Thursday, July 29, 2010


Another thing I work on in revision, maybe after the first couple passes, is adding physical details. I’m a writer who underwrites in the early stages of my work, so what I do at some point in the revision process is look for windows or doors, places where the manuscript needs or can benefit from more details, places I can enter to add these details. I want to slow things down and I want to make the reader more involved in the scenes.

Overwriters should go through the manuscript looking for places to cut. They’ll be trying to recognize the excesses of writing in scenes, the repetition.

I think it’s worth going through a revision focusing on one or two things. I’m never entirely successful at this. I always get sidetracked by other problems, but even just the effort of focusing will make a writer more aware of a weakness.
Anyone else have a weakness in their writing they’re aware of?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

It's not enough to write well

I was reading this interview with several editors and they were talking about how they pick books for their list. We’ve all heard the “I just don’t feel like I would be the best editor for this book” and “I just wasn’t excited enough to take this one” etc. etc… But what the he#* does that mean? Basically it means that, for whatever reason, the editor can’t see himself or herself married to this book for a year or more. The commitment is huge. They have to be able to read the book a dozen times without pulling out their hair, and they have to be able to convince others in the house to agree it’s a good buy and they have to be so excited about it that they’ll stay excited for over the year it will take to publish. They have to, in short, love the book.

Almost all the editors said most of the manuscripts submitted to them were fairly well written. Editors, unlike agents, have, in most cases, someone between them and the writers who submit to them. Agents. (Only a few houses will take submissions directly from writers). So I guess it makes sense that most of what editors read is mostly well written. But it got me thinking; it’s not enough just to write well.

I know there are other factors besides the writing. There’s the fashion of publishing—what’s hot, what’s not, for example. Luck. Connections. Also simply the personal taste of the editor, and also whether they had to wait too long in line that morning for their Double Soy Latte, are having bad hair day, had their foot stomped on in the subway, but I think it’s worth noting that a lot of people WRITE WELL.

I’m talking, as I think these editors were, not only about being able to use language well, but also understanding the basics of fiction: characterization, plot, setting etc…How to move characters around and tell a story. I think these editors were saying most of the manuscripts they read could do these things. (That’s quite an accomplishment in and of itself. That puts a writer in the top few percentile maybe. Let me give you some totally unreliable numbers. I’ve heard two agents say they get around 4000-5000 queries in a year. One agent who said this said he took on two clients out of that 4000-5000. It makes sense that agents have to be picky. How many clients can they represent? But those numbers amazed me. Jennifer Jackson, an agent that blogs, gives a tally of queries she receives and each week and how many partial or whole manuscripts she asks to read. OF COURSE THIS DOES NOT MEAN SHE AGREES TO REPRESENT THE WRITERS, but they make it to level two where she’ll read the full manuscript. Here’s the last two weeks:
92 read queries, 0 requests for manuscripts
153 read queries, 1 request for manuscript.
My point is that with all this rejection going on it does make sense that what editors see will be more polished than most writers are able to do. )

So what does it take then to get a novel published? Love. An editor can’t just think to themselves, “This person writes a pretty sentence” or “Interesting characters in this chapter” or “I love the description of the world these characters are in. Not bad at all on the characters either. Not bad. ” EVERYTHING has to work in such a way that an editor can’t stop themselves from loving it.

For me, a unique way of looking at the world and a unique voice (and just about every editor mentioned the need for a unique voice to attract their attention) will go a long way toward my buying and loving a book.

It may not be enough to write well, but you have to do that first. It’s just that you have to do everything else well too. Writing and reading will certainly help you get there. But consider your weaknesses in writing when you’re doing all this writing. Just writing a lot of words will improve your writing but if you keep making the same mistakes over and over again the improvement will be slow. I know some of my weaknesses in writing and I struggle to make them stronger every time I write. You should, too. And find your voice and your particular way of looking at the world and don't let yourself be persuaded to make your writing more like what's popular or more mainstream. What's most unique about your writing is what's most unique about you: the way you look at the world.

Or so I think today.

Monday, July 19, 2010

What's a writer?

When people ask me why I write I have to say it’s because I can’t help myself. That’s the way it is now. I love it. I’m addicted to it. I need to do it. But, of course, that wasn’t always my answer. I started out writing because it was fun and I secretly hoped it would make me rich and famous and able to work in my pajamas all day. Unless I was traveling the world, of course, in which case I would gladly wear clothes.

I did love to read.

I did love stories.

But, like many people, I had crazy ideas about what writers did. I thought they worked a few hours a day and the rest of the time they did whatever they wanted. Hung out by the pool, discussed writerly things over drinks, etc... Now, that’s an absurd notion, but as I’ve grown older it’s also one that I would hate to be true. One of the joys of life is doing work you love, whatever that work is. Being passionate about it, struggling with it, these are the things that bring real satisfactions. People who love their work are the lucky ones.

What I’m getting at is unrealistic expectations aren’t always bad. Sometimes you start in that place and as you begin to make your way your ideas about what you want change. You end up in a different place.

Or so I think today.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


The old “to outline or not to outline” question came up at a recent writerly social event I was at. I’ve heard many writers on this subject. Sometimes writers get very adamant about their position. They point their pens menacingly and say, OF COURSE YOU SHOULD OUTLINE. OR--OF COUSE YOU SHOULDN’T OUTLINE.

There are various degrees of outliners. Some say they just put down some vague notions about plot and character knowing they will change as they write. Just having them down somehow makes them more confident though. Some writers write long outlines, ten or twenty pages, and make them very detailed.

Other writers, the majority I believe, take a more iintuitivel approach to writing. They try to get in the flow of their story and push it forward in what they feel is a more organic way. While the outliners may get confidence from a sense of where they’re going, the writer who doesn’t outline feels he or she will be more likely to breathe life into his or her characters by allowing them to lead—in the sense that the story flows out of what they do and don’t do, want and are forced to face to get what they want etc…

Like most writers, my methods vary somewhat from manuscript to manuscript. I’ve never been successful at outlining a novel though and always begin first drafts in the stumbling way of the intuitive writer, living in uncertainty from day to day as I create a story, characters, world. But lately, though I can’t outline when I’m doing initial drafts, I have come to outlining after those initial drafts and one revision.

I think the intuitive approach and outlining aren’t mutually exclusive. I do feel that the intuitive approach in early drafts gives the writer a better chance at breathing life into his characters and stories. But I also think that sticking to this intuitive approach through revision may not serve the story, particularly structurally. So I think a more analytical approach, one that might include outlining and definitely includes chapter summaries, can make writers see weaknesses that they might be blind to. It is also possible that the intuitive writer might use outlining earlier in the evolution of a manuscript to analyze certain sections that are giving him or her trouble.

Or so I think today.

Friday, July 9, 2010


POSTED (Albert Einstein was definitely a big brain kind of guy but as a young man he responded so slowly to questions that his parents and teachers suspected he was mentally disabled. Also, he did poorly in school and failed his college entrance exams the first time. Go figure.)
Most writers are smart. Yes. But how smart? Are they, for instance, the smartest person in a room of people? Depends on the room, I suppose. If the room is The Poodle Dog Lounge on an all-you-can-drink-for-ten-dollars night, the writer’s chances are pretty good. On the other hand, if it’s a room full of, say, astrophysicists, rocket scientists, and brain surgeons, I’d have to say probably not.

Most writers, in a crowded room of intelligent people, probably won’t be the smartest (in an IQ kind of way) person. Writers are smart, but there are other qualities that count for as much or more than IQ. Creativity, of course, is the big one. This isn’t measured in IQ tests. The whole intimate relationship with language etc…etc… And, of course, there’s the desire and determination thing, which can take a person a long way no matter where they begin. Here’s my point: you don’t have to be brilliant to be a writer. Oh, don’t worry, big brains, you can still be a writer. But if you look at the tribe of successful writers you’ll find a lot of smart, very creative, very determined people. You probably won’t find any more brilliant people than you’d find working at the post-office.

I feel the need to say this because I’ve had people say to me before that they worried if they were smart enough to be a writer. That’s the wrong worry, I think. Worrying about finding a particular voice and style, the right rhythm for the language of a WIP, these are good things to focus on. Maybe there is such a thing as Writers' Intelligence, but luckily for most us only a small fraction of it is innate talent; the rest can be learned.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Wolves and Sheep

My sheepdog is 105 pounds but looks even larger because of all the hair. In the winter, we let it grow long, let him get back to his primitive self. That hair was supposed to help protect sheepdogs from the inevitable wolf bites when they protected sheep. Naturally, when you’re protecting sheep, you have to expect to meet some wolves.

This makes me think about the wolves and sheep we contend with in our fiction. What I notice some writers doing and what I’ve done myself is sometimes allow a character’s negative qualities to be smoothed over because—no good reason. Maybe it’s because our job as writers is to know all our characters, and so we begin to identify with all of them, and we have an urge to make them stronger and wiser and kinder than they are. This has several negative effects on a manuscript. One major negative is that it weakens conflict in any number of ways.

I think this problem is something a writer can watch out for, particularly in revision, and try to correct. Let your characters be as bad as they need to be, as whatever they need to be, and allow this to lead them to conflict with other characters. It’s conflict that forces the writer into situations that build story, character, etc… as well as tension.

Or so I think today.