As always, when discussing writing we need to remember that this is an art, not a science. So rule #1 here is: Do what works for you. Period.
Which means my thoughts on the matter are exactly that—just my thoughts. Not a prescription for you or anyone else. (IOW, I’m saying “This worked for me and some people I know, it might work for you,” as opposed to “This is the one true way!”)
So with that out of the way, the first thing to consider regarding betas (before even selecting them) is: Do I want to use beta readers? If you follow any writing groups on social it seems like using betas is widely considered an automatic must-do, but it's really more of a personal choice than a requirement—I know authors who use them and authors who don't.
Which sort of begs the question—what do we expect to get out of a beta reader?
Here’s what not to expect: someone who will read the book and tell you how to make the story stronger, better, tighter, more resonant. The person who can do that is a professional editor, and even then, expect to do most of the heavy lifting yourself once they shine a light on some areas where you might improve it.
A beta reader is exactly that… someone who can read the manuscript and tell you how they felt about it… as a reader. That’s it. They can tell you where something didn’t work for them. But not how to fix it. (That’s your job.)
I’ve heard the different levels of feedback described as symptom/diagnosis/cure. You might mention your symptoms to a non-medical-professional friend, but you probably wouldn’t depend on your friend providing a scientific diagnosis. And you probably wouldn’t take their advice regarding which meds to take w/o consulting a doctor first, either.
With a beta, you want them to tell you what didn’t work for them. But if you simply get “I didn’t like it,” that’s not much value unless you can dig a little deeper (without getting into the whole diagnosis/cure aspect). Try not to lead the witness, but attempt to at least get some generalities about why they didn’t like it. (“Too much dialog” is a far cry from “too violent,” right?) And if they can’t tell you in a short declarative sentence what they didn’t like about the scene in question, you need a different beta. (The two most common comments when friends/family read something--“I loved it” or “It wasn’t really my cup of tea”—are equally lacking in constructive value.)
So the first realization is: the right beta (for your work) is going to take some work to find.
And the second realization: the wrong beta is worse than no beta.
Right off the top, they should be very conversant with the genre you’re working in or it’s just general advice with no deep connection to the work at hand.
Because what you’re looking for is: a representative member of the likely group of readers for your work… who can also clearly articulate their feelings about the manuscript in question.
An SF fan who doesn’t really grok what you’re trying to do is of little value to your emotionally-driven science fiction novel, even though he knows the genre. And a longtime reader who has no experience with young adult literature since “The Outsiders” probably isn’t going to provide actionable feedback on your contemporary YA novel, even though she’s highly literate outside the genre.
You need both qualities, although the “able to articulate their feelings about the manuscript” is probably the more important aspect.
And finally, they need to understand that a discouraged writer is a bad writer. Which is why you don’t want someone who will tell you ‘the unvarnished truth.’
First, there isn’t much objective truth in art. It’s subjective. It’s emotion. It’s opinion. (If you revise your work in a panic every time someone gives you a differing opinion of it, you’re going to have a hard time maintaining the steady authorial vision required to finish a cohesive work.)
Second, you want a little varnish. If your beta can’t find something motivating or validating or inspiring to say about your work, you have to wonder about their mindset, right? I mean, nowhere in the job description of a beta reader does it say: “Find and report every possible flaw you can discover within this piece of writing. Period.” People who look at reading a manuscript as this kind of challenge—and their name is legion—aren’t people you want looking at your early work, believe me.
Third, they should already have an affinity for the type of work in question*, or why have them read it? I mean, “a representative member of likely readers” sort of implies they like the genre. If someone says, “I just can’t get behind mysteries,” I might say, “That’s fine—read what you like.” But inside I’m also thinking, …but no freaking way am I letting you read my mystery!
[*Remember, the goal isn’t: “Let’s see what a random member of the public thinks of this manuscript.” Who cares? We want to know what a likely reader might think of it.]
All of which means, when you find an intelligent, genre-conversant, empathetic beta reader… treat them right! I’m talking ‘chocolates and wine’ right. Because they’re a rare and wonderful thing.
This came up in conversation with a good friend who wanted to read a draft of the book I’m currently putting the final touches on (and/or the one after that, which hasn’t been seen by an editor yet but is in pretty good shape).
My take on the issue is that I generally don’t want people* reading something that’s going to be a “real book,” because the final iteration is almost certainly the strongest, and people don’t usually want to read something twice.
[*Beta readers, which I use very sparingly, are a somewhat different issue.]
He and I had an interesting/informative discussion around this, and after trying to explain my thoughts, what I boiled it down to was this: No matter how hard you try or how well intentioned you are, you really can’t read the same book twice.
Not that you can’t read the same actual pages twice. To very good effect, even.
But… will it be the same story—to you, and to your reader-brain—the second time? With the same amount of resonance?
I’m going to posit that no, in some ways it may not be.
An obvious reason is the “aha! factor” will be largely missing. The big reveal, the who-dunnit, the shrewd turn of the screw, the unexpected reversal… none of these will have the impact they originally did upon the reader. Even if they forgot the details in the intervening months between reads, it’ll come flooding back as soon as they get one small bit of what should be foreshadowing (which becomes a full-on spoiler to someone who’s read the book before).
Also… the reader changes with the passage of time.
And… the story also changes in relation to contemporary norms.
And… in some way, the story changes the reader.
As writers, it’s important to realize that all of this really applies to our own work.
Which is why we want to choose carefully when it comes to betas. Not who the betas are (also an important topic we’ll dive into in another post) but when—in the story process—you involve them. Too late in the process (after everything is drafted and revised and re-written and polished and has one foot in the mail) and they almost can’t help you, except to say “I liked it,” or maybe “not my cup of tea.” Like asking for architectural input after the foundation is poured and the walls are up, right?
But there’s also a cost to bringing them in too early. Once they know the story—the surprises and plot twists—sure, they can comment on them. But when they read a more finalized iteration down the road, the work won’t have the same impact as the first time they read it. After a while—and after enough reads—a work seems to attain a certain inevitability about it, which makes it harder to imagine things being different than they already are.
One answer is to not bring them in until you feel the work is somewhat “readable,” as a whole, but not totally buttoned up. That way they can comment on how it works as a story. Realizing that their later reads will be more about the actual writing—including any new revs, of course—without as much information about how the story as a whole affected them. (Because they’ve already been inoculated against plot impact, as discussed.)
Another option is to use more than one beta, but only use each one once. Maybe get input from someone who’s good with story development early on and someone with more of a copy editor mindset for later versions, etc. (Really, this is a personal decision based on what you want from betas. Some writers want input regarding where the story should go, and others mostly just want to know if there were any sections that “didn’t work,” so they know where to focus revising.)
But the main thing to keep in mind—as a writer—is that this effect will impact your view of the book also. (For one thing, by the time it’s ready for primetime you’ll have been through it so many times that if you’re not careful, your brain will auto-correct any mistakes as you read.) But beyond that, when you know a story this well, you’ve built up a mental model of it that contains much more than is actually on the page. (Everything currently in the ms plus everything you’ve written then cut plus everything in your internal backstory plus everything you’ve ever thought about it.) It’s all there, in your mind… but it’s not all there on the page.
The nearly-impossible task is to read exactly what’s on the page and then make editorial decisions based only on that, ignoring all the other story-related stuff in your brain. Time away from the story can help here. As can relying on outside input for a more objective view. Which brings us full circle, to an awareness that because we can only read a story “for the first time” once, we should shepherd our early readers carefully.
Having said all this, I want to reinforce that re-reading a book is often really rewarding and valuable. (A worthy topic we’ll dig into later.) We have a librarian friend who has taught us the huge benefits of deep re-reading, and I have to say that yes, I really can get something new from each re-read of the same book.
But perhaps it’s not really the same book…
Or more to the point, perhaps I’m not the same reader…
There’s a belief floating out there in the wild that the thing that really matters when it comes to writing a book is… a great idea.
And the complement to that is: Once you have the ‘great idea,’ the hard part is done and you’re home free. I mean, to this very day you’ll see books and films where either a lost writer gets the “aha” moment of a great idea and everything is roses from then on, or maybe someone steals the brilliant idea and then of course they have a runaway bestseller from it. Because of course it’s all about the great idea.
Don’t get me wrong. Having a great idea is a good thing. But even if it’s one of those one-in-a-hundred ideas that actually sticks around for a while after popping into your head—to the point where it’s a potential story-starter—it’s just the very beginning of the job.
Because the idea is the easy part.
Because the idea is where the work starts, not ends.
Because a good idea without equally good execution isn’t worth the napkin it’s scrawled on.
Sort of like how thinking of a cool destination (Aha! I’ll go to Bora Bora!) isn’t the trip in itself… there’s all the planning and preparation and travel and then—once you’ve arrived—you still need to get out there and make the most of your time in the new location if you want to have an adventure worth remembering. Or how thinking of a college major (Aha! I’ll get a degree in computer engineering!) isn’t exactly the same as actually going to a university and doing the hard work of earning a degree.
The idea for a book is not the book.
Not even close.
In a workshop I gave, we were discussing this. I said, “So let’s think of a basic story idea. Maybe there’s a boy and a girl. Or any two people of your choosing. And maybe they annoy the hell out of each other, so they avoid each other. Then they get thrown together and they have to actually, like, work together… and talk to each other… and spend time with each other. And both of them find themselves maybe… actually… liking the other? No way! But it can’t be denied—there’s something there. But then events conspire to tear them apart. And they’re both miserable but they try to hide it, because of course they officially don’t like each other. Life totally sucks for both of them until they admit it—they want to be together. Then they have to go through a very challenging situation to finally get back together—and maybe resolve the problem they were originally thrown together to work on, in some creative way—but when they finally do admit their truth and get together… ta-da! It’s so worth it.”
“Okay,” I said. “That’s the basic plot for maybe half the books ever written. But if we each wrote a book based on it, we’d end up with a bunch of very different books. Because we’re different people, and different writers. And what we bring to the table… our personal choices… our unique voices… all our thought and work and craft in the actual writing of it… is what makes the book special, not just the germ of an idea that sparked it.”
And as important as idea generation is, I think part of what bothers me about the paradigm that the idea itself is the special/creative/magical part of being a writer is that it takes away from all the other things it takes to write a book. Almost like someone is implying, “Oh, of course you wrote that book, because you had that idea. That was the hard part. Maybe if I’d had that idea, I could have written it too.” (Maybe. Maybe not. But see above—we’re all different, and we’d almost certainly write different books even if we started from the same idea.)
As any writer knows, the most common question people ask you is, “Where do you get your ideas?” We went into this in detail in an earlier post, but—assuming the asker is an adult—it’s feels sort of like someone standing next to you in the middle of a massive food court and turning to you with, “Where do you get food?” (You might be tempted to say, “Like, dude… it’s literally all around you.” But that’s not helpful, because if they knew that, they wouldn’t be asking.)
[We can talk about idea generation in another post, but in my opinion it’s often a combo of (a) making a regular habit of playing “What if?” in your head, and (b) taking two seemingly disparate things—panda bears and peanut butter?—and finding some interesting commonality or mash-up involving them, in a unique and/or thoughtful and/or entertaining way.]
So yes, absolutely spend some time daydreaming and coming up with story ideas. And when you get a “keeper” idea you think is worth developing, go ahead and write a book from it, using that idea as the initial spark. And when you’re all done and the manuscript is written, revised, edited, and polished to the best of your abilities, go back and compare the relative weight of the initial idea with that of all the time and work and emotion and craft you put into writing it. I think you’ll likely find that the initial idea, as important as it is, isn’t nearly as significant as the actual writing of it.
What do these books have in common…?
The Scorpio Races
The Fault in our Stars
The Running Dream
100 Sideways Miles
The Queen’s Gambit
Even Road Rash, not that I’m placing it with the above. Heck, even my new YA novel which will pub in the fall of next year. And the one after that, which I’m currently polishing…
These books have lots of struggles, lots of challenges, lots of setbacks and victories and defeats and triumphs. All done differently. But what they have in common is… no bad guy. Not that they don’t have unlikeable secondary characters, even some downright jerks and full-on asshats. But…
No arch enemy.
No mortal opponent.
No “antagonist” in “direct conflict” with the “hero” as she/he is “set into action” by the “inciting incident” and struggles to achieve their “hidden desire.”
To be clear, I’m NOT saying that having an antagonist (or even an old-fashioned villain) is a bad thing. Many stories have one, including some great works. (Where would Harry be without Voldemort? Or Luke without Darth? Or Frodo without Sauron?)
Bad guys can be great—they can add danger, action, and conflict, and there’s wonderful satisfaction in seeing a bad guy get his comeuppance in a story’s climactic scene (whether that’s an embarrassing defeat or full-on death and destruction).
So… Yay, bad guys!
My point is that novel writing is far less formulaic and far more open-ended and organic than some would have us believe. Of course, one benefit of having specific, Boolean rules is that it’s pretty easy to bundle them all up and say, “Apply these to achieve success!” And then simply list all the mechanical attributes that supposedly go into a work of great fiction.
On the other hand, it’s pretty hard to sell a book (or program or system or webinar) that says: “This is art. There are no rules. No formula. Do what you want. The challenge is to do it well enough that people will pay for it, read it, and recommend it. Work hard. Don’t shop it until it’s absolutely as good as it can be. Never stop improving, never stop working on your craft. Maintain a positive attitude, and for God’s sake, persevere. Good luck.”
(There. My goofy little take on how to succeed as a writer. Free of charge.)
As you’ve likely guessed, this post actually has nothing to do with antagonists. It has more to do with the fact that if a foundational aspect of the conventional wisdom on “How to write a novel!” can be completely missing from many novels—including some beloved, critically acclaimed, bestselling books—then maybe all the other CW* around “how to write a novel” is suspect as well…?
[*As I’ve alluded to before, I think the reason for much of this—the paint-by-numbers CW we often see online around writing novels—can be attributed to the fact that although they seem similar, in reality a screenplay and a novel are about as alike as a song and a poem. In other words, not very. It may make for an easier sales pitch to pretend they’re the same, but IMO it makes for less engaging novels. And of course, if you want to sell a manuscript the primary goal is to engage the buyer… whether agent, editor, or reader.]
All of which makes you wonder if disrupting some of the other foundational aspects of writing CW can lead to interesting stories. Like, what about a story that starts so ‘in medias res’ that there literally is no inciting incident? (Maybe we’re fully in when we join the story. ‘And We Stay’ by Jenny Hubbard had some of this vibe about it, to great effect IMO.) Or instead of none, maybe a story that has two or more inciting incidents, perhaps one pushing the protagonist toward the cliff and the other completely over it? (My book-after-next has a whiff of this.) Or maybe a book where the climax of the story is truncated because it turns out that the protagonist simply showing up for the big battle IS the climax, not whether he actually wins or loses? (‘We Are the Goldens’ by Dana Reinhardt had something sort of similar, where the story ended at what might have been the inciting incident in a more typical story.)
And so on…
My point being there is a lot of fertile creative ground out there—much of it relatively untouched—and the novel might be the perfect vehicle to use in exploring it. Because with a book, if you can think it, it can happen. Period. No extra budget needed for special effects, no two-hour runtime limit, no three-minute song length needed to get airplay. It’s wide open. And if the world you need to set your story in doesn’t exist… you simple build the damn thing.
The sky’s the limit, as long as you follow the dictum listed earlier:
Do whatever you want… as long as you do it well enough that people will pay for it, read it, and enjoy it.
Writing (taken as a lifestyle, whether vocation or avocation) consists of two discrete areas: the writing itself… and everything else (EE).
The writing itself is fairly discernable: Plan/plot/ponder; initial drafting; subsequent drafts; revising; rewriting; polishing. Self-directed at first, then possibly with editorial suggestions.
Let’s further divide “everything else” into two areas: EE1 and EE2.
EE1 is basically book-related stuff (querying; submitting; discussing things with your agent; back-and-forthing with an editor; etc.) that—while not specifically writing—is absolutely germane to the completion and publication of your work. (If you’re an indie author, this could also include formatting for ebook, book design, cover art, writing flap copy, etc.)
EE2 is a little fuzzier, as it contains a lot of stuff that isn’t directly book-related, yet which we could still conceivably think of as “writing adjacent.” This might include: promoting; networking; marketing; touring; blogging/vlogging/podcasting; running giveaways; developing and maintaining a website, and seventeen thousand various other items somewhere within the broad category of “social media.”
Notice how—in a weirdly reversed hierarchy—the further we get from the actual writing, the bigger the categories get? The more options for non-writing we have? And the more time some of these non-writing tasks can eat up?
The ratio (of time spent on each) is important, if for no other reason than we have a finite number of hours we can dedicate to the whole activity falling under the broad umbrella known as “writing.”
I’m certainly not here to suggest how much time you should spend on each. (Duh. At this exact moment I’m writing a blog post instead of working on my WIP, right?) It’s different for different writers, regardless. I’m just suggesting that maybe we should take stock of it occasionally, lest it get away from us and our focus unintentionally drifts. (Otherwise known as ‘mission creep.’)
I’ll further posit that it seems much more common for writers to go from a higher W:EE (Writing to Everything Else) ratio to a lower one than the other way around.
Very few of us do too much writing and not enough EE. (Although I’m sure somewhere there’s an author with amazing books in a trunk—which we’ll never see—because they just write them, then put them away and start another one.)
But a lot of us seem to actually do more EE than writing. Again, not for me (or anyone else) to say. But something I can say is that in the overall scheme of things, the writing itself is the most important part, and will have a bigger impact on whatever success we attain.
Especially early on in our careers.
I mean, if Ms. Wildly-Successful, Million-Selling Author wants to spend much of her time administering her charitable foundation or whatever, her career is probably going to be okay because she’s a known successful commodity with nothing to prove. But when we’re lower on the ladder, we do have something to prove. And by far the best (and pretty much only) way to prove that is to place a really strong manuscript in the hands of an agent, editor, or reader. And of course, the only way to do that is to write that manuscript first. (And then, yes, we have to do a bit of EE regarding getting said manuscript into the hands of that agent, editor, or reader.)
So maybe I’m talking to myself here as much as anyone else. So maybe I’ll end this here. And maybe I’ll get back to work.
My top three rules for writing…
1. There are no rules.
2. There are no rules.
3. There are no rules.
Seriously. No rules. None. But… that doesn’t mean we can just do whatever the hell we want and it’ll all work out perfectly. No guarantees, right?
However, there are a lot of useful concepts and guidelines which, if followed, might make our writing more appealing to more people and/or make it more likely that we’ll achieve our goals, whether artistic or business.
Then there are so-called “rules” about how to write (and how to be a writer) that are just someone’s description of how they work. Or worse, maybe just someone’s opinion about how they think writers should work. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned about the internet, it’s that people are ready and willing to jump in with their opinion about things with which they have no actual experience. Yeah, I know. Stunning. Yet true.)
The trick is to know the difference.
One clue is if it seems like (and is presented as) a common-sense recommendation that passes the sanity check once you examine it--and the proponent can explain why they believe it’s useful—then it may be a Category 1 piece of advice.
But if it’s dogmatic, and/or presented as a “you must” or “you must never” command… or if it’s presented as the word of god with no rational, artistic explanation, then it may be a Category 2 dictum. (A big red flag here is when a person who hasn’t done x tries to pontificate about how to do x.)
TL;DR: The more it’s presented as a “rule,” the less likely it’s actually useful advice.
Some examples of each, starting with the more egregious Cat 2 “rules”…
You must write every day. I’m calling bullshit on this. I’m sure they exist, but I honestly don’t know a single author who actually writes every day. Partly because there is a LOT of work around being an author that doesn’t involve writing, and partly because it’s not always in the cards to write, even if the time is available. Yes, some writers try to live by this—and good for them if it works for them—but in no way does that mean that you should feel bad if it doesn’t work for you.
Write what you know. Yup. Just like J.R.R. Tolkien knew hobbits and orcs and elves. Or J.K. Rowling knew magic. Or George R.R. Martin knew dragons. But… they knew people. And their stories are ultimately about people. So this might be a Cat 1.5 rule. The derivation of which might be a little more nuanced, but is something along the lines of: (a) have some sort of knowledge about how people may actually respond, even if in a wildly fictional setting, and (b) do your research—have no errors of fact which could be remedied by a little hard work. But go ahead and write about whatever you want… as long as you do the work to make it feel real. (And I think the secondary lesson here is: if you want to write successful fantasy, use your initials in your byline…)
Genre X must have wordcount Y. You see this a lot, too. There’s obviously some truth to the principle that certain categories of fiction generally fall within certain broad guidelines. But why do people insist on pontificating about it like it’s the rule of law or something? If someone says, “MG must be between 30,000 and 37,500 words!” or whatever, they’re full of poop. (I’ve seen someone say this while on a panel. My response was, “It’s a very wide range. This should be the least of your concerns when writing.”) Just a quick look at the Hannah Holt Middle Grade Survey shows what we already knew: Big Five middle grade novels ranged from 20,000 to 105,000 and anywhere roughly in the 30,000 to 80,000 range was “in the ballpark.” So if you have concerns, instead of stressing over some arbitrary number you found on the internet, maybe go to the library and look at a dozen or so books similar to yours and check their basic wordcount. You’ll see exactly what the above survey shows… the quality of your manuscript is far more important than exact word count as long as you’re somewhere within the very broad “acceptable” area.
You must write XXXX number of words a day. Similar to most of these, this is just some writer talking to himself. No need for you to listen. We’ve discussed this before (here) but in short, trying to hit a daily output is fine if you want to do it, but by no means required to be a successful writer. (Not that I’m holding myself up as ‘successful,’ but I’ve never counted—or even thought about—my daily word output once in my life. And more to the point, I know authors with dozens of books to their name (award-winning, best-selling books) who are the same.) So go ahead if it works for you, but it’s absolutely not required.
Now some examples of Cat 1 guidance. Worth consideration, but apply or reject depending upon your workflow.
Use standard formatting. Again, if you’re a NYT Bestselling author, you might get away with submitting your work in crayon. But why would you want to purposely send your work out in non-standard formatting, telling the publishing world that either you didn’t even bother to look up standard formatting, or you don’t care enough to follow directions? Either way, it looks like you’re not really serious about it. Again, you can do what you want, but why start with two strikes against you?
Follow standard querying guidelines. I just read a tweet by a literary agency assistant who basically said, “Just knowing how to write a normal query puts you in the top 10% of submitting authors.” Same as with formatting, simply learning how to break the code costs nothing and will give you a leg up on the people too lazy to do it, so it seems goofy not to. This is not the place to try to be clever or witty or wildly unique. You’re basically trying to convey the following: “I have a manuscript about X, Y, and Z. I think you might be interested in it – and a good fit for it - for reasons A, B, and C. And oh by the way, I’m a reasonable, generally-sane person who understands professional boundaries, and one you wouldn’t mind working with.” That’s it.
The most common mistake is submitting too early. This is sort of a craft thing also, but we’ve separated out the reason why below. Just keep in mind the old cliché, there’s no second chance to make a first impression. Make sure it’s really ready… and then make sure some more.
Try to write regularly (for whatever value of “regular” works for you). We can’t always do this, but one benefit (besides productivity) is that it keeps the story in your mind, with your subconscious grinding away on it behind the scenes. Another benefit is that it trains your brain that thinking about your story is a default state of mind rather than an exception… that writing isn’t some rare, special activity, but something it should be doing on a regular basis. Which is the same reason we’ll sometimes say: If you can, try to touch base with your story every day. Which—if you can’t write—might mean line edit your last chapter, or read you last few chapters, or simply think about your story as you do the laundry or wash the dishes. If this works for you.
90% of getting published is having a strong manuscript, and maybe half of that is revision. There’s pressure in the indie world to produce work quickly. But OTOH, it’s also generally true that the faster a manuscript is created, the more it could benefit from revising. The bottom line is, virtually every manuscript can benefit from rewriting/revising/polishing… before an agent or editor or paying reader sees it. (‘No second chance,’ etc…) Skipping this is the craft version of submitting too early.
Try not to head-hop without a good reason. The reason this oddly-specific advice makes the list is because (a) we see it fairly often, and (b) it almost always comes off looking as if the writer hasn’t yet mastered point-of-view. (IOW, virtually the only time we see this is when it’s done by someone who either isn’t aware they’re doing it, or isn’t aware of the reasons we typically don’t do it. So it looks like a rookie mistake either way.) Again, not a rule. If Stephen King decides to head-hop, he’s got a very good reason. And so should you. Otherwise, it has the potential to do way more harm than good to your story.
Again, as with all ideas about art, take what works for you and discard the rest without a backward glance.
Because the real message here is: Don’t get caught up in the minutia people (some knowledgeable, some not so much) spout online. There really are no rules. And if there somehow are rules, no one really knows them anyway… because every author I know followed a different path toward whatever their version of ‘success’ looked like.
You do you.
The more I pay attention to it, the more I begin to believe that one factor may be more important to producing quality work than any other: The ability to recognize it.
And taking it one step further, the ability to recognize its absence.
And finally, the ability/willingness to replace <non-quality work> with <quality work>.
The above posits two things:
1. We can produce quality work at times.
(This seems to apply to every single writer I know.)
2. We are imperfect, and don’t always produce quality work.
(This also seems to apply to every single writer I know.)
Therefore, we can do good work, yet we don’t always do good work. Why is this? I mean, wouldn’t we want everything we do to be “quality” work?
I believe it’s partially because we don’t always take the steps necessary to recognize when we’re not doing quality work. This takes time, effort, and an understanding of what constitutes good work*.
[*I realize this opens the huge can of wildly subjective worms known as: What is good writing? We’re certainly not going to solve that one here, and far be it from me to set the bar for this, regardless. So for the sake of this discussion, let’s loosely accept “Writing which you and agents and editors and publishers and especially readers believe does an effective job at conveying the story such that it feels like ‘lived experience’ to the reader. It doesn’t take the reader out of the story, or get in the way of the story, but instead presents it as an emotional experience that feels real – at least in the moment – to the reader. Regardless of the type of story.” Let’s go with that for now… ]
One could undertake a focused study specifically designed to help them recognize, understand, and—hopefully—produce quality work in fiction. (There are a number of MFA programs aimed at exactly this. Some of them are even genre-focused, such as a deep dive into kidlit, etc.) Some writers take this path, and some have good results with it. In my view, any educational experience that asks the student to look deeply into why something works or doesn’t work is likely to be beneficial on some level. (And aside from that, there are lots of other opportunities to study the craft both within and outside the traditional educational environment.)
On the opposite end, you could simply read with abandon – broadly, deeply, and at a high volume. This—although usually done without the knowledge at the time that it’s great training for being a writer—is how many of us learned the fundamentals of the craft. If we’ve spent a significant amount of time reading as described, it would be hard not to absorb and internalize at least some of the precepts of “good” writing*. (This assumes we’re reading “good” writing, but again simplifying for the sake of discussion: We’re very likely reading what we will later want to produce—publishable fiction that we like in a genre with which we’re familiar. Which is close enough for now.)
[*Synchronicity! I just read an interview in a separate-yet-still-creative field (audio mastering) which said, about the same concept, “There is something that comes from that level of immersion where the depth of what is absorbed cannot be fully articulated. It is the repetition, the problem solving, and the law of big numbers. Smaller samplings don’t reveal as much information…” I couldn’t agree more.]
This doesn’t automatically make us a good writer, any more than being a music lover automatically makes us a good musician. But at least it gives us a critical bar to aim for. In the hierarchy of self-knowledge, going from “unconsciously incompetent” to “consciously incompetent” is a massive step in the right direction. (Because once we know we need to improve—and where—we’re on your way. But until then, we’re sort of stuck.)
Taking the music analogy a little further, when young musicians first learn how to play, they almost universally work up a set of cover tunes—they learn to play popular (and generally good) songs, by popular (and generally good) bands. They’re not doing it as a conscious study of “what the greats of the field have done before us.” They’re not doing it as a study at all. They’re doing it because (1) it’s fun to play cool tunes, (2) they want to jam with friends, and it really helps to have some agreed-upon songs they can all play, and (3) they want to gig, which means they have to learn and play songs other people want to hear. Yet in this process they’re also unintentionally giving themselves an education that’s vital to continuing their musical journey. (And as a counterpoint, occasionally you’ll hear a competent musician try to play a song in a certain style—funk or country or blues or whatever—and it’s clear they haven’t ever really listened to that genre.)
You see this sometimes with writing. You’ll read something by someone with the ability to put together well-written sentences, yet when you read it, you might think: Have they ever even read a romance (or SF or mystery or YA or whatever)…? Because it’s written in a way that indicates unfamiliarity with the canon. (And consider the following: whoever reads your Romance/SF/Mystery/YA novel will likely have already read a ton of Romance/SF/Mystery/YA novels… even if you haven’t. And they’ll be comparing it to everything that’s gone before. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be unique, but there’s a significant difference between “new & unique” and “misses the mark.”)
And finally, you’ll sometimes see a manuscript containing good writing (however we define it) followed by a patch of over-baked, cliched writing. And the question here might be: Can they not see the difference between this stuff right here and that stuff over there, only three pages away?
I’m going to suggest that maybe they actually can’t. At least, maybe not in the moment. And the reason for that may be that they spend a certain amount of their reading time perusing work that has the very issue described above. Which can have the opposite result as the “raising the bar” effect that can come from reading really good stuff. I’ve personally noticed a phenomenon where if I’ve recently read a fair amount of “not so good” work (however we define that), my own writing seems to suffer. I’m not sure exactly why, but the effect seems to be real. Maybe it sort of de-calibrates my “quality compass”…? (Imagine if you watched a whole bunch of subpar, student-made, cliché-ridden slasher films, then set out to make a moving, nuanced, coming-of-age film? I’m guessing you might be better off studying the masters, instead.)
Which is why I not only say ‘Read Good, Write Good,’ but also… perhaps… ‘Read Bad, Write Bad.’
Sometimes a producer, during the pre-production phase of making a record, will distribute a list of records for the bandmembers to listen to prior to going in to the studio. Maybe records that have a certain vibe or quirkiness or sophistication (or whatever aspect the producer wants to spotlight). This is not in an effort to tell them, “Let’s play music just like this!” It’s more to give them an overall bar to shoot for… often the records are in a completely different genre than the record they’re going to make. (Which is all the better, as copying it is completely off the table.)
So… perhaps we can do likewise if/when we find ourselves a little adrift regarding being able to self-critique our own work for whatever reason. Prior to starting a recent realistic/contemporary novel, in an effort to calibrate my “What does good look like?” meter, I read a book in a totally different field (magic realism, in this case). It was very different from my work in a lot of fundamental ways (character, voice, vibe, plot, etc.) but it was brilliantly written, it let me know what was possible, and it sort of put me in the frame of mind to try to “get out there and do good work.”
So… happy reading!
People often say, “Are you a process person or a results person?”
To which I usually answer, “Yes.”
Which is true in a couple of ways. Yes, I enjoy both the process and the results of creation pretty equally, with some obvious exceptions. (The process of original drafting is pretty damn magical, regardless of where it ends up… while the process of a structural rewrite can be painful but the results can be very rewarding.)
But beyond that, I’ve learned that the process can actually help determine the results.
I’ve also learned that process is specific to the individual, and it’s a mistake (and a little ego-centric) to say that because something worked for you, it will therefore be the best for someone else. Because writing (and music and dancing and filmmaking and…) is an art, not a science. And because we’re all a study of one.
However, there are still a few valid things we can say about process…
1. We can say, “This worked for me,” and explain why, followed by, “…so it might work for you, too. Or not. But it may be worth a try.”
2. We can say, “Here are several ways people have done this, successfully, so you might want to try them and see if any of them fits your workflow.”
3. And we can say, “Regardless of which one you use, recognize that process is important. So if the work isn’t working, before you bail out and think that you’re bad or your idea is bad or your writing is bad… maybe try a different process.”
That last one is important. Not all processes work for all people. Sure. But it’s also true that in most cases, no single process will work for all projects by the same writer. I have a process I’ve dialed in over years that works well for articles, but I used a very different process for my non-fiction books. For book length fiction, they’re all somewhat different.*
[*With my first novel (still in the trunk, thank God) I made a detailed outline. But with the next one—my first published novel—I had a character and a setting and a basic conflict and an idea about where it was going, and away I went. With an SF novel, I took a short story I’d written earlier and morphed it into the first chapter of a much longer story. With the novel I recently sold, I’d just finished work on another project and still had the bug to write, so I just jumped in the next day and started writing with no plot in mind whatsoever… just a character and a vibe. And with the one on deck after that, I imagined a funny scene (just a funny line, really), made that the inciting incident, and went from there. I knew the ending—sort of—but much of the middle was discovered en route.]
So again, when the muse is on strike, don’t automatically assume there’s something fundamentally wrong with you or your writing. In my experience—both with my own work and the work of others—most of these issues are process-oriented. You can’t change who you are (and you’re the only you, regardless, so revel in that) but you can change your approach to how you’re doing the work.
It may be something pretty big-picture, like…
Issue: You’re floundering and constantly backpedaling/deleting/rewriting.
Underlying cause: Maybe you’re unclear about where you’re going.
Process change: Take off the “pants” and put on some “plot.” (Make an outline.)
Or more stylistic, such as…
Issue: The work doesn’t connect because it’s overwritten.
Underlying cause: Maybe you’re consciously trying to write “writerly.”
Process change: Get out of the way of the story and tell it plainly.
Or maybe business oriented…
Issue: Striking out with multiple projects in quick succession.
Underlying cause: Maybe you’re submitting too soon, before it’s ready.
Process change: Finish; let sit; tear into it like you didn’t write it; beta; revise; polish.
And so on.
The point isn’t to diagnose every possible process issue with our writing. The point is to recognize that when we’re not getting the results we want, the answer might not be to blindly follow the same process, like there’s only one way to do it. Instead, the answer might be to take a step back, appraise the situation objectively, and try to think of different ways to approach it.
Sometimes it’s as simple as how we think about the work itself:
Maybe my project’s not a YA book, it’s a middle grade book?
Or: Maybe it’s not a memoir, it’s an historical novel?
Or: Maybe I should dump the magic and go with the strongest part of the story, which is the contemporary/realistic aspect?
Or our marketing approach:
Maybe, since my work is an ‘amateur female detective’ mystery, I should read a bunch of amateur female detective mysteries, find the ones that are a good fit for mine, and make a targeted, personal query to the agents/editors who worked on those books?
Or: Maybe I should give the person at the other end of my query what they actually care about (a concise, compelling description of my story) instead of talking about me and my ‘brand’ and my ‘platform’…?
Or: Maybe I should shop the story that means the most to me, vs trying to catch the flavor of the month as it goes zipping by?
Or the nuts & bolts of how we actually write:
Maybe, since I’m not at my best when I get up an hour early every morning, I should forget all that ‘write every day’ advice and instead set aside a few hours each weekend when I feel motivated and productive?
Or: Maybe, instead of not putting on the editor hat until I’m done with the whole draft, I should try editing each chapter as I finish it, so I’m building on a stronger foundation?
Or: Maybe I should forget about the hypothetical reader and write a story that I, personally, would love to read?
OR… maybe… you could take some of the above options and use them as a jumping-off point and do something entirely different… different from what you’re currently doing, and different from these examples. Maybe the opposite of these examples.
That’s the whole point – there is no ‘one right way.’ But there is a way (probably several ways) that will work for you. You just won’t know which one it is until you try it.
First, some down-and-dirty definitions…
Memoir: A written chronicle of your memories of what happened to you (hence the name), either during a select period of your life or the entirety of it.
What makes it work: Delineation of the facts around your life—as best you can recall—filtered through your unique perspective… all hopefully bundled up in an interesting fashion.
Novel: A story constructed by you, with characters, settings, and events (and responses to them) chosen specifically to yield a compelling story. Ideally written in a way that makes it emotionally meaningful for the reader.
What makes it work: Connecting with the reader via your chosen characters and events, and hopefully crafted such that it gets at a bigger truth which will resonate with others.
I think we all know the fundamental difference between these—at least intellectually—yet we frequently see early writers negatively impacted by conflating them.*
[*I don’t know how many times I’ve seen an aspiring writer talking to a group about their WIP plot and someone says, “What if you…?” and the writer doesn’t respond with, “I like that” or “It doesn’t really work for what I’m trying to say,” but instead says, “But that’s not the way it happened!”]
I think some of this comes from confusing inspiration with source material. Many of us—especially with our early stories—are inspired by events that either happened to us or happened to others we know. This makes sense—we likely have an emotional connection to these events since they happened to us or people close to us—and we’re familiar with the specifics, so we can write those events with some verisimilitude.
This is all good—great, even—as far as it goes. Especially the part about the authenticity that comes from writing from personal experience.
The issue arises when the writer somehow thinks she needs to write it the way it happened. Either through (a) the belief that “the way it really happened” is somehow a stronger story than the one she could concoct, or (b) some sort of loyalty to the actual facts around the inspiring incident. Let’s deconstruct these…
(a) The problem here, of course, is that reality rarely follows a compelling, tightly-plotted story line. Simply because something “really happened” does not automatically make it more believable or real or compelling or resonant. These factors come from the value-added contributions of the writer, who makes the story more compelling, etc., through her story-telling, craft, and hard work.
(b) If you feel a sense of loyalty compelling you to tell the story as it happened, that’s great! Write a memoir (if it happened to you) or a non-fiction work (if you’re not personally involved in the events). Either of these will be stronger due to your fealty to the facts as they occurred. But I’d advise against writing a novel. Because a novel is creative truth-telling through lying. And “sticking to the facts” here can weaken—if not flat-out kill—the larger truth. (By robbing the novel of one of its special powers, as we’ll see below.)
So that might be what not to do. But what should we do? We can use the actual events to inspire a story, to give us a jumping-off point, to motivate us to write the wonderful/amazing/romantic ending that should have happened… or maybe to write the one that would have been terrifying had it actually occurred. Or let justice prevail… let the bad guy get his comeuppance in a poetically satisfying way. Or start with the bare beginning of the factual events and take it in a completely different direction. Or simply use your familiarity with the broad setting and events to add authenticity and detail to all those small little scenes in what is an otherwise wholly constructed tale.
Any of these will allow you to fold your personal experience and knowledge into your fictional story and up the “feels real” quotient without being boxed in by “how it really happened.”
Because at its heart I think one of the hidden powers of a novel is that it allows you to take some small fact about the human condition—whether funny or sad or scary or romantic or thrilling—and amplify it in a way that speaks to a larger truth. And being chained to the bare facts yanks the amplifier’s plug out of the wall, leaving your story without the power it could have had.
It’s a common belief among editors (because it’s largely true) that many early novels are autobiographical in some way. That’s fine. I’ve done it, most authors I know have done it, and you’ve probably done it (or will do it) too. All to the good… our experiences can be strong inspiration and make things feel more like actual lived experience to the reader, as discussed above. But we should use them as a springboard to take our story wherever it wants to go, not as gutters to keep it within a narrow lane.
Factual events can inspire your novel, but don’t make the mistake of thinking they’re the source material. They’re not. The source material is what’s in your heart.
Happy lying... happy truth-telling!
At the time of this writing, in-store visits are still problematic in many locations. I hear some authors say they can’t wait until we can do them again (amen!) while some are doing virtual visits. (Good on them. Indies—and authors—can use all the help they can get these days.)
But I also hear some questioning the fundamental usefulness of book touring, per se.
Fair enough. Because I’ll be the first to admit that if you look at it strictly from a “return on investment” viewpoint, the answer’s not always crystal clear. So let’s step back a bit…
A few years ago my wife and I had books come out at the same time and decided it might be fun to do a joint book tour. Our plans started small but, as per usual, once we began brainstorming all common sense left the room and we ended up booking and doing what was probably the largest national book tour of that year.
Sixteen weeks on the road, covering almost 100 bookstores plus dozens of school visits, along with conferences, festivals, libraries, book fairs, etc. Done in two eight-week legs—one in the spring and one in the fall, with a break over summer because our kids were home—we covered much of the U.S., burning up 15,000 miles of highway in our trusty minivan.
It was a blast getting to visit all those bookstores… virtually all of which were indies. When we were booking the tour, we had a few criteria: If it was a mom & pop store*, if they had a store dog or cat, and if they had coffee, they were definitely in… assuming they were anywhere close to our planned route.
[*We also visited a lot of iconic indies that are well beyond “mom & pop”—Book People, Tattered Cover, Powell’s, Hicklebees, Changing Hands, Wild Rumpus, Anderson’s, The Bookworm, etc. But you get the vibe...]
We can talk about the logistics of touring later (as usual, I have thoughts) but today I want to address the question behind the question. The initial question is usually something like “How many books did you sell?” and/or “Did you make money?”
The answer to the first one is technically zero. We don’t sell books. (But we gave away hundreds, with our goofy-yet-fun “Booking” adventures, invented by my brilliant wife.) But the stores we visited definitely sold some books. I don’t know exactly how many, but certainly well into the thousands. (Which doesn’t mean we hit list. We presented at 100 stores, right?)
The answer to the second one is no. And yes, probably, eventually. And the real answer: Umm… that’s sort of missing the point.
The answer’s a little vague because it was kind of a hybrid tour, regarding support. When a publisher sends you on tour, they usually fly you to a big city where you present at a few stores and maybe a school, then to another city (where you do the same), and on to a few more cities. All very nice, and all on their dime. (This is 80/20 observational vs. experiential for me, but my wife has been fortunate enough to have been toured several times.) But we wanted something a little different. We wanted to visit the indies in flyover country, many of whom don’t get authors every day, if ever. And we wanted to visit a LOT of them. (Partly, my wife wanted to visit all those indies in the middle of the country as a “thank you” for hand-selling her books all these years. And we wanted to see America, beyond the left and right coasts.)
Booking the tour and being in contact with our respective publicists, it quickly became apparent that we were planning something far beyond their purview. Which was fine by us—we knew going in that this was above and beyond what we could expect any publisher to spring for. But it wasn’t entirely on us—the publisher generously supported a leg in the middle of it, where we flew from Seattle to Chicago, presented at a pair of conferences as well as some schools and stores, then back to Seattle where our book-wrapped van awaited. Also, some of the events have decent honorariums, and I recall after one particularly busy stretch of back-to-back-to-back presentations at bigger conferences and schools we were pretty worn out, but then I did the math and said, “Well, we just paid for our gas for the whole tour.” But on the other hand, over 100 nights in hotels can really add up, even if you’re not staying at the fanciest place in town.
So I really don’t know… maybe we made money, maybe not? Either way, it would be hard to make the case that we came home flush. (And the royalties from books sold at our in-store events wouldn’t show up for six months, regardless.) All of which leads to the question behind the question:
As we’ve seen, the reasons many people immediately think of (sell books, make money) may or may not apply. Yes, part of that equation depends on the level of support—if any—you get from your publisher. But there are longer term benefits that will apply regardless of where the financing comes from. Such as…
Building relationships with booksellers.
This is a biggie. In the Amazon age it’s easy to overlook the importance of word-of-mouth and—especially—hand selling, but this is still a very effective way for books to reach readers. And it carries the weight of authenticity: readers will take a trustworthy bookseller’s recommendation over an algorithm any day. But you have to do your part. If you just swoop in, basically say “Buy my book!” then sign and leave, you have become the sales algorithm. But if you do the work to bring some new potential customers to an indie store, offer the store and attendees something of value*, and interact with the customers and staff in a way that’s far removed from simply trying to sell your book, you may have the start of a real relationship. And—assuming they find you and your work to be genuine—the bookseller may be inclined to recommend your work long after you’ve gone.
Plus, writers don’t work in the typical office environment… most of it is just you, alone with your computer and the voices in your head. It’s nice to get out once in a while and commune with your ‘co-workers’… the booksellers and librarians and teachers who care about the written word as much as you do.
[*When it made logistical & scheduling sense, we would sometimes offer to do a pro bono author presentation at a nearby school of the store’s choosing. Sometimes the store would hold an associated book sale at the school and sometimes not, but regardless, we always made a point of telling the school (and the students) that their local indie bookstore could have picked any school to have us visit and they picked this one, so please return the favor and support them. And of course we’d also mention that we’d be at their local bookstore that evening, which often brought students and their families to the store. Helping connect stores with their local schools and community is a win-win situation for everyone.]
Interacting with your readers…
Let’s face it—meeting fans of your work is one of the most enjoyable parts of being on book tour… in times when inspiration is running low, nothing quite picks you back up like someone telling you what your work meant to them. And if you give your time and attention freely and honestly to your readers, they’ll remember that going forward, also.
…and reaching new ones.
Everything I just said about interacting with fans applies to new readers, too. Even those who’ve never read a word you’ve written will leave with an impression of you… as a person, if not (yet) as a reader. And don’t think for a minute that the one doesn’t affect the other*.
[*My overall take on in-store presentations: If you swoosh in there and regurgitate a list of your various books with descriptions of each, etc., you come off like a walking version of your publisher’s catalog. Zzzz… Or worse, if you do the “Well, in my book…” thing (popular with non-fiction authors but not unheard of with novelists) you come across like an “As seen on TV” salesperson. But if you’re an honest, engaging, sincere, funny, and/or informative person (pick any of the above, as long as it includes honest), and you offer something of value to the attendees (vs. ego-boosting yourself) then—without even really talking about your books—their overall impression will likely be something along the lines of, “Wow. They were helpful and took the time to answer my question and they seemed nice and authentic… and funny, too. I bet I’d enjoy their books!”]
Presenting in front of potential advocates for your work.
This is one of those intangible things that can pay off in the long term, but it’s hard to know exactly when or how. However, presenting to educators or librarians or teachers or even teachers-of-teachers (NCTE, anyone?) can only be a good thing. There may be no immediate payoff from any specific conference (any potential honorarium or travel allowance aside) and there may never be. But that’s okay. Besides them learning about you and your work, there’s a lot you can learn from them… about what works and what doesn’t in an educational setting, about what interests their students, etc. It’s good karma. And you just never know*.
[*Example: I’ve presented in front of teachers at reading conferences in the Midwest, including during the tour described above. The following year, a teacher in L.A. contacted me and said she’d heard about my book from an educator at an English teachers’ workshop who used my book as an example during a presentation. She thought it was a good fit for something she was teaching, so she required all the school’s incoming freshmen to read it over the summer. It’s not possible to trace events back to where it started, but there’s a fairly decent possibility that someone heard me talking about the book somewhere and told someone else who told someone else (teachers talk!) and pretty soon… Bob’s your uncle.]
Showing your publisher that you’re willing to do your part.
Like the other points, this is sort of unquantifiable but very real, nevertheless. It’s no secret that at least part of the publicity for any upcoming publication depends on the author, and the more you can do—and the more you can let them know about what you’re doing—the more they appreciate it, and may be inclined to think favorably of you*. So another benefit of doing whatever you can—on whatever level is workable for you, whether that’s garnering local press or doing local signings or library presentations or schools or whatever—is that you’re demonstrating your willingness to pitch in and be a team player. Which can only be a good thing.
[*I remember dropping our editor off at the airport to fly back to NYC after she flew in to see a pair of special events we were doing in the Northwest in the middle of that crazy tour, and I thanked her for coming. She seemed genuinely surprised and said, “Oh no… thank you, for all you guys are doing!” That brought home to me the fact that yeah, along with promoting ourselves and our works—and books & reading in general—we were also promoting our publisher’s products, and this fact was not lost on them.]
So… does it make sense to tour?
Strictly in dollars and cents over the short term, it might not. (Like, if you were only going to put out one book and your only goal was to maximize immediate profits, touring beyond your local area would be counterproductive.)
But over the long haul, with multiple books over multiple years (which I’m guessing most of us want), then yes, you can make a strong case that building up bookseller loyalty… that meeting your readers in person… that helping create new readers… that presenting in front of people who value books the way we do… that helping your publisher get the word out… is absolutely beneficial over the long haul.
Because as I’ve said before, for virtually all of us this isn’t a get-rich-quick thing. It a long game. So we need to take the long view. And getting out there and doing all the things we’ve discussed is a great step toward building a solid foundation for a creative career.
Blurbing is considered a necessary evil in the industry. “Necessary” is debatable (most industry insiders say most blurbs don’t move the needle much… if at all) but the “evil” part is understandable, from both sides:
The author of the work in question basically has to approach her fellow authors—hat in hand—and beg for favors. And of course, the more desirable blurbs come from those higher on the food chain, so we’re generally asking more successful authors to spend some of their precious time reading our upcoming book—and then composing thoughtful-yet-hopefully-enticing commentary about it. All at no cost.
So it’s a tough ask. Which is why newer authors like to have others (read: editors and/or agents) do the asking for them. Another benefit of this is having a go-between insulates the asker from the askee, so the askee doesn’t feel quite so bad saying, “No, sorry, I’m too busy with my own career to read and gush over a stranger’s book at the moment. But thanks for asking!” And even worse is when the blurber reads said manuscript and thinks, “Holy heck! No way do I want my name associated with this burning pile of poop!” Much better to have editor #2 politely tell editor #1 that author #2 has decided that author #1’s project “…is wonderful, but isn’t quite right for her. But my author wishes your author all the success in the world.”
In a perfect world, the author’s editor will put out feelers to a number of potential blurb candidates and only tell her author about the ones who actually said yes, then actually read it and actually had something wonderful to say about it. With no mention of all the “Sorry, love to, but I’m too busy right now” (aka hell no!) responses. Less hurt feelings all the way around.
However, in the real world the author frequently has to at least draw up a list of people she might like to have blurb her book, avoiding the obvious no-go candidates. (Just like with comps: Your new book probably isn’t the next “Happy Potter meets The Hunger Games with a little Twilight thrown in,” nor should you ask your editor to try to bug JK or Suzanne or Stephenie for a blurb. Or Oprah.) But there are plenty of authors who write in the same general area as you and/or whose readers might like your work, and who are successful enough that their name will—in theory—add some cache to the back cover of your book. And you might be able to get your editor or publicist or agent to ask them, if it makes sense and if they have some sort of realistic connection to them.
But you may also end up doing some or all of this yourself, either because the others mentioned above don’t have any connection to your list of promising candidates, or because maybe you don’t have an editor/agent/publicist, because you’re an intrepid indie author.
So either way, hat-in-hand it is, for many of us. Which leads to the big question:
When do we query for a blurb?
You’d think this would be fairly obvious… when you have a complete manuscript, all ready to go (not just written but revised, rewritten, edited, copyedited, and polished… whether trad or indie) but before publication. In other words, basically at the ARC stage. But enough before pub date that your publisher can get those wonderful, gushy, blurby words onto the book’s jacket (or else why get them in the first place?) but hopefully late enough that the blurber will be reading something close to the final version.
All the above makes perfect sense, but then someone decided that if they got blurbs even earlier, they could put those words of praise on the jacket of the ARC itself. And then reviewers (and librarians and booksellers and other tastemakers of all stripes) might see it and think, “Well, so-and-so already loves this, so maybe I should, too.” Thus the “pre-blurb” was born. But—to its credit, I guess—it’s still editors/agents/authors asking other editors/agents/authors to have someone read and blurb an almost-ready-for-primetime, soon-to-be-published book.
And then some creative soul—who likely spends more time on ‘writer twitter’ than on actually writing—decided that if they got a famous (or at least well-published, or at least, well… published) author to read and blurb their un-agented, un-edited, un-contracted (maybe even unfinished) manuscript, then they, too, might be published soon.
Yup. They don’t want to use Mr. or Ms. Famous Author to tell the world how good they thought the book was. In reality they simply want to use his/her glowing words to try to land an agent. Who—in theory—will be so dazzled by this that they’ll sign said book right up and immediately start repping it to editors who will also fall into lockstep once they see the blurbiest blurb in the entire blurbdom attached to said manuscript… never mind whether the manuscript itself is great or good or even fair.
A few issues with the--ahem—“pre-pre-blurb”…
1. You’re asking a busy person (all people are busy) to spend a good chunk of their free time reading your manuscript and then composing comments intended for the back of a book which may never see the light of day. (Yes, blurbing authors are doing another—often newer—author a big favor by reading and blurbing their book, but there is also the intangible, theoretical perk for the blurber of getting their name on the back of every copy of the book they blurbed. Which—assuming the book is in fact really good and does really well—might actually be of some small benefit.)
2. You’re asking that busy person to read a manuscript which almost certainly hasn’t been through the editorial process published books go through. Yet they (in theory) are supposed to comment on it as though it were a fait accompli, already sitting on the shelves of their local bookstore next to all the published books it’s competing with.
3. You are attempting to leverage the good name of Mr. or Ms. Famous Author specifically to fuel the next step in your career by attracting the attention of an agent and/or editor. I realize all blurbing is about marketing to one degree or another, but this seems pretty blatantly one-sided, and de-centers the fundamental work of producing a strong, polished manuscript.
4. And finally, if the manuscript actually does get representation and then publication*, the book which finally gets published (complete with blurb on the back) will likely be a different book (sometimes wildly different) than the one which was originally blurbed. And Mr. or Ms. Famous Author’s name will be inextricably linked to something they may not have chosen to blurb in the first place, had they seen the final result. (Pig in a poke, anyone?)
[*Please note that none of this is to say you shouldn’t blurb an indie author. If the indie book is 95% polished and ready to go to pub (i.e. it’s at the ARC stage) and you read it and like it, then sure, why not? But if it’s as described above—basically an early draft that hasn’t been through the editorial process—then everything we said about a pre-pre-blurb still applies.]
So… when should an author ask for a blurb? IMO, when they’ve done all the hard work to get to the point where the book is ready to launch—writing, revising, polishing, querying, submitting, editing, copyediting—and ready to be read. (With the assumption that all that hard work has resulted in a work worthy of another author putting her stamp of approval on it.) But not before. Blurbing is supposed to be, “Would you mind reading this book which we’ve put so much time and energy into, and maybe give the public a sneak preview of what they can expect?” Not, “Would you attach your name to my early draft and launch* my book for me?”
[*See this post on the fallacy of thinking an author can help you fast-pass the line to publication.]
Happy blurb hunting!
I was listening to a writing podcast recently and someone was complaining that what he was doing “wasn’t working” (meaning he wasn’t getting published). Which is something we can all relate to at one point or another. Except this guy’s frustration was largely centered around the fact that he was doing everything “right” from a marketing standpoint—following all the latest trends/advice/buzz—and it still wasn’t working. More out of sympathy than anything else, I found myself saying to my phone, “Dude… if you really want to get published, you should try caring more about writing than publishing.”
This is not me being snarky or flip, or saying I have all the answers. (Are you kidding?) It’s simply me giving my best quick-hit advice based on observing the creation and acquisition of multiple books from multiple authors over multiple years…
Yes, there are a lot of formulaic manuals about how to write a novel. And maybe even more about how to get published. And even more “get rich quick” infomercials online about how to “be a successful author.” And blogs and vlogs and podcasts and videos and social posts galore about all of the above, each touting the latest FOMO-driven tips about what agents and editors want. We’ve discussed this before, here and here.*
[*TL;DR: (a) Most plot construction formulas come from screenplay writing. While there are some useful concepts there, a novel is a somewhat different beast. (b) Writing to trends is problematic for many reasons. If you start writing to a trend today and the writing, revising, polishing, querying, submission, acquisition, editing, and publishing processes all go without a hitch (ha!), your book will grace the shelves of Barnes and Noble in three years at best. By which time the universe may have moved on. (c) If the authors of those “Seven Easy Steps to Writing a Bestseller” e-books actually had the formula to writing a bestseller, they would probably be spending their time actually, um… writing bestsellers. (d) Almost all of the above “advice” assumes editors are just looking for a re-hash of whatever’s currently selling, like car salesmen or something, which is simply a false narrative. The reality with most editors at most imprints is something completely different. More on this later.]
And yet… even though the interwebs are abuzz with this stuff, no one I know who’s been published has followed anything remotely like the sort of trendy advice described above. And shoring this up is another observation, made by virtually every editor I’ve heard speak on the subject: The work which resonates best with readers is almost always the work which means the most to the writer.
Because, at best, what we do as writers is try and translate what’s in our heads into the heads of our readers. And if all that’s in your head is, “I hope I’ve found something trendy enough that someone’ll publish it,” that’s exactly what readers will get from it—that the motivation wasn’t passion but profit. And they’ll buy into your story about as much as they’ll buy the spiel from the used car salesman. (And of course, the first reader of any consequence will be an agent or editor, who are experts at detecting passion… or the lack thereof.)
So, submitted for your consideration: If you want to get published, try banishing all thoughts of publication from your mind while you’re conceiving, plotting, drafting, revising, and polishing your work. Do your best to write that which matters to you, which you have passion for, and which might even scare you a little. And don’t stop until it’s the best it can be. Because doing that gives you the greatest chance of reaching someone else… including an agent or editor.
Because… what if… just maybe… most agents and editors aren’t looking for someone who can replicate the flavor-of-the-month? What if they’re actually looking for writers who create well-crafted, interesting, emotionally engaging stories? Because maybe they know that’s largely what readers want to read… stories that get to some real truths about the human condition, about how we live, or maybe about how we should live?
We could do worse than attempt to create such a story.
And only then—when your heart is fully on the page and the story is crafted to the very best of your abilities—should you turn your complete attention to the process of finding an agent or editor who may respond to the story with as much emotion as you put into it.
But until then, the less you think about publishing, the more likely you are to craft a story someone will want to publish.
Ironic, isn’t it?
Many of us have certain things we like to do while writing, or maybe it’s a certain place or a favorite sweater or certain music or snacking on certain foods or… (Personally, I can’t write without some sort of beverage—usually caffeinated—sitting next to me.)
I suppose you could make the case that a writer should be able to write anywhere, at any time, while eating/drinking anything… or nothing, and while listening to anything… or nothing, and while wearing…. you get the point.
I humbly disagree. Or at least, I don’t think the best way to approach an act of creativity is to force it under unfamiliar circumstances.
I have a theory that humans enjoy having certain things or conditions around them while doing creative work because these familiar things—these rituals—prepare the mind for whatever comes next. They serve as reminders… they say to the brain, it’s time to write (or paint, or exercise, or eat, or sleep, etc.). Or maybe they simply give us the message, This is a safe place… it’s okay to relax. Like a child having their favorite stuffed animal when going to bed.
Or maybe just having the familiar is good because it’s, well… familiar*.
[*My wife used to have a watch which—for some inexplicable reason—always started beeping at 8:00 a.m. Even with the alarm mode off. Every time it happened, we’d look at each other and laugh. “It must be eight o’clock!” She finally replaced it… and immediately missed the friendly little “enjoy your morning!” reminder. So instead of getting used to a correctly functioning watch, she set her new watch to alarm each morning at 8:00. Just this morning, we were most of the way through our weekend long run and feeling a bit pooped, when it went off. We both laughed and said, “Must be eight o’clock!” and got a little lift from the friendly reminder. I mean, why wouldn’t you want that?]
So if there are certain things that make you feel creative or mindful or relaxed or just plain happy… don’t be afraid to incorporate them into your writing routine, regardless of the location or circumstances. We might have to get a little creative or be a little flexible, but there’s usually a way to make it work.
Example: my favorite thing to listen to when I write is… nothing at all. Not that I don’t love music. Actually it’s the opposite problem—I get involved in the music to the point of distraction. Same with nearby conversation… I find myself actively listening (as writers do), trying to make sense of it… trying to fit it into some sort of story line. But sometimes I like to leave the confines of the quiet office and venture out among the rest of the human race. Like at, say, a nearby coffee shop. So I bring my silence with me… in the form of earplugs. It really helps with concentration to be able to block out most of the outside noise.
(Some people use earbuds and leave them unplugged, which both blocks some sound and gives the impression you probably don’t want to be interrupted. And of course, if you can’t write without your death metal blazing away, crank it up and crank out those words!)
I also like those coffee shop paper cups, and I used to take them home and drink coffee in them during writing sessions until they fell apart (usually within a few days). I finally broke down and bought the reusable plastic version. So now—assuming I don’t come too far out of my writing-induced trance and actually look around the room—I can sort of maintain that coffee shop vibe when I’m chained to my office desk*.
[*Speaking of coffee, my wife isn’t the coffee hound I am, but I’ll occasionally make her what I call a “sidewalk latte” as a mid-day pick-me-up. Just a really small straight latte, maybe with a biscuit. The first time I did it I put a tiny spoon next to the small cup just for fun—like at a sidewalk café—even though she doesn’t take sugar. But from then on, I have to include that demitasse spoon. Because it gives her a certain vibe. Which I guess is the whole point of this post…]
So whatever it is that gives you that “I’m in my comfy place, ready to create” vibe, I encourage you to lean into it. Being creative is hard enough (especially this year) and anything we can do to help send an engraved invitation to the muse is definitely worth doing.
Once upon a time I managed to land an agent with my OBFN* and he dutifully shopped it around. After it had made the rounds at most of the bigger houses (some nibbles and close calls, but no solid “yes”), I asked him how I’d know when it was time to pull the plug. He said, “You’ll know it’s time when you just don’t want to do it anymore.”
[*Obligatory Bad First Novel]
At the time I thought that was sort of a glib answer, but I eventually came to realize the absolute wisdom of it.
In theory we can agonize over it indefinitely, but in reality it’s a self-solving problem. As long as you have the belief, desire, and energy to continue shopping the project, you’ll keep shopping it. At some point, the desire fades and/or you direct your energy elsewhere, and you eventually stop shopping it. In many cases (including mine) you end up writing something new, and you focus your energy there instead. Which may be a good strategy regardless, since it’s likely to be a stronger manuscript due to you having the experience of writing the previous book. (Again, in my case, it was. I put the painful lessons I’d learned from that first failed manuscript to good use with my second one, and ended up placing it.)
All of that’s fine, and in retrospect finally quitting on that first book and trying to write something better was the right choice for me (although it sure felt crappy at the time). In fact, I’d venture to say we all have projects, either whole or in pieces, sitting abandoned on a hard drive somewhere. Or maybe stripped and sold for parts (which is another post). Bailing on those projects is painful, but part of the bigger process. Sometimes we have to let things go so that we might move forward.
I think we can all understand that. But sometimes, we might reach a point where we just want to stop writing entirely. Which—while being a different thing—is also understandable. Sometimes a break is the best thing for us, especially if we’re using it to recharge and not as avoidance. (I used to work with a coach who, in the middle of leading an intensive group workout, would sometimes call out, “Take a break if you have to, but not a vacation!”)
Stopping is not quitting. Stopping with the intention of never re-starting is quitting. There’s a qualitative difference*.
[*While in NYC a dozen years ago to run the New York Marathon for Exercise the Right to Read (a charity my wife and I started to help raise money for school libraries and to buy books for underprivileged children) we were also able to catch the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, which happened the day before on a course that consisted of several laps around Central Park. That was both an inspiring and tragic race, with many takeaways. One of the most instructive things I saw was late in the race, when one of the runners near the front of the chase pack pulled over and grabbed the chain link fence next to the path. “Oh man, he’s done,” I thought. I mean, why else would you stop running late in a closely contested race? But he wasn’t done. He clung to the fence, took a few deep breaths and stretched his leg, then pushed off and got back in the race. And finished in the money—somewhere in the top ten.]
But maybe you’re not talking about bailing on a particular project, or even taking a break from writing. Maybe you’re contemplating quitting altogether.
First things first: If you want to quit, you’re absolutely free to do so*. At any time. And you owe no one any sort of explanation or apology.
[*Assuming nothing under contract, of course.]
I could say lots of encouraging things, all of which I fully believe. I could tell you that “failure” is what “success” looks like from the middle of the process (which I’ve experienced firsthand more than once), and that virtually every published author I know swam through a lot of mud before finding clear water, and that collecting rejections is absolutely part of the game. (I’ve got quite the collection myself, and my wife faced rejection for almost ten years before a single “Yes!” wiped out all those “No!” responses and she went on to publish thirty-plus books—and counting—with a major publisher.)
I could also tell you that your sticking point is likely either a process issue or a writing issue, and either way, it’s likely fixable. (Which is pretty much the entire reason I host this blog.) You might consider getting some help… some coaching… some outside input… to give you the “second set of eyes” that can be so critical in finding areas for improvement with either your writing or your shopping process.
I could say all that, and more. But I also know that feeling like you’re beating your head against a stone wall without even a glimmer of a crack can be daunting. Maybe to the point of wanting to stop. Maybe forever. And if so, I’d be the last person to judge you for it.
But maybe the thought of officially “quitting” depresses you, leaving you stuck between two bad choices.
So maybe don’t look at it that way.
Maybe look at it as a trial separation.
Maybe try it for a while, and see how you feel.
If you try it and you’re still good with not writing after several months, then you probably have your answer. If the relief—or the feeling of freedom or just the extra time for other pursuits—from not writing is worth more than the value you get from writing, then you may have made the right choice. If so, good for you, and best of luck at whatever’s next.
But if not… if after a while you find yourself unexpectedly mulling over plot points and thinking of settings and—most especially—creating characters that you care about… that feel real to you, then there’s no law that says you can’t go back to writing.
Remember: Home is the place where—when you knock on the door—they have to let you in.
You can stop with a project that’s not working for you.
You can take a break from writing if you need to.
You can quit altogether if that’s what’s best for you.
And you can always go home again.
But it should be your choice, for your reasons.
I think there are two fundamental truisms regarding writing:
1. You should never write because you feel like you have to, and…
2. You should only write because you feel like you have to.
These may seem self-contradictory, but writers will understand...
The old joke is that these two items are all you need to fix anything...
If it moves and you don’t want it to, use duct tape.
If it doesn’t move and you want it to, use WD-40.
I look at “Writing & Running” as the “Duct Tape & WD-40” of creative work: The answer to almost any creative dilemma can usually be summed up as either Write! or Run!
At least, as long as we understand the metaphorical meaning of these terms as they relate to any art form…
Writing = Capturing an idea and fixing it in time and space by doing creative, authorial work in our chosen field. Other examples of “writing” might include: painting, playwriting, sculpting, screen writing, songwriting, etc.*
Running = Unsticking our creative processes by doing a repetitive, relaxing, typically non-thinking activity. Other examples: Hiking, cycling, washing the dishes, mowing the lawn, walking the dog, showering, driving, etc.*
[*Please note that none of these is prescriptive. Someone’s “writing” could just as easily be designing a house or creating a lesson plan for an upcoming class. And their “running” could well be shooting hoops, or maybe puttering in the yard. Or any other version of the “creation” mindset and the “recreation” mindset.]
In an ideal world we would have adequate amounts of time for both, as they tend to feed into each other: Doing work can make us feel like we deserve some play, and playing can help us generate creative ideas for our work. Although I don’t think of them as “work” and “play.” I tend to view them as simply two different methods of thinking—one more conscious than the other—but equally valuable, and usually synergistic.
And on the flip side…
[*BTW, NFW do I think anyone’s actually required to write half a million words be a writer. You write? You’re a writer. Period. Same with the 10,000 hr. rule. But the concept exists for a fundamental reason: We get better at that which we spend time doing. You’d think this would be obvious, but we still see people who spend a lot of time talking about the book they’re going to write… maybe even more time than they actually spend writing. Unless one is a Mozart-level savant, one is unlikely to create great works right off the bat, regardless of age, education, or chosen art form. Everyone seems to grasp this concept with music—no one thinks buying an instrument automatically makes them a good musician without practice—but maybe because we can virtually all “write” to some degree, some people seem to expect that the first things they write will be on par with the work that results from significant practice. This may not always be the case.]
There’s a master music educator named Mike Johnston who will sometimes challenge his audience at clinics and workshops to ask him a question which cannot be answered with the word practice. (“How do I get better at double paradiddles?” “Practice!” “How do I incorporate more jazz phrasing into my improvisation?” “Practice!” “How do I play with intensity at lower volumes?” “Practice!”)
Same thing with writing. Want to improve some aspect of your craft? Write. Need to remind yourself that you’re a writer? Write. Want to have a completed manuscript to shop around? Write.
Need to refill the well with creative ideas to help you accomplish all the above?
The “Three E’s” of novel writing—as I see them—are Events, Engagement, and Execution. They form the three-legged stool on which a strong manuscript depends, and we can get in trouble if we’re leaning too hard on one while ignoring the others.
Let’s break this down a bit…
Events = The storyline aspect of your novel. The concept, the pitch, the premise, the plot. This can include the setting and time of the story—if important to the concept—but overall it can be thought of as “What happens to whom, and when.”
Engagement = The aspect of the story that allows you as the author to become connected to it, and which also acts as the emotional point of entry the reader needs if the story is to resonate with them. Various aspects of a story can provide this connection, but humans are hardwired to care about humans so the most visceral connection is usually through your characters.
Execution = Not only how you write it (style) but how well you write it (craft). Is the story told in such a way that it not only conveys the concepts in your head, but gets them across to the reader in a way that carries emotional weight? (It’s sort of like 1 + 2 = 3. How do you get events to affect a reader? Usually by focusing on how they affect a character with whom the reader has identified.)
Clearly these aspects are not mutually exclusive, and sometimes overlap. (Style and craft are often blurred together for me, and both can certainly affect the engagement of the reader, hopefully in an intentional way.) But to one degree or another they all need to be in the mix.
However, it seems like lately we might be putting more emphasis on the “Events” leg of the stool. Which can be great—I mean, who doesn’t like a well-plotted novel?—except it seems to be to the exclusion of the other two legs. Which can be a problem, as we’ll see.
But first, why is this happening? I think it’s a sign of the times, a byproduct of the information age. We’ve gotten used to answers at our fingertips—the quicker and soundbitier, the better. And we like things laid out in easy-to-follow listicle fashion: Do A, then B, then C… then arrive at Success!
This “just add water” approach doesn’t work well with the “Engagement” aspect of fiction. This is a subjective, emotional component to our writing, really nuanced and usually requiring multiple iterations to arrive at something that will actually move our readers in an emotional fashion to the point where they care deeply for our characters and are willing to follow them anywhere.
There’s no paint-by-numbers approach to “Execution,” either. Take everything we just said about characterization and expand it to include every aspect of the manuscript: voice, description, setting, theme, dialog, action, interior monolog, vibe, etc. There is a TON of finesse and nuance here, requiring a lot of time and energy to make it as good as it can be. Sounds like a long, hard process, I know, but (in my most humble opinion) this is the shit, right here, that will set your work apart from the myriad of other works cranked out without the care and attention the written word deserves.
So what’s left? “Events.” They dovetail nicely with the Boolean how-to concept of Step 1, Step 2, Step 3. And a dizzying number of guidelines are available, varying in granularity from “Have some events… and maybe a beginning, middle, and ending” to “Here are the five… or seven… or nine… or twelve (up to fifteen in some cases) essential plot events for your story!” Because I spend a certain amount of time reading online about publishing and writing, my social media feed is full of ads promising to help you “Write your novel!” A quick perusal shows that most of these teach almost nothing about the craft of writing, but are mainly a fill-in-the-blanks template meant to give you a perfectly plotted plot-ish plot (from which you magically create a meaningful work of art almost as an afterthought). One I checked out just this morning had a timeline for creating an 80,000 word novel via their method. After filling out the plot creation template, the calendar allotted you something like three weeks to draft it. (“It’s simple! You just follow the plot we’ve created, so it’ll flow from your fingertips!”)
Okay, it’s way too easy to burn that straw man to the ground, so moving on…
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with knowing exactly where you’re going ahead of the journey, including all the little way-points along the path--if that works best for you and your creative mind—but thinking a story-beat template automatically makes for a well-crafted novel is like thinking that having a cookbook automatically makes for a great meal… there might be a little more to it than that.
The potential problem is, if you don’t apply equal attention to the actual crafting of the thing, you’re likely to end up with a book that reads like a litany of ideas, concepts, and plot events, as opposed to creating an emotional experience within the reader’s mind that has the depth, complexity, and nuance of actual lived experience.
Because that last part—having the feel of actual lived experience—is what ultimately grabs the reader. And if it’s not there, having all your story-ducks in a row isn’t likely to keep the reader turning pages if they don’t care about the people involved.
But interestingly, the opposite can often be true: you’ll rarely see a really well written book with engaging characters fail simply due to a lack of approved story-beats. When NYT bestselling & Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead was asked about the plot of his novel Sag Harbor, he said, “Well, nothing much really happens.” Which is true. Yet the critics fell all over themselves praising it, using words like: Carefully observed and beautifully written. Delicious. Enchanting. Lyrical. Hilarious. And, perhaps most telling, He can write sentences like nobody’s business (“Execution”) and, Stokes our emotions and intellect at once (“Engagement”).
(Oh yeah… and people bought it. And read it. And loved it. Lots of people.)
I need to stop here and reiterate that I’m not saying plot is secondary or unimportant or anything of that nature. Plot is fundamental—it’s the framework upon which we build our work.
So why am I bringing all this up? Simply because more and more I see aspiring writers mistakenly thinking that plotting is it. That writing fiction consists of knowing where the beats lie, and nothing more. And I understand why—we’re inundated with the concept these days, because it’s far easier to sell a “system” than to engage in a nuanced discussion around the art and craft of writing. (Although there are some great books that discuss the nuances of the art form. Three of my favorites are On Writing, Bird by Bird, and Hope in the Mail.)
And when one of these aspirational efforts fails (for whatever value of fail has significance to you—commercially or artistically or fails to land an agent or editor) it’s usually not due to a lack of Events, but to issues with Engagement and Execution.
It’s pretty rare for a rejection letter to say, “The writing was wonderful and I was so invested in your character, but… I just wish more stuff happened!” (Partly because this is eminently fixable, and may result in a request to R&R… “Revise and Resubmit.”) On the other hand, “I just didn’t feel connected to the main character” (Engagement) and “I just didn’t love the writing” (Execution) are probably the two most common reasons agents and editors give for passing.
So… by all means, do all the event-planning and story-boarding you need to do to be able to write your book. But if things aren’t working out, don’t automatically default to thinking you somehow need a newer/bigger/better system to follow. There’s a good chance the fix may lie in giving the second and third “E” at least as much attention as the first.
Much—if not all, in some cases—of the writing required of students in school is on-demand writing*. (Meaning the assignment is prescribed: write on this topic, at this length, due at this time.)
I understand why this might be desirable. Among other things, one instructor can assign a whole class at once, and then read & grade the assignments to a common standard (apples to apples). Sort of like having the class all read the same novel. And no one—least of all me—thinks teachers are underworked. Especially language arts teachers, where grading writing assignments is way more labor intensive than grading, say, math tests.
[*Full disclosure: I use on-demand writing exercises in some of my workshops, for specific reasons. I give a brief—100 word or so—writing assignment based on a given scenario, using a specific POV. Then I have them turn around and write the same scene again, using a different tense and POV, and then again. Then students read their different versions aloud and we compare & discuss the differences regarding immediacy, voice, emotional effect, etc. I’ve found that instead of just showing them the difference with examples—i.e. from the outside—it’s much more instructive for them to experience the difference for themselves, from the inside.]
But I think there are a couple of fundamental issues with this (similar to issues with whole-class novels), especially if used exclusively:
The first issue is similar to using writing prompts when trying to inspire writers…
Because unless designed with care to be purposely broad and vague, it hands the students the one thing they need to learn to create for themselves if they want to be writers beyond school. Which is the concept of idea generation…
Because in actual writing (i.e. “writing meant for reading,” whether published or not—as opposed to writing done strictly to fulfill a given assignment) the first hurdle is deciding what to write about…
Because in the real world outside school, most writing, for most writers, will be self-assigned. The writer decides the subject matter, the voice, the plot (if fiction), the form (if nonfiction), and how to go about saying the thing they need to say. (And not incidentally, they also have to decide when it’s “due,” which is even more important when there’s no one waiting for it. As discussed in our very first blog post.)
The second issue is similar to that of assigned reading. (For a deep dive into the problems with assigned reading—and how to migrate from it to a more productive reading paradigm—read Book Love, by Penny Kittle.) The first rule of having an engaged reader or an engaged writer is that they’re interested in the subject before them. And of course the best way to insure that is to let them choose the subject. So many kids are turned off by being forced to read "the classics" that it’s become a cliché about everything wrong with most English classes.
The same thing applies with writing assignments. When I was in 5th grade or so, we were given the assignment to write about ourselves in an autobiographical way. Then the teacher would read them aloud in class, without naming the student. (Oh my god, just kill me now.) I sort of shrugged to myself and started writing. “I was born on Mars,” I began. (I was a big science fiction reader at the time.) The point isn’t that I made the work into a “student’s choice” assignment, it’s that out of all the writing we did in elementary school, it’s virtually the only thing I can remember writing. Because I wrote something I wanted to write instead of the boring assignment I had no interest in. Everything else came and went like the peanut butter sandwiches we had for lunch.
Sometimes on-demand assignments are used with younger students who may not have a specific topic they feel drawn toward. We still want these students to get practice expressing themselves via writing, so we give them a topic with all good intentions. Hence the ubiquitous and painful “What I Did on my Summer Vacation” essays on the first day of school. (I once saw a younger student frustrated to tears when given the first-day assignment, “If you were a tree, what kind would you be and why?” I asked him why he was so upset, and he said he didn’t want to be a tree… of any kind! The more I considered it, the more I agreed with him. Actually sort of terrifying, when you think about it…)
A few mitigation strategies:
1. One easy thing we can do is give a range of options. (If you were a tree, or an animal, or a motor vehicle, or…) This might help students get unstuck when feeling boxed in by a narrowly prescribed prompt.
2. If for some reason it’s deemed necessary for all the students to write on a single topic, have a discussion/poll with the students beforehand, arising at a number of topics they actually have interest in writing about, then work through them (still allowing the broadest interpretation of each).
3. Even better, after making a large and varied list (as above), allow each student to select their individual topic from it for each assignment. Yes, the instructor will have to switch gears while reviewing and/or grading, but the autonomy of choice for the students should outweigh this.
4. And finally, consider the practice of having a list (for the ones who can benefit from a prompt), but with one of the options always being: Or any other subject that interests you. (This is analogous to ELA teachers who have recommended lists of books, with the student always having the option of choosing one of their own.) With the goal being that—as the students get older and more advanced—they are encouraged to develop and use their idea generation skills more and more.
Always keep in mind the question: What is the ultimate objective of the assignment… or of the class itself? If we think the objective is something like “The student is able to expound upon a pre-determined topic in written form” (or, for that matter, “The student reads, comprehends, and is able to parse the minutia within A Tale of Two Cities”) instead of something like “The student learns to enjoy writing creatively and gains skill at it” (or, “The student develops a love of—and skill at—reading”), then maybe we’re missing the broader point.
Because when you boil it all down, we’re teaching creativity. So maybe we should let the students practice being creative…by choosing topics and doing work that has some actual connection to them.
Maybe “luck” isn’t the perfect word here. But it’s way less clunky than, “The strategic optimization of your odds of success.”
Yes, there is an element of random chance at play in almost anything we aspire to. But in my experience, it’s also true that the harder you work, the luckier you get.
In other words, there are odds, but there are also ways to increase the odds. How…?
First off, you not only need to be willing to work long and hard, but smart. (And of the three, smart may be the most important. Imagine some dude who spends years on his manuscript, then simply shotguns the whole thing to every single agent he can find in Writer’s Market—literally hundreds of them—no matter their requirements or list. And each with the same cover letter, which probably starts with, “Dear Agent…” No matter what, this guy isn’t likely to ever have “good luck.”)
Awareness of your field will greatly increase your “luck.” Study the market—not because you’re going to write to it, but because you’re going to sell what you’ve written into it—and figure out who’s buying what. Then target the best “who” with your best “what” as intelligently and professionally as you can.
In other words, pay attention.
To agents. To editors. To publishers. To art directors (if you’re an illustrator). To School & Library marketing personnel (if you’re a kidlit author). All these people are industry gurus who work in the field every day, and have the straight info. And pay attention to authors. Including those who are repped by agents you’d like to be repped by, selling to editors you’d like to sell to, published by houses you’d like to be published by, and—especially—writing the types of books you’d like to write. (The way you pay attention to these is to read those books, of course. It’s a subject for another post, but I can’t imagine anyone succeeding in a specific genre without reading pretty widely in that genre. Yet I see the opposite of this all the time… not exactly the definition of “working smarter,” is it?)
Industry personnel are people. With literary likes and dislikes. And they sometimes discuss these on social media. Follow them. Pay attention to who’s repping what. PW regularly puts out roundup reports of recent book deals, including editor/author/agent/house/etc. Editors (and agents) frequently post their "manuscript wish list" desires using #MSWL. (Some may say “agented submissions only.” That’s fine. If you have a manuscript that really fits what a legit editor is looking for, this is definitely worth a mention in your query to an agent. Just get on it—these things all have a “use by” date…)
I had a writer describe his completed manuscript to me—a political thriller—and ask for advice on next steps. I said it sounded a lot like a certain popular TV series. He agreed it was in the same ballpark. I said, “Well, agent so-and-so’s favorite TV series happens to be that show. She tweets about it regularly. I would read three or four books she’s repped which you think are in a similar genre, then polish the heck out of your manuscript, write a brief, compelling, complimentary-yet-professional query letter, and submit to her. Then go through the same process with at least a dozen more good agent candidates. That might be a good first step…”
I guess the takeaway here is, there is so much useful, actionable information available these days about the workings of the publishing industry that you’re doing yourself a major disservice if you don’t do a little research before trying to place your hard-won manuscript.
4.1 (bonus) Talent…
This comes up a lot: But what about talent? Yes, talent is absolutely a factor, and I think we can all agree that at least a modicum of it is required in order to commit successful writing.
But what is it?
That’s an age-old question. My personal answer is that it resides somewhere at the intersection of Heart and Craft, honed with desire over time (Persistence)… and the more you apply these factors, the more likely you are to have “Luck.”
Some regard talent as inborn, some as a mysterious proclivity toward certain art forms, some as a gift from on high, visited upon the lucky. So instead of those vague definitions, let’s talk about other words. Facility. Skill. Mastery. And perhaps the most important… Affinity.
Because really, it’s largely about desire and effort, over time. You rarely hear someone say, “I don’t care at all about playing the violin and I’ve never really put any time or effort into it, yet for some reason I’m a virtuoso.”
I think it’s largely a circular self-fulfilling prophecy… you think you might like something so you try it, you find you enjoy it so you continue doing it, the practice helps you get better at it, which makes you like it even more, so you do it even more, so you get even better, and… Voila! You’ve acquired a certain amount of skill at it, and if you truly enjoy it (and we tend to enjoy things we excel at), you’re likely to continue the practice until you’ve gained a level of mastery at it.
Yes, people’s minds all work differently, and may be drawn toward different things… perhaps language, or music, or visual arts, or physical expression. And this can add to the early “you find you enjoy it” factor, making it more likely that not only do you practice it, but you also tend to think about it when not practicing it. Which adds not only to the enjoyment of it, but the facility at it.
Because through this you’ve developed an affinity for your chosen art form, which is a definite advantage in acquiring mastery. (People rarely get really good at something they don’t truly enjoy, which is why people who take up something as a route to fame and fortune—as opposed to having a love of the art form itself—rarely achieve success. Because the “Heart” factor is missing.)
So, that sums up our four attributes of successful writing. This is obviously experiential opinion, not concrete fact. Because writing is art, not science. And these attributes are not always separate, discreet steps—they combine to form a unified mindset which will help you get to wherever it is you want to go. They feed into each other…
Without Heart, you won’t have enough emotional investment to spend the time to fully invest your Craft into the story, and without Persistence, you won’t give Luck a fighting chance to come through for you.
Best of luck!
Okay, maybe there is a formula to this after all. My personal equation for it…
P = ET, where…
P = Persistence
E = Effort
T = Time
In other words, persistence is how hard you’re willing to work for something times how long you’re willing to work for it.
Success—even so-called overnight success—almost always comes from regular, incremental steps forward over time. Without getting discouraged to the point of permanently quitting. My take on it is that “failure” is simply what “success” looks like from the middle of the process.
Accept that there are going to be more strikeouts than homeruns by a large margin… that’s the nature of the game. The answer is to keep working, keep improving, and keep swinging.
This applies to every step along the pathway… You will likely have to query multiple times to get a partial request. Perhaps several partials to get a full. Probably more than one full to get an offer of representation. Then your agent may not land a deal with the very first editor she submits to… and maybe not with her first sublist. And maybe not with that particular manuscript at all.
You have to be okay with that. It’s not always fun (tell me about it) but the challenge is to reject rejection of a manuscript as rejection of you—or of your writing in general—and get back in the ring.
You are selling into a buyer’s market. Always have been, always will be. This doesn’t mean you won’t eventually sell. This just means the buyers will be picky… you need to find the right buyer at the right time who’s in the market for what you’re currently selling. But keep your head up, because new books are being acquired every day. And a fair number of them from debut authors.
Persistence also comes into play during the writing itself. Yes, you need to keep writing if you want to make it to the end, but I’m talking about after you’ve finished drafting it. We’ve already touched on revision, so I’ll just say that this is what often separates the women from the girls: the ability to roll up your sleeves (after celebrating completing your first draft!) and do the less glamorous work of making your story so strong (compelling, engaging, unique, emotional, entertaining, resonant…) that someone can’t say no to it. Not everyone will be unable to resist it, of course, but it only takes one. Our job is to keep it in the market until it finds that kindred person.
In other words, be persistent enough that you eventually get lucky.
“…the only element I find common to all successful writers is persistence—an overwhelming determination to succeed.”
~ Sophy Burnham
I believe the single most important factor in publishing success is having a strong manuscript. (There are other factors—mostly (a) rolling up your sleeves and doing some serious, organized, thorough research, (b) querying in an intelligent, friendly-yet-business-like, non-sociopathic manner, and (c) the willingness to work with your agent and/or editor to further improve the story, once they’ve taken you on. Most of these are covered in Parts 3 & 4, coming up soon.)
But having a strong manuscript is by far the biggest part of it, and without it, it won’t matter how much you network and schmooze and spam. You can’t talk someone into liking your manuscript—you can only write them into liking it, by doing a great job of crafting it. However, you can easily talk someone out of wanting to read it, so pay attention to (b) above.
“Writing craft” can be an endless topic—and there are a lot of good books on the subject, as discussed here—so I’m only going to touch on two fundamentals: story creation and revision. In other words, the beginning and end of the novel writing process.
Story Creation: Many writing books, podcasts, blogs, etc. focus on the process of plot outlining, some to the point of methodically laying out prescribed beats and when to hit them. Yet many writers are self-proclaimed pantsers to one degree or another. Stephen King famously “doesn’t plot,” and I recall hearing a million-selling British thriller writer say he rarely knows where he’s going beyond the next five pages.
So what’s up with these seemingly conflicting paradigms? Is one method better and the other a waste of time? I don’t think so. They both clearly work well for different writers, and many (most?) of us are actually somewhere in between, sometimes going from plotting to pantsing on the same project.
But here’s another angle on the ‘plotting vs. pantsing’ issue:
They’re actually the same thing.
With both of them, your brain creates a plot and follows it to the end of the story. The difference being simply when the major plot points are decided upon.
Consider two cooks, baking the same dessert in different kitchens. (Let’s say bread pudding, because…bread pudding.) One gets out the recipe card, lays out the ingredients, follows the instructions—maybe varying them slightly according to her taste—and gets a tasty dessert.
The other has cooked (and as important, eaten with attention) quite a bit, and has a pretty good idea what to put in the dish to get something she thinks her guests will like. So she jumps right in, adding the basic ingredients she thinks belong in this particular bread pudding, maybe varying the spices slightly according to her intuitive sense of what will work. And gets a tasty dessert.
They both chose to use specific amounts of specific ingredients to arrive at roughly similar results. But in one case, the measurements were mostly determined ahead of time, while in the other, they were mostly determined during the process… which doesn’t mean they were just randomly guessed at.
It’s the same with plot construction. It’s not that the pantser just wildly throws stuff into the manuscript at random. It’s that they've read enough and/or written enough and/or thought about it enough that they have internalized the fundamental process of “story,” and don’t necessarily need to write it all down… any more than a cook needs to dig out a recipe to whip up a batch of waffles. But they’re still following the basic principles of good storytelling.
So we get to a little sub-secret: Read. A lot. In a lot of genres. And age ranges. Try to read good stories, well-loved stories, award winning stories, innovative stories, popular stories, classic stories, experimental stories. And those interesting little bastard mutt stories nobody else seems to love... but which speak to you anyway. (Those are the best stories, of course.)
You will absorb storytelling, and you will naturally absorb more of the type of storytelling that resonates most with you. And later, when you’re in the middle of your manuscript—whether plotted or pantsed or somewhere in between—and your brain throws out a flyer that wasn’t exactly in the masterplan, give that little bastard mutt of an idea a chance to develop into a contender before tossing it.
Story Revision: I don’t think I’ve ever seen a draft—my own or someone else’s—that couldn’t be substantially improved through thoughtful and thorough revision. But more important than what I think, virtually every editor I’ve seen discuss craft has said the same thing. We’ve talked about what an editor actually does in detail before, but here’s the TL;DR: Scraping a manuscript for mechanical errors—spelling, punctuation, grammar, and basic continuity--ISN’T EDITING (nor is it revision). And does almost nothing to improve the fundamental story contained within the manuscript. (Yes, you still absolutely need to do it before sending your manuscript to an agent or editor—or “pressing publish”—but that’s beside the point.)
Just today I heard an editor say she cringes when she sees an aspiring writer doing first-round revisions at the sentence level, agonizing over commas, etc., because at that point the priority should be revision based on story development, making the story as strong and impactful as possible… tightening up dragging sections, making scenes carry their weight and have as much emotional resonance as possible. (Plus it’s pretty inefficient to worry about commas first, when the whole paragraph or page is likely to change… or be cut entirely.)
I filed the following under “Important Things I Have Learned…”
I have learned that when I write something I think is great as-is and I give it a quick spit-shine and excitedly send it out… it doesn’t get published. With everything I’ve ever had published, I did judicious post-first-draft work before submission.
And… this holds true for every author I know.
So please learn from my mistakes—if you write something you think is awesome and you’re proud of it, resist the urge to quickly spell check it, have your friend-with-English-degree read it and give you the thumbs up, then submit it. Because it probably is awesome, and you probably should be proud of it. So you should give it the best chance to succeed against all the other (likely more polished) works it’s up against. Because after an agent has passed on a manuscript, they’re typically disinclined to ever look at it again, even if you realize the error of your ways and do the work to make it “ready for primetime.” (And with editors it’s even worse, as once an editor at a given imprint has passed on a manuscript, all the other editors at that imprint typically won’t look at it, either.)
So that’s my .02 on the beginning and the completion of the novel writing process. In between, it’s just a lot of good old-fashioned hard work. Which we’ll talk about next time…
We can’t always affect the wider world—and there’s so much going on that at times things can seem overwhelming—but we can still “do our best to do our best” at home, with our own work. To that end, I’ve put together a little four-parter which is meant to be more inspiration than prescription…
Here you are, stuck at home, maybe thinking it’s not the best time to query or submit your latest work*. So you’re left with writing. Or revising. Or polishing. Or maybe writing/revising/polishing your query.
[*But OTOH, maybe it is. Submitting during the pandemic is supposedly a fool’s game, but around here our experience has been the exact opposite. Which might tell you something about conventional wisdom. ‘Nuff said…]
Or maybe starting to think about your next project.
Or maybe you’re stepping back and looking at the big picture, wondering about the best path to wherever it is you want to go. (And wherever that is, it’s undoubtedly some version of “success,” whether that’s being published by a mainstream trad house, having a respected and responsive independent publisher, being self-published with great sales and reviews, or simply writing the best book you can, for your own enjoyment and maybe a few chosen readers.)
But whichever version of success you have as your chosen destination—and there’s no reason you can’t have multiple goals here—there are certain things which are crucial in getting there.
Well, here they are:
The Keys to the Kingdom…
The Passwords to Publication…
The Big Assist to Hitting List…
Yup, I’m talking about (drumroll!) The Big Fat Secrets to Writing Success!!!
There’s no “quick” in this get-rich-quick scheme.
Maybe no “rich,” either. At least not for me, because I’m selling these secrets for the discounted price of zero dollars and zero cents.
And actually, there aren’t even any secrets.
However, I’m convinced these attributes are absolutely vital to achieving whatever success looks like to you (whether artistically or commercially). So without further flap copy here’s the first attribute…
We’ve said it before: caring about your characters is key if you want your readers to care about them. (See this post.) But does that really matter? I mean, can’t the cleverness of your plot carry the day? Or the importance of your theme? Or the brilliant language in your prose? Or the detailed, evocative setting of your story?
All those things can be important, but at the core, what do most readers really want out of a story?
They want to care.
About something. Or someone. They want to be emotionally invested in some aspect of the work… they’re seeking a connection. And the core of that connection has to come from you. (Where else?) And the strongest way for that to happen is if you’re writing about something you’re emotionally connected to.
And ideally, not just your protagonist. You should care about the subject matter. About the theme. The plot. The setting. And yes, the language.
And from this, we can deduce one of the anti-secrets of writing success: Don’t chase trends, flavors-of-the-month, or hot topics. Not just because you’ll be late to the party (like, years late), but because you’ll be writing about something you didn’t even choose, and which you likely don’t have an innate connection with.
There’s a good reason Red Barber’s quote on writing is the most famous. (“Writing is easy. Just sit down and open a vein.”)
Because it’s true.
Readers may not always get this, because—as discussed last time—one of the goals of revision is doing such a good job that it seems almost effortless. But anyone who’s ever had to sit down and pour their heart onto the page will absolutely understand the truth of this.
So—as one does when one is stuck at home—I’m in the middle of revisions these days. The sort of revisions where you basically know what you want to do going into it. (Things like, Make this character more complex and Give that guy stronger motivation for what he does and Make her less of a goody-two-shoes and so on.) And I have notes for what I want to accomplish—pages and pages of notes.
So you’d think it’d be a simple thing to effect the changes. And occasionally, it is. But the majority of them take quite a while… far longer than it took to write up the desired changes in my notes. Which is funny, because my notes are detailed—sometimes to the point of containing actual dialog and/or interior monolog—and one could pretty much copy and paste them into place.
Which leads us to the sticky part. The “into place” part, I mean.
First of all, you need to find the perfect place within the manuscript to insert the new text. You can spend quite a bit of time just trying to locate it. And if the perfect spot doesn’t exist, then you need to create it… which means further writing, just to make a space for the incoming information. And then, once the new text is in place, there’s something else we need to do…
We need to break out the refinishing skills.
I do a little antique restoration—furniture and machinery—and when you’re fixing a broken record cabinet, for example, the repair itself is by far the easiest part of the process. Hiding the repair—making it look like it was never broken—is much harder.
Let’s suppose the cabinet you’re restoring has a crack in it… maybe the wood has shrunk over the past century and left a gap in the middle of a panel. So you squirt some glue into the break, pull it tight with clamps, and let it dry. Voila! The break is repaired—it’s once again structurally sound. But it’s also obvious to anyone who’s really looking where the break was.
So you scrape off the excess dried glue. Then you fill any little gaps and irregularities with wood filler. Then you sand the joint smooth. Then you try to match the original color… or maybe that’s not possible so you strip and sand the entire thing. Then you stain the wood, which might require multiple applications to get the right tone. Then you apply the correct finish, which will almost certainly require several coats… with appropriate curing time in between each. Then you apply whatever final polish the piece requires.
Only then—when it looks like nothing was done at all—is it really done.
Which is almost exactly the same process we need to use when revising our manuscript. Assuming we don’t want the edits to be visible, that is.
In other words, we can’t just pry open an existing paragraph with a crowbar, shove the new information in, then duct tape it closed again.
Let’s say we want to go back and reinforce to the reader that our protagonist—Sara—is really bright. We could wedge it into basic description, telling the reader “Sara was short and muscular, with long, auburn curls and an IQ of 150.” Which is painfully clunky on several levels. (Personally, I almost never describe characters via exposition. It comes out in context, or through relevant dialog or interior monolog, or not at all. But my MO isn’t necessarily right or wrong—it’s just me.) The real issue, however, is that it’s simply telling the reader. Which can take the reader right out of the story. Because if Sara really is smart, we should see that organically through her actions and words and thoughts.
So we need to go back through the story and weave in subtle bits here and there that show the reader that Sara is really perceptive or talented or academically notable (or however you wish her gifts to manifest). Demonstrate that she’s doing really well in AP Calculus… show her beating a nationally ranked chess master… have her figure out who the thief is through sheer brainpower. But each of these scenes—and we will almost certainly want several smaller ones vs. a single big “reveal”—will have to flow naturally from the previous scene, and not just be stuck on. Then we need to smooth out any gaps in the material via multiple read-throughs, looking for any roughness or irregularities and polishing them with each pass. Then we need to check for continuity errors, making sure the timeline of events still makes sense. And of course Sara has to be relatively self-consistent throughout—not perceptive one day and oblivious the next just to make the plot work.
The reader needs to incrementally gain the understanding that Sara is bright through observing her doing a series of things that paint a picture of intelligence… through events that you’ve shown the reader, and are believable in the bigger context of the story and the characters contained within.
So please don’t just tell us that Sara is smart. That’s like gluing the broken board back together and telling us it’s fine, when we can all see that it’s not.
This is one of those non-intuitive cases where the more work you do, the easier the job seems to an outsider… until you finally do so much work that it appears no work was done at all!
At that point, congratulations—you’ve hidden all the seams. You likely won’t get credit for it (other than perhaps from your editor, who’s seen the before & after pics) but the reader will have the wonderful experience of reading a story that seems to flow smoothly and naturally… almost like the writer did nothing at all.
Ask any fiction writer what the most common question they get is and you’ll likely hear:
“Where* do you get your ideas**?”
[*Taking the question literally, the plausible answers are either (1) inside my head (i.e. from my imagination), (2) outside my head (i.e. from the world around me), or (3) a combination of 1 & 2 (i.e. take some event from some place and sometime in the world and re-imagine it into something else). #3 is—by far—the most common.]
[**FYI, writers speak of this question amongst themselves the way musicians talk about requests to play Mustang Sally or Free Bird. Just sayin…]
But the question behind the question is likely something more along the lines of: How do you develop the seed of an idea into a story?
This question is actually interesting—to writers as well as readers—because while the former has three answers (inside/outside/both), the latter has as many answers as there are writers. So I’m not suggesting that what works for one writer will absolutely work for another. We’re all different. But if nothing else, looking at someone else’s process can help jumpstart your own, different though it may be.
It might sound funny, but spinning a bedtime story completely on the fly—no notes, no pre-plotting, no outline—might be one of the best storytelling lessons we can have, for a few different reasons.
When our boys were little we would read them bedtime stories, pretty much from birth. Somewhere in there—they were maybe two and four—I opted to tell them a story instead of reading them one. (Extemporize, not re-tell a classic.) For some reason—probably because I could be as wild and goofy and stupid about it as I wanted—they enjoyed it. So I got roped into doing it on the regular. Not every night, but perhaps three or four times a week.
Maybe someone else could world-build a totally unique setting and character-set every night (after an 8-to-12 hr. workday) but not me... I quickly learned the best way for me was to have several serialized stories going at once, in episodic fashion, and let them pick one each night and spin a little bit more of it.
No plotting or outlining allowed, because you didn’t even know which one it was going to be until you were lying on the floor with the lights out and a little voice would say, “Could we hear Cousin Crow, Dad?” And you’d say, “Really? Are you sure? I don’t think so…” And they’d start yelling, “Cousin Crow!!! Cousin Crow!!! Cousin Crow!!!” and you’d be off to the races, talking about whatever trouble that crazy bird was getting into next…
This went on for six or seven years. A couple hundred stories a year. Easily a thousand or so by the time we moved on to “Novels at Night.” Stories where the goal was to entertain them and make them laugh, and maybe even make them think about things in a new way.
These stories certainly weren’t War and Peace, believe me. Mostly goofy stories about various people and creatures having adventures and getting into trouble*.
[*Ex: There was a young dude who worked in a science lab—I named him “Wilbur the Science Guy” in a fit of stunning creativity—who was smart but absent-minded. He really liked to eat but he really didn’t like to waste time so he hot-rodded the lab’s microwave oven so it would cook a frozen burrito in two seconds instead of two minutes, which was awesome right up until he forgot and put in a burrito and set it for two minutes. The massive over-nuking of the burrito resulted not only in an explosion that plastered the lab’s walls with stinky, slimy beans and cheese, but also created a time warp that sent Wilbur back to medieval days, where further adventures featured him trying to explain science to a stupid and pompous king who didn’t believe in science. This was twenty years ago, btw…]
So, a few benefits of this ad hoc storytelling process…
1. It encourages us to exercise our “going with our gut” story development muscles. (AKA “organic” writing.) Because there’s no time for over-thinking. The main driver is simply, “What interesting thing could happen right now?” and then riffing on that.
2. You get instant feedback from your “readers.” If a couple of monkey boys are bored by your story, you’ll hear about it. Instantly. And loudly. (OTOH, if they find something funny, you’ll know that right away, too.)
3. You tend to consider—and play to—your audience. Not that this should always be the top priority when wordsmithing, but when writing for a specific age group—whether picture book, chapter book, middle grade, or YA—it’s certainly helpful to know who’s reading, and what they may likely be interested in. (Bottom line—if you don’t interest your readers, they won’t want to read your book. It's that simple, but sometimes we forget.)
4. You learn to create—and abandon—ideas quickly. Like, at the speed of speech if not faster. If something isn’t working, you quickly pivot and try something else. Sometimes you’ll think of an idea and toss it before it even comes out of your mouth. This translates well to doing actual plotting on, like, an actual book.
Again, none of these stories were the Great American Novel. Not by a longshot. But they taught me some valuable lessons. Lessons I still use today. Lessons we could use tomorrow.
Because after all, isn’t the ultimate goal the same—to keep the reader tuned in and engaged in your story, no matter what?
I was doing a workshop for young writers recently and as usual I started with a quick assessment…
Who writes—or wants to write—the following:
And so on…
The good news is I saw several hands go up for each area, and many of them went up multiple times.
Then on a whim I added, …and what about fanfic?
Lots of hands, and (even more important) lots of excitement. “Awesome!” I said, and we were off and running.
Fast-forward to a while later, as we’re discussing the revision process. I’m trying to give them two fundamental takeaways…
1. Revision can really improve our work.
2. Revision can really be enjoyable. (Because without them buying into #2, #1 isn’t likely to happen.)
The first one is pretty direct: Revision is where you can go from good to great, etc., along with explaining various reasons why virtually any manuscript can be made better with judicious revision. The teachers are nodding in agreement, and the students seem to get the idea. In theory.
The second one is a harder sell. I talk about how I changed my mindset from dreading revision to enjoying it. “Look at it this way: you’ve actually reached the end, and in the big picture it probably hangs together as a story to one degree or another. So the stress of wondering if you’re even going to finish the initial draft is gone. You made it! Now you get to return to your world and make it even better and—”
I stopped, as something struck me. “Remind me again—who’s into fan fiction?” Three fourths of the students put their hands up. “Well, this is similar.” I had their attention now, if not their concurrence. “With fanfic, you start with a world you love and characters you love and a basic story holding it all together, right?” They nodded. “So you don’t have to do the heavy lifting of world-building or character creation or fundamental rulemaking because it’s already been taken care of, right?” More nods. “So, you guys are basically saying that the fun of it is, you get to dive back into that world and improve things and add new things and just generally make it into the story you always thought it should be. Sound familiar?”
The room lit up with fifty or so lightbulbs turning on. Including the one above my head.
It was my turn to nod. “So it sounds like… revision is doing fan fiction on your own story!”
And it is.
My views on revision changed when I began to realize it was an opportunity to go back to the world I’d created—and the characters I’d created and was invested in—and play around some more. (With credit to my child bride here, because she got over her dislike of rewriting before I did and thus helped show me there was light at the end of the tunnel.)
And I think a big part of this is—as we’ve discussed before—reading like a reader instead of a writer: Take some time away from the story then go through it like a fan. And as you read, keep note of the things that bore you or confuse you or that you’d just like to see done better or different.
Then take that punch list and go back through it as “writer you” and make all the changes that “reader you” was wishing for, making sure the transitions are smooth and natural and that none of the stitches are visible after the surgery.
And when you’re done… congratulations! You’ve just created some awesome fanfic based on the work of an author near and dear to you.
…so five minutes ago—as I write this—one of the best writers I know is working toward the end of perhaps the best thing she’s ever written, and tears are pouring down her face.
She notices me in the room and looks up from her laptop, eyes wide. I don’t even have to ask. “Oh, my poor little friends!” she says by way of explanation, then blinks as more tears run down her face. And—because I know her little friends too—I nod, and suddenly find myself involuntarily joining in.
I can think of no better illustration of honest-to-God writer engagement. And I believe pretty firmly that without writer engagement—real, gut-level, emotional involvement with your characters—it’s very hard to generate that level of reader engagement.
In other words, you have to give a shit.
And how do we do that?
A good start might be to internalize the concept that caring is an emotion, not a thought.
The good news is we all have a built-in barometer for things like this. We don’t have to think about it—in fact, thinking about it puts us at one more degree of remove from it. An analogy might be our sense of taste. When we take a bite of something—for example, homemade hand-cranked vanilla ice cream—most of us can answer the question, “Do you like it?” without too much intellectualizing, especially if we just listen to our initial emotional response and don’t think things like, ‘Is this healthy?’ or ‘Is this considered quality food?’ or ‘Do other people like it?’
The same can apply to your characters. Instead of thinking (there’s that word again), ‘My character has been designed with these attributes and those personality traits and faces this specific challenge—which the reader should be able to relate to,’ maybe ask yourself the simple question, ‘Do I care about them?’ Go with your gut response here rather than an intellectual one.
[NOTE: This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to like them, although it can certainly help you—and readers—care about them and what happens to them. There’s a time-honored place in literature for the unlikeable protagonist, although this only seems to really work when the author sets out from page one to purposely create a fascinating-yet-unlikeable protagonist. I think the fairly common criticism of a book “having an unlikeable main character” usually means the author unintentionally created a not-very-likeable character. This is a subject deserving of its own post, but one thing that can definitely help here is the use of good betas.]
[NOTE #2: We should also recognize there are plenty of novels where having an emotional connection with the main character isn’t a top priority, either for the author or the reader. These could be plot-driven thrillers or humorous capers or broad historicals or any number of other types. And these can certainly be entertaining, successful works, but they’re typically not as likely to be the sort of stories readers bond with for the long haul… the type that sometimes come to be known as “beloved.” Maybe because humans seem to be hardwired to be more invested when there’s a person in the story they truly care about.]
So how can we raise the odds of this connection happening?
I think it’s largely a matter of spending time with them. I have a theory that, everything else being equal, the more time we spend with someone—assuming they’re generally good people—the more they come to mean to us. (I think this may be anthropologically tied to the human concept of “family.”) Regardless, by “spending time” I don’t necessarily mean writing a thousand page book about them. I mean letting them occupy space in your head… and in your heart.
When possible, spend some non-writing time thinking about them, just running scenarios through your head and imagining what they might do in various situations. Yes, this’ll also help you come up with plot ideas, but maybe even more important, it’ll help you get to know about them—and care about them—as individuals.
And if we invest enough time, attention, and research into our characters, they can become real to us. Not real in a “break with reality and visit the psych ward” sense. Real in an emotional sense. In the same sense that we—as readers—might care about Harry & Hermione & Ron or Hazel Grace & Augustus or Liesel & Rudy or whichever characters you’ve ever found yourself personally invested in.
And if you develop an emotional attachment to your characters to the extent that you find yourself springing a leak over your ‘little friends,’ take it as a sign that your readers might feel the same way.
Which—when you boil it all down—is the whole point of what we’re trying to do here, right?
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.