The startling tenth step, Gentle Reader, involves what our old friend Kafka might call “Metamorphosis.” Or even, as our old friend Ovid would have it, “Metamorphoses.”
The difference between the two—one letter—decided the question on a recent Jeopardy! answer.
But I digress.
What I mean is: Signing a book contract—the very definition of success in the literary game—changes you instantly into A New Thing Altogether.
As a HUGE FAN of this blog, you must surely have noticed that Your New Favorite Writer did set forth for the benefit of all, in public, beginning 4 August 2020, Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood. Those steps were, in order:
Step One—Cut the line. Go ahead and become a literary lion from the start, before you have a speck of achievement to point to.
Step Two—Write. Actually put something down on paper. To be a writer, one must write.
Step Three—Get feedback. Show your work to somebody and consider using their response to help you improve that work.
Step Four—Associate. To soften the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer, you must find your tribe.
Step Five—Submit. You must offer your work to the only judges who really count: Publishers.
Step Six—Build your platform. Gather about you, on social media and elsewhere, an army of friends who will help you sell your book.
In outlining these six steps, I cautioned repeatedly that although they are simple, they are not easy. Each step requires courage, cunning, and purity of purpose. If they were easy, everyone would be J. K. Rowling, or maybe Barbara Cartland.
Having set forth the Six Simple Steps, I smiled with satisfaction, knowing I had done a good work—even though I, myself, had as yet no published book to my name.
As to that . . .
. . . the beast remained elusive. Having applied the Six Simple Steps to my own case, I began to come close to publication. I could smell it. I could amost taste it.
I was offered a contract on my debut historical novel, but had to turn it down! Can you believe that? It was gut-wrenching. But this turned out to be a necessary first step to getting a good, fair contract with a publisher I could work with.
It was my good fortune that a couple of publishers who did not want to publish my novel took the time to write very helpful notes of rejection. Ever note, Dear Reader: A helpful rejection is better than a harmful acceptance.
I added a Seventh Step to the Six Simple Steps. Step Seven was the same as Step Two: Write. Or to put it more precisely, Rewrite. The two explanatory rejections told me that the book wasn’t good enough yet. This was a hard pill to swallow, but as Donald Maass observed, “At some point attention must be paid to the writing.”
Steps Eight and Nine were just like Step Seven, only more so. Write, write, write. I plunged in and spent a year rewriting the book, from tooth to tail with the help of stellar book coach Christine De Smet.
This rewrite was radical. It gave me, at last, a book worth publishing. One of my two rejectors agreed to look at it again, and bought it.
The Next Step
This brings us back to where we started, and my discovery of Step Ten in the Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood. You may as well prepare for it now, as it involves metamorphosis.
The instant you sign a book publication contract, you change from a writer into a salesman. All your waking thoughts are questions you never asked yourself before. How can I maximize pre-publication sales? Where are book clubs that would like to read my book? How can I get a celebrity to interview me? Do I need to buy a weather-proof canopy for outdoor book fairs? How does that Square thing work? Should I wear an ascot to signings, or just my regular bib overalls?
I kid you not.
It’s no good saying, “It won’t happen to me. I’ll remain an artist, above the fray.” No. You will not find that possible.
It’s no good cursing the book industry for forcing you into this commercial role. The publisher did not do it to you. The bookstores did not do it to you. You volunteered by hard, persistent literary work. You did it to yourself.
To begin with, you wrote the damn thing. You poured yourself into it, day by day, for years. You wrote, you rewrote, you cut the line, you got feedback, you found your tribe, you hammered away at your platform. And you kept writing.
By the time you had a book good enough to attract somebody’s notice, you were so deeply involved that you could not bear to think that nobody, or only a few loyal friends, would read it.
You can’t help wanting more. If you don’t get at least a respectable level of sales, you’ll be disappointed. So you plunge into the prospecting, the interviewing, the personal appearances, the social media, and hope for a light at the end of the tunnel.
A good friend of mine—a wonderful author with a powerful book—got so absorbed in the commercial end of things that he didn’t write a word of new material for two years. He’s writing again now, but he says it’s like pulling teeth to get started again.
I count myself lucky. I’m still writing a bit of new material, in the odd moments.
But don’t think I’m not absorbed in my new occupation of selling books. I just can’t help myself.
By the way, there’s still time for you to pre-order Price of Passage at a 30 percent discount. Just go to https://www.dxvaros.com/price-of-passage-preorders. But don’t delay. After 22 August, the price is full retail ($19.95 paperback; $4.99 e-book).
Do you recall, Dear Reader, when I said that to be a Literary Lion you must write? Or words to that effect? Yes, that’s right: Step Two in my Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood.
I may have neglected to mention that, even when you go on to other steps, such as getting feedback, hobnobbing with other literary lions, and submitting your work for publication, you still must continue to write.
Case in point: Your New Favorite Writer.
State of Play
At present, I am juggling multiple balls. Besides posting this blog, I have a finished historical novel manuscript, The Maelstrom, being considered by more than one traditional publisher. I am polishing another historical novel—a coming-of-age story about a young boy, Izzy Mahler, in the 1950s—and will soon begin seeking a publisher for it. I am always, of course, on the lookout for likely places to submit some of my completed short stories and poems.
But while all this is going on, I must keep writing.
Which brings us to the current project.
I am writing a memoir—have written only a few thousand words of first draft so far, and I don’t know where it’s going. This in itself is odd—because you would think I’d know the story. Writing a memoir is like writing a novel, except that you generally have some idea how the novel ends. In the case of a memoir, you know the whole story in great detail but can’t figure out what parts make it a story, and what parts make it an insufferable catalog.
How does memoir differ from autobiography? They could be the same—but not always.
I like to think of an autobiography as a document written by a person of note. (That would exclude Your New Favorite Author.) Benjamin Franklin wrote an autobiography. Lincoln Steffens wrote an autobiography, but it’s arguably more a memoir. Harry Golden wrote many memoirs or autobiographical pieces, but they might better be considered miscellaneous collections of reminiscences. That doesn’t mean they’re not worth reading, but they are a different genre.
The Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant is a great autobiography as well as a great memoir.
Confused yet? If you’re not, you just haven’t been paying attention.
Consider: “What makes Larry F. Sommers worthy of an autobiography?” Absolutely nothing—in the sense that I’m neither Hillary Clinton nor Jon Bon Jovi.
On the other hand, if you’re talking memoir, well—I’ve lived a long time, learned a lot of things, and have something to say. Memoir-writing guru Marion Roach Smith says memoir is about what you know after what you’ve been through.
I’m only now beginning to understand it’s not as simple that. Maybe I’ll sign up for her course.
The structure of a memoir is crucial. I’ve got a slam-bang, surefire opening chapter—a riveting account of a reconnaissance flight from my time as a member of the U.S. Air Force. But what comes after that? How do I integrate the opening chapter with all the other things I want to include?
“All the other things I want to include” is a big fat hint. The trouble is, I want to leave in way too much.
In seventy-six years, one may accumulate a lot of experiences and quite a bit of wisdom. But good writing, a book you would want to read, depends on selectivity.
Every bit of my life seems tremendously significant. To tell it all would take millions of words. Even if I live another thirty years, there may not be time enough to write it all down. And then—who would read it?
Martion Roach Smith also says that all non-fiction, memoir included, is an argument. To wield the razor effectively on one’s own narrative, one starts by knowing what the argument is. Then you only leave in that which supports it.
So here’s where it gets tricky: I don’t know what I’m trying to say, and I won’t know until I write it down. My writing is not the triumphant display of certainties already discovered but a stumbling exploration of what the past may mean.
So in tackling a memoir, I’m being forced to change from an outliner to a pantser. I’ve got to just write, until I get a glimmer of the path forward.
The only comfort is, you can tell is when it’s not working. You can feel when your prose is floundering. Then you need to back up and do something different.
“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 light of further experience scaling the slopes of Parnassus, today I offer Step 7 of 6:
In 2016 I started writing my first novel, Freedom’s Purchase—a historical epic featuring Norwegian immigrants involved in America’s struggle against slavery during the period of Abolition and the Civil War.
It took a couple of years to write the first draft. I thought the first draft was already pretty good. Several months were spent revising the book based on feedback I received from trusted beta readers. In February 2019 I began to query literary agents and publishers to get it published.
Many novelists today self-publish, with varying degrees of commercial success. But I aspired to be a writer, not a publisher. My aim was to write a book that one of the Big Five, or at least an established independent press, would want to publish. In other words, I would rely on the acquisition apparatus of the traditional book trade as my yardstick of literary merit.
Ups and Downs
It’s a tough way to go. You submit a query letter, usually with a brief plot synopsis, to many literary agents and publishers before you encounter even one who is willing to read your manuscript.
Last September I received a publication offer from a small publisher in the South. I was overwhelmed with gratitude; yet in October I declined the offer. It may seem a counter-intuitive move, but I had my reasons. (The whole sad tale is told here.)
I kept on querying publishers. I worked and re-worked my query letter and synopsis, honing them to perfection. Within a month, I got a request for a full manuscript read from a large and very active New York publisher. Their fiction editor read my book the very next weekend and sent me the following:
I really enjoyed the premise as well as the writing, and while I enjoyed the Norwegian hook, the plot didn’t always feel big or different enough to really stand out among the competition in the way I thought it would need to. The market is very competitive these days, so I feel we’d have a tough time getting this off the ground.
It was a rejection, but the kind of rejection you like to get. It included specific feedback, which is always encouraging to a writer. My plot wasn’t “big or different enough.” Hmm.
Then, in January, I queried a small, selective, high-quality independent press, and its owner/publisher requested a full manuscript read. His response came a month later:
I’m afraid I’m going to take a pass on this one. The plot as described in the query had not begun to develop in the first 50 pages, and I frankly lost interest in the story at that point. You might want to consider rearranging some of your chapters, assumed the escaped slave story did eventually materialize, and have it interspersed with the character/scene development that was all at the beginning.
Another rejection—again, a very nice one, and accompanied by even more specific feedback. He even made suggestions as to how my book could be improved.
What to Do?
A close friend and key advisor, who really knows her stuff, suggested I do a quick reshuffle of chapters and send it back to the owner/publisher. She said his feedback was virtually an invitation to resubmit. I agreed with her about that. But with the greatest respect for my trusted friend, I disagreed about the quick reshuffle.
My two helpful rejectors had made me realize something: I had gotten so good at query letters and plot summaries that when professionals read my book, the manuscript did not fulfill the promise of the synopsis. In some sense, they would rather read the promotional material than the book itself. This is not a good sign.
Considering their specific comments, I realized they tallied well with my own thoughts about the book. I would love to believe that I wrote a terrific novel that these dolts simply aren’t discerning enough to appreciate. But I would be a fool to stand on my greatness and fail to hear what these astute individuals are telling me.
The bright spot is that, having thought about it—a lot—I have some ideas. These ideas require a complete, tooth-to-tail rewrite that would substantially improve the plot. It’s a lot of work, but it’s the least I can do to bring you, Dear Reader, a work that you will not just like but love.
So again I am doing the counterintuitive thing. At age 75 I embark on a quest which will add at least half a year, if not more, to my investment in Freedom’s Purchase. All while I have plenty of other projects to work on. But then, what else is there for a literary lion to do?
Writers read a lot of books. Some of the books we read are books about how to write books. One is Writing the Breakout Novel, by Donald Maass. I am only now getting to it, and I find it an interesting and useful read.
It probably will not tell me everything I need to know. None of them do. But Donald Maass is worth listening to. A top literary agent over four decades, he has seen everything, and he knows what can be sold and what can’t.
He also knows everything about how books are sold—all the tricks of editing, promotion, and clout. But he said one thing that stopped me in my tracks. A single sentence, almost hidden partway down a penultimate paragraph.
“At some point attention must be paid to the writing.”
He’s right, of course. Writers, for understandable reasons, get swept up in marketing and promotion, platform building and networking. But you and I would much rather read a book that’s riveting than one that’s not—riveting because it’s well-crafted, with appealing characters who undergo great moral and personal challenges in a plot with lots of twists and turns.
Have patience, Gentle Reader. We’ll get there. I’m going back to the keyboard. I’ll let you know when something happens.
Dear Reader: Last week, Your New Favorite Writer had a close encounter with Fame and Fortune.
Don’t worry, I escaped.
Here’s how it happened.
In 2016, I began to write a book, a fictional saga of Norwegian immigrants farming the Illinois prairie just before, and during, the Civil War. Two years later—after I had written “The End” at the bottom; had sought and received input from a squad of beta readers; had revised and polished my way through innumerable drafts—I titled it Freedom’s Purchase and set out to get it published.
If writing a novel is hard, it’s harder yet to get it published by a traditional contract. By that I mean an agreement where the publisher pays the author, not vice-versa.
You need a literary agent to sell your manuscript to one of the “Big Five” or their many subsidiary imprints. These publishers seldom, if ever, consider a manuscript from an unrepresented writer.
Yet it’s very difficult to get an agent. There are thousands of literary agents, but there are millions of new writers.
After querying dozens of agents, a process in which I am still engaged, I chose to focus more attention on independent publishers. These are the smaller presses—often regional or specialized—that are neither the Big Five nor their wholly-owned offshoots.
Most independent publishers will accept a query directly from a writer without an agent. Though smaller than the Big Five, they are perfectly fine, capable publishing businesses that print and sell thousands of books every year. In aggregate, millions of books.
If such a publisher could be found, one astute enough to recognize the quality of Freedom’s Purchase, it might be exactly the right match.
A Full Manuscript Request
In querying a publisher, one must follow that publisher’s submission guidelines precisely. They will want some combination of (1) a brief query letter, (2) a one-page plot synopsis, (3) an author biography, and (4) a small sample of the actual text, usually the first chapter or two.
Every author hopes that a publisher will respond by asking to read the whole book. A full manuscript request means your book is under serious consideration. They would not waste time reading it unless something about your initial submission hinted at a successful collaboration. Right?
Last April, I received this email from a small publishing house in the Mid-South:
Your query for Freedom’s Purchase interests us, and we would like to see more. Please send the full manuscript as a Word document, and we will get back to you as soon as possible.
Music to my ears!
I sent the full manuscript and settled down to wait for “as soon as possible” to arrive.
So I found ways to pass the time. Nevertheless, my patience had gone threadbare by the time I received this message in early July:
Freedom’s Purchase showcases an interesting plot along with a realistic presentation of life in America during the 1800s. The characters are intriguing and readers can become invested in them. There are several weaknesses, some of which render the novel unpublishable.
“Unpublishable.” Oh, no!
However, at the top they had said:
Thank you for sending Freedom’s Purchase for consideration. We would like to see it again after the suggestions below have been addressed.
To sum up: My novel was unpublishable, but they’d like to see it again.
I took this as a strong buying signal. However, “the suggestions below” were terse and incoherent to the point of being bizarre.
“They’re toying with me,” I thought. So I wrote back, asking ever so tactfully for clearer instructions.
Two weeks later, the publisher sent clarifying comments. Even these were terse and slightly mystifying. But they were just specific enough that I could infer some clues on how to proceed.
After a week of marathon revising, I sent the new, improved manuscript on July 22. I included a cover email cataloging the changes, just to make sure they noticed.
The Long Wait, Part II
My re-submission must have gone to the back of the queue again.
I wrote more blog posts, added chapters to my new novel, and did all the standard Literary Lion activities—such as chewing my fingernails down to the quick.
Two weeks in, I asked how the review of my new manuscript was coming.
The original reader is still reviewing the updated manuscript. We will get back to you as soon as possible.
Okay. Sit down and shut up, Larry.
Six more weeks passed.
The Contract Offer
On September 23, the publisher sent this:
We would be happy to extend the offer to publish . . . . If you wish to move forward please send the contract back with everything filled in except the signatures. We will send the document for signatures via DocuSign. When sending the file back to us it must be all pages in one file (no individual pages) and can be scanned or emailed or it can be faxed to (XXX) XXX-XXXX. We look forward to your reply.
Oh the joy in my heart, Gracious Reader, at the words, “We would be happy to extend the offer to publish.” On that basis alone, my wife and I went out for a nice celebratory feast.
Now that the publisher had taken five months considering my manuscript, they seemed ready and eager for me to send back the signed contract right away.
I wrote back very cordially, reserving a few days to consider the six or seven pages of single-spaced boilerplate they had sent for my signature.
The Fine Print
Aside from the perishing hope of a lieutenant colonel to don the silver eagles of a “full bird” before retirement, there may be no desperation more desperate than that of an unpublished author to become a published author. It is fully abject.
One would do almost anything to be published. Therefore, caution is advised.
What one really needs is the advice of a literary attorney, but their services are expensive. However, the Authors’ Guild gives its members a free contract review by experienced literary lawyers. One of the perks of membership. Immediately I joined the Authors’ Guild and sent in the proposed contract for review.
On the second business day, I got a detailed reply, covering each section of the contract, singling out many paragraphs and sentences for particular attention.
The contract on offer was substandard in many ways. But I felt if the publisher would give way on a few essential points, I could live with the rest. Especially if they seemed to be okay people to work with.
I compiled a list of questions about the contract, and a separate list of questions about the publisher’s business practices. I then proposed a Zoom call to explore all these questions. The publisher asked me to send the questions so they could prepare their response. I did so.
About a week later, the publisher replied, in writing. The terse remarks I now recognized as characteristic. But they were more than brief; they were dismissive. The message was: We want your book. Shut up and be happy.
It is hard to turn down any offer to publish your first book. But I’m glad I did so.
The last laugh is mine, because this publisher helped me improve my book. The process also helped me polish my query letter, synopsis, and biography. The product I am selling just got better, and some other publisher will make a better offer.
It’s a big world. I’ll find the right publisher for Freedom’s Purchase if I just keep at it.
My apologies, Dear Reader, for making you wait longer to read Freedom’s Purchase, but I promise you—when published, it will have been worth the wait.
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.
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
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.
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?
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?”
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.
That’s what you must do as an author.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Writers sometimes say: “The protagonist must protag.”
That may be the main principle to observe in writing your first draft.
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.
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.