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7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Tova Mirvis

Categories: 7 Things I've Learned So Far, Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents Blog, What's New.

This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Tova Mirvis, author of VISIBLE CITY) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.

GIVEAWAY: Tova is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: janice666 won.)



visible-city-tova-mirvis      tova-mirvis-author-writer

Tova Mirvis is the author of VISIBLE CITY (March 2014), The Outside World and
The Ladies Auxiliary, which was a national bestseller. Her essays have appeared
in various anthologies and newspapers including The New York Times, Good
Housekeeping, and Poets and Writers, and her fiction has been broadcast on

National Public Radio. She has been a Visiting Scholar at The Brandeis Women’s
Studies Research Center and is a recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council
Fiction Fellowship. She lives in Newton, MA with her three children.
Find her on Facebook.



1) Enjoy the good days: The euphoria of a new idea! The sense that every thing around you has a place in your novel! That conversation you overhear? You know exactly what page it will go on. The dress that woman is wearing? You know which character is going to have it on tomorrow. Revel in the fact that the sentences seem to write themselves, in the fact that you are doing the job that you are meant to do. Grab hold of this moment, collect it like a perfect specimen you can pin to a board.

2) Because there will be bad days. Lots of them. The novel is a dead end. Your whole life is a dead end. Look at the pages you’ve slaved over and squint in non-recognition. Is this even in English? On these days, Google alternate careers. Feel relieved that you have a dentist appointment so that you can justifiably not write. Stare in amazement at the dentist, this capable man who has discovered a cavity and fixed it in one hour. Think about the fact that in one hour, you would have looked at a sentence and discovered that it was a little vague, changed a few words, then deleted the sentence. Consider asking if you can work for him, if you can go home with him. Know that these days are unavoidable, that a novel is forged in pain and doubt. Don’t write a novel unless you can withstand these days.

(Why you should only query 6-8 agents at a time.)

3) Sit down every day. Don’t wait for the long uninterrupted stretches. They will not come. Remind yourself a few times each day of your college writing teacher to whom you dared to complain that you were too busy you write. Remember that cool assessing gaze in her eye: if you are a writer, she said, then you write. Write when you’re not in the mood; write when the house is a mess and write when you’re depressed and exhausted. If you have children, know that this applies twice as much to you. You will think of your kids while you write, and you will think of your writing while you are with your kids. Write anyway. Be gentle on yourself in other places, but not here.

4) Learn how to be alone. Turn off your internet. Crave the feeling of being deeply immersed inside your writing world. Feel a physical need to be in that space in your head where you are no longer yourself, yet most fully yourself. Know that the deepest pleasure comes not from others’ responses but from the work itself.

5) There is a cost for doing this. Writing requires an honesty that makes some people uncomfortable. If you write about places you’ve lived, people you’ve known, be prepared to feel like a combination of a stripper and a disgraced politician. Know that some people will be wary around you, for fear that you will be mining their lives for material. Know that being a writer means that you will be mining people’s lives for material. Know that there is no good answer to the dilemma of how you can write about the people you care about. Know that what you write exposes you far more than it exposes them. The only way around this is to write about things you don’t care about – and understand that this isn’t an option for a writer. Find ways to shield yourself. Don’t talk about works in progress when they are still fragile; think of them as delicate fetal creatures that can’t be taken outside. Protect them and yourself.

(Secrets to querying literary agents: 10 questions answered.)

6) Revise. Listen to the voice that tells you a scene isn’t working. Hold yourself to your highest standard. Don’t think you can get away with anything. Know that when you tell people you are almost done with a book, you probably aren’t. Say it because it makes you sound like you are being productive but don’t be fooled. “Finished” is a word that needs to have permanent quotes around it. Know that writing takes an incredibly long time. Believe in patience.

7) Revise. Know that even after you have revised, it’s probably still not done. Be kind and ruthless at the same time. Hear in your head a children’s book you read to your kids about a bear hunt: can’t go over, it can’t go under it, have to go through it. Recite this to yourself when you want to flee. Gird yourself as if for battle. Go back in, find those scenes where you fled before it got messy. Think of the earlier drafts as layers of dead skin. Peel them back, press in closer to the truth, until you can feel its warm beating heart.

GIVEAWAY: Tova is excited to give away a free copy of her novel to a random commenter. Comment within 2 weeks; winners must live in Canada/US to receive the book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you’ve won before. (UPDATE: janice666 won.)


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18 Responses to 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far, by Tova Mirvis

  1. Dennis says:

    Thank you for the information you provided. Being honest is always hard and not many do it well. I think that is something a lot of writers don’t realize they have to be. And of course sitting down every day can also be a challenge without so much to distract you.

  2. ReflectiveTapestry says:

    I really appreciate #3 Sit Down Every Day!! It reinforces that if I am truly going to be a writer, I need to make the necessary time to be a writer! If I can make time to exercise daily, in order to be healthy, I can certainly make the time to exercise my mind on a daily basis.

    Thank you for this list!

  3. janice666 says:

    I liked your advice and this year I plan on writing more. Thanks again for the advice.

  4. momiji5 says:

    Fantastic advice! I find that writing everyday and learning to be alone are the hardest out of all of them. It’s like the second I sit down to write, I suddenly find (or look for) things that need to get done around the house or suddenly feel lonely when I’ve been loving my solitude for most of the day. It’s the strangest thing. But writing everyday is the absolute best way to make sure any writer finishes anything. It actually gets easier somewhere after week one…or two…eventually.

  5. huffster says:

    Sage advise I am trying desperately to follow. These are the words that bear repeating to ourselves and one another regularly. Thanks!


  6. cotidiano says:

    “The novel is a dead end. Your whole life is a dead end. Look at the pages you’ve slaved over and squint in non-recognition. Is this even in English? On these days, Google alternate careers. Feel relieved that you have a dentist appointment so that you can justifiably not write.”

    Ahaha, this article is an absolute gem! I love your sense of humor. Will definitely refer to this again if I’m stuck in a rut during my writing.

  7. Thank you, Tova! These are great reminders, as I diligently push myself through my first novel. However since I am here posting, I think, I may need to revisit item 4.

  8. ssandras@rogers.com says:

    Thank you very much Tova. Reading your words was like having you inside my head and my life. It’s very comforting to know there are other writers like me experiencing what I do when writing. Your advice is very much appreciated and incredibly helpful.

  9. rncarst says:

    Thanks for a realistic view toward the craft of writing. Rewrite is the most difficult: it can go on forever – that sentence will never be perfect. It is hard to know when to let go.

  10. katy22 says:

    “Listen to the voice that tells you a scene isn’t working.” This is a statement worth its weight in gold! Seriously. My novel is “complete” but not finished. Why? There is one chapter which I have felt from the very beginning does not accomplish the purpose for which it was intended. My gut has told me this and I know it in my heart. So what am I doing? Revising, reworking and counting the cost. Great advice, Tova. Thank you.

  11. burrowswrite says:

    Thank you for the column it is great to hear wonderful advice in a new way.

  12. Terrisha says:

    Thank you for your advice and telling about your experience. It really helps to inspire aspiring authors like myself.

  13. Debbie says:

    Thanks for the confirmation that good days + bad days + often alone with dedicated thoughts = a drive so dear and fulfilling that satisfaction and possibly success await.

  14. kiwinene says:

    This was just what I needed to hear. The despair that I feel sometimes when writing is heartbreaking, especially knowing writing is all I’ve ever wanted to do. Thanks for this, reminded me I’m not alone. :)

  15. emmurdey says:

    I feel like I’ve been stuck in number 2 for a very long time. This was helpful to read, because now it doesn’t feel so permanent. :)

  16. TaliaCele says:

    Thank you, Tova. I am working on my first novel now, and I always appreciate the advice of an established writer. I’m a big fan of your first two novels, and look forward to reading your new one.

  17. “Press in closer to the truth”
    ~Love that line; I’ll be thinking about it all day!

  18. publicdefender says:

    Thank you for some excellent pieces of advice. I am still working on the discipline of writing ever day. Learning how to be alone will be a definite challenge as well. Now that I have an idea for a novel I am working on, I definitely want to work with more discipline.

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