The Problem with On-Demand Writing
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.
The Four Attributes – Pt. 4
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!
The Four Attributes – Pt. 3
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
The Four Attributes – Pt. 2
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…
The Four Attributes – Pt. 1
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.
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.