Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood #3

Today we continue our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

“Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be. 

If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.

In our last installment, we mentioned the importance of actually writing a first draft. This time, we will cover what to do once you have written it.

Step Three: Get Feedback

Your baby. Your manuscript. “kinda bw bokeh” by ʎɔ. is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Having typed “The End” on a first draft—and having madly yet responsibly celebrated that achievement—you now have the raw material on which you may Revise Your Way to Greatness.

But revision cannot happen in a vacuum. You need to let someone see—and critique—your first draft. 

This brings vulnerability. Maybe you cannot endure it. In that case, forget about being a writer. 

Feeling vulnerable? Photo by Ava Sol on Unsplash.

There is no choice but to open yourself to others. Or do you write only for your own private amusement?

Of course it’s hard. When we’ve poured our time, effort, and care into a story, it becomes our baby. We see all its beauties and none of its faults. 

For this reason, any revision you may attempt before seeking outside opinions is guaranteed to be trivial. You may fix a typo, change a comma to a semicolon, or break one paragraph into two. Because when something is basically perfect, it needs only little tweaks to become fully perfect. Right?

Perspective

Enter the outside critic. 

That would be anybody but yourself. They go by many names: collaborator, writing group member, beta reader, consultant, developmental editor, spouse. All these sources of valuable feedback have one thing in common. 

They are not you.

They offer a perspective you cannot attain on your own.

Here is what will happen: You will share your manuscript with an outside critic, trembling a bit lest your brilliant writing style go unappreciated. You will fear being asked to make your language a bit less flowery—or a bit more flowery. 

Instead, you will find out that your reader did not even grasp what you were saying.

When you wrote “There was a Prussian cast to Emil’s appearance,” you assumed readers would have the impression of a stiff German soldier, maybe even wearing a spiky helmet. But then your actual reader says, “Why was his complexion blue?” 

Von Moltke. Public Domain.

And speaking of Prussians, Field Marshal von Moltke said, “No plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond first contact with the main hostile force.” 

But your “main hostile force” is not hostile at all. It is your reader, who only wants to understand. She wants you to succeed as an author, and all she asks is that you say what you mean, in a way she can understand. Is that so much to ask?

Well, yes. It is. 

Our mother tongue is a marvelous thing. It includes thousands of words, each with multiple meanings. You must string words together in a way that conveys meaning without ambiguity. (We mean, without unintended ambiguity. Purposeful ambiguity is an advanced technique we shall not bother with here.) 

It turns out—stupid as this seems—that the only way to avoid confusing your reader is to go ahead and confuse a few readers, but ask them to report back to you. 

Writing for public consumption is like lobbing artillery shells over a distant horizon. Your first shots fall short, or long, or to left or right of the target. That’s why gunners use spotters—remote observers who report where the shell actually landed. Then they change their aim and shoot again. 

A 155 mm artillery shell fired by a United States 11th Marine Regiment M-198 howitzer. DoD photo by Corporal Branden P. O’Brien, U.S. Marine Corps. Public Domain.

That’s what you must do as an author. 

Feedback

Perhaps you noticed the use of the plural—readers, spotters, observers—in the paragraphs above. That’s because any one outside critic will only trip over a few of the obstacles you have put in the way of understanding. You need reports from several readers to find all, or even most, of them. 

Bill Martinez, a veteran writing coach, calls obstacles of this sort “snags.” They snag the reader’s attention away from the story, to focus instead on some verbal tic or point of confusion. You want to eliminate as many snags as you can.

This kind of feedback is so essential to your success as a writer that you need systematic ways to solicit, interpret, and exploit it. We recommend a tiered approach such as the following:

A first reader. The very first person with whom you share your first draft. It could be your spouse—if your spouse is intelligent and supportive, yet unflinchingly honest—and if your marriage can survive such honest critiques. 

Or your first reader could be someone else with those same qualities. Someone whose judgment you trust, whose views you cannot help but respect. 

If you cannot find such a person, then skip the first reader. But if you are lucky enough to have a first reader, that person can save you time, effort, and embarrassment by short-circuiting your worst ideas before they go any further.

One (or more) writers’ group(s). You need to join a small group of writers—no more than a dozen or so—who meet regularly to read and critique one another’s work. Wherever there are writers, such groups exist.

Writers’ mutual critique groups are all different, but the ones that work well have some things in common: (1) They meet regularly, usually once or twice a month. (2) They have procedures to allot reading, critiquing, and discussion time fairly among members. (3) They operate in a collegial fashion, with members offering sharp, yet supportive, critiques. The guiding hand of a seasoned, congenial chairperson/convener can foster these goals. 

When you find such a group, treasure it and respect its ethic. You may need to lurk for months on its fringes to gain familiarity and to inherit a slot in the rotation of works to be critiqued. 

Whether you are new or well-established in the group: Speak respectfully. Don’t hog the conversation. Diligently read the other members’ work and contribute your two cents’ worth, orally or in writing, or both. As you learn to give criticism constructively, learn also to receive it the same way. There’s nothing wrong with defending your own methods. But don’t do so out of a knee-jerk reflex that blinds you to the benefit of others’ ideas. 

If you can get into one such group, that’s great. If you can be in two, that’s even better. 

Beta readers. When you have revised your first draft, based on feedback from your first reader and your writers’ group colleagues, you may feel the resulting second draft is in pretty good shape. 

Disabusing you of that foolish notion is the task of a small corps of beta readers.

Beta readers agree to read your entire manuscript and give you feedback. Choose them for specific strengths they bring. One beta reader may be expert in a field related to your book’s content. Another may be a writer of strong, graceful prose. Another may have a special connection with your story’s main character. Yet another may know the publishing industry, or may simply be a person of rare perception and judgment.

“Sensitivity readers” are beta readers who can alert an author to passages that may offend readers based on racial or other group identities. People with such insights can be of value—their services may even be mandated by an agent or publisher—to avoid alienating large groups of readers. 

The best beta readers are intelligent, unsparing, distinguised, and willing to work for free. Some beta readers, however, charge for their services. And their advice may be worth paying for. That’s a decision you will have to make.

Application

When you get feedback on your work, what do you do with it?

Evaluate each comment. What’s it worth? Should you make a change, or stand pat? 

Remember: You are the author. It’s your work.

Some notes you get will be well-meant but ill-founded. Thank the originator graciously and move on. 

Some comments will strike right to the bone and force a deep reconsideration of your approach. Major revisions are a lot of work. But it’s better you received this feedback now, not later. The earlier you discover a problem, the better.

Most comments will fall between the two extremes just cited. You should consider them, but how seriously should you take them? 

If you get the same comment from two or three sources, you must address the issue. It’s not one person’s isolated impression.

But there is a danger that revision may lead you away from your first intention. The larger the revision, the greater the danger of undermining your own creative impulse.

Here’s a conservative approach: Correct your draft in the least obtrusive way possible. That is, address the issue, but undercorrect slightly. You may enrich your narrative and short-circuit the snag, yet without changing the rhythm or purpose of your prose.

Editors

Eventually, your outside critics will change from “readers” to “editors.” This change is inevitable if your work is to be published. 

If you achieve “traditional” publication, by a royalty-paying book publisher or an established periodical publication, your work will be assigned to an editor who works for the publisher. If your book will be self-published, then you will hire an editor to prepare the manuscript for publication. (You could skip this step, but we’re assuming you don’t want to publish a pile of crap. And no, we don’t believe that you—besides being the writer and the publisher—have the skills and objectivity to do a good job editing your own work.)

If your work is intended for traditional publication rather than self-publication, you may think you’ve escaped the need to pay for editing, since the publisher will do that. Well . . . maybe.

But if you send your work to agents and publishers, and you find that even those few who actually read the work are not impressed, then maybe you would benefit from hiring an editor for your own enlightenment. 

There are, in general, two kinds of editors: developmental editors and line editors. A developmental editor will help you identify structural weaknesses—major problems of plot and characterization, if you’re a novelist, or of general organization, if you write nonfiction. You may resist, resent, or reject the feedback of a good developmental editor. His advice may send you back to the early stages of story development. You may need to rip out and and rewrite large sections. But if you receive his feedback with an open mind, you may find the extra work is warranted.

A line editor, also called a copy editor, will help you correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and conform the copy to all the requirements of the Chicago Manual of Style or other governing style guide. This is detail-oriented work, with which many writers have little patience. But if you submit a manuscript that falls short of the exacting standards of the publishing industry, its other merits may not be enough to save it.

In a Nutshell

Whether you get their services for free or need to pay, outside critics—be they first readers, writers’ group colleagues, beta readers, or professional editors—are an essential step on your path to publication.

We live in an abundance of riches. The literary world is flooded with so many good manuscripts that your work must be first-rate to attract any attention at all. There is no shame in admitting that you need feedback from others to make it so.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: “Step Four: Associate”

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood #2

Today we continue our series on “Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.”

 “Simple” is not the same as “easy.” The six things you must do to pluck fame and fortune from the slushpile of rejected hopes are as simple as any six steps can be. 

If they were easy, everybody would be Stephen King.

Step One was “Skip Straight to Literary Lion.” 

This week we feel compelled to point out that writing is also an essential prerequisite.

Step Two: Write

At some point, every writer asks, “Am I really a writer?” Or, “How do I know if I’m a writer?” 

The simplest answer is best. If you write, you’re a writer.

Author’s Guild logo

This answer does not rest on anybody’s laurels. You need not be a member of the Authors’ Guild to be a writer—though, if you are a writer, it’s not a bad guild to be a member of. 

You need not have won a National Book Award, a Pulitzer Prize, or a Newbery Medal. 

You need not even have published a book, an article, or a poem to be a writer. 

If someone asks what you do, just say, “I’m a writer.” This will get you past impostor syndrome. Unless you don’t actually write. 

So write.

As to where you write, when you write, how often you write, how much you write, whether or not anybody reads what you write, whether or not anybody likes what you write—these are details. 

Just get something down on paper. 

(When we say “on paper,” we mean to include virtual representations of paper, as in a computer file.)

Discipline

Maybe you already have something down on paper. Maybe you need to add something to it, so what you have on paper becomes a more complete something. It could be a story, a screenplay, a poem, a novel, a novella, an essay, or a memoir.

Your first object is to write—and to keep writing. We’re talking about discipline, which belongs to what is called “the craft” of writing. 

Writers all have different methods, or different approaches to the actual task of putting something down on paper. 

Some write before breakfast; others write after lunch. 

Some write on a laptop; others use goose quill pens on antique parchment paper. 

Your writing nest. Photo by Roberto Nickson on Unsplash.

Some write from a beach house overlooking a blue lagoon; others write in rented office space to get away from family and friends; others write on the kitchen table while feeding six hungry children. 

Some write in absolute silence; others type to the tune of a Death Metal soundtrack.

It’s all okay. Your way is your way. But the more rarefied your minimal writing conditions become, the more obstacles you place in the way of getting anything down on paper. 

By all means, find the time and place that works best for you—but if things are less than perfect, write anyway. Do not let the perfect defeat the good.

Output

How much, and with what regularity, should you write? How much, and how regularly, can you write? There are no wrong answers to this question. But the more you can write, the more you will write. 

Some well-known authors apply the seat of their pants to their writing chair and do not rise until they have produced a thousand new words. Or they write flat-out for four hours each day and stop in mid-sentence when their buzzer goes off. 

If you need to quantify your efforts in that way, go for it. But one size does not fit all. Some of us just write whenever we can squeeze it in. If a lot of things bubble up inside you that you need to write down, that’s as good a way as any.

So relax. Your Muse will not fail you. Just write. 

We hate to even mention “writer’s block,” but we suppose we must, even though it’s akin to whispering “homesick” at a summer camp full of junior Brownies. 

Some writers insist writer’s block is a myth, that there is no such thing.

We prefer to say that if writer’s block exists, it applies to non-writers, not to writers. And the beauty part of that is, you get to decide each day whether you are the one or the other.

First Draft

We noted above that you may already have something down on paper. We gently suggested that you keep on writing. When you reach the place where it makes sense to type “The End,” go ahead and do so.

Then do a little victory dance, eat a Twinkie, and congratulate yourself. You have achieved that which many people never achieve. You have completed the first draft of a literary work. Well done, thou good and faithful servant.

But know that the achievement you just celebrated is the start of a long process. First drafts are inherently defective. 

Some writers have even said, “All first drafts are shit.”  We prefer more moderate expressions.

But the fact remains that all first drafts need to be improved. No author ever rolled a first draft out of his old Underwood typewriter, sent it off to Random House, and received a million-dollar advance in the next mail. 

(Harold Robbins claimed that was his process, but he was a notorious liar.)

Suffice it to say, before you can begin to improve your first draft, you must have a first draft to improve. Thus our constant admonition: “Keep writing.” 

Revision

When you go back and read your first draft, you will want to change something, and that’s revision. 

For many of us, revision is the fun part of writing. We are editors at heart and love to chop away at dull prose, spruce it up, and bring it to life. And that is a good and holy thing. 

But if you are one of us—one of those who would rather edit than write—try to resist the urge.

James Patterson. Photo by Susan Solie-Patterson, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

You may be the greatest reviser on God’s green earth. But if you start with a poorly conceived first draft, no clever amendments to the copy will revise it into greatness. 

That is why they pay James Patterson a lot of money.

We fear, Dear Reader, that you must acquire the knack of putting a good story into your first draft right from the start.

Unless you are a “natural storyteller,” to build a compelling story, one worth writing down with the best words and phrases you can bring to it, is an art that takes many years, and lots of practice, to acquire.

So you’d better start now.

Square One

There you are: Just you and your keyboard. What are you going to do?

You start with an idea. We can’t help you there; it has to be your own idea. The good news is, there are a lot of ideas you could have that will deliver the goods, depending what you choose to do with them.

Let your idea become a person. A specific person, a character with a need and a desire. The story you are going to write will be her story. She is the “progagonist.” Her chief attribute, above all others, is action. 

A protagonist takes action prompted by his or her needs, to meet his or her desires, and despite serious obstacles.

Here is where it gets tricky, Dear Reader. It may be hard to put yourself in the protagonist’s shoes. Unless you are a swashbuckler in real life, a protagonist is different from you and me. 

When faced with the demands of life, we hem and we haw. We shilly-shally and we dilly-dally, in a wishy-washy way.

Not our protagonist. The protagonist plunges right in and commits herself to a course of action, whether impulsively or with a carefully calculated plan. 

She acts. Right now. 

Before you, the author, can catch your breath, the protagonist has dragged you into a conflict, a problem, a nearly-insoluble dilemma. 

The protagonist will have to use her wits and battle her way out. So the one thing the protagonist cannot be is passive.

Protagonism

Writers sometimes say: “The protagonist must protag.”

That may be the main principle to observe in writing your first draft. 

The protagonist must protag.

In your new identity as a literary lion (see Step One), you are no doubt reading books and articles about story structure—books that break or analyze your story’s plot into definable acts, or beats, or “stages of the Hero’s Journey.” All of these concepts are fine and dandy. They will help you out of tight spots. We encourage you to learn and use them. 

But none of them will work out well unless your protagonist is active. And if your protagonist is active, he or she will organically create the story structure, just by protagging all over the story’s landscape. 

Keep your protagonist protagging until you come to some satisfying end. 

Then you can start revising. 

BUT

You cannot revise out of thin air, Dear Reader. For successful revision, you must expose your first draft to intelligent readers and get well-considered feedback. Which will be the subject of our next article.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: “Step 3: Get Feedback” 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author