Various studies have shown that something on the order of 80-90% of American adults wish to write a book.
Which is perfectly fine, except…
Surveys also show that 27% of American adults didn’t read a book at all in the past year. And 40% of them didn’t read a fiction book in the past year. And of those who did, many only read a handful.
So in essence, significantly more people want to write than want to read. Which is analogous to someone saying they want to be a musician but they don’t want to listen to music.
I think this hubris comes from the fact that the vast majority of adults can write, in the functional sense—they can compose a work memo or social media post or email, and for the most part it’ll be comprehensible. Most of us can do this by middle school. (Which, not coincidentally, seems to be where reading peaks out for a lot of us. An issue definitely worth discussing at some point.)
So there may be some sense of, I already know how to write—I learned that in school. In full denial of the fact that there is a craft to writing which goes way beyond obvious things like spelling and punctuation and being able to diagram a sentence. (Similar to how being able to operate the basic controls of a car doesn’t automatically qualify one to enter a NASCAR event.)
Note I’m not suggesting we need an English degree or MFA or anything along those lines in order to write. (But if so, fine. You do you.)
I’m simply saying we need the recognition that there is a craft to be learned. The good news is, much of the pertinent info is available right in front of our eyes, for minimal cost. The amazing learning devices containing this information are called books. There are of course non-fiction ones specifically written to help aspiring writers better learn the fundamentals of writing. (See this post for a round-up of some of our favorites.) But beyond that, the best teachers of all may simply be well-written books in our chosen genre.
Because with books (as opposed to some other art forms) we can literally see the smaller components the artist combined to create the entire work. Sure, there are behind-the-scenes things that influenced the finished work, like early drafts and editing and revisions. But when it comes to the actual words the writer used to craft the final story—how they were chosen and arranged and punctuated and emphasized and ordered into sentences and paragraphs and chapters and sections, well… it’s all there in front of us, in black and white.
So we should read. But not like a reader… like a writer.
Read well. Read deeply. Read widely.
Good books don’t happen by accident. (Just like overnight successes don’t happen overnight.) They’re created by talented writers working to the best of their abilities for significant periods of time, writing and revising and polishing until it’s as good as they can make it. Then further tightened and smoothed via the editing process prior to publication.
First: What’s a good book? That’s an endless discussion, but in this admittedly narrow context a working definition might be: the type of book we’d like to write. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt if the book were somewhat successful on some level (critically acclaimed or sold well or award winning or considered exemplary of its genre or whatever) but beyond those third-party accolades, perhaps the most important quality is simply that we like it.
Next: We should find these books within our desired writing area and immerse ourselves, reading wheelbarrows full of them, paying attention to the how as much as the what. (What they have to say is important, and—for many readers—it’s paramount. But how they say it—for writers—can be a masterclass.) At first we’ll learn what the common tropes of our chosen area are, then as we delve deeper we’ll notice how good writers either avoid them altogether or turn them on their heads and use them in fresh ways. Also, we’ll learn what’s possible, where the boundaries are, and when they can be broken. (When I see someone saying, “I want to write a YA but I have a problem because I want my characters to [have sex / swear / smoke weed / whatever] but I don’t want to turn publishers off with mature content…” I think, Dude, you clearly have not read a single YA novel published in this century… show some respect for the field, por favor.)
Then: We should broaden our stylistic view and read outside our genre. Not just slightly off the chosen path—like going from mysteries to thrillers—but completely different, like going from contemporary romance to biographies of nineteenth century innovators. Read authors from different cultural and geographic backgrounds… covering different subject matter… with different points of view. My dad used to go to our local library and find a loaded returns cart, then grab the first five books on it and take them home. Not all were wonderful, of course, but it forced him to read broadly without a lot of selection bias (other than that someone, somewhere, recently thought the book in question was worth looking at). We could do worse.
All the above will feed into our writing, improving and deepening and broadening it. I’ve heard people say they don’t read because they don’t want any outside influence on their writing. If nothing else, being aware of previous work in our genre will help us avoid overused tropes, clichés, and devices that would otherwise be a flaming “keep away!” sign to editors and agents. (Fresh work is wonderful, but work that implies we have no knowledge of our field… not so much. It’s important to learn the difference.)
But besides the practical reasons we’ve discussed, probably the most important reason writers need to be readers is that, almost universally, good art is done by people with a deep love for the art form. (And conversely, almost never by people looking for a quick buck.) Reading will help us discover what we love about literature… not just what genre or style, but which aspects of the written word resonate with us. Are we drawn to well-rounded characters? Quirky dialog? A detailed, well-conceived plot? Realistic, slice-of-life writing? Interesting descriptions of new-to-us locations? Lush prose that sings like poetry? Or maybe an economic turn of phrase that contains volumes within a single sentence?
And this romance with reading, of course, will help us discover what we’d love to write.
It’s all there, right in front of us, in black and white.
I’ve gotten pretty good at skunk abatement. Just ask my wife/partner-in-stink. If you can get her to stop laughing, that is. The first time we had a skunk problem I called the county and asked if they could come trap it. They could, but it turns out they have to kill them after they trap them. (Something about the law… yada, yada.) Heck, anyone can kill a skunk. I wanted to move them. Unharmed. (After all, they’re just doing what skunks do. And they were here first.) So after a little trial and error we hit on a fairly successful process for safely/humanely relocating skunks. It’s better for the skunk, it’s better for us, and—believe it or not—it’s actually kind of fun. In a goofy, semi-thrilling, Tom Sawyer-ish way.
There’s invariably some trepidation, it sometimes takes longer than planned, and yeah, it’s occasionally downright smelly. But every time we manage to relocate one of the little stinkers to greener pastures, we’re always glad we went through the effort.
Guess what? The same thing applies to our “literary skunks.” You know—those scenes (or chapters or sections or maybe even entire books) that, while perhaps well-plotted or well-written when considered alone, don’t really work in the larger context. We sometimes like our stinky little darlings too much to kill them dead, so we tend to hem-and-haw and lightly edit and rationalize, trying to find some way to justify leaving them in the work at hand. Which we often do… to the detriment of the larger work.
There’s another way. One that’ll allow you to remove these favorite-but-ill-fitting scenes without the trauma of killing them dead: Excise them (and artfully re-connect the remaining loose ends in the ms), re-label as appropriate, and save them in a folder of “favorite unused scenes” or similar.
Some real-world examples…
The original draft of Road Rash had a scene in the middle that ended up not working, plot-wise—due to downstream events—so I rewrote the chapter without that scene, but filed the original chapter away because it had things I liked. (Primarily descriptions of onstage connection and communication.) And sure enough, in the penultimate chapter two friends are onstage again (after some time apart) and—with a little revision—I used maybe a page of the original material (split into two separate scenes) and I was really happy with the result. (It’s not that it saved me a bit of work. It’s that the writing captured a vibe I wanted to portray, and I didn’t want to lose that when I excised the original scene.)
A while back I wrote a short story featuring a middle-aged woman who had a rather harrowing day on the job. I wasn’t real happy with the resolution but I really liked the character/setting and the opening adventure. So I ended up taking the basic scenario (rewritten with the protagonist being younger) and used it as the opening of a novel. (Which is now out on sub, so light a candle for me…)
I know someone whose OBFN was an adult thriller that wasn’t acquired, but he hung onto the original plot concept and later used it as the basis for a successful YA novel. Likewise, another author friend had a short story that didn’t really gain traction, but they expanded it into a novel (which did gain traction).
I recently revised a WIP which had a book-within-a-book as part of it. And during revisions (you guessed it) the “book-in-book” sections had to go… they broke the flow and perhaps confused things for the reader. The revised manuscript is tighter and better for it. But I also saved those sections—because, in the micro, they were some of my favorite parts—and I may write a book based on that character later. (So light another candle, please.)
So yes, retaining selected sections you’ve trimmed can give you potential seedlings that might grow into something interesting later.
But (and this may be the more important part) the act of excising the scenes and carefully storing them away as a separate document for possible later use makes it far easier to cut them. Because in your mind you’re not really killing them… you’re putting them in the deep freeze for later, which is a lot easier to stomach than simply highlighting and deleting.
I’m certainly not suggesting we do this with all our trimmed passages… that’s crazy talk. By all means, when you see something that clearly needs to go, the best path is almost always to cut it and move on. But on the occasion you find something superfluous which you also happen to love, try the following: Cut and save it, continue on with whatever editing you’re doing, then go back afterward and read the passage without the extra text. Assuming it’s better, mollify yourself with the thought that your favorite passage is safely in the vault, then move on. The manuscript at hand will almost certainly be stronger for it, and who knows… you might even find fertile ground for the excised text to spring to life in the future.
Sure, skunks are cute little critters. But that doesn’t mean they belong in your basement or backyard or under your porch. But it also doesn’t mean you have to kill them dead. Make the effort to move them safely and you’ll find you can live skunk-free and guilt-free.
In talking with young musicians, one teachable point seems to come up repeatedly—the benefits of being about to “get outside yourself.”
Working on an art form isn’t always a smooth learning curve. There are definite peaks, with plateaus - and even valleys - in between. With music, one of the leveling-up accomplishments is being able to get outside yourself as a creator. Typically, we learn how to play our chosen instrument somewhat, then we start a band. With many young bands, you watch them play and realize they’re a bunch of musicians playing in the same room at the same time, but they’re not really a band yet. You can tell they’re each thinking only about what they’re doing as they’re doing it (the epitome of this is looking at your hands as you play, with no regard for what anyone else is doing). Then, as the next step, they start to think about what they’re going to play, with little concern for how it’s going to fit into the song. (The example here is the young drummer who’s determined to play that flashy fill he just learned—no matter what—even though it doesn’t fit the mood of the music. Ask me how I know…)
A big leap forward is finally getting to a place where you aren’t thinking about your own playing in the moment at all; you’re listening to the music as a whole and adjusting to the others, trying to make it sound like a cohesive unit. Then, ultimately, you want to be able to interact with the band almost without conscious thought and really get some distance from it, so you can step back and hear the music as it appears to the audience. Because—unless you’re just playing by yourself for the fun of it—one of the primary goals is to have the audience feel what you’re attempting to convey. It doesn’t really help if you’re working away but your creative ideas aren’t coming through due to a disconnect between intention and execution.
It’s the same with writing—it really helps to be able to step back and look at it from the outside. You know what you want to say with your story, but is it getting across to the readers? Imagine you’ve designed a cool piece of office furniture, with the goal being that other people might buy and assemble it so they, too, can enjoy it. If the overall design is good but the instructions aren’t clear and concise, it’s going to be a frustrating experience for the customer. I think this is a not-uncommon weak spot for many of us: we have a good story idea, but our implementation may lack the perspective to get our story across to the reader the way we intend.
I saw a manuscript recently containing something like: He hung his head. “I did a poor job,” he said dejectedly. I’ve done this myself. It comes from us (as writers) being really intent on making sure the reader knows exactly how the character feels. So we overdo it and veer into territory that we (as readers) might find less-than-transparent while reading. (When you read a line like this, you can almost see the writer looking at his hands as he plays.) But if we get outside of our good writing intentions and view it from the other side, we can see that simplifying it might make the writing itself less intrusive on the story.
Looking at the above snippet as a reader, if the description of the character’s mood is clear enough through his actions (i.e. showing) we don’t need the “dejectedly” (i.e. telling). So, He hung his head. “I did a poor job,” he said. reads smoother and is less clunky. (“ly” adverbs used as dialog descriptors are often clunky sounding to readers, and our inclination to use one should be taken as a sign that we may need to show more of the character’s mood vs. telling the reader about it.) And since the author is already talking about “him,” the reader doesn’t need an attribution at all. So, He hung his head. “I did a poor job.” is even tighter and smoother, and every bit as clear. (And as I’ve heard from my editor more than once, tighter is usually better. Especially from the reader’s point of view.)
I’m as guilty as anyone of creating this sort of prose during initial draft. One way to mitigate it is to write it, then take off the writing hat and put on the editing hat while you do what you can to make sure everything’s consistent, tight, believable, engaging, etc. Then go yet a step further in getting outside yourself—take off the editing hat and put on the reader’s hat. While letting some time pass in the interim, if possible. And while you read, try to stay in the mindset of: I’m a new reader to this work… I didn’t write it, I didn’t edit it, and I have no idea where it’s going. I’m simply going along for the ride. Then, as you read, try to stay attuned to your enjoyment level. If it wanes, look for and note any nearby plot drift or inconsistent characterization or over-explained motivation—even down to the sentence level as in our example above. Then, when you’ve finished reading it, you can put your writing hat back on and revise to those notes, then back to the editing hat, and so on.
Writing is interactive, but not just between author and editor. It’s also between writer and reader. But before you get to a real editor—or to real readers—you may have to assume both roles along the way. So don’t look at your hands as you play, don’t place cleverness above clarity, and don’t try to shoehorn that brilliant riff you just thought of into chapter two if it doesn’t fit.
And most important, occasionally get outside yourself and listen from a distance to make sure your ideas are getting across as intended and your audience is along for the ride.
I’ve read so much recently—on blogs and forums and social media—about how many words per day people write... or think they should write... or wanted to write but didn’t. (Followed by the inevitable self-flagellation if they wrote less than their friends or less than their predetermined goal or whatever. There is definitely a certain amount of FOMO going on here—there’s even an online business seemingly dedicated to nothing but selling a program guaranteed to up your daily word count well into five figures.)
Personally, I never think about my daily word count one way or the other. I write until I run out of time or juice, then I move on to something else (maybe cogitating on my story while doing other tasks). And more to the point, I know authors with dozens of books to their name (award-winning, best-selling books) who feel—and do—likewise. I’m not saying don’t try to hit a predetermined word count each day. If that somehow motivates you to do quality work, then by all means, count away. But please don’t think it’s required that one count words in order to be a writer*.
Imagine the following: An agent or editor receives your manuscript. She reads it, and her overall impression is, “Not bad, but not really what I’m looking for.” She gets ready to send the usual boilerplate “thanks but no thanks” response, but then she sees your small, handwritten note at the bottom of the last page: By the way, I wrote this in a month. Does she (1) scream “Stop the presses!” and instruct her assistant to offer you a contract post haste, since anyone who wrote even a mediocre manuscript in 30 days must be a hell of a writer? Or does she (2) give a bemused WTF? shrug and send the “no thanks” response anyway? (If you live in a universe where you believe there’s even a remote chance that #1 is a plausible response, please remove yourself to a soft room with padded corners.)
Obviously if/when you get to the point where you have contracted work under deadline, you need to work diligently and make your deadlines. But even then, you’re not going to be required to write anything like several thousand words per day for several weeks or months straight. I recently read an interview with a very popular and beloved children’s author where she said she’s only good for about one decent page (approx. 250 words) per day. Any more and she feels her quality suffers. Even at this relaxed pace, she finishes a middle grade manuscript in seven or eight months. (Typically a best-selling, award-winning manuscript, so we can assume her publisher is just fine with her current word count.)
The lesson here isn’t “only write a page a day.” (Which makes no more sense than saying, “You must write ten thousand words per day.”) The lesson is that steady, sustained work, over time is what leads to the completion of a manuscript. Regardless of your words-per-day pace. And if a page-per-day is enough to complete a million-seller in less than a year, then your actual daily word count is likely not an issue.
So when might we want to count words? It can be helpful if you need external motivation to keep writing. If you find yourself regularly stopping after twenty or thirty minutes, for example, it might be useful to make a deal with yourself on the order of, “I’ll write until I hit (insert magic number here), then I’ll let myself stop for the day and do something else.” Do this every day for a couple of weeks and it should condition your brain to want to create during your writing time (which is the actual goal, of course). If this still doesn’t solve the motivational issue, you might want to look elsewhere. (Regarding that “elsewhere”… Your mileage may vary, of course, but I’ve learned that when I don’t want to sit down and write, it’s usually because I’m unclear as to where I want to go with the story and I need to do some more planning/plotting/pondering before actually writing. If I forced myself to write another couple thousand words in these cases, they would almost certainly get deleted next session. When I know—at least roughly—where I want to go, I find myself wanting to write, and need no other motivation than to want to see the story unfold before me.)
Again, I’m not saying don’t count your words. I’m saying no one else (no one who matters, at least) cares how many words you wrote today. What they care about is the end result—did you create a wonderful manuscript they love and enjoy and want to represent or publish? If yes, then they offer you representation or publication. If not, then they don’t. Period. So yes, absolutely count words if doing so leads to you creating the sort of work that will garner you representation or publication or critical acclaim or best-selling status or whatever particular gold ticket you have in your sights.
Then, of course, there’s the issue of doing writing work that doesn’t involve initial draft creation. In other words, rewriting. (Or revising or polishing or any other level of self-editing.) This often accounts for a substantial amount of the actual work involved in creating a strong manuscript, yet how do you quantify your progress when you’ve spent several hours immersed in the manuscript with a net result (word count-wise) of zero, or maybe even the loss of several hundred words? Does this mean you didn’t have a productive day? On the contrary, these can be the days that do the most to improve your manuscript, yet you’d never know it if all you go by is the total number of words generated.
In studying this phenomenon I haven’t noticed much of a direct correlation between word count and writing quality, but I have stumbled onto something interesting with regards to the whole quantity/quality issue which I’ll dive into next time.
In the meantime, count—or don’t count—as you see fit.
But either way, don’t worry.
*WRITER: One who writes. (Notice there’s a period after that definition, not a comma.)
There are lots of great tools available today to help us with revisions.
The dictionary is an obvious one, although I’d argue the thesaurus is even better. Spellcheck, of course. (“F-7 is your friend,” was one of my most common phrases when I was an instructor.) And as I’ve mentioned in another post, using the “find” function can really help with replacing overused words and phrases, as well as give you the minor-league superpower of viewing your work out of context.
And having others look at your work can be very useful—almost mandatory—before submitting. Not only will a good beta catch stuff you’ve missed (because you’ve seen it too much to even see it anymore), but they can point out where things may be unclear to the reader (again, because you’re so close to it that you know things about the story that may not actually be on the page).
However, the best tool of all may simply be your gut.
Another term for this might be: your attention span. Or: your sense of boredom. Or probably most accurate of all: that vague feeling of “less-than-perfect-but-good-enough.” But those terms are clunky (my personal name for when I think my writing may be technically “ok” but doesn’t read smoothly and is inelegant at best) so we’re going with gut.
But how do we employ our gut? Is there a shortcut command? Maybe “Shift-Alt-G”?
Nope. We listen. It’s not analysis, it’s awareness. Feeling, rather than thought. To the point where if we overthink it, it goes away. Like most things having to do with creativity.
Let’s define our default emotional state when reading writing that “works” (whatever that means to you) as engaged. You’re in the story, to one degree or another. But as you read through your story (i.e. going through your manuscript as a reader) you may come across some areas where you find your attention momentarily drifting away from the story. Or you find yourself suddenly reading at a pace that’s higher than usual, perhaps even full-on skimming. Or you might get the thought: yeah, yeah, I know what happens here, let’s just get to the next part, then jump ahead to the next significant scene.
When any of this happens, stop.
Go back. Right to the spot where you first noticed your engagement with the story lessening or your attention drifting or your reading becoming more shallow. Something there was not right. Not necessarily wrong, just not quite right. Which makes it all the more difficult, because when something’s definitely wrong, we recognize it and we fix it, from a poorly worded run-on sentence to a mix of tenses so confusing even we don’t know what happened when, all the way to technical glitches like spelling/grammar/punctuation. (I’m talking about basic copyedit stuff here. Which, as I’ve mentioned previously, really has nothing to do with why we revise, or what an editor does to a manuscript.)
No, what we’re concerned about here aren’t the obvious blunders, but those areas where the writing just doesn’t float. Or run. Or even walk briskly. Instead it just kind of lays there, blatantly disengaging us. Boring us. Or even confusing us. So go back, carefully re-read the part you wanted to skip, and re-phrase it. Or tighten it. Or maybe cut it entirely. I think the key here is to be willing to try different iterations of the same basic concept until it not only says what you want to say, but does so in a way that continues the tone you want the story to have. And when you’re trying on these variations of the offending sentence, do your best to have your “reader” hat on, not your “writer” hat, maybe backing up a paragraph or two to get a running start at it, in context, and see how it flows with the text immediately before and after the passage in question.
It seems like 90% of the time the final (“improved”) wording is shorter than the original. So first consider what you can trim and still have the sentence make sense. Try reading the overall passage without the questionable sentence at all, then add back just enough to convey your meaning. When someone (which includes “Mark” for values of someone) is really stuck on a wordy, clunky-yet-necessary sentence, sometimes I’ll say, “Look away from the manuscript. Now, just put it in your own words. What are you trying to say?” And often a completely new phrasing of the idea—rather than a variation on the original text—flows better, and is tighter and more direct and/or less confusing.
So yes, we definitely use technical writing craft to improve things once we’ve identified less-than-stellar writing in our work. But for the important part—the actual act of identifying the passages where things are “okay” but could absolutely be better--we need to be in tune with our most valuable revision tool. Our gut.
This being the month after NaNoWriMo, I think we should designate December as NaNoEdMo: National Novel Editing Month. Yeah, maybe not as sexy as “national novel writing month.” But probably as important.
Boiled down to essentials, the fundamentals of having a strong manuscript are:
Rule #1: Have good stuff.
Rule #2: Don’t have bad stuff.
It’s important to note that—primarily—#1 comes from writing and #2 from editing.
To clarify terms:
By good stuff we mean the generally-agreed-upon basics of quality fiction: characters we care about, interesting plot, believable dialog, well-paced scenes, an ending that resonates, etc. All of these hopefully combine to make the reader feel something.
By bad stuff we mean overwrought dialog, inconsistent characters, illogical plot points, rambling scenes, lack of thematic through-line, and plot threads that are left un-resolved. And boring. Boring is worst of all…
By writing, we mean the initial writing to the point where we feel the story is complete and we are no longer actively adding to it. Frequently accompanied by the initial euphoria of “I’m done!”
By editing, we mean “re-writing as done by the author,” as opposed to the editing done by an editor after the author has done copious revising and feels the manuscript is finally submittal-worthy.
It’s also important to note that #1 and #2 above—as similar as they seem--are completely different. Having good stuff actually has very little to do with not having bad stuff. Largely because they require different mindsets to accomplish. Especially for the newer writer.
When we first attempt to write we start out writing bad stuff almost exclusively. Because we don’t yet have the skill to write good stuff. Then as we improve our craft—largely through writing a lot and reading even more—we finally learn to write in coherent sentences and create believable character and construct an interesting story. Yay—good stuff! But guess what? In between the good parts we still have bad parts. And the bad parts aren’t always obvious to us when we’re actively writing. Because as we’re writing, our minds are in the story and its creation (as they should be). And because we’re enthralled with the occasional well-turned sentence or evocative scene.
But the downside of being lost in the wondrousness of our own creation is that we don’t notice the bad stuff… the overwrought dialog, the inconsistent characters, the illogical plot points, the rambling scenes that don’t really serve the story. Or if we do notice it, we forgive it because right after it… hey look--squirrel! I mean, good stuff!
So our newly-created manuscript seems wonderful, and after a quick pass through it (typically just fixing obvious blunders and spell-checking it), sometimes the temptation to “just press publish” is too great, and there it goes—off to an agent or an editor or to join the raft of self-published works currently sailing the salty seas of Amazon. This tendency—this failure to see the revision process as an integral part of the writing process—leads to what Chuck Wendig lovingly refers to as the “shit volcano” currently extant on Amazon Kindle.
Flaming fecal fountains notwithstanding, there’s some very good writing in the indie field. I try to read broadly in the YA arena—not just the obvious buzz books and best sellers—and I’ve read quite a few indie novels recently, along with a slew of traditionally published works. Overall I’d say the best parts of the indie books are typically on par with the best parts of the trad books. But they occasionally seem to have a slightly higher percentage of not-so-good writing per book, diluting the good stuff. More than once I’ve come across a 400 page self-pub’d book and thought it would make a really strong 350 page book with some judicious revision.
This isn’t a diatribe against indie publishing. At all. If it fits you and your skillset(s), self-publishing your work can be a wonderful option. When writers ask me about it at book signings and such, my general response is to say "Don't even think about it until the manuscript is completely submittal-worthy." As an author there should be zero difference between self-publishing, small press publishing, or Big-5 publishing until the day you finally deem the manuscript good enough to send off. (The difference at that point simply being who you send it to.) But up until then, the goal is exactly the same—create the strongest manuscript possible. Period. And an essential step in that process is taking your newly “finished” manuscript and—after a break to allow you to get out of writer mode and into editor mode—looking at it with fresh eyes, rewriting anything that doesn’t really sing to you as a reader… and tightening, trimming, or brutally slashing anything that has even a whiff of being superfluous. Or worse, boring.
Remember, having good stuff is not enough. We also need to not have bad stuff.
I did a presentation in a prison recently. (Okay, it was a “Juvenile Detention Facility,” but trust me—it was a prison). I went with the multi-media version of my presentation—including cajon and sound system—because young men sometimes respond better to loud noise than to quiet words. And thankfully, they were into the whole drumming-as-history-lesson aspect. But the part of the presentation that seemed to resonate most of all was an unscripted comment I made about their current situation…
“How many of you like to write, or think you might want to write someday?” I asked. A few hands went up. “Or maybe write songs?” A few more hands. “Or write a stage play? Or poetry? Or develop a TV series? Or start a podcast? Or write a screenplay for a movie? Or…” By the end of it, most of the hands in the room were up.
“Then pay attention.” A few of them looked confused. “Not to me. To this.” I waved my arms, indicating the entire facility—the large common room we were all locked into, the smaller connecting rooms, the correction officers on duty, the yard outside… all of it. “This sucks for you right now. You don’t want to be here. No one does. I get that. But as long as you have to be here, pay attention. Not just to what’s happening around you, but to how you feel about it… how you respond to it… how it informs you, shapes you, changes you. Every day. Maybe make notes about it, or start a journal or write a story or whatever it takes to remember it… Because when the time comes and you go to create that music or book or film or blog, you’ll realize how unique this experience was, and what powerful source material it could be. Not that it’s necessarily a good experience, but it’s a foundational one. One that most of society doesn’t have. So pay attention…”
We sat there for a second, looking at each other. Probably with the same thought in our heads: where the hell did that come from? But I could tell from the nods that they got it, and we went on to another topic.
But the moment stuck with me.
Sometimes the most important events—the ones that help define us—aren’t the big wonderful watershed moments… the graduations, the weddings, the births, the promotions. Sometimes they’re the failures, or maybe the dragging-ourselves-off the-floor struggles after the failures. And sometimes they’re just the crap life throws at us, or the mud it drags us through. The stuff that—if it doesn’t kill us in the process—makes us stronger. Supposedly.
We had a minor-league experience of this sort recently, and while it was the polar opposite of fun during the event, looking back from where we are now—when you know everything turns out okay—there are clearly some valuable takeaways here. Not lessons, exactly. More like a behind-the-curtains peek at what goes on in our brains when we realize that events may be well beyond our control and the outcome may be very not-good. The experience was definitely worth paying attention to, and I’m confident it’ll return at some point—in greatly morphed form—adding veracity to a future work of fiction.
Someone close to me (another writer) had a more significant episode over the past several weeks, medical in nature. I was talking to him a few days ago (he has a long recovery period ahead of him, but he’s largely out of the woods regarding immediate life-or-death issues) and he said he’s documenting everything that happened to him during the apex of the situation. But rather than a nuts-and-bolts recounting of various medical events and tests and diagnosis, etc., he’s writing everything that was going on inside his mind as things unfolded. “It’s not technically accurate,” he said. “Not at all. Some of what was happening to me was nothing but a construct inside my head. But it’s my subjective truth, as it happened to me. That’s what I want to capture.” I have to give him major props for that attitude, and I have no doubt this will be useful to him in the future, on several fronts.
The things we should pay attention to aren’t always single, discrete events. They could be periods in our lives when we’re in a “paying our dues” phase. And—frustratingly enough—these don’t always have a clearly marked beginning or ending. Sometimes it seems like we fade into them, then gradually climb out. And while we’re in the middle of it, of course, we don’t usually know if we’re near the end or only just warming up. Even so, if you find yourself in one of these less-than-perfect periods, you could do well to try and capture the feelings you’re experiencing. As you’re experiencing them, if possible. Soon after, if not. “Write what you know,” as I interpret it, is more about emotional truth than trying to shoehorn your factual daily life into your novel. (In my view, one of the many reasons Harry Potter resonated like it did was that J.K. Rowling stayed in touch with the emotional truth of her previous lived reality… writing away in the back room of the Elephant House… dirt poor and not knowing if she would ever publish, let alone have the level of success that lay ahead of her. And this translated very well when writing a character for whom things were also very unclear and less-than-perfect at the beginning.)
I’m not saying “you need to be poor to write poor,” or any other version of that reductive statement. I’m suggesting that all of us face times when things aren’t going as we might wish, either acutely or chronically. And that staying in touch with the way those experiences feel—to you, on the inside, as you live them—can be very valuable later on, when you’re writing about characters going through situations which may be very different on the face of it, but which may have the same emotional truth underneath it all.
So when life gives you lemons, sure—follow the conventional wisdom. If that’s even possible. But also, take the time to study the lemon grove, seeing all the other lemons in all the other trees. And realize that the “life handing out lemons” paradigm may be unique in the micro, but it’s pretty universal in the macro.
In other words, pay attention. You’ll thank yourself later.
There’s a long-standing theory that writers shouldn’t talk about their WIPs because that’ll take away their desire to write it, or interfere in some way with the creative process.
I’m calling BS on this.
Having said that, I’m not one to publicly talk about works I’m planning to write, nor do I advocate doing so… simply due to common sense cart-before-horse reasons. In my casual observation, there’s a pretty solid negative correlation between those who do the above—typically on social media and typically in bemoaning fashion—and those who actually finish/revise/polish/publish their work. Although my business-whiz son would be the first to say, “Dad, correlation—in either direction—is not causation,” so technically we’re not sure if blabbers don’t finish or finishers don’t blab. Either way, I’m not taking any chances…
However, I have a countervailing philosophy that says there can be a significant creative benefit to discussing your works-in-progress, assuming it’s done in the right way with the right person. (The not-right person is the one whose first reaction is to immediately tell you exactly what's wrong with your idea and how they’d improve it, etc. Life is rough enough without voluntarily pulling on that specific hair shirt.)
But… When you're on page 281 of a 400 page novel and you find yourself holding a couple of competing ideas in your mind, it can be very helpful to run them by someone who knows how to listen and can help you brainstorm in a positive fashion. The other person may likely be a writer but they don’t have to be. The more important part is that they read widely and thoughtfully, and are capable of putting their emotional responses to story ideas into words. Spoken words. (And of course the most important factor is that they adhere to the Prime Editorial Directive™: Help the writer write THEIR book as best they can.) Really, it’s much more of a gentle back-and-forth exchange—like a lunar-gravity ping pong match with a nerf ball—than any sort of critiquing session. You’re looking for the “Yes, and…” kind of response vs. the “No, but…” type.
One benefit, of course, is simply getting another viewpoint (similar to what a beta reader does, but more “during” than “after”). And that’s great. But you also get something you don’t get from a beta reading—the real-time back-and-forth exchange of ideas concurrent with the initial creative process. You’re trying on ideas with your “pre-beta” without having to write them out first, and you can quickly pivot with a “…or maybe she does this instead of that” if you realize your first idea wasn’t quite right, and your brainstorming partner might reply with “…yes! And what if he sees her do it, but maybe she doesn’t know he sees her…?” to which you respond, “Yeah, and then he’d act differently toward her and she wouldn’t know why, but we would…”
And so on.
This can be an effective way to jumpstart your story elements (as well as a great time saver, since you’re essentially beta-testing without having to type it all out first), as long as you’re aware it also means you’re primarily testing plot ideas and not the actual writing itself. (For that, there’s still no substitute for someone reading the written words without any verbal input from the author, just to ensure everything in your head actually made its way to the page.)
Another way this can save you time is what I call “rabbit hole avoidance.” Sometimes, having external editorial feedback during/before the initial drafting can spare you the heartache of throwing away large chunks of writing and starting over when you come to the astute conclusion that maybe you shouldn’t go down the whole “kill & bury the uncle” path in chapter 17… which is fine, except the epiphany comes a hundred pages later—in chapter 25—when you finally realize you could really use that uncle right about now because he’d be perfect for another idea you have. Damn. If only you’d thought of that earlier…
And now for what may be the biggest potential benefit of “talking plot.” Talking about a creative activity seems to engage a different part of the brain than just silently thinking about it. I can’t count the number of times that simply outlining my plot issue verbally has led to me turning around and—again, verbally—solving it. Sometimes before having received any input from the other person. Not sure why this is so—maybe your mouth has a more direct connection to your subconscious?—but I’ve seen this work too many times to ignore it.
Not all ideas put forth will be useful ones. That’s okay—poor ideas often lead to good ones, which is the whole concept behind brainstorming. Or as my wife likes to say, “Mark will come up with 99 bad ideas, but idea #100 makes it worth wading thru all the lousy ones.” (Usually followed by a snicker.) But again, much of this process is simply the brainstorming partner listening and making encouraging noises, then occasionally asking pertinent what-if questions. The main thing is that the designated writer in this scenario not make blanket “NFW” responses to any ideas, but listen and consider in turn. When this happens—on both sides—the end result is usually very positive and productive.
The above is my experience. Everyone is different, with a different workflow, and this may or may not work for you. My only advice would be to try it and see. The next time you’re stuck in the sagging middle, instead of just putting your head down and grinding something out, consider bouncing a few ideas off someone else—ideally someone considerate and creative—and see if it sparks something. I’m betting it will.
If you have any techniques you use to jumpstart your story-spinning, please share them with us in the comments.
Sometimes there's a benefit to taking things out of context...
I was revising a recent manuscript and I’d done pretty much everything you’d reasonably do—make notes about broad plot issues and tackle them one at a time; make sure your characters are self-consistent; ensure dialog comes off as realistic (reading aloud where necessary); make sure there are no continuity issues with times/dates/etc… all the way down to CE-level stuff, including grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc.
Then I recalled that during the final round of editorial notes on a previous book, we looked at and addressed a few overused words or phrases. I thought, Why wait for an editor to tell me I over-use something? So as I worked through the manuscript I started jotting down repetitive phrases that occasionally cropped up. (Most of us have these little tics in our writing—words and phrases that we tend to favor. The hard part is noticing them, because they’re such a part of us and our vocabulary.)
Some of these are pretty ubiquitous (very, anyone?) but some may be more unique to you. Either way, you’re looking for possibly-overused adverbs, adjectives, intensifiers, qualifiers, and anything you feel might take away clarity or directness from the writing. (FWIW, my list of things to be on the lookout for included like; pretty much; very; that; kind of; sort of; just; or something; actually; whatever; I mean, and uh/um/hmm/huh.) Not that I wanted to blindly eliminate them—there are times when they’re the right choice. Instead I looked at each instance of a potential offender and analyzed it to see if it could be cut or if there was a better, tighter way to say what I (or the character) wanted to say.
This is where the “find” function is really useful: Think there might be a common term you’re abusing? Punch it in to find you’ve only used it seven times in three-hundred pages. Or perhaps seventy times. And maybe after you’ve found and addressed each instance, you see that you’re down to thirty. Then on to the next word…
Okay, that’s cool, but there’s another—unintended—benefit of using the find function to locate and eliminate specific terms. Sometimes I’d be looking at the use of a word or phrase and, in reading the paragraph before or after for flow and context, I’d find something else that could be tightened. It became like a game, playing “what can I do to improve this passage?” every time I’d look at another instance of very or that.
You might ask, “Why can’t you just do that with the entire manuscript?” Well, you can, and I did. Several times. But there’s something about looking at a passage without the distraction of the larger plot which enables you to view it more as words and less as story. You know how it’s easier to trim someone else’s work than your own? Looking at a random paragraph—out of the larger context of following the story linearly—gives you a little of that “not my story” mojo, where you see a slightly clunky or over-wrought phrase and just happily tighten it and move on… without worrying about the pain it might otherwise cause the author of that brilliant phrase.
Also, when we’re reading the story for the tenth or twentieth time, it’s easy to glaze over the actual writing because we’ve seen it so many times that we become inured to it… we “hear” it in our head before we even see it on the page, and we discount little things that might otherwise trip us up if reading it for the first time. Addressing sections out of order and context lessens this “I know what’s coming” factor and helps give us a new perspective on the actual phrasing of the paragraph in question.
In other words, it puts you more in the editor mindset and less in writer-mode, which is exactly what you want when you’re making revisions at the sentence level.
So… seek & destroy with impunity. Your story will thank you.
Make us remember you.
I read a LOT of newly-published YA fiction this past year, trad-pub’d and indie-pub’d alike. And I really enjoyed most of it.
Part of that enjoyment may stem from the fact that I do my best to read as a reader, not a writer. As an author this is difficult, because often you can’t help but see the cogs turning behind the scenes. But sometimes the writing is so effortless that it disappears entirely and you’re left with nothing but story. I love when this happens—when you enjoy the book as a story instead of analyzing the authorial choices the writer made. But things can happen that jerk you out of the story and back into writing-analysis mode.
If I had to name the most common place this occurs for me, that would be easy—the ending. Sometimes they feel tacked on, like the book was due so the author just ginned up an ending and sent it off. Or maybe the author had a good idea but sent it off before it was thoroughly revised and polished, closer to a first draft than a finished book.
I understand that sometimes authors are under time constraints. And sometimes you’ve spent so much time with a book that you just want to get it over with. But the absolute worst place to phone it in, writing-wise, is the ending.
Think about a book you read long ago which made a lasting impression. You probably can’t recall all the specifics, but you probably do recall the feeling it left you with when you closed the cover. And that’s at least partly due to the ending. Looking back, did the ending relate to the rest of the book and support it? Did it have a certain amount of gravity to it? Did it make the theme of the book a little more clear, or a little more important? Did it serve almost as a stand-in for the book itself, in miniature?
I’m not saying every book needs to have a ‘Great American Novel’-type ending. But the resolution should at least be at the same level—thematically as well as craft-wise—as the rest of the work. If not, it can do more harm-per-word than a weak passage elsewhere in the book.
Why? Because the final lines in any part of a book carry more heft than if the same words were placed in the middle somewhere. Having text followed by white space—at the end of a section, or a chapter, or the entire book—puts a spotlight on it and seems to automatically imbue it with more importance. Maybe because it seems to signal a change… a summation of what’s transpired or a hint of what’s to come. Maybe both. And maybe because there’s a natural pause when you reach the end of a section or chapter or book where you can’t help but hear the line in your head. Echoing. Resonating.
These are the top five issues that come to mind, looking back at recent reads with less than satisfying endings:
1. It feels rushed.
A book I read recently had a couple involuntarily separated throughout most of the story, over a multi-year span. Their reunion was the scene the entire novel was building toward, but when it finally happened it was sort of hug/kiss/I missed you/I missed you too/The End. If the ending is more denouement than resolution, it doesn’t have to be a major set-piece. But if the ending is the climactic scene, give it its due. You can always trim, if you (or your editor) later decide it’s too much. Think of it like you’re dressing for an important event. Spend some time with it. Try different things on, maybe clothes you don’t normally wear. Hang out in front of the mirror, turning this way and that, until you’re not just vaguely satisfied with it, but really happy. You don’t want to leave the dressing room until you’re feeling like, Damn… I look sharp and I know it!
2. It’s at odds with the rest of the book.
Funny can be good. Introspective can be good. So can outright tragedy. But you should have a very good reason to have a melancholy resolution to what’s been a light comedy up until then, or to suddenly have everything all sugary at the end of a dark literary novel. I recall a novel where the author resolved a life-or-death situation with a bad play on words. And I strongly suspect he had this in mind all along and just couldn’t bear let it go, even though it would have been stronger without it.
3. It has characters acting out of character.
You can create characters as wild and unique as you like, but to be believable they need to be self-consistent. If you have to have them do something untrue to their nature at the very end to make your plot “work”, you either need to re-think your plot or revise your character. One recent book had an intelligent, funny, self-aware protagonist who was completely rational throughout the entire book, then the big reveal was… he was just batshit crazy and making it all up. Hmm. The ‘unreliable narrator’ technique can work well… if we get subtle clues along the way that their version of events might not be completely truthful. Otherwise it feels like a lazy way out or an unrealistic cheat. Likewise the very passive girl who suddenly developed an extreme case of agency while her friend—who’d been driving events all the way through the book—suddenly turned into a pull toy and let herself be dragged through the climactic scenes. I can buy flying monkeys, but not that.
4. It doesn’t hold up its end of the bargain.
With most fiction (and more so with genre fiction) there is an implicit deal between author and reader. With a romance, someone is going to get together with someone else. Maybe not the someone you had in mind, but someone. Eventually. And we should care about it. Same with mysteries. There is a crime, there is a solution, and we should care. Don’t lose sight of why the reader is there. I recently read a mystery which was well written at first… until the story got so lost in following the victims during the aftermath that the ending fizzled. Any crime solving—such as there was—was done off-stage by police, not the main characters. Basically the denouement was: “An old mad-scientist was the culprit but he’s gone now so who cares anyway?” Good question. Not me.
5. It doesn’t resonate.
This might be trickier to diagnose and fix, but if your ending seems to fall flat, look to see if it ties back to the rest of the story, if it addresses what your protagonist was looking for earlier in the story, or if it reinforces the theme of the story. If it doesn’t seem to do any of these, it may not carry the resonance that helps create a satisfying ending. Not to get too lit-geeky here, but the word “resonance” technically means one object or system vibrating in sympathy with another, usually caused by one exciting the natural frequency of the other. The ending of the final chapter of a novel is not (or should not be) the same as the ending of a random chapter somewhere in the middle. It’s not just about summing up recent plot points or hinting at what’s happening next. It should somehow tie back to earlier events and put them in some sort of perspective or provide resolution or summation, but ideally without actually telling us this is what it’s doing. Understatement, metaphor, and oblique reference can be wonderful here. I think it’s important to remember that a strong, resonant ending (as defined by you, the author) doesn’t always come from the first thing that pops into your brain. This is an area where it can pay to spend some time, revisiting the ending during initial drafting and then again during revisions until you’re truly happy with it.
It’s called a resolution for a reason. So don’t leave the ending until—like the final notes of a song that fully resolves the chord pattern—it feels truly complete.
Make us remember you.
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.