Advice for aspiring authors of fiction

Edith Wharton

I get mail now and then from readers who are working very hard on their own stories. These are people who are struggling with the very issues and questions and doubts I faced some years ago, and that I still face, in a different way, today. I understand very well what they are experiencing but the help I can offer is limited.

It is a great responsibility to read the work of aspiring authors, and it is also a delicate, involved, and time consuming one. When I have a piece of work in front of me, I hold a person’s hopes and dreams in my hands. The wrong word or approach could crush those aspirations.

This is true no matter what the relationship. I exchange work with my best friend, and we both step carefully even though we give each other honest criticism. Over tea I can say to her “This just doesn’t work for me,” or “The transition here falls short” and she will not be crushed, because she knows that I respect her and her work. She can say to me “You just can’t use that name, it evokes too many associations to X” or “You’ve used this image before” or “huh?” and I’ll just nod, because she’s right and I know she is.

But an author who is just starting out may need commentary on many levels. From how to open a story to where to end a paragraph, from word choice to dialog, from story to character. When I teach introduction to creative writing I don’t let my students write a whole story to start with, simply because they will give me ten pages that require so much commentary it would take me longer to comment than it did for them to write it.

I once had a graduate student in creative writing who was very talented. She was writing her master’s thesis — a collection of short stories — under my direction. She had a whole file of stories she said were “junk”, but I asked to see them anyway. She believed that they were junk because a previous teacher had handed them back to her with the words “not worth the effort” written on them. But in that pile of rejected stories (about seven of them) I found four that had wonderful promise. Strong characters in interesting conflicts, but the rest of the story was in poor shape and needed extensive work. Over a summer I worked with her on those four stories. Each went through ten or even fifteen revisions, and she worked them into something wonderful. But it took tremendous effort.

The moral of that story is that the wrong reader can do a great deal of damage; the right reader is just the beginning of a long writing process.

I am sure that some or even many of the people who ask me to read their work are talented. They may need direction and help, and need it very sincerely. If I am not the person to provide it, what other choices do they have?

My strongest suggestion is to make connections to other writers around you. Community colleges often have classes in creative writing. Even if a new writer feels they are beyond the “introduction” stage, this can be a great way to make contact to others with the same interests and concerns. I found my first writing group (an excellent one) through a creative writing class. The other real advantage of taking such a course is this: it teaches you to accept constructive criticism gracefully, something that is often very hard for beginning writers, but absolutely necessary.

If for whatever reason it isn’t possible to take a course, then there are very good writing communities on-line. I highly recommend the authors’ forum at CompuServe, which includes sections where people submit and critique each other’s work, according to genre. CompuServe was very helpful to me when I was in the early stages of writing Into the Wilderness. Finally, I am always happy to suggest two books which were (and still are) helpful to me. The first one because it looks at the nuts-and bolts of putting together fiction with great insight, wonderful examples, and most of all, common sense; the second one because it is hopeful and wise and funny.

Jane Burroway. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 5th edition July 1999. Addison-Wesley Pub Co. ISBN: 0321026896

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird. October 1995. Anchor Books/Doubleday. ISBN: 0385480016

Writing is a demanding business, but a rewarding one. It’s hard for everybody; take comfort in that. And then get down to work.

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Dear Editor

I’m at that crucial juncture where I’ve got more than half a book done and I need serious input from my editor, except I can’t ask her. My experience has been that it’s a very bad idea to get the editor involved at a crucial juncture, no matter how much you might actually need her. Because the editor is the one who bought the book; s/he went to the editorial board and publisher and pitched the book you wrote, sold them on it, fought for the money, and presented the package to you (or better said, to your agent). So the editor has a vested interest in the book, and cannot be objective. It’s also just plain hard to send a half manuscript to somebody who has ventured their reputation on your ability to write the damn thing when you’re feeling fragile.

Here’s what the cover letter would look like:

Dear Editor:

Why did I ever think I could write this book? Better asked, why did you think I could? Because here I am more than half way through it and nothing seems right. The characters strike me as insipid and unbelievable, the plot sucks, and I can’t write a harmonious sentence to save my life. Obviously I’m done writing, forever.

PS thanks for the great advance.

Possible responses, as I imagine them:

Dear Writer: Crickey, you’re right. It is crap. I see no hope. Send back the advance, today. With 5% interest.

Dear Writer: This is the most beautifully written, funniest, most insightful and moving piece of fiction I’ve ever come across. It’s finished. Here’s a million dollar bonus and a first class plane ticket to come to Manhattan so we can celebrate.

Dear Writer: It needs more (sex/violence/insight/character development); now don’t bother me until you fix it.

Dear Writer: Stop whining and get back to work.

None of this is what I want to hear, really. There’s no editor in the world who can tell me what I need to hear, which is something along these lines:

Dear Writer: Breathe deep. You’ve done this before. You’ve done this many times before. You can do it again. I’m not going to read what you sent because you’re not really ready for me to read it, are you? I thought not. I have total faith in your ability to pull this off. What you need right now is a massage, and an afternoon with a good book and a box of chocolate. Tomorrow you’ll look at this manuscript and know what’s right and, if anything, what needs to be fixed. It will all happen. And if not, you have two advanced degrees and lots of other interests, right?

Towards the end there my inner demon editor got hold of the keyboard again, but that’s the general idea. In a nutshell: you’re alone when you write, and you have to live with it. Pardon me while I go try to gather my senses and see if we have any chocolate in the house.

are we there yet? or, writerly illusions

Karen the Lurker asked me an interesting question a few posts ago: How do you know when you’ve gone over the top?

The discussion was specifically about writing sex scenes, but I’m going to try to answer it in a greater context. It’s one of those questions that people don’t discuss much and here it is: how do I know if what I’ve written is any good?

The short answer: you don’t.

Say you write a short story about your Uncle Max and his shoplifting habit. You work a long time on the story, and now you believe it’s done. It’s as good as you can make it.
You print off a couple copies and you give them to people to read. The range of responses you get is astounding. Your mom wonders if Uncle Max will be offended; Uncle Max wants to know if your mother will be embarrassed. Your best friend says, you know, I really like where you’re going with this. Your best friend doesn’t think it’s done. Should you sit down and start writing again? First you show it to a bigger group of people. Your friend Janet who has some short stories in print says: You know I just can’t get into first person narratives. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Your coworker says: wow, where do you get the time to write? Your boss says, When DID you get the time, and: I liked the bit about the dog.*You find a writing workshop, where other people are working on short stories or novels. After a couple meetings it’s your turn so you submit Uncle Max. The range of the feedback is confusing: Continue reading “are we there yet? or, writerly illusions”

G or PG or Nothing: Unhappy Readers

This entry is part 13 of 15 in the series The Art and Craft of Writing Sex Scenes

This email came in today:

I started out really enjoying the book Lake in the Clouds, but quickly lost that enjoyment when you described the sex scene. How I wish that all books had a rating like the movies so one’s money would not be wasted. If you have any family rated (G or PG) books please let me know.

A-Would-Be Reader

It’s unfortunate that she started with Lake in the Clouds, as the scenes that (I’m guessing) bother her are (in one case at least) more about violence than sex. I really do try to avoid gratuitous sex scenes. If there’s nothing to be gained in character development or plot, I’ll skip over the details.

So I’m sorry to lose a potential reader, but I don’t really see a way around this conflict. I write the story — which isn’t always pretty — to the best of my ability. Some will like my stuff, and others won’t. Such is the nature of the beast. In the ten or so years since the first novel in the series came out, I’ve had a handful of emails from people who tell me why they can’t or won’t read my work.

There’s was the guy who was outraged that a dog was shot (the many human deaths didn’t seem to bother him); there have been other people who objected to violence or sex. A few people decided they didn’t like me personally and so they don’t want to read my novels. All fair enough. I make similar decisions every day.

On the other hand it wouldn’t occur to me to write to an author and tell her (or him) what steps would be necessary for me to become a faithful reader. I might write and express an opinion, but I can’t imagine telling somebody how to tell a story.

Thoughts?

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