else seems to be doing.

Foregoing patience: Fluency is a great attribute for writers to covet—it’s what makes NaNoWriMo so appealing. But drafting a novel in a month can mask the very real truth that good writing can’t be rushed. Like most writers, I’ve sent work out too soon. I’ve settled for a lesser publisher instead of going the rounds to get better exposure for my work. After all these years, I’m still working to cultivate patience. It’s a process.

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored seventeen books. Among the most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds; and the “deeply researched and richly imagined” biography  Wealth Woman. After thirty-six years in Alaska, she now lives on the north coast of Oregon, between Astoria and Seaside.