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?
Writing can be a solitary gig, but it doesn’t have to be. I’m not talking about joining a writers group or taking a writing class. I’m talking about seeking help from people who’ve done what you’re trying to do. AND lived to tell the tale. (In written form, of course.)
There are hundreds (thousands?) of books available on some aspect of writing. We have a bookcase containing at least fifty of them sitting three feet from where I write this. Some are strictly craft, some are rules of the road, some are reference, some are about publishing, and some are about the sometimes-elusive writing mindset. And I suppose all of them have been useful to someone, somewhere, at some time. But—for my money—the ones that are the most useful are the ones that inspire you, that make you feel you’re not alone, that give you a creative flashlight to shine in the darkness.
In other words, the ones that make you want to write. Because in the end, you’re not going to succeed at something you don’t want to do. The following are suggestions for resources that raise the odds you’ll put in the work necessary to get where you want to go. (And yes, a strictly nuts-and-bolts craft book can be as inspiring as a writerly memoir if it’s done in a way that helps you focus and makes you want to sit down and tackle those tough revision issues…)
“Bird by Bird,” by Anne Lamott. This is a wonderful little book, almost magical in the way it gives writers permission to write without worrying about perfection. The admonishment to “Give yourself permission to write a shitty first draft” is enough of a take-away in itself to make it worth the cover price. (I’ve given away three or four copies of this book to aspiring writers.) She covers important topics about writing (and the writing life) in such a kind, wise, generous, and humorous manner that it’s more like a heartfelt discussion with a good friend than a text on writing.
“Self-Editing for Fiction Writers,” by Renni Brown and Dave King (with occasional—and hilarious—illustrations by Goerge Booth, of The New Yorker fame). In some ways—even though ostensibly a craft book—this goes hand-in-hand with the two more memoir-ish books in the group. One of the most important things for an aspiring writer to grasp is that they’ll never even get their book in front of an editor until they learn to edit their own work. Which is very different than writing. Assuming traditional publication, you won’t be the only editor on your book, but you’ll almost certainly be the first. (And in a sense, the most important, because once you get a “yes” from a publisher, the rest is simply hard work. But getting that initial yes depends quite a bit on your revision abilities.)
“On Writing,” by Stephen King (subtitled “A Memoir of the Craft,” which is a great description as it’s as much memoir as writing how-to). I love this book because it gives you a peek into the “writer mindset” better than perhaps any other volume. His advice on writing (specifically self-editing) is spot on, and he speaks directly to the issue without a lot of theoretical pontificating. I’m not a huge fan of the “Here’s the formula to writing your novel!”-type books, and King’s book is the antithesis of this. He’s an instinctive writer, and his idea of plotting is basically to just start writing and let the story out. Even if you’re more of a plotter than a pantser, it can be freeing to know that some of the most beloved (and successful) novels of the 20th/21st Century were written with no outline whatsoever, let alone following a detailed formula involving prescriptions like “have the inciting incident occur within the first 15% of the manuscript.” And beyond all that, it’s simply a great read (as you might expect from Mr. King).
“The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes” (Jack Bickham) and “The 28 Biggest Writing Blunders” (William Noble). These two concise volumes make nice bookends (together they’re less than 250 pages). We’re treating them singly because they’re like two books you might read for the same writing class… one at the beginning of the semester and the other near the end. Both were published by Writer’s Digest Books and both follow the same layout and overall style, down to the (And How to Avoid Them) subtitle after their proper titles. “38 Common Mistakes” is great for beginning fiction writers. I don’t necessarily agree with everything the author says, but overall it’s very solid advice for aspiring writers, under the “you have to know the rules before breaking them” adage. (Ex: “Don’t be constantly bouncing around between POVs.” Sure, this can—and is—broken frequently, and sometimes successfully, but it’s helpful advice for someone seeking clarity in writing their first novel.) “28 Biggest Blunders,” on the other hand, is a better fit for someone with a half-million words under their belt, focusing on more esoteric topics like voice and style instead of primarily nuts-and-bolts like grammar and technique. One thing I really like about both is if you have questions about a specific writing topic, just glancing down the (very descriptive) table of contents in either volume will likely lead you directly to an answer… or at least point you in the right direction.
There are obviously many more helpful books on writing (to say nothing of some of the great writing-related sites online, which we should discuss later), but if you ever feel the need for a shot of writing inspiration—or maybe some well-thought-out ideas about the craft of putting a story together—you could do worse than to start with these.
The bottom line is that you don’t have to do it alone. There’s plenty of advice, inspiration, and technical know-how available, as close as your nearest bookstore, library, or web browser.
Are there any favorite writing books that inspire you to sit down and pound the keys? If so, tell us in the comments!
Not a fun thing. And if not careful it can lead to the J word—a separate issue deserving of a post all its own. But for now let’s stick to rejection and what we can do about it.
So, what can we do about it? The same thing we can do about war: absolutely nothing. Because rejection itself is an external factor largely outside our control (or we’d all be at the top of the New York Times list, right?).
What we can control is what we do - and don’t do - in response to it. And the first thing we can do to improve our response to it is understand it. Because frequently there’s a gap between what we think the rejection means in the moment and what it actually means.
What we think it means: Shit! Someone didn’t like my manuscript! Someone important! They hated my manuscript, they hated my writing, and they probably hate me! My writing sucks! I suck! They’re a big-time agent or editor or reviewer and believe me they know the difference between good writing and bad writing, and if it was any good they would have represented/bought/loved it! But they didn’t, which proves I suck! Lord, do I suck! I will never get published! (Or get an agent. Or a starred review. Or a Newbery medal. Or a spot on the NYT bestselling list. Or whatever your particular golden ticket is at the moment.)
What it actually means: For one particular person, at this particular time, your particular manuscript isn’t a good fit for their current needs. For any number of reasons.
That’s it. Someone somewhere didn’t choose your work at this time. (For reasons which may remain unknown to you and which may relate to your work directly, indirectly, or perhaps not at all.) Notice I didn’t say, “Someone somewhere didn’t like your work.” And nowhere did I say, “Something thinks you’re a terrible writer.” Yet that’s what we tend to hear when someone passes on our work… writing is such a personal thing, so we tend to take criticism of our work personally. Yet the truth is, rejection is almost never personal.
It’s largely a business decision. And that decision is rarely in the hands of a single individual. (If anything, acquisitions are getting to be more and more of a collaborative process at major houses. Because business.) I’ve seen an editor “love” a manuscript, then end up passing because of concern from above stemming from the fact that a recent book of theirs with a vaguely related theme tanked.
Who knows? Maybe they like your work but it’s considered a little too close to another project of theirs which they also like, and which beat yours into the pipeline by a few months. (Seen this one also, and I feel extra sorry for the author who has to hear an editor say, “I loved everything about your book! But… we already have another book about a left-handed girl on our fall list.” Ouch.)
Or maybe you’re a published author but your last few books didn’t meet “expectations” (i.e. sales numbers didn’t stack up against the advances paid or copies printed in the initial run) so they’re not that interested in your next work, regardless of subject matter or basic manuscript quality. (Seen this happen to people too. An unpublished writer may have a better shot than a published one who’s seen better days—assuming equally strong manuscripts—because with the unknown writer there’s always the chance that she’s the one, while the law of averages says that another book by the mid-lister will probably sell what their last few book sold. Business, right?)
And of course there’s the sheer weight of the numbers involved. An editor at a big house can only acquire, edit, and shepherd a finite number of books through the publishing process (maybe a dozen or so a year), yet they have a flood of submissions coming in constantly. Same thing for reputable agents. Do the math. Every one of them will admit they’re forced to turn down way more perfectly good manuscripts than they accept.
Then there’s the matter of personal taste. The opinion of a respected agent or editor may be an “informed” opinion, but in the end it’s just one person’s opinion, based on one person’s taste. Just because your book didn’t click with that particular agent or editor doesn’t mean it won’t with the next one. There’s no lack of anecdotes about people passing on what turned out to be successful books, from Harry Potter on down. And even here they’re not saying they hate you and your writing. I’ve seen responses to authors basically saying, “I really liked the writing and the protagonist’s voice, but the plot didn’t go where I thought it should.” Or, “Loved the story, but found the main character unlikeable.” Or some other version of Loved X and Y, but didn’t quite buy Z. (Heck, I just read about the author of the breakout bestseller “All the Ugly and Wonderful Things” stacking up 122 agent rejections before landing an agent and eventually a contract at St. Martins.) And these sorts of stories crop up all the time. Which is my point: Rejection is the norm… it’s absolutely part of the process.
So… the first step to dealing with rejection is also the hardest: don’t take it personally! It’s not a referendum on your skill as a writer or your innate worth as a person—it’s one person’s decision at one particular point in time.
And the best way to get over it (the next step) is to write. When you have something out on submission, in my opinion the very best thing you can do is not to wait by the phone but get to work on something else. For several reasons:
(1) It gives you something constructive to do instead of biting your nails.
(2) If rejections start coming in, you have something new to emotionally fall back on… a creative distraction of sorts. Which is way better than fixating on how they don’t like your baby.
(3) It can serve as an internal reminder that you’re not just “the author of the project currently on submission,” you’re a writer, period. One who has many more books inside you. One who’s getting better with each new project you tackle. And writers write.
(4) I think it’s best to stay ahead of your submissions so you don’t feel as if your entire career depends on the manuscript currently making the rounds. Because that way lies madness. Believe me.
(5) And finally, it’s always good to have new work waiting in the wings regardless. Because one type of rejection you may get is: This particular manuscript isn’t a good fit for me but I loved the writing—what else do you have? And if one of those comes in and you don’t have something else in the vault—something finished and ready to go—you’re going to get a sore foot from kicking yourself in the ass.
All of which is to say, we need to accept that rejection is an integral part of the writing life. I don’t know a single writer that got anywhere without going through rejection (and sometimes a lot of it) before reaching their goals. And it doesn’t necessarily stop then, either, because once you reach a goal (representation, publication, winning awards, hitting list, etc.), there’s another golden ticket to strive for, just out of reach.
So maybe we turn the tables on the R-Word, instead of letting it beat us down.
So maybe we use it as renewed motivation to get our butts back in the chair and do what we came here for in the first place.
So maybe we write.
I know a fair number of authors, and the vast majority of them wrote unpublished (and sometimes unpublishable) manuscripts before seeing their “first” book on the shelf. So much so that I’ve come to think of the OBFN (Obligatory Bad First Novel) as part of the process.
(*note: the actual number of OBFNs one may have can vary from zero to many. I refer to it in the singular for clarity, and because most of us have at least one.)
You hear it all the time—writing a novel isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon. Very true. It’s a long, sometimes arduous process, and it’s better to think of it in small steps rather than trying to wrap your head around the enormity of it all at once. Who wants to think about actually sitting down and writing twenty-six chapters, or stepping out the door and running twenty-six miles? Better to deal with it a chapter—or a mile—at a time. As Anne Lamott says, just take it bird-by-bird.
But there’s another, less obvious way a novel is like a marathon. Experienced distance runners say it takes you two or three marathons just to get the damn thing figured out. How to train, what to eat and drink, what a realistic pace looks like, etc. (To include a bunch of variables you haven’t even thought of until you’re in the middle of it. Like when you’re a dozen miles from the start and you went out a little too fast and you feel like complete toast and you realize you’re not even halfway done yet and holy crap you feel a cramp coming on. Talk about your sagging middle…)
So yeah, it might take a while to figure out what works for you, writing-wise. And the place this learning curve happens may be during your first novel. And that right there is a great reason to write it—you’re going to learn stuff in the process that you cannot get anywhere else… not from a class or a book or a conference. Stuff about yourself, and about what process works best for you.
So the OBFN is definitely part of the journey, and you should view it as such and not get too twisted up about it. I’m not saying, “Your first novel is going to suck.” It may be great, or not. I’m saying it doesn’t really matter. At least not as much as you think it does in the middle of it. Because there’ll likely be more. And they’ll likely be stronger, building on what you learned during your OBFN.
I didn’t know any of this when I wrote my OBFN. I just thought I was writing an awesome book and I hoped everyone would love it. Alternating with feeling like I was working on the worst piece of garbage ever committed to paper. But either way, it was such a struggle while I was in the middle of it that I couldn’t imagine anything beyond it. (Not helped by the fact that it was a 500-page epic techno-thriller with three or four viewpoint characters… one of whom was a dog.) My mindset was, “This is it--my novel! It had better be perfect, because it’s my one novel!” Of course coupled with, “It had better get published, because it’s my novel!”
Guess what? It wasn’t perfect. And it didn’t get published. (And as it turns out it wasn’t my only novel. But I sure didn’t know that at the time.) I managed to get an agent with it, and he shopped it around to all the usual NYC publishing houses. And he got some nibbles from some of them. (One of whom said, “This was a very close call.” Which in some ways was worse than nothing.) But in the end it wasn’t placed, I was sort of heartbroken, and I went back to writing non-fiction for a while, thinking, “Boy, that was a waste of a year.”
But here’s the secret: It wasn’t. Not at all. I learned so much from that process, and it substantially changed the way I approach writing fiction, dumping all the stuff that didn’t work for me (including a fair amount of ‘conventional wisdom’) and keeping the stuff that did, learning to trust myself a little more. The next manuscript I wrote was placed (with help along the way from a great editor and a different—and amazing—agent) and published. But it absolutely wouldn’t have been without the OBFN preceding it. And if I had to do it over I wouldn’t change anything, including the “failure” of my first novel. Now I look back at it and think, Thank God that wasn’t published, because it honestly wasn’t that good (and a not-so-good book out of the gate can hurt your future prospects), and more important, even with substantial revision it wouldn’t be the kind of book I want to write going forward (it was all plot and no character).
So I’m not saying, “Don’t try, because a significant percentage of first attempts don’t ultimately publish.” I’m saying “By all means, jump in with both feet—write that sucker! But don’t stress over it, because you really can’t lose. Either it’ll be a blockbuster (good on you!) or it won’t, but either way it’s a necessary part of the process, and either way you’ll learn more about novel writing than you would reading a dozen how-to books.”
And either way, it’s a hell of a ride.
So—if you have one—tell us about your OBFN…
“I don’t need time – what I need is a deadline.”
~ Duke Ellington
For our first eighteen-plus years growing up, we have people—typically teachers—giving us assignments. Including parameters: what the assignment’s about, how long it should be, when it’s due, etc.
In kindergarten you do the “work” under the teacher’s direct guidance. In early elementary school they give you assignments with short but discrete deadlines, like overnight. A few years later you might have stuff due in a week, with gentle reminders during the interim. By high school the deadlines are longer, with occasional guidance along the way. In college they basically present the material and the endpoint and it’s strictly on you to keep up or not—the hard truth doesn’t come out until the final. But even then, there’s an overall goal and an overall due date… both of which are given to you by others.
And then you’re out of school and suddenly… nothing. No one giving you creative writing assignments, complete with word count and deadline. No one checking that you stay on task and complete things on time.
In your adult life, no one’s going to come up to you like a thesis advisor and say, “Here’s the assignment: I want you to spend a lot of your downtime letting your imagination wander freely—thinking about different story ideas—until one grabs you and won’t let you go. Develop it in your mind until you have a real feel for the characters, the theme, the basic story arc… Then start writing. Maybe make some notes if that helps your workflow. Or not. But I want you to work on the manuscript regularly—daily when possible—carving out time from other activities if you have to. And when you’re not writing, think about your story. Think about it when you drive, think about it when you shower, think about it when you wash the dishes. Obsess over it. Use these ‘creative thinking sessions’ (which look a lot like daydreaming to non-writers) to deepen the world you’re creating, solve any plotting issues that come up, and make each scene feel as real as possible. Keep writing until you finish the first draft. Celebrate. Then dive back in and shore up the overall theme of the story (which may have only become clear in the writing of it). Ensure your characters are self-consistent. Revise any structural issues, with the goal of having the story be as clear, concise, and captivating as possible. Re-work dialog until it reads like real people, having real conversations. Then polish the manuscript, making sure every chapter, every scene, every paragraph, and every sentence is as strong as it can be, and says exactly what you want to say. When you’ve done all this, consider letting a few trusted reader-friends look at it, and hear their feedback with an open mind… especially if you hear the same comments from multiple readers. Address any issues they find—assuming they have the smell of truth about them—then give everything one last going-over to tighten any remaining loose screws. I want you to have a finished manuscript of 75,000 to 100,000 words—polished and completely ready to submit to an agent or editor—within 12 months. Ready… go!”
Whew! Trust me, no one is going to do that for you.
So you have to do it for yourself.
And you have to treat it exactly as you would any other important assignment from a teacher or supervisor. Plan it out, set a timetable, and make it a priority until it’s finished. I really believe the concept of the “self-assignment” is one of the secrets to creative success, because without it, it’s just too easy to let your creative endeavors fall off the table as other things intrude. It’s the age-old conundrum of forsaking the “important” for the “urgent.” The completion of your writing may not seem urgent on a day-by-day basis, but don’t you dare try to tell me it’s not important.
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.