[NOTE: we touched on this phenomenon briefly last time, but it’s worth exploring more because (1) it’s so prevalent, and (2) this stuff can drive you crazy if you experience it without understanding it.]
At one time or another (or, as the line from Casablanca goes, “Soon… and for the rest of your life.”) you’ll come across a book—a published book—that seems to be, umm… perhaps not of the best quality. To put it politely. Maybe even downright bad. And—in your opinion—almost certainly worse than the manuscript you submitted and had rejected… maybe even by the same publisher. And to make things worse, occasionally said book will become a bestseller. Or critically acclaimed. Or—more rarely but not unheard of—both.
What’s up with this? Let’s look at some possible reasons why…
1. Business is business. If an author’s previous work sold really well, their next one is going to get published. No matter what. Even if everyone—including the editor—realizes it’s not so hot. Simply because it’s likely to sell well, too. (Because that’s what fans do—they buy stuff put out by their favorite author/band/actor/singer/director/etc.) It may not sell as well as the previous one, but even half as big as a big hit is still, well… a big hit. This can continue for a long time, as long as the author’s books are selling well enough to justify publishing them.
2. Perhaps someone at the house thought this particular book could be a big seller, even if the author doesn’t have a best seller in their backlist. Maybe the book is following on a recent popular topic, maybe it seems appealing to a specific (and non-trivial) readership, maybe it seems award-worthy. Publishing is a gamble—for the publisher, as well as the author. And frequently a few big sellers help keep the rest of the list afloat. So if they think there’s a small-but-plausible chance that a book might break out, it may be deemed worth publishing on the hopes that the relatively modest initial investment might yield millions.
3. Maybe the editor simply loves it. If an editor with enough clout happens to find a manuscript that really resonates with her, there’s a good chance the book’s going to get bought and published, regardless of what you may see as “issues.” And they don’t have to ask our opinion first.
4. Politics are everywhere. Maybe more so now than ever, and the astute observer might see a certain amount of box-checking going on with some popular works, on either side of the aisle. This is understandable. Editors are people too, and it can be hard to become attached enough to a manuscript to acquire it if you have disagreements with some of the overall philosophies espoused within. The same can apply to publishing houses on a bigger scale. There are two well-known SF houses, for example, where one leans a little progressive in their offerings and the other’s known for having a more conservative bent. Not that there’s a strict litmus test for either one, but if you submit the wrong work to the wrong house, you may end up wondering what happened.
Interestingly enough, we just read a book that relates to all of the above. It was a novel written by an author whose previous effort was an unqualified success. And it—and the previous work—were acquired and edited by one of the most successful editors in the business. And it name-checks several issues de jour. And, in our opinion… it wasn’t very good. The type of book you can’t really imagine getting published on its own merits if it were the work of an unknown.
But maybe that’s just me, because…
5. Maybe the book is actually good (whatever that means) and it’s our assessment that’s not-so-hot. In other words, don’t write off the possibility that maybe we’re missing something. Or perhaps we’re simply looking for something in a book that’s vastly different than what most of the reading public is looking for. Regardless, if something we think is bad happens to really catch on, we’re missing an opportunity if our assessment stops at, “This sucks! I don’t know why anyone would love it…” I’m not saying you should try to like it. I’m saying you might learn something by trying to figure out why others like it.
There’s a very popular book that’s widely regarded as poorly written, so much so that it’s frequently used as the poster child for the “Hey, they published XYZ so they’ll publish anything” argument (usually made by other writers deriding publishers). But that might not be the most helpful way to view it. Sure, the book may be written in a style that not many writers wish to emulate, but something about it has reached—and connected with—its intended readership better than almost anything else in recent history. There are lots of lessons here. (The first and most important of which is: For many readers, the literary quality of the writing itself is meaningless compared to—wait for it--the story. Followed closely by: Know your readership, and what they desire… not just in their books, but in their lives.)
6. It’s amazing how often people conflate “I don’t like it” with “It’s bad.” There are works which definitely aren’t my cup of tea but which, if I’m being honest, may be very well crafted in the conventional sense: evocative prose, well-drawn characters, believable dialog, tightly plotted, and having an ending which resonates. And conversely, there may be works which, in the middle of reading or watching, I fully realize have predictable plots or inconsistent characters or overwrought dialog behind all the shiny action/adventure/romance. But which I also really enjoy. (Sort of like being a kid and realizing, intellectually, that Steely Dan were much more musically skilled than, say, Humble Pie. But, on an emotional level, liking Humble Pie way more.)
So when we observe something getting more attention or acclaim than we think justified, we might want to temper our initial impulse to simply proclaim the grapes way too tart. Maybe we should take it as a challenge to determine why this particular work is getting more kudos than something we deem of superior quality.
Life is a school. Let’s go to class.
I heard a podcast the other day aimed at musicians, and the host made the point that the musicians he knew who were successful were almost always professional in their demeanor, and the ones full of “high school drama” were almost universally not where they wanted to be, career-wise. And he posited that these people had these respective personality traits long before they’d either made it or hadn’t made it.
In other words, success didn’t make them act professional; acting professional aided them in their success.
I’m a big believer that this paradigm applies to every line of work, including writing.
Once upon a time, it was pretty easy for a writer to appear professional to the general public (even if they weren’t always that way IRL) because their exposure was so much more limited. There were fewer authors, and their interaction with the public was through more filtered means: interviews, press releases, and maybe the occasional book signing or radio/TV appearance. (And for some of these events—for bigger authors—there was a certain amount of hand-holding by their publisher’s publicity dept.)
Now—with the internet in general and social media specifically—it’s so easy for a writer to show their ass in public. Below are some things I’ve seen recently. To put it mildly, none of these will make potential readers want to run out and buy your book.
Dissing the (perceived) competition. Yes, at one time or another we’ll all see a book become wildly popular and maybe wonder why. Maybe even think our work is better. (Which is a whole other post in itself.) Beyond the fact that perhaps we’re missing something with our analysis, even if it were true, publicly complaining about it makes you look, well… unprofessional. Insecure. Petty. Sour grape-ish. Etc. (I once witnessed a local writer/reviewer talking to a best-selling author about the author’s popular book series. His very first words to the author were, “Oh yeah, you write such-and-such, don’t you? Personally I don’t get it, but…” Ever since, I discount everything the guy says in print. Deeply.) I occasionally post on social media about books I’ve recently read, but I only talk about books I think are exceptional. I recently told a writer’s group I thought it was bad form for an author to publicly criticize another author’s work. Someone asked why and I basically said, “That’d be like the owner of a restaurant also being the food critic for the local paper. There’s an obvious conflict. Plus it makes you seem like less of a writer because the general perception is that writers write, and they leave the critiquing to others.”
Responding to a negative review. You’d think we wouldn’t have to mention this in 2018, but you still see it all the time. (Hint: it NEVER goes well for the writer. Never. Ever. Ever.) Just… don’t. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion of your work, and you’re not going to change anyone’s mind with your witty repartee. Other than to make them think you’re not just a bad writer, but a miserable person in general. (Yeah, that’ll help your career.) Repeat after me: Do not engage. Do not engage. Do not…
Bad-mouthing publishers in general. Has an effect similar to #1, above. I’ve seen a lot of this on book tour, and it’s typically done by people who would glom on to a trad publishing contract in a New York nanosecond if one came their way. Usually followed by wildly inaccurate tales of how publishers will screw you blind and steal your firstborn and—worst of all—entirely change your manuscript and then publish it without your permission. Again, this doesn’t do much to raise your perceived posture as someone people should pay to read.
Complaining about the publisher who passed on you. Hey, I get it. I’ve been passed on. So have you. And so has virtually every author you see on the shelves of your local book store. And sometimes it might not seem fair. (In all actuality, it usually comes down to a business decision: some version of, “Will the perceived sales of this manuscript—in today’s market—exceed the perceived outlay?” This is really just an educated guess on their part, and not infrequently they guess wrong. But it’s their money, so they get to make that decision. And artistically, the editor should really love the work they acquire. And that’s their decision. We don’t get a vote.) But to come out and complain, “Publisher XYZ passed on my brilliant manuscript but they published that piece of crap?” not only makes you look small-time and petty, it also indicates you don’t really understand how publishing works. Neither of which increases your stock.
Crapping on the publisher who actually published you. Yup. Saw this once again a couple weeks back, and so did those of you who follow the industry on social media. Hard to believe, but even some published authors seem to forget that behind those large, corporate, Big-5-type companies are people. Real people. Who work hard and have feelings and are trying to do their best in a fickle business, and who take it personally when you crap on their efforts. Which could reasonably be seen as crapping on them. Yes, sometimes an author might not agree with their publisher’s actions regarding the handling of their work. And yes, sometimes the best move is to make your feelings known. Politely. And privately. (It’s just Business 101—praise in public, criticize in private, right?) Sort of like authors who’ve publicly responded to bad reviews, authors who’ve publicly bashed their publisher (or agent or editor or art director or publicist or…) usually end up wishing they hadn’t. (The obvious exception here is when your publisher does something so egregious—regarding an issue so important to you—that you’d rather not work with them anymore. But if you intend to continue working with them, you owe them the common courtesy of acting professional.)
That’s a lot of “thou shalt nots.” How about a “shall”? Sure, sometimes things seem unfair, or something in the publishing world really pisses us off. What to do? This business is tough enough on its own, so for starters maybe don’t make things any harder than they already are. The professional response is to get back in the ring.
Just as the best revenge is trying to live as well as possible, sometimes the best response is simply trying to write as well as possible.
This morning my wife and I went for a run, taking a slightly different route than usual. (She thought I needed more hill work. Go figure.) As I ran by one house, I was struck by the trash building up in the front yard. Actually, what I was most struck by were the empty trash dumpsters near the pile of trash. I mean, the universe couldn’t send a clearer sign if it tried: Trash… meet Dumpster.
My brain tried to figure this out—as brains are wont to do—and finally settled on something they continually preach about in the nuclear industry: the danger of “off normal” becoming “normal.” (I used to teach a Human Performance class about the sinking of the cruiseferry Estonia in the Baltic Sea. The root cause was the sequential failure—over time—of multiple mechanisms that held the bow door closed, but this was made fatal by the crew becoming inured to it, ignoring the banging noises as the bow door slammed against the ship due to wave action and telling complaining passengers this was “normal.” The bow door finally came open at speed—in the middle of the night in the middle of a very cold ocean—and in no time, eight hundred and fifty souls ended up at the bottom of the sea.)
The real lesson is that humans are world-class experts at “getting used to stuff.” Around here we’ve done a bit of building, remodeling, and general spiffing up. And we have an overall rule: Don’t use the room until it’s finished. Because we know of several instances where people have moved into a place before all the finish work was done, and almost invariably it remains un-finished. Sometimes forever. Because after a while you stop noticing that the wall doesn’t have baseboard or the door is missing its trim or the outlet doesn’t have a proper cover. Especially if it’s never had it. Pretty soon it just looks “normal” and you can’t really imagine it any other way.
The same with writing.
After we’ve lived with a story for a while, it can seem like, well… like that’s the way it is. Period. But in reality, until it’s published and sitting on the shelves of your local bookstore, it’s all fair game. This should be obvious. Sort of like the fact that garbage can be put into a garbage can and they will magically take it away.
The problem—in both cases—is seeing it.
My first published fiction—an SF story—had a short scene I considered pivotal. It was one of the few action-y bits in the story, and it was the event that had popped into my mind when I first got the idea for the story. Yes, the action taken by the protagonist in that scene was important to the story. But what I couldn’t see was that since the action was self-evident after the fact, the reader didn’t need to actually see it in real time on the page. The reader just needed to get that the hero had indeed taken the clever action, then we needed to quickly move to the final climactic scene.
But I couldn’t see that. Because that scene had been there from the very beginning. And because at the time I didn’t really get that every word was up for grabs. So throughout revisions, that scene wasn’t even considered a potential target for tightening or trimming.
So I sent the “finished” story to my favorite SF magazine, and soon received a rejection from the mag’s editor. But it was a good rejection, something along the lines of, “We don’t need to see [the beloved scene]. It hurts the pacing. Cut it and artfully tape the ends together and I’ll publish it.”
Privately I still had doubts, but I tried it. And—wait for it—it worked. No, not just worked, but improved the story. Trimmer. Tighter. Less boring. (Thanks, Charlie!)
The big lesson for me was to learn to see things as though you’re an outsider, seeing it for the first time. Easier said than done, of course, but there are a few tips that help. The first is, assume there is trash in your yard. You can’t always see it right away, but it’s there. Keep looking until you find it, and when you do, put it in the dumpster! The second is, don’t assume the way it’s always been is the best way. Maybe comparison shop, and not defensively. When you see outlet covers in someone else’s house, don’t say, “Well, fine for them, but I don’t need them!” Instead imagine what your house might be like if you actually took the time to install covers on all your outlets. Maybe try a few and see what you think. And finally, don’t move in until it’s done. Done-done. (Submitting too soon may be the most prevalent mistake writers make.) When you think your manuscript’s finished, if at all possible, wait… work on something else for a while… maybe get a beta read or two… then go over it again with the “What’s wrong with this picture?” mindset, actively looking for trash to take out.
We can’t see what we don’t look for. But when we seek—and find, and remove—the trash that’s been there so long it looks “normal,” it really increases the curb appeal of our work.
Sometimes aspiring writers think having an author read their manuscript will give them a head-start on getting published. They may be setting themselves up for disappointment, for several possible reasons…
1. Just because someone is published doesn’t mean they have any special knowledge about what “the industry” is looking for. They submitted a specific manuscript which caught the attention of a specific editor. Good on them, but this doesn’t necessarily imbue them with special inside information regarding “who’s looking for what.”
2. It also doesn’t necessarily make them a reliable judge of good writing in general (whatever that means). Secret hint: writers frequently like writing similar to their own. Thus, asking one to read and respond to your manuscript can result in them critiquing your work into a junior version of theirs. (As discussed earlier.)
3. There may be a misconception that an author can somehow fast-pass your manuscript by giving it directly to her editor. Sorry, but 99% of the time it just doesn’t work that way. The few times I’ve seen an author pass a friend’s manuscript along to her editor, in every single case the friend was left waiting around for a response for as long—or longer—than if she’d submitted via the usual channels. Editors aren’t just sitting around waiting for good manuscripts to drop in. They’re inundated with them, receiving them daily from professional agents who actually know what a solid, commercial manuscript looks like. And of course they also receive manuscripts from their existing authors, who likely already have a track record regarding quality and/or sales. All of which isn’t to say “The odds are long so give up now.” Not at all. I believe a great manuscript will eventually see the light of day, with enough hard work and persistence. My point is, having an author say, “Here’s a manuscript from my friend,” is not a direct path to publication. (TL; DR: An actual agent who’s putting her professional reputation behind your manuscript will carry much more weight with an editor than a pass-along from “a friend.”)
4. If said author “doesn’t like” your work, what’s your course forward from there? Are you supposed to revise it to be more like their work? Are you supposed to throw it away and start over? Are you supposed to get depressed and quit writing altogether? (The real answer, of course, is: D, none of the above. You should probably let it go and move on. Unless their critique rings true with you, in which case revise accordingly and then move on.)
5. However, even if said author “loves” your writing, unless their last name is Patterson or Rowling or King they’re probably not in a position to offer you representation and/or a publishing contract. The people who can do this—whose opinions matter to you in the first degree—are agents and editors. These are the people you should be trying to get to read your manuscript. And the best way to make this happen, in short, is: (1) Have a great manuscript—finished, re-written, revised, polished, and totally-ready-for-primetime. Then, (2) contact an agent who’s represented published works similar to yours, using a brief, intelligent, non-sociopathic query letter letting her know what you’ve written and why she might be a good fit for it. Repeat until you achieve the desired result.
Note that this will require a little research on your part, but not an impossible amount. And don’t get too cute with the query. Remember, you cannot talk someone into liking your manuscript. You can only write them into liking it, by doing a bang-up job of actually writing it, and by not submitting it until it’s as good as it can possibly be. But you can easily talk them into not liking it. Hence not getting too clever with the query.
There is something an author can do which may be more useful to the aspiring writer than simply reading their work, which is to pass along whatever small bits of wisdom they may have about writing and the publishing industry. I’m happy to speak with writers’ groups (and have done a bit of it, both on book tour and locally) and of course I also try to throw out helpful tips here, FWIW. More than once aspiring writers have contacted me and basically said, “Can I buy you a cup of coffee and pick your brains?” And—if schedules align such that this can actually happen—it can be beneficial to the aspiring writer, likely much more so than simply having someone read and comment on their manuscript. I recall one smart young guy who lined out the basics of his just-completed book, then asked, “What would you do next, if you were me?”, which led into a good discussion about how to (and how not to) go about acquiring an agent within his specific genre. When we were done he thanked me for my time and I thanked him for not asking me to read his manuscript.
He laughed and said this was a way better use of his time.
Last time we discussed counting words, and whether it helps or hinders or has no real effect at all. (Short answer: All of the above. Depending on you, your project, and your goals. And, of course, the KUWTJ factor*. But under no circumstances is it unconditionally required.)
(*Keeping Up With The Joneses.)
And as I mentioned, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious correlation between counting and quality, either way. But there is a related factor that actually does seem to affect quality.
And that’s pace.
In endurance running, there are two ways to screw up a marathon. (Well, there are actually about two million, but we’re only looking at two here.) One is to try and run faster than your optimum pace. And the other is to run well below it. Both will leave you feeling not-so-good, in different ways. And—interestingly enough—both will almost certainly result in a longer finish time than if you’d just found your sweet spot and maintained it.
And both result from the same thing: fear.
Fear of not keeping up with someone else (or maybe with someone else’s perception of you) which leads to exceeding your optimum pace and blowing up before the finish line.
Fear that maybe you can’t really do what you actually can (aka fear of failure) which leads to self-doubt and dropping back to “protect yourself.”
Guess what? Both of these can apply to writing, too.
With this in mind, there are some fundamental concepts regarding pace that might be useful for writers to consider, especially with book-length projects:
1. Your pace is your pace, and no one else’s. It’s not a race (even if others think it is). When you let your pace be dictated by someone else, you’re playing their game. Your goal isn’t to “beat” anyone. It’s to do the best job you can while writing, and feel good about the result after you’re done. (In other words, pace affects both process and result, so no matter which is more important to you, it matters.)
2. Know your pace. This doesn’t come from adopting someone else’s pace or from reading about it on the internet or from what an instructor thinks it should be. This comes from experience. Real, practical, empirical experience. But maybe you haven’t written a novel yet? That’s okay. After you’ve written a bit of it (say 10,000 words or maybe three or four chapters), you’ll have a pretty good idea of what works for you if you’re paying attention.
3. Try to maintain your average pace, within reason. What you’re really looking for is the macro of overall time (as measured in months or years, which we’ll talk about in a minute) as opposed to the micro of words-per-day. And keep in mind: faster is not necessarily better. Better is better.
4. But be flexible about it. Pace is a tool, nothing more. And it’s your friend, not your master. Some days, writing just may not be in the cards for you. Or maybe some weeks, or some months. I’m not talking about making excuses for why you haven’t touched base with your story in forever. I’m talking about those times when life legitimately intrudes, and you either can’t write, or writing might not be the best use of your time at the moment. Don’t beat yourself up—we’re humans, not machines. And even your favorite authors have times when writing is the last thing on their mind.
My overall hypothesis about the macro of writing pace for book-length projects: Each of us has an “optimum overall writing time” for the completion of a novel. (This can apply to any big project, but we’re going with novel as the desired outcome here for simplicity’s sake.)
And this time can and will vary—greatly—between different writers.
And this time can also vary between different types of projects.
And this time is not a specific value, but a range—a broad range.
And it’s actually more important to know the dangers of being too fast or too slow than knowing your exact optimum writing time. As follows…
Ideas are like seeds. They can grow into wonderful plants or trees. But before they grow, they have to germinate. And occasionally we’ll get an idea we’re excited about, and without really playing it out in our minds and considering different iterations, we just jump right in and start writing. (I’m guilty here, too… I’m about 60/40 pantser, which doesn’t excuse a lack of basic pondering before committing words to paper.) This can result in one of the more painful aspects of writing: going back to the beginning and starting over. Or—almost as painful—a major structural rewrite. Either way… ouch.
Also, sometimes when a writer has an idea and a basic outline and then just cranks the book out, there can be a lack of interesting subplots or three-dimensional characters or maybe just the subtle literary subtext that can give a work more depth. And more often than not, this seems to occur when the author is pushing for speed and maybe writing faster than usual, whether due to internal pressure or external deadline.
When talking to writers groups, questions about writing schedule invariably come up. And my usual response is, “Everyone is different, with different lives and different priorities. I think you should determine what works best for you and do that.” Because I’m the last person to tell someone else exactly what they should do. The writers - online or at conferences - who stand up and pontificate things like [insert deep announcer voice], “You need to write for an hour every day before work,” are basically talking to themselves.
However, I’ll sometimes add, “My only recommendation is that I think it can be helpful to write regularly… for whatever value of regular works for you.” This has nothing to do with the speed at which you crank out words, but everything to do with keeping your subconscious engaged.
I’ve said before I think it’s pretty clear the subconscious does a lot of the creative heavy lifting when it comes to story creation. (Which is why it’s almost universal for writers to get ideas while showering or running or driving or washing the dishes or some low-concentration activity that distracts us just enough to let the subconscious come out and play.)
But for this to happen, that part of our brain needs to be engaged on a regular basis so it continues to “work” on the problem even when we’re not consciously thinking about it (similar to thinking about a problem before going to sleep and having a solution upon waking). And the way you feed your “creative problem-solving mechanism” (i.e. your subconscious) is to connect with your story regularly. Ideally this involves actually writing on it. But even if you can’t write, then editing or plotting or just re-reading the last few chapters will keep the story in your head and encourage your subconscious to keep working on it behind the scenes. This really seems to increase the odds that next time you sit down to write, you’ll have something worth writing about.
This is harder to accomplish if you only touch base with your story once a month or whatever. For me, whenever there’s been a long gap between writing sessions I have to spend quite a bit of time just getting the vibe of the story back in my head. (This seems especially true when it comes to getting the voice right.) So besides basic production issues, there seem to be some real creative benefits to working on your story regularly.
The Sweet Spot:
If you graphed my writing with “Overall Writing Time” on the X axis and “Subjective Quality” on the Y axis, the result would look pretty much like a standard bell curve. The curve would first start to sweep up at around the six month mark and taper back down near the eighteen month mark, with the sweet spot for overall writing time (everything from initial conception to plotting to writing to revising to polishing to final copy edits) hovering around the twelve month mark. The actual values are meaningless for anyone but me (and you’re missing everything I’ve ever said if you think you should somehow try and approximate them) but the concept remains:
Our creative minds seem to have a natural cruising speed they like to function at… thinking and digesting and regurgitating and writing and thinking some more and writing some more then re-thinking and subsequently rewriting, etc. We can certainly work faster than our natural pace (just ask anyone who’s ever had a demanding supervisor) but the results are rarely optimum. And it’s all too easy to work slower (just ask, well… anyone) but here, too, you’re probably not thrilled with the final result, let alone the lowered productivity.
Your sweet spot may be six weeks or six months or six years. (And it may vary with your experience level and mood.) The specifics aren’t important. What is important is to be aware of it and—as much as possible—honor it. But don’t over-think it. After all, the goals are pretty simple:
1. Get to the finish line.
2. Be happy with the result.
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.)
We’re going to continue our last post but dive a little deeper into the writing process itself instead of the whole publishing aspect.
There’s a lot of information out there about the specifics of writing a novel, both in print and online. And even that term--specifics—should give you a clue that such info might be more theoretical than practical. Not that it might not also be valid. For some books, and for some writers, it may be great. The trouble comes from the aspiring writer blindly assuming that whatever writing formula they’re reading is the one true way.
The problem isn’t that there’s no ‘true way.’ It’s that there are infinite ‘true ways.’ This is pretty obvious in hindsight, but when we’re starting out we tend to look to someone who seems further along in the process as possessing special knowledge, and we tend to give it more weight than we otherwise might.
Case in point: Way back when I set out to write my OBFN (Obligatory Bad First Novel, discussed earlier) I followed whatever writing wisdom I could find in the pre-internet age. I’d read a book on ‘how to write a novel’ which basically laid out the one true path to success as something like the following…
Take a piece of paper and number it down the side from one to twenty. After each number write one sentence describing what that chapter will be about. Number twenty pieces of paper and place the respective descriptive sentence at the top of the top of each. Fill each page with more detailed descriptions of the events in that particular chapter. Then—finally—take each page and expand your notes to ten-plus pages of text for each.
I followed that basic template fairly closely, and I had a detailed forty-page outline completed before I’d written even one word of the actual book. So yeah, I knew exactly where I was going. The beginning, the middle, and the end. In detail. And every stop in between. Also in detail.
With no chance in hell of getting lost.
Which--for me—was definitely a bug, not a feature.
To be fair, it worked. Sort of. I mean, I got a coherent novel out of it. But by the time I got around to the actual writing of it—which basically consisted of me transcribing and expanding whichever chapter outline was next on the list—it seemed closer to doing homework than creating an inspired work of fiction. The creative part of my brain felt boxed in by the overly-prescriptive outline, unable to wander and ramble and follow those magical hunches and impulses and “aha!” moments that can occur when the borders of your playground are a more suggestions than walls.
I also followed other conventional wisdom (for this type of book, at least). I wrote in third person, for the theoretical benefit of a higher/broader vantage point (plus it allows the reader to know things the viewpoint character may not). For similar reasons (having a broader palette) I had multiple viewpoint characters. And I would occasionally explain stuff to the reader in an expository aside, as was the convention in this subgenre (techno-thriller).
All of which may be perfectly fine advice for some writers out there, but not for me. The writing of that thing was grueling, and if all novel writing was like that, I wanted nothing to do with it. Seriously, it was more fun writing how-to pieces and product reviews and articles for magazines.
So the next time I went to write book-length fiction, I tossed all the stuff I should do “in theory” and went with what felt right—for me—in reality.
I had an idea for a story that resonated with me, regardless of where the pundits thought the market was going. As far as I knew there were no agents or editors clamoring for my particular type of story, but I didn’t care—I really wanted to write it. I saw the opening scene unfold in my mind’s eye—and a vague glimmer of where it might go afterward—and that was enough. I just jumped in and started writing. In first person, with a fair amount of internal monolog. I wanted the reader to be in the protagonist’s head… maybe even feel like they were the protagonist…and I felt the best way to do that was to put myself there. I gave up the breadth of third person and multiple POVs for the narrower but deeper viewpoint of close first. I didn’t spoon feed the reader every little plot point… some things were left a little under-explained, leaving it to the reader to figure it out from context, or perhaps from later events.
There was no specific “inciting incident within the first 15 pages of the manuscript,” there was no specific “antagonist” for our “hero” to plot against and defeat, there was no specific “unfilled desire laid out in the first thirty percent of the book.” (The damn thing wasn’t even in three discrete acts… it had four.) During the writing of it I probably broke at least a dozen of the Seventeen Magic Rules to Writing Success. But it worked. At least for me. And—as near as one can ever tell—maybe even for some of the readers. But more important, I can think of numerous other books (more successful/well-loved/best-selling/award-winning than mine) that don’t follow any of the above “rules” either.
So my primary takeaway from the experience was this: Yes, there are lots of books and websites that will tell you—in theory—exactly how you should go about writing your book. And while they may work for you, they also may not. Because…
Because in reality, you aren’t them. You’re you. And the story you have to tell—the one that comes from inside you—can’t possibly come from anyone else. So why would you avoid the unique, wonderful thing you have within—the thing no one else can do—just because someone, somewhere, says “do it like this”…?
In reality, most editors aren’t looking for “the latest and greatest.” (Because, among other reasons, the latest things you see on the shelves were acquired a couple of years ago and written a couple of years before that.) They’re looking for a good story. And one of the components of a good story is that it feels new. (Another is that it feels inevitable, which sounds contradictory but isn’t. But that’s another topic.) Even a classic boy-meets-girl story can feel unique and wonderful and fresh if the author has a different take on it… and doesn’t forsake her idiosyncratic vision for some theoretical/conventional wisdom about how it should be done.
In reality everyone has a different workflow, and the proclamations about when and where you should write and which POV and how much per day, etc., matter to exactly one person—the person making them, because we can assume those standards probably work… for them. Yes, there may be benefits to having some structure to your writing schedule. In theory. But in reality we write when we can, where we can. Which may vary greatly, not only between writers but for the same writer, depending on the vagaries of life.
And that’s the big point: Regardless of anyone’s theories, there really are no rules. No must-follow formulas. No one true way. Try out various methods and workflows, dump the non-starters, and go with whatever works for you. Being aware that that may change between projects, or even during them. (Heck, the absolute anarchy and uncertainty around this are half the fun. If you wanted predictable, you’re in the wrong line of work.)
Because in reality, anything that gets you to “The End” is the right process… for you, for that particular work, at that particular time. That’s all we can ask for. And that’s enough.
The following is often attributed to Yogi Berra, but probably first said by Jan van de Snepscheut:
“In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is.”
Truer words were never spoken.
When I was a youngster, an otherwise-intelligent adult told me that when running you should breathe through your nose, as this accomplished two things: the small hairs would filter out dirt/bugs/whatever, and the nasal passages—with their proximity to blood vessels—would warm the air on its way to your lungs. As a scientifically-minded kid this all made sense to me, and it wasn’t until much later when I began to run in earnest that I realized that while all of the above may theoretically be true… in reality it turns out to be complete bullshit. Because in reality, when running, the #1 goal of your respiratory system is to supply enough oxygen to fuel the activity. Period. And running with your mouth closed is in direct opposition to this overarching goal.
Had the adult been a runner, none of this would have come about. But instead he was a scientific guy who read a lot—about a lot of things—and therefore had theoretical knowledge about any number of subjects. Which is not the same thing.
Theory is great. Necessary, even. But ultimately it’s nothing but a tool on the road to reality.
In our writing life—especially as aspiring writers—we’ll hear tons of well-meaning advice on how to approach things. Much of it from people who are coming to it from a theoretical perspective rather than a practical one. Or perhaps from a scholarly one. And some of it may be from people who perhaps aren’t where we desire to be, publishing-wise. And—maybe not so well-meaning—occasionally from people who may be more interested in separating us from our money than in actually helping us get where we want to go, publishing-wise.
To this latter point, I recently saw an online ad with the following phrases…
* * *
WRITERS: Want to UPGRADE to AUTHOR?
…I know you're tired of watching your friends publish.
…be the one holding the sharpie at the book signing, asking how to spell names.
…you ARE good enough and you can get the unfair advantage: the INSIDE SCOOP.
…I sit down with top publishing pros every week… to get YOU not only the best tips, but CURRENT tips.
Want to know what's trending in publishing NOW?
What the hottest agents are seeking TODAY?
Step-by-step guides on how best-selling authors made it to the top?
* * *
I honestly can’t imagine worse writing advice. The above implies the writing itself doesn’t matter and it’s simply about knowing what those editors and agents are looking for RIGHT NOW. And if you could only turn in a manuscript with the right subject matter—the CURRENT, HOT subject matter, TRENDING NOW—then you’d be the one all your friends were jealous of instead of the other way around, and you’d be holding the sharpie of doom at the signing instead of standing in line, pissing your pants with envy.
Regardless of the actual quality of said manuscript.
(And also: Wow, way to try and capitalize on people’s self-doubt, jealousy and FOMO.)
In reality, every writing success story I know of is unique, with unique twists and turns along the way to the finish line.
So in reality, trying to copy someone else’s specific path is an exercise in futility.
In reality, the only commonality between publishing pathways I’ve noticed is persistence, a willingness to work hard, and a desire to continually improve one’s craft.
And in reality—let’s be honest here—there can also be an element of luck involved. Yes, we can influence the odds by applying the above traits (“the harder you work, the luckier you get”) but to ignore the element of randomness is like going to Vegas and betting the farm because you “really deserve to win.” Being deserving doesn’t always have a lot to do with when the ball drops.
But also in reality—mitigating the above—it’s also true that “it only takes one YES to wipe out all the NOs.”
Because in reality, you don’t need to convince every “Big Time Editor” or “Hot Agent in New York City” that your work is worthy.
Only one. And that’s enough.
Or maybe none, for the intrepid indies among us.
Because in reality, what matters are the words that end up on the page. The words you chose… the words you wrote… the words you rearranged and rewrote and revised and polished, until they said what you wanted to say, in the way you wanted to say it, to the very best of your ability.
And that’s no theory.
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.
When I was a kid—probably in fourth or fifth grade—I got in some sort of minor trouble at school, something to do with my snarky reply to a teacher’s comments on a paper I’d written. (Apparently I was pretty defensive as an early writer. Or I was a mouthy kid. Or—upon reflection—likely both.)
I don’t remember the exact details but as I recall, my view was that the teacher knew what I meant, so why was he being such a butthead over my specific word choice? The actual words didn’t really matter as long as I got the point across, right? Sheesh!
A note was sent home explaining the teacher’s interpretation of the, er… discussion.
My dad’s response was to put me in the car, drive me to our local library, and prop me in front of the huge dictionary they kept on a stand. Then he made me look up the word “run,” and had me stand there and read the entire entry for that single, simple word. There was at least a page of entries (in teeny tiny dictionary font) on run as a verb. Then another page on run as a noun. Then more on it as an adjective. Then all the different variations and phrases involving this supposedly-simple little word. It took me half an hour. I got the point. (Well, the real point is that my dad was an exceptional man, but it took me a while longer to understand that particular truth.)
The point: words matter.
Meaning, inflection, and the intangible yet oh-so-important quality best described as ‘voice’ are all greatly affected by the specific words we choose to use in any given piece of writing. In fiction, words tell us much more than the objective information they’re conveying. In narrative (i.e. in a viewpoint character’s voice, whether directly in 1st person or less directly in 3rd), word choice fleshes out the character and can give clues as to their regional background, age, education, upbringing, etc., but more important, it speaks to their personality—to who they are as a person—beyond just imparting basic facts. As a character’s possible response to a situation, (1) a simple shrug, (2) saying, “I don’t know,” or (3) stating, “I’m unclear on this particular concept” all imply the same thing. But they also paint three different types of personalities, from taciturn to direct to… well, perhaps either honestly erudite or maybe just a smartass. And in dialog, of course, we can do the same with all our characters, even the otherwise-unnoticed bit players who can stand out with a unique turn of phrase.
This also applies to non-fiction: even with something as routine as technical writing, word choice can have a big impact…
Fast forward thirty years from my stint as a mouthy fifth-grader: I’ve traveled to a nuclear facility in another state to help them with some training issues. I’m part of a panel that’s interviewed a number of employees over several days, and we’re tasked with writing a report outlining their challenges and recommending solutions. There are a handful of us writing the report as a committee (which is exactly as painful as you might imagine). Some of the panel are trying to appear “writerly,” and are suggesting revisions for virtually every sentence that up the syllable count and lower the clarity. Words like delineate and mitigate and optimization and methodology are flowing like water. Very muddy water.
The facilitator of the group—who has up until then remained in the background—interrupts the proceedings. “For clarity’s sake,” she says, “why don’t we consider avoiding a longer word whenever a shorter one will work? Why say ‘utilize’ when ‘use’ will be just as clear?” I give a silent cheer and volunteer to revise the draft, and it feels like taking a shower in cool, clear water to replace the above words with more direct terms like say and fix and better and way. More important, the final result seems to have more impact, and—most important of all—gets through to its intended audience.
I never forgot that lesson. Maybe the final draft didn’t come off as “intellectual” or “writerly,” but that wasn’t the goal. The goal was (and is, and forever will be) to convey the ideas in a way that will best reach the reader.
The larger point here is not that all writing should use common, simple words. (Somewhere above I used the term erudite, because that single word conveys my meaning better than any other.) The point is that specific words have specific meanings, and a change in word choice can slant the entire tone of the piece you’re writing, whether that’s an article about when to plant begonias or a business report on corporate culture or the fictional dialog of a seventeen-year-old girl from San Diego.
For any single concept we wish to convey, there are lots of words that probably come close. We shouldn’t be lazy and automatically go with the first one to come to mind, and we shouldn’t use words that are out-of-character with the goals of the work just to try and make ourselves look like more of a “writer.” I think the best advice here is simply to not be afraid to try on different words until you find the ones that make you think, aha! (My unscientific term for the gut feeling we get when the words finally yield the tone and meaning we’ve been trying to get across.)
Words are often referred to as tools, but they can also be seen as toys. Don’t be afraid to get in there and play around.
And maybe crack open that huge dictionary if it helps.
As with most creative endeavors, there are occasional misconceptions about the art and craft of writing. One is that authors (successful ones, at least… whatever that means) basically sit down and the magical fairy dust flows from their fingers and onto the page. In my observation, good writing is much more about sustained hard work over time and much less about spontaneous bursts of creative genius.
I know a number of people I’d classify as good writers. And I make a habit of studying them, their work, and their workflow, trying to make useful correlations. The first of these is that for most of the writing—from most of them—I’d say I rarely see lightning bolts of sheer brilliance on the individual pages of their day-to-day output, especially in early drafts. What I see are well-considered elements (setting, character, theme, plot) that the author cares deeply about, expounded upon in print.
Often in a “three steps forward, two steps back” fashion. Which can be painful and slow at times.
But in spite of this, the writer has an overall vision in mind for the work, and they keep working away until (1) the story is complete, and (2) everything in the story aligns with their vision for it, to the best of their ability.
And the operative word here is work. Another correlation I’ve noticed is that good writers tend to show up every day (for a realistic value of “every”) and put in the work. Sometimes the work goes well, the writing is good, and there is a good amount of it. Sometimes, maybe not so much… for either quality or quantity. (The worst, of course, is when you do a lot of writing and none of it is any good.) But even when the writing isn’t stellar, or when the writing doesn’t come easily and the output is lower than they’d like, they are there—putting in the work. And they’re making progress, even if only a little. Because even a roughly written version of a concept is something. And you need something. Because with something, you can work on it… revise or trim or restructure or expand it. But you can’t do those things with nothing. Which is why the prime job description for being a writer is basically “Show up and do the work.”
A third correlation I’ve noticed is the more you show up and do the work, the more often you get the sort of writing you want. Part of this may simply be the benefits of practice—repeated experience leads to increased facility. Part of it may be the creative part of your brain finally getting the idea that it’s going to at least attempt to be creative every working day. And part of it may be self-fulfilling and self-sustaining: you do it regularly and thus get a little better at it, and thus enjoy it a little more, and thus do it more often and get even better, and thus enjoy it even more, and thus…
And even when the muse ignores your invitation completely, there are things you can do during your regularly scheduled work hours if actual writing isn’t in the cards. You could work on what I call the Three P’s… Ponder, Plot, and Plan. This doesn’t have to be strict outlining (but it can, of course). It can also be as simple as sitting there with your eyes closed and musing on what you—as a reader who has read up to where you are in the story—would like to see happen next. (See the “What Do I Want to See?” post for more on this.) And then jotting down as much or as little as it takes to capture the ideas such that you’ll recall them when the time comes to write them. You could also go through what you’ve written recently and line edit it—just basic tightening or clarifying. Or even just go back half a dozen chapters and sit down and read it without either hat (writer or editor) perched upon your head. Instead, go through it like you’re reading for pleasure. And sometimes you’ll find that when you get to where you left off, your muse pays a brief visit and rewards you with some worthy ideas. (And even if not, an added bonus of these activities is they also allow you to simply stay in touch with the story, even if you’re not actively adding to it at the moment. This is important because keeping the story in your mind is key in keeping your subconscious involved in creating it.)
Think of “showing up, prepared to put in the work” as setting the table for your muse: If you set the table, they will come.
Or maybe not.
But if you don’t, they will NEVER show up. Of that you can be certain.
Happy writing… and set an extra plate at the table!
This one might be a little esoteric but hang with me. It’s a somewhat different take on resolving a book than the “Stick the Landing” post, which primarily delineated where we can go astray when ending our manuscript. That was a “how” thing, this is more of a “why.”
My theory is that a story doesn’t end when you stop writing. It really ends in the reader’s mind, when they think about it and imagine how it might unfold, going forward. Or how it might not. And the more the reader thinks about the story and the more they carry it with them after finishing the last page, the more resonance it has with them. (I don’t want to add, “…and the more they like it,” because that’s a bit simplistic, but saying, “…and the more important it may ultimately feel to them” probably has some validity.)
And who among us doesn’t want to write important books… books that resonate? (Even the term resonate conjures up things ringing on after the initial note is struck, like a church bell that carries on long after the rope is pulled.) As authors, we hear feedback about our work—both good and bad—constantly. Maybe more than any other profession. But it’s telling that the single comment on my work that meant the most to me was someone in the industry simply saying, “I finished it on Saturday and felt bereft on Sunday, as though I had lost touch with friends.” That meant more to me than any amount of “Loved it!” or “Awesome!” or “Thought it was great!” because it indicated that—at least somewhat, on some level—I may have achieved one of my goals for the book: to create characters who felt real, who seemed like people you might know, or might want to know. (I realize it’s kind of funny that someone basically saying, “I read your book and felt sad when it was over” was so meaningful to me, but there you go: resonance uber alles.)
So what factors might lead to a story carrying on after “the end”…? I think one is simply when the reader gets the feeling that—even though this particular episode is finished—at least some of the characters may have more life yet to live. Yes, we saw them—and some important times in their lives—but we probably didn’t see all there is to see of them. You don’t necessarily need to hint at what comes next (although that can be cool in some cases), you just need to give the reader the feeling that there is the possibility of more. Imagine a story that basically finishes with: Everyone died - The End. Even if the characters were interesting while they lived, it’s hard to believe anyone’s going to spend a whole lot of time thinking or wondering or worrying about them after they finish the book, because it’s a lost cause. For your characters to occupy someone’s thoughts beyond the end of the book, they need at least the vague vibe that something—ideally something interesting—is going to happen to them at some point in their future. (Yes, there are notable exceptions. One of my favorite books as a young man was Freedom or Death, by Kazantzakis. Let’s just say it doesn’t end in freedom.)
Another key factor is having characters that feel real. This can mean different things to different people (both readers and writers) and there are a lot of factors which can increase or decrease the credibility of your characters—so much so that there are whole books about the subject. So what I want to say here is simply to be mindful of the difference between your characters having realistic circumstances, and being plausible as real characters. The circumstances can be as bizarre as you like, but the characters should respond to their surroundings in ways that have some correlation to how real people might actually respond. One thing that can kill a reader’s suspension of disbelief is a character who’s not self-consistent. Readers will buy any number of fantastical settings, but they won’t buy a character who acts “out of character” in order to make the plot work. So… giant flying scaly alpacas? No problem. A smart character who suddenly does something really stupid for no reason other than to get us to the next plot point? Not so much.
It also helps if we actually care about the characters. Maybe have a little empathy for them… want to see them succeed, or at least survive. Another word for this is likable. Snark is currently popular, which is fine as far as it goes—humor can be a bonus in a manuscript. But if overdone, it can lead to characters readers don’t like. I can think of a few recent books which were well written but not well received, and many of the critical reader reviews basically said, “I didn’t like the main character. She was too [choose one] snarky / bratty / whiny / mean / spoiled / etc.” This is one area where beta readers can really help, because the odds are you—as the author—really like your main character. Which is as it should be. You created her, so you know all the back-story, the hidden motivations, the justifications for her misbehaviors, everything. Which also means you’re the least qualified person to judge if she’s really likable. Not everyone will like every protagonist, but if you get notes from multiple early readers that your POV character isn’t all that likable, you may want to address this before submitting.
This doesn’t mean you want your protagonist to be Mr. or Ms. Nice Guy. Real people are flawed. They make mistakes. They get pissed off—sometimes at the wrong person, sometimes at the wrong time. Sometimes in trying to solve a problem they overstep and create a worse one. In other words, they’re human. We tend to like that in people. Especially fictional people we’re trying very hard to believe in.
And finally, the veracity of the world in which your characters operate matters. It doesn’t have to be real (or science fiction and fantasy novels wouldn’t exist) but is should feel real, at least for the duration of your story. This means you should treat your setting almost like a character… develop details that go beyond what’s on the page, create a rich backstory, pin up images if that helps you visualize it. Then use just enough of these to intrigue us and make your place seem real, but consider sprinkling little tidbits throughout—without interrupting the flow of the story for an explanation—as an option to info-dumping everything on us at once. There’s a natural tendency (which I’m as guilty of as anyone, during first draft) to think, Damnit, I did all this research, I’m going to use it! (Around here we have a phrase we use when we read things demonstrating this: “You can see the research.” It’s not necessarily a compliment.)
So… these are some of the factors that can help your story live on in the mind of the reader after they’ve closed the cover on the last page. And in the end, isn’t that what we’re all shooting for?
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.
Imagine you’re relaxing, listening to an amazing piece of classical music. Lights down, headphones on, eyes closed. Wine may be involved. You’re so into it you don’t even register the sound as music anymore. All you know is you’re in a meadow on a gorgeous spring day… the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and you’re on a blanket with a gorgeous companion and a picnic basket. Wine may be involved.
Then during a pause in a delicate birdsong you hear a quiet cough, and…
You’re jerked back into your surroundings with the sudden awareness that no, you’re not in a meadow, those aren’t birds, and that isn’t sunshine. Instead you’re instantly reminded it’s merely an aural illusion created by people who were assembled in a concert hall to perform a piece of music they were hired to play. Perhaps in Philadelphia. Perhaps in 2014. And one of those people coughed, which somehow made it onto the final recording, leading to the dissolution of your sublime listening experience.
The same thing can happen with our writing if we’re not careful.
I was speaking to a group of writers recently and we were discussing why self-editing was important before sending a manuscript to an agent or editor or whatever the next step is. I briefly outlined the self-editing technique I described in the Seek & Destroy blog post, then tried to explain why it was important to avoid—among other things—unintentionally repeated words or phrases in your writing.
Fiction depends on the “willful suspension of disbelief,” as the phrase famously goes. When I’m reading a well-crafted work of fiction, it’s a total tête-à-tête—just me and the story. There is no author to that story anywhere in the room, and at its very best, the book itself disappears, much like the listening experience described above. Everything is story, and story is everything. This is magical, and the last thing you want to do as an author is destroy this spell by reminding the reader that the story they’re experiencing is a manuscript written by a real, live, imperfect human being. Perhaps one sitting in their family room in sweatpants a couple of years ago. Perhaps in Hoboken. Or maybe Albuquerque.
And using the word “actually,” for example, on every other page is precisely the sort of thing that will remind the reader that this book has an author. So is having characters tell each other things they both already know. So is having your fifteen-year-old protagonist sound like a thirty-something woman with an MFA. Who listens to music that was popular when said woman was in high school. And so on…
Another spell-breaking issue is transparency in the writing. Or lack thereof. After the above writers’ meeting was over, an attendee came up to discuss adding a bunch of metaphors to their manuscript in order to make it seem “more writerly.” Personally, I can get behind the (subtle, and occasional) use of metaphor to reinforce the theme of a work, but deliberately trying to sound “writerly” is probably a mistake. As a reader, nothing reminds me there’s a person on the other side of the text as much as coming upon a patch of over-wrought prose that yanks me out of the story. There are obviously exceptions to this, but writing that’s fairly transparent and stays out of the way of the story seems to do the best job of allowing the reader to remain immersed in the work.
Writing and storytelling are two separate aspects of creating fiction. Sometimes a strong play is best presented on a simple stage without a lot of extra props and window dressing cluttering things up.
So yes, we will absolutely cough on occasion during the creation of our story. That’s unimportant—everyone does. The important thing is to find and remove them before anyone else hears them, breaking the spell we’re trying so hard to cast.
Q1: What do these books have in common--
The Book Thief; Wonder; Anna and the Swallow Man…?
Q2: And these--
The Book of Dust; The Running Dream; Walk Two Moons…?
Q3: And these--
The Fault in Our Stars; The Inquisitor’s Tale; If I Stay…?
The short answer is that each book within a given group was edited by the same editor. (Erin Clarke for group #1, Nancy Siscoe for #2, and Julie Strauss-Gabel for #3.) These were off the top of my head, but I could have listed a dozen books for each (also acclaimed works) or I could have listed a dozen other editors (also equally talented) and the list would’ve had the same upshot.
My point is not that there’s a stylistic commonality among the books of each group. (If there is, I fail to see it.) It’s actually that there isn’t a formula to these acquisitions. The commonality is both broader and deeper: each of these books is—first and foremost—a good story. A story that comes from a real place within the author… a place of passion, of belief, of heart. And a good editor knows that if the author has passion for the story and the editor responds to that passion, there’s a strong possibility readers might respond to it, too. So the “formula” is that good editors acquire good stories. Stories they respond to. Stories they believe in.
And once they acquire such a story, what do they do with it? Well, what they don’t do is re-write it. Some editors are writers (David Levithan comes to mind) but that doesn’t mean they push their own prose on the author’s work. (Do you see any of Tiny Cooper in The Scorpio Races? At all? Me neither.) But many editors aren’t writers. In a sense, they’re fundamentally readers. Perhaps the best readers ever. They read broadly, and passionately, and deeply. They can go through a manuscript and pay close attention to their own responses, then expertly articulate which parts work and which don’t, and why. And they can suggest which path the author might take to make the story stronger. But once on that path, it’s the author’s job to write the words that strengthen the book, not the editor’s.
Something else editors don’t do: they don’t overly concern themselves with spelling, grammar, and punctuation. I mention this because I’ve seen (often, and recently) indie writers comment that of course they had an ‘editor’ go through their manuscript and make sure everything was legal—spelling/grammar/punctuation-wise—before they pressed “publish”. That’s a great idea, as far as it goes, but in the Venn diagram of publishing there’s very little overlap between that and what an actual editor does. (And by actual editor, I’m including professional freelance editors as well as editors at publishing houses, so none of us is off the hook here.) Editors are mainly concerned with the big-picture issues that can make or break a manuscript… does the story work as a story? Are the characters’ actions believable? Is the protagonist actually likeable (if that’s the author’s intent)? Does the prose flow, without getting in the way of the story (or worse, taking the reader out of the story?). Is the dialog realistic, as opposed to being a thinly-disguised vehicle for exposition? Are the characters self-consistent, and do their motives and emotions somewhat replicate those of actual living, breathing human beings? And of course, is the story about something of interest and import… is there an underlying theme that adds that extra layer of significance to what might otherwise just be characters moving through a plot?
These are all things the writer needs to concern herself with too, of course, but these are also the very issues we can become blind to, as we get too close to the story after having lived with it for so long. (With multiple re-reads, the specific text of a manuscript can seem almost inevitable after a while, making it hard for us to really see it, let along change it.) Which is yet another reason for editors—to get a fresh set of eyes upon the work, with a fresh viewpoint. (Specifically, a set of eyes lacking that stifling “It’s always been this way, so it has to remain this way” belief.)
Sure, during the course of their many trips through the manuscript editors will make note of typos and punctuation errors as they notice them. But it’s more an afterthought, as these are largely mechanical and don’t affect the fundamental nature of the story. Plus, editors have editors. They’re called copyeditors, and they back up the editor and author regarding all the potential mechanical errors that might accrue over 100,000 words. But even they go far beyond spelling and punctuation. Their brief includes chronological continuity (accurate accounting of times and dates between scenes), consistency of dialog with individual characters, notes about the vibe and grammatical consistency of voice throughout the text (casual vs. formal, etc.), as well as overall fact-checking of virtually everything in the manuscript. (If you write about a character driving a “Ford Camaro,” believe me—you’ll hear from your CE about it!)
So we know what editors don’t do. But what do they do? In short, they do magic. They take a good story and—working in concert with the author—bring all of their skill and passion and talent to bear in an effort to make it the best version of that story possible. Just like a good partner should.
So yes, absolutely—double and triple-check the spelling and punctuation and grammar of your finished/revised/polished manuscript before taking it to the next stage, whatever that is. But if you want the best for your story, also consider the vital step of having it fall under the eyes of an experienced editor. Your story—and your readers—will be better off for it.
I’ve come to realize that I might approach my writing a little differently than some (which is probably a universally-true statement). Including when it comes to deciding what to write next. I suppose if I had something hanging over me like a contract for multiple books about specific subjects due by specific dates—i.e. a tightly scheduled series—I’d probably fall back on my non-fiction experience and just try to get down to it without a lot of forethought.
But I don’t, and so I don’t. Instead I ponder. Play what if? Run different scenarios past myself and see if any of them light a fuse. And even when I stumble across something I find really interesting, there are two things I have to have before I’ll consider starting on it: A way in. And a way out. And though it may sound like it, these phrases don’t have much to do with plotting or writing mechanics.
“Finding a way in” doesn’t mean crafting the opening sentence (or scene, or even chapter). Those are obviously important to a strong manuscript, but even more vital is that you—as the author—have a visceral connection to the story. Something upon which you can hang your heart. Otherwise you might have a well-plotted tale, but you won’t be fully invested on an emotional level. People will forgive occasional plot holes or coincidences or shaky continuity (watched TV lately?) but not emotional distance between the story and the writer. Because that typically translates to emotional distance between the story and the reader, which means they put down your book and go do something else.
Finding a way in is akin to looking for a hook or an angle, but not in the external, story-mechanic sense. It’s finding the thing (maybe a seemingly small thing) that emotionally connects you to the story. Once you have that, the story has a heart. Then it’s up to you to give it arms (characters) and legs (plot).
For what it’s worth, here are examples of how I decided on the way in and way out for Road Rash. Your decisions for your stories will of course be different, but the concept remains: you need a way to get yourself connected to the story, and you need to know how far to let the story run before you stop giving the reader specifics and let them carry it forward in their own imagination.
My way in for Road Rash wasn’t “I want to write about what it’s like to play drums in a band on the road.” That’s definitely part of the book, but my little emotional hook was exploring the feeling of being tossed out or dropped from the team or kicked to the curb. Especially if the one being kicked doesn’t deserve it. (And that’s pretty universal—who hasn’t felt this at some point in their life, especially during adolescence?) This aspect doesn’t actually occupy the bulk of the book. The protagonist (Zach) gets kicked early on (Ch. 2) and he deals with the emotional fallout for a few chapters as he puts his life back together, but by the end of the first section of the book (pg. 80) he’s on the road with all of that presumably behind him. But much later in the story (pg. 300-ish), the issue of getting kicked out raises its head again, and because of all the baggage related to the earlier incident it carries more resonance than it otherwise might. And that was the vibe that gave me entrée into the story… that gave me a way to sink my teeth into it, emotionally. Much more so than “Boy goes on road with band,” which is really just a setting, with no implicit resonance or conflict or theme.
Likewise, finding a way out doesn’t necessarily mean coming up with the perfect final line or scene (that’s another conversation). It means having a clear vision of how far you need to go in the overall story to reach a satisfying resolution. (Note this still applies to series books. Maybe more so.) I’m drawn to somewhat open-ended conclusions, but even so, you have to get a handle on where to leave it.
With Road Rash I knew I wanted to see Zach and his few real friends achieve a certain level of validation, especially after choosing “hard right over easy wrong.” But how much? I didn’t want a Hollywood ending where they become world-famous rock stars but I wanted to show they had possibilities. I debated having them go to L.A. or New York and attempt to play in the big leagues, but to me that would have felt almost redundant. So I showed they had the potential—and the work ethic—to play at that level, when they get their little moment in the sun. And it could’ve legitimately ended there, but that still didn’t quite feel like enough. It occurred to me that one of the main lessons Zach learned was that—along with the music—what really mattered were the people in his life. I wanted to show this growth on his part, but without hammering readers over the head with it. So we see him and Kimber after the big show, and it hits him that even with all the amazing new possibilities opening up to him, nothing is more important than the person sitting right in front of him.
This is obviously subjective, but to me this sort of character-driven resolution carries more resonance than something more plot-oriented. That was my emotional “way out”… the idea that, in the final analysis, people—and our relationships with them—are the things of true value. So that’s where I wanted to leave the story—with Zach and Kimber sharing coffee, and Zach reprising Kimber’s “What does this taste like…?” routine to show how much he values her. From there, the reader can imagine how their story might unfold going forward.
And—to me—that’s enough.
So if you’re stuck during the initial blue-sky phase of conjuring up a tale to tell, look for an on-ramp to get your heart up and running into the story and an off-ramp to gracefully exit in a satisfying way when you’ve said what you came to say. After you have a way in and a way out you’ll still have a lot of work ahead of you but at least your heart will be in the story. And that’s a big plus when it comes to crafting a tale that’ll connect with your readers.
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.
When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.
When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
~ Neil Gaiman
This is a large and complex subject with lots of issues for consideration. (What’s the difference between a critique group and a group of writers who get together to discuss craft and/or business? Does a critique group give you something beta readers don’t? Do betas have any advantages over critters? If you’re a struggling writer, can you realistically expect help from other struggling writers? If so, what kind? Problem identification…? Editorial help…? Moral support…?) And the list goes on—we could do a dozen posts on the subject. But I want to focus on one aspect of writing groups—the mindset of the critic, when giving (hopefully) constructive feedback.
Some context: I don’t belong to a formal critique group. But, as I’ll go into more below, I do belong to an informal, two-person writing support group which has been very useful for both of us, for years. Also, I’ve used a very limited number of betas—like two or three—who are all really intelligent people who (a) read widely, and (b) are good at putting their response to a manuscript into coherent thoughts. I don’t always use them, and I don’t think I’ve ever had all of them read on the same manuscript. But occasionally I’ll go to them for a gut check. What I mainly want is their emotional response to the story—what worked for them, and what didn’t. And sometimes, why something worked or didn’t, if offered. But I’m not looking for specific solutions from beta readers because—unless they can really get inside my authorial mindset—they may have solutions, but they’re very unlikely to fit my vision of what the story’s about.
And that’s what I want to discuss: the crucial difference between helping someone write their book as best they can, vs. telling them how you would write it. The first part (helping the author best realize their vision) may actually be easier for a non-writer to accomplish than a writer (who is much more likely to stray into second-part territory—telling them how you would do it). All of which can become problematic in light of the fact that a writers group is mainly comprised of, uh… other writers. All of whom have ideas about how things should be done (of course they do—they’re writers) and may put forth the details of those ideas regardless of the intent of the author in question.
Example: Let’s say our intrepid writer is working on a contemporary YA and part of her authorial vision for this particular project is having her characters talk the way many teens actually talk, multiple f-bombs and all. There are a couple of approaches the critic could take…
Critter: “Can you think of a way to say it without cursing?” Or: “What I do is write, ‘He swore.’ I’d recommend you try that.” Or: “A good writer could convey the emotion using better vocabulary.” Or: “Do kids really need to hear this language?”
Writer: “Shit.” [Hangs her head.] “Sorry.”
Critter: “What are you trying to do here?”
Writer: “I’m trying to convey what life is really like for a contemporary teen in high school. Like it or not, IRL this is how some teens actually talk, and I’m trying to authentically show that via realistic conversation.”
Critter: “Okay, got it. In that case, I thought scene X had more impact than scene Y, because…” [Explains why they liked X over Y]
Writer: “Thanks. That was helpful.”
It’s really just the old “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” thing. We have to recognize everyone’s coming from a different place, and we have to honor that when giving notes. In other words, help them tell their story—in their own unique way—as well as possible… not your version of it. Otherwise the writer’s work would ultimately read like the critic’s work, and who needs that? (This is similar to the over-simplified notion that one shouldn’t write about anyone with a different background than their own. See the earlier “Authenticity” post on doing the hard work to make your characters unique individuals instead of stereotypes.) So if you’re planning on doing more than pointing out where things didn’t work for you (which is really about 80% of good critiquing in the first place) then you need to get inside the author’s mindset and understand what they’re trying to do, and why. Otherwise it can become an exercise in “Write as I write.”
The little two-person writing group I mentioned is comprised of me and my wife. We’ve both been writing professionally for over twenty years, and we’ve been each other’s first reader since day one. But we always take care to read and comment with the other’s writing goals in mind, not our own. Not too long ago we were discussing ways to up the ante—tension-wise—around a certain scene in something she was writing. I remember laughing and saying if I were writing it I’d just add an R-rated sex-and-drugs scene to show how far off the rails a certain character had gone, but I knew that was totally wrong for the book, the author, and the audience, so I offered a pack of bad ideas (as per usual) and we tossed things back and forth until something finally clicked. Because I knew where she was coming from. (For more thoughts on the benefits of “talking plot” with another writer, see this post.)
Try to keep your ego out of it and stick to the writerly aspects of the story in mind. The most helpful thing we can offer each other (besides encouragement, which is really #1) is simply pointing out where things might be unclear or unbelievable or not working for you in whatever fashion, and allowing the writer to decide how she might fix this. Additionally, try to use positive reinforcement rather than negative, because one of the most important things for successful writing is simply that the writer not feel discouraged. Believe me, nothing kills creativity faster than thinking your work is crap. So avoid making the other writer feel this. (Ex: If you find part of the manuscript exciting and part boring, point to the part where you were engaged and say, “I loved this! I’d like to see more of this during the other part.”)
And finally, keep in mind that a critique is simply one person’s opinion. It’s your job as the writer to weigh things as objectively as possible and try to determine if there’s some truth in the critique. (A good sign there might be is when you already had the vague feeling that something wasn’t right with the part in question… usually our own subconscious knows before anyone else. Another is when you get similar comments from multiple critters about the same part.) But in reality there’s no way everyone’s going to like a given story, even those who supposedly have skill in sniffing out good manuscripts: there are countless stories of professional editors passing on what turned out to be critically acclaimed books.
As I like to point out to other authors when they get a bad review, if you write a book and 99% of the public doesn’t care for it but 1% buys it and likes it, you have a runaway bestseller on your hands.
So… let’s hear about your critiquing experiences, either as critter or writer.
I sometimes talk about leveraging the subconscious when it comes to creating ideas. Here’s one way…
A frequent piece of writing advice is to take in TV shows and movies with an eye on the plotting, the logic being that a detailed analysis of the story as written will improve your plotting skills. Yeah, maybe. But mostly what it’ll do is give you a good understanding of how someone else might plot. Which is fine, but they’re not you, and your ultimate goal is to be the best version of yourself, not the best pastiche of someone else.
Yet I think there can be a benefit to watching your favorite shows with an eye toward plot, if you do it pre rather than post the story event. When I’m watching a show and something is developing, what I ask myself is, What would I—as a viewer—like to see happen next? Sometimes I guess—sometimes aloud, to the consternation of my wonderful wife—and sometimes I’m right. Sometimes not.
An unintended consequence of doing this is that you’re training yourself to look at story with the eye of a reader. Not a passive “feed-me-until-I’m-full” consumer, but an actively engaged reader who cares about the characters and who has preferences about what they might like to see happen to them.
In other words, you’re training yourself to plot.
Not to analyze plot, but to create it. Not based on some idea of what—in theory—other people might want or expect to see, but based on what you—as a fan, as a lover-of-story, as a reader—might want to see happen next.
And the cool part is, this totally translates from watching to writing. As I’ve mentioned before I like to think about plot when I’m running or showering or engaged in some other low-concentration activity. And I typically see my written scenes in my mind like clips from a film. But what I’m really doing when I’m thinking about the plot of a story I’m writing is similar to when I’m watching a favorite TV series… I’m watching a short clip of the story and I’m thinking, “As a viewer, what would I most like to see happen next?” I play different versions in my mind until I get that aha moment where I think, “Now that would be cool to see happen at this point!” A benefit of doing this is that instead of following a pre-conceived sequence of events, at each major turning point you’re getting a pretty direct read of what your subconscious has been working on regarding story direction.
I’m not against outlining. At all. Some very successful writers do it extensively, others not as much. Personally, on the Plotter/Pantser scale I lean about 60/40 toward Pantser. And I think one of the reasons why is that if prior to writing I was asked to decide on some specific plot events that might happen 2/3 the way through the book, my natural response would be, “By the time I’m a couple hundred pages into the book I’m bound to have a better handle on the characters and their story than I do now, so the smart move might be to wait until then.” Basically, I trust that future-me will be better equipped to tell that part of the tale than present-me, because he’ll know much more of the nuances than I do currently.
So the next time you’re in the middle of a manuscript and you’re stuck, here’s an idea: Don’t think about what you think should happen or what you think your target audience expects to happen or what you think other writers might do. Think about what you—as a reader—would be most excited to see happen next, if you were in the middle of reading the book instead of writing it.
And then make that happen.
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.
As an author, you’ll occasionally have people asking you to read their manuscript and provide advice. (Whether or not you should do this is a topic unto itself. Some established writers have a blanket policy against it for valid reasons, including the fact that it’s bad business to work for free. Others are happy to do it when time permits, paying forward the help they received as beginners themselves.)
Often the person asking is an aspiring writer. Maybe a younger writer, or maybe a beginning writer—of any age—just learning the basics of the craft. Assuming you’re going to take on the task of reading their work and giving feedback, here are a few things to keep in mind:
1. Don’t step on dreams.
This is the equivalent of the primary Hippocratic concept, “First, do no harm.” There are experienced writers who feel anything less than ‘brutal honesty’ is somehow beneath them. They think some people simply weren’t born to be writers, and the sooner someone tells these poor schmucks this, the better.
Really? In reality no one actually knows who’s going to eventually—with enough sustained effort—become a decent writer. History is full of late bloomers who didn’t show much early promise. (The Big Sleep, anyone? Watership Down? Or how about Angela’s freaking Ashes—a first book that was published when the author was sixty-six?) And even if they never go on to become successful authors, they still receive the intangible benefit that writing gives everyone who puts pen to paper—the unique feeling of accomplishment in organizing their thoughts and setting them down in print. Some aspiring writers may never find success in publishing (however they happen to define it). But they may still get as much out of it—on a personal level—as a best-selling author. And on the Big Scale of Life, this might even outweigh the benefits of brutal honesty. Wheaton’s Law still applies.
2. Leave them wanting more.
A good question to ponder when helping the new writer: “What single activity is most germane to becoming a better writer?” (Spoiler alert: the answer is writing. Followed closely by reading.)
When my kids were young I signed up to coach my older son’s basketball team, along with one of the other dads. The players on our team were all good kids but were complete beginners. (And my buddy and I weren’t exactly John Wooden either.) We taught the kids basic b-ball skills as best we could, but during and after the games some parents would get down on their kids for not “doing better.” (Which is invariably fruitless. Everyone is doing their best in the moment with the tools they have. Which are not your tools.) In the end, I’d pull the more serious parents aside and bluntly explain the reality that our team was rather less skilled than the other teams, and my real goal for the year was simply that the kids enjoy the experience enough to want to continue playing basketball going forward. Because the only way they’re going to get better is to play more. A lot more. And for that to happen, they’re going to have to want to play.
Artistic skill develops over years, not weeks. This doesn’t mean you can’t get real benefits from a few intensive weeks of writing and study, but most people who do typically have years of practicing their craft behind them. Can you imagine taking a complete non-writer and throwing them into something like Clarion?
So the real objective here is simply to leave them wanting to continue writing.
3. Giving them a fish vs. teaching them to fish.
What’s your overall goal when critiquing an aspiring writer? If it’s “make this specific story better,” then I suggest you take a broader view. Making a beginner’s story stronger is usually pretty simple, as the flaws are generally apparent. (Blatant exposition, unrealistic dialog, over-use of adjectives, inconsistent characters, telling us how a character feels instead of letting their actions reveal it, etc.) If you just line edit the heck out of it, it’ll almost certainly be a stronger story. But will they have learned anything about the craft of writing? (And—if you really do a deep-dive edit—will it even be their story when you’re done with it?)
So consider helping more with overall craft than just working on specific story issues. I remember a friend coming to me with an article he wanted to submit to the local paper. One line he’d written was something on the order of “He was very, very tall.” Instead of simply slashing it and replacing it with “towering” or whatever, it was a great entrée into a discussion of intensifiers. Same deal with multiple descriptors. He was describing a woman who was “… warm, sweet, affectionate, and cheerful.” Instead of just cutting three of the four, I asked for an example of her behavior. He gave me one, and we talked about a way to fit it into the story instead of him just telling us how nice she was.
You want to leave them with interesting things to consider, as you show possible paths to their goal. (As always, you want to help them write their story as best they can, not show them how you’d write it.) So don’t default to only showing what’s “wrong”. Think about it in terms of giving them options, and showing them why one option may be stronger than another. (This is really all about the “why,” right?)
4. Stay within their skillset, while stretching them a little.
I’m a drummer, and occasionally give informal lessons to beginners. I don’t start by sitting down and demonstrating 4-way independence (where each limb is doing something different at the same time). That’ll either frustrate and discourage them or go over their head entirely. Instead I’ll ask them what they would like to be able to play on the drums, and I’ll give them something relevant to work on that they can’t quite do perfectly yet, but which is within their grasp.
Closer to home, you probably don’t want to overload your beginning writer with a rundown of the nuanced differences between limited third-person, objective third-person, and omniscient third-person points-of-view. Find out what they wish to accomplish with their story, and try to help them get there with understandable advice that speaks to their current skillset. Example: If they’re using close third and are unsure about the mechanics, they can probably benefit from something like, “It might help the reader feel grounded if you stay in one character’s head throughout the entire scene or chapter.”
5. Catch them doing something right.
This goes back to the concept of leaving them motivated to continue writing. It doesn’t mean being a cheerleader. It means striving to find some aspect of their work they honestly did well. If not in execution, then in concept. It could be a character that—at least at times—feels real and unique. It could be an interesting plot twist. It could be a bit of dialog that rings true. It could simply be a well-described breakfast at a funky little diner. Let them know you thought it was well done, and why. Encourage them to apply this technique to other parts of the story, if applicable.
Writers have strong and weak points. That’s universal. What’s not so universal—especially with beginners—is knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are. So do them a favor and let them know what they do well. If they’re wise enough to take it to heart and capitalize on it, it can really benefit their writing going forward.
And of course, hearing positive feedback about some aspect of their writing will only motivate them to keep trying. And that—sustained effort—is probably the biggest precursor to success of all.
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.
Writer’s Block is a phrase that seems to come up wherever aspiring writers congregate, whether online or IRL. Either they worry they have it (because words don’t magically flow like water from their fingertips when they sit down to write), or they worry about its inevitable appearance (because although things may be going fine at the moment, apparently it afflicts all writers at one time or another).
So here’s a thought: instead of considering it something to fear, consider it something to, well… not exactly look forward to, but listen to. Like heeding a caution sign on a twisty road or taking advice from a wise friend.
My operating theory is that what we call “writer’s block” is our subconscious trying to tell us something. And the corollary is that we might benefit from paying attention to it instead of trying to brute-force our way through it.
For me at least, the inability to really sink my teeth into a writing project is usually code for “I haven’t thought about it quite enough yet.” I rarely get the long-term feeling of “I’m totally empty and have no idea what to write” (and when I do, it’s almost always the universe telling me to take a break) but more often I’ll get stuck on a specific story issue, whether plot or character-related.
I’ve come to believe this is my creative mind trying to tell me—as directly as it can—that I need to cogitate a little more about the story before committing words to paper.
I try not to sit down to write until I have at least a vague clue as to where I’m going because—for me—the least productive place to come up with new ideas is sitting on my butt staring at a blank screen. I’d rather mow the lawn or wash the dishes or stand in the shower. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I think the real writing happens away from the keyboard, and I also believe the subconscious does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to creativity. So if I’m stuck on a plot point, I’ll go for a run (or any other activity that takes just a minimal amount of attention). The slight attention requirement of running or walking or whatever seems to distract the conscious mind just enough to let the subconscious come out and play. Then during the run I’ll sort of mull over the scene in question, playing it in my head like a movie. Each time I play the clip I change it a little, and sooner or later an idea will pop into my mind. And if it’s a good idea, I get that “aha!” feeling. If not, I keep playing the film clip until I do. (Or until the lawn is mowed or the run is over, in which case I let it go for the time being.) Then, assuming I have an inspiring little idea that gets me past the sticking point, I’m ready to sit down and begin writing. And of course, once you have enough of an idea to start a scene, your mind generally comes up with other ideas to extend or complete the scene.
Another part of the solution to what people call “writer’s block” may be as simple as writing regularly. It’s an over-used phrase but there’s some truth in the simple concept of “ass in chair.” Like most skills, if you exercise it regularly you not only get better at it—in terms of craft—but you also get more efficient at it. And you develop confidence that if you start the tiny little scene you have in mind, you’ll likely come up with more. (I can’t count the times I’ve sat down to write with only a sliver of an idea in mind—thinking I’ll probably run out of creative steam in ten minutes—and I end up going for several pages. The trick is just capturing that initial spark, then putting in the work.)
A related aspect of this is simply habit. Some authors advocate writing at the same time and place every day, in an effort to condition your mind to be creative on schedule. This has all the earmarks of a good idea—by all means, give it a try if it fits your workflow. That level of specificity doesn’t work for me, but the overall concept does. I find that if I work on my story in some fashion every day (or for some value of “every day” approximating “most days of the week”) then, everything else being equal, the writing comes easier than when I let it sit for several days on a regular basis. And “working on” doesn’t have to mean original-drafting exclusively. It can mean researching and making notes, or outlining the next few chapters, or maybe going back and editing what I wrote in my last few sessions. (And of course, it can mean simply writing.) The point is, touching base with your book daily—in some fashion—will keep the story in your mind. And this is one of the keys to keeping your subconscious engaged.
I also find it helps to have a sense of overall direction. I’m not a detailed outliner, but I like a few signposts along the way, and I like to have at least a rough idea as to how things might end. (A provisional ending, if you will. I might change it when I get there but for now I just want something to drive toward.) Using a road trip as an analogy, I don’t need a detailed route mapped out, with every little meal stop and gas station and motel already decided on… please. But I like broad ideas, on the order of: “I’m starting on the East Coast—let’s say New York—and heading to the West Coast. I think I’ll swing down through the South instead of the Mid-West because I prefer the warmer weather and the BBQ… maybe Atlanta, maybe Birmingham, maybe New Orleans… not sure yet. But I know I want to drive through the Southwest, then on to the coast. Final destination is either L.A. or San Francisco… I’ll know more when I get closer.” That’s pretty much all I need, and I’m ready to go. Enough to keep me moving along, but not so much that I can’t take a detour if it looks promising.
We all have different working methodologies and I’m not saying, “Simply do this, and all will be well.” You have to find what works for you. But how you cast things within your own mind can have a big impact on how they affect you, so consider re-casting your perception of what’s commonly called “writer’s block,” maybe to the point of not applying that phrase to yourself in any sort of regular setting.
Imagine you’re building a shed in your backyard. You decide on the basic size and shape… maybe you pour a footing. Then before you continue you get some cool ideas about how you want to configure the walls… maybe you want more windows? A friend stops by and says, “What’s wrong? I thought you were building a shed. Why aren’t you pounding nails already?” Would you say, “I don’t know. I think maybe I have…” (poignant pause) “…builder’s block.”? No, you’d say, “I am building a shed. I just need to decide a few more things before I start pounding nails.”
So maybe you don’t have writer’s block after all. Maybe you just need to decide a few more things before you start pounding the keys. Which isn’t an excuse for TV and bon-bons—you still need to maintain forward momentum. So if you need to make a few more decisions before you start (or return to) initial drafting, that’s fine. Don’t over-think it. Just stay in touch with your story—and give your subconscious fuel—as regularly as possible, and you’ll get there.
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.
There’s been a lot of discussion lately about authenticity in literature (or the lack thereof). I like to believe most of the failures in this area aren’t someone intentionally trying to demean, dismiss, or disrespect the culture of another. I think many of these are simply the writer being unaware of the amount of work it requires to authentically represent a different culture or subculture, or perhaps being unwilling or unable to put in the necessary hours to bring the work up from “stereotype” to “accurate representation.” Authenticity in fiction requires respect, research, and empathy. And craft, which is sometimes overlooked in these discussions.
The first decision an author has to make—before a single word is drafted—is to decide whether or not they should even write the story.
Let’s imagine someone suggests that a good character and setting for a realistic contemporary novel might be the story of a Japanese teen-age lesbian, struggling to make it through high school in modern-day Kyoto. It wouldn’t take me long to arrive at the conclusion that maybe I should pass on this one… I was raised in the States, have never been to Kyoto let alone absorbed the culture, and have scant knowledge of the LGBT culture among Japanese youth (which may very well vary between big cities and smaller towns). There are many ways I could get it wrong, and the cost to insure I didn’t would be too high. This isn’t to imply that a writer with my general background couldn’t do it, but the effort needed to get up to speed and do it authentically would be very substantial.
Of course, all cases aren’t this blatant. There is a subculture with which I am intimately familiar: that of the working musician, playing in clubs both locally and on the road. So when I wrote Road Rash—although I was deeply concerned with things like voice, character, plotting, theme, dialog, and the overall vibe of the story—the one thing I didn’t have to sweat too much was the verisimilitude of the background, because BT/DT.
But what if you want to write about something you haven’t been steeped in for years? Does this mean you can’t do it? Not necessarily. Let’s compare and contrast two approaches taken in recent realistic/contemporary novels… both featuring fairly similar band-on-the-road settings, and both written by non-musicians:
In the first one, the author basically took the "plug & play" approach: they sat back and thought, “Hmm…I wonder what it’s like to be in a band on tour, playing smaller venues?”, then wrote the story based on what they assumed it might be like, with zero research. How do I know? Because the book is so full of large, almost-comical errors that any musician who’d vetted the book would have pointed out the howlers immediately. I realize everyone’s experience is not my own, but there are basic facts of road life that are universal. (Just one of many: a band on tour—hauling their own equipment, including sound system—does not pull up at a new venue, waltz inside and get a drink, and then begin playing within five minutes. Trust me.) I could go on, but you get the idea. I finished the book and thought, Wow—they didn’t bother to ask a single question or do any research to even try to get it remotely right. This is a traditionally-published author, by the way, who lives in a city with a vibrant music scene. So basic fact-checking would have been easy-peasy.
[*An interesting side note is that none of the book’s reviews—which were mixed but overall fairly favorable—mentioned this. Which goes to show that just because a book seems fine to a mainstream audience doesn’t mean it’s not problematic to other sectors of the reading public.]
With the second book, the author (well published, with a long and successful writing career) realized their next book was going to contain settings that were new to them (a couple of the main characters were in a touring band) so they did their research. Realizing they still had some gaps in their knowledge base, they contacted another author they’d met on book tour who they knew was a musician (yours truly, but it could just as well have been the bass player at the local bar). They asked a number of questions regarding life as a working musician, including queries about logistics, finances, band politics, etc. Then they laid out the part of the plot that revolved around band life and basically said, Does this make sense? Does this feel authentic, from a musician standpoint? I’m happy to report that yes, the finished book felt completely authentic, and I was never pulled out of the story because something unbelievable happened. All because the author took the time to do some vetting and fundamental fact-checking.
Granted, sometimes it’s a bit more difficult than asking a few question of an informed source. Sometimes you need to roll up your sleeves and get seriously involved to really get at the emotional heart of a story. I can think of no better example than The Running Dream, by Wendelin Van Draanen—a YA novel about a teenage girl who loses a leg in an accident. There were two years of solid research behind this book before a word was written.
First was the decision to even write the book at all. She fought against the urge to write it for quite a while because she knew it would involve a ton of work to do it right, but the story (conceived on our flight home after running the New York marathon, where we’d seen people with severe challenges struggle to run 26.2 miles) just wouldn’t let her go. Once she decided to tackle it, she started where you might expect—she read several books about amputation, prostheses, and recovery. It’s important to note that this was not to write the book itself (which is a common mistake writers make) but simply to give her the technical background so she’d be able to ask the right questions of doctors, prosthetists, and amputees. Once she understood the mechanics of the process, then the real work began—getting to the emotional truth of what it’s like to go through such a life-altering event, and then the long adaptation process afterward, leading—in most cases—to finding a new normal, emotionally as well as physically.
She interviewed people who make prostheses. She interviewed people who fit and install them. She interviewed a medical technician who used to be a dancer before she lost her leg, and can now move quite well on her prosthesis. She interviewed doctors. And of course she interviewed amputees. Lots of amputees. Which takes a slow and thoughtful approach—you can’t just walk up to someone and ask them to please take off their leg for you. But the opposite happened. One patient who was visiting his prosthetist for a re-fit and a “tune-up” answered Wendelin’s questions, then asked, “Do you want to see how this all works?” He allowed Wendelin to watch (and photograph) the prosthesis removal and re-installation process, and then talked about the entire ordeal he’d been through since losing his leg.
After the book came out, a woman who was a medal-winning Paralympic athlete (below-knee amputee runner, just like the protagonist in Wendelin’s book) read The Running Dream, loved it, and used it in her own educational visits to schools around the country. When she learned through a mutual acquaintance that Wendelin had two organic legs, she expressed her surprise. “When I first read the book,” she said, “I thought for sure that the author must be an amputee, because she got everything so right… not just the medical stuff, but the way it feels… the way you feel when you wear a prosthesis every day.”
I’d guess I’d call this the definition of “getting it right.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I just finished reading a book featuring a protagonist who has a neurological condition with which I’m familiar. The author got it so effing wrong—in seriously fundamental ways—that it seemed like she’d simply gone down a list, looking for a condition she could plaster across her character’s forehead as a device to differentiate her from other teen protagonists. And once she found something she thought sounded interesting, she stopped long enough to read a single paragraph (at most) on Wikipedia, then invented a bunch of wildly inaccurate stuff and ran with it. (And this book was traditionally published, which begs the related question of where was the editor?)
So yes, it is possible for an author to write authentically about a group other than their own—females can write male characters, middle-aged adults can write child characters or senior characters, authors can write characters outside their religion, race, or gender identity. But only if they treat their characters with enough respect to do the hard work necessary to get it right.
And there’s a bonus to getting it right… One of the very best things about being a writer is all the interesting stuff you learn when you take a deep dive into something new, and a big part of authenticity in writing involves exactly that—research, interviews, study, and other forms of self-education... up to and including gathering hands-on experience. And in the process your writing becomes more accurate, your characters more three-dimensional, your setting more believable, your plotting more realistic… and you get a bit more educated in the bargain. What’s not to love about that?
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.