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

Today, as a public service (Ta-DA!), we begin a series of articles meant to help You, The Aspiring Author, conquer the himalayas of literary greatness. 

Actual Himalayas. Drukair, Bhutan. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

You’re welcome.

We propose that you achieve this impressive goal in SIX SIMPLE STEPS. 

“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.

Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” / Let us go and make our visit.

 (Literary Allusion Alert: File under “T.S. Eliot.”)
T.S. Eliot. Photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell. Public Domain.

Step One: Skip Straight to “Literary Lion”

Cut the line. 

Do not wait for greatness to be thrust upon you. Thrust it upon yourself. 

Since becoming a literary lion is your goal, go ahead and be one. Believe me, if you can’t do this one simple thing, you’re not going to find the other five steps any easier.

(Caveat: What We Are Not Saying. We are not saying “Fake it till you make it.” You can’t fake literary accomplishment. You have to get it the old-fashioned way, like the guy in that old commercial says. You have to earn it.)

If you haven’t begun to do so yet, then begin now.

You must do all kinds of inherently literary things. Such as, for example, “Write.” But that’s Step Two.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of other literary things you must do in addition to writing.

When you do them, as you must, you will be living the literary life—like it or not. 

Are you prepared for this?

You must readWe don’t mean just “read.” Everybody reads for fun, don’t they? 

(No, not actually. Lots of people never read anything more interesting than a cloned Facebook meme. But if you’re still with us, then you are probably one of those who do read, at least for fun.)

At the risk of repeating ourselves, we don’t mean just “read”—we mean READ

Read everything you can that’s a classic of your genre. And for balance, read things that are poorly-executed examples of your genre. Read things outside your genre entirely. 

Read books and articles on the art and craft of writing. Read pieces about the business of writing, and how to sell your work. 

Read books, stories, articles, and blog posts by friends (more on this in “Step 3: Get Feedback” and “Step 4: Associate”). Read your own work, with a view to improving it. Read miscellaneous books that come to your attention, just because somebody said they were good.

Read good literature. It may help you figure out how to write good literature.

Larry F. Sommers,

An up-and-coming writer of our acquaintance, Larry F. Sommers, testifies:

“I was seventy years old before I got serious about writing. I thought I was quite a reader, but since becoming a literary lion, I’ve averaged fifty to seventy-five books a year—not to mention stories, articles, and poems.”

When you read this much, two things will happen: (1) Your library card will get threadbare from use. (2) Partly-finished, recently finished, and not-yet-started books will occupy every horizontal surface in your vicinity. Welcome to literary lionhood.

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

(Lionhood is the state of being a lion—a literary one, in our case. Lionization—Haha!—maybe in the Afterlife.)

You must gather your tools about you. There are certain things you will need. Some of them cost money, and you must be prepared to invest in them. 

You need a good, standard dictionary such as Webster’s New World College Dictionary or even the Oxford English Dictionary if you can afford it. Either hardcopy or electronic version will cost money. (The many freebie dictionaries found online are about worth what you pay for them.) 

You will need the latest edition of the Chicago Manual of Style. It’s the starting point on important matters of style for nearly all publishers. But you also need a copy of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which in some particulars contradicts the Chicago manual; it’s still worth owning for its brief but powerful advice on how to write the English language. And you will want at least a couple of writers’ magazines; we recommend The Writer and Writer’s Digest for starters.

In order to get your work widely read, you will need to sell it. Therefore you will want some useful compendia of marketing information, such as Writer’s Market or Writer’s Handbook; Jeff Herman’s Guide To Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents; and a $25 monthly subscription to the enormously useful PublishersMarketplace website.

Basic tools of craft are needed just for getting your words down on paper (or its electronic equivalent). Some particular brand of laptop computer, let’s say; or a ruled notebook and pens or pencils of a certain kind; or an antique Underwood typewriter; or goose quills. Every writer has his or her own preferred substrate. But whatever it is, you need to have it, so you can, you know, write (see “Step Two: Write”).

We seriously recommend a good computer and a copy of Microsoft Word. If you originate your manuscripts in any other medium or format, you will still need to copy it over to a computer file before a publisher can use it to bring you lots of fame and fortune. But suit yourself.

You must make your presence known. This falls, really, into “Step 6: Platform.” But the problem is, you can’t wait till the end of the process to build your platform. You’ve got to start now.

A writer’s “platform” is simply the sum total of credible ways by which that writer makes his or her work known to the world. If you’re a major motion picture star, all you have to do is write a book and let the publicist mention it to the world. You have millions of adoring fans already; some of them will buy your book.

For those of us who are not celebrities, it’s harder. You have to acquire fans one at a time and keep them interested in you and your writing until you can publish a book and press it into their hot little hands. It takes time for an unknown author to build a following of people who can be relied on to buy a book. Start now.

You make your presence known by authoring a blog; by frequenting one or more social media engines such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, etc.; by showing up at writerly events in your vicinity, such as book signings and readings, literary chats, etc.; or by attending writers’ courses and conferences. 

As you do these things, more and more people will begin to recognize you as a fixture of that part of the world they think of as “literary.” That’s good. That’s what you want.

You must write. This is self-evident, but we include it here because it is an essential part of becoming a literary lion. “Essential” in this case means, “You cannot omit it.”

But never fear. The writing part is so important we devote an entire step to it. In fact, the very next one in this series, “Step Two: Write.” 

So here and now it suffices to say that writing is the quintessential literary activity. The more time you spend writing, the more time you spend in the world of the literary lion.

THEREFORE, Dear Reader:  When you faithfully practice these key disciplines of literary lionhood—reading, gaining possession and use of essential literary tools, making your presence known in literary venues, and actually spending regular amounts of time writing your work—you will not have to pinch yourself, or poke yourself in the eye (which we would not recommend in any case) to know that you are living the literary life. 

You will have stepped into the Twilight Zone which is the literary world, on your way to the base camp for scaling the literary himalayas.

Bon voyage.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: “Step Two: Write” 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Time and Again . . . and Again . . . and Again . . .

Until now, I have read nothing by Stephen King, one of the major authors of our time—because I have no interest in horror. But King also published a time-travel book in 2012; and that has finally drawn me into his web.

11/22/63. The title will wake up anyone who remembers that date. It’s the day John F. Kennedy was shot to death in Dallas. King’s book is based on the premise, “What if you could go back in time and prevent the killing of JFK?”  

The Story

Kennedy motorcade in Dallas. Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News. Public Domain.

Maine school teacher Jake Epping discovers, in a local diner, a “rabbit-hole” through which he can walk from the present day into the morning of September 9, 1958. Jake has several reasons to travel back in time, but mainly there looms the tantalizing possibility that by regressing to 1958 and living out the next five years of that era, he will find a way to prevent the assassination of the president.

Time-travel stories usually consider the opportunity, however theoretical, of curing the present by doctoring the past. Jake Epping, in his role as first-person narrator, repeatedly asserts: “Life turns on a dime.” 

That’s not always true. For example, it would be hard to dismantle the complex chain of events that caused Europe to stagger into the First World War. Similar factors hold sway over the U.S. Civil War, the French and Russian revolutions, and the growth of “big box” superstores. 

But there are individual events, with major rippling consequences, that might be erased from time’s log by a small, practical effort applied at the right moment. Events like the assassination of President Kennedy.

The character Jake Epping seems convinced that if only Kennedy had lived, all sorts of bad things would have been avoided, and better things would have taken their place. To those of us who lived through those years, the theory does have its appeal. The murder of Kennedy, falling like a bolt of lightning into our postwar “happy time,” seemed to trigger a downward spiral for America, a sad cycle from which we have never recovered.

History, Re-organized?

History, however, is not that simple. Perhaps a full-term Kennedy would have managed not to stumble into the Vietnam War as his successor did. That’s possible, but far from certain. On the other hand, it’s also possible that Kennedy, despite all good intentions, would have failed to get the 1964 Civil Rights Bill enacted—a project at which Lyndon Johnson succeeded. We cannot know how things would have worked out, because the actual events of 22 November 1963 did sweep Kennedy away, leaving LBJ in his place.

But it’s entertaining to read about Jake Epping’s compulsive quest to derail Lee Harvey Oswald. Entertaining because the hero is thwarted by obstacles and complications at every turn. The rabbit-hole’s outlet in 1958 compels him to live in Texas for five years as he waits for the actors to arrive on stage. The secrecy of his mission requires him to adopt an alias and do a lot of perilous sneaking around as he spies on Oswald and his family and tries to keep tabs on a shady character named George de Mohrenschildt. In the midst of all that, Jake encounters the woman of his dreams and falls in love. 

King of Time

Everything falls apart more than once in this complex story. Jake Epping, growing ever wiser in the ways of the Space-Time Continuum, states clearly that the main problem is the past’s own spooky determination to keep itself intact and resist doctoring. Here King is at his best, casting a pall of enigmatic and menacing tension over the entire story.

Author Stephen King. Pinguino Kolb photo, Creative Commons.

Another charm of this book is verisimilitude. When Jake Epping walks into the 1950s, one feels transported into that time, because of the host of small details the author dresses the set with—Musterole, “Fresh Up with 7Up,” Cities Service, and Princess Summerfall Winterspring. My first thought was how remarkable it is that one too young to have been there was able to capture all these details and many more; then I Googled King and learned that he was born in 1947. So he didn’t have to do much research—like me, he’s an old-timer who remembers all those things. 

I won’t divulge further details of plot and action, because you might want to read the book. My one wish would be that King had embedded all that material in a sparer narration. At 849 pages, this book is a bit of a slog. Had it been published earlier in King’s stellar career, a good, truculent editor might have made it twenty percent shorter, thereby improving its pace and increasing its dramatic power. 

Still, the time-travel is presented imaginatively, even brilliantly. It reminds me of the works of Jack Finney (whom I’ve mentioned here and here). Indeed, King himself pays homage to Finney at the very end of his “Afterword,” referring to Finney’s Time and Again as “the great time-travel story.” However, this one clearly is King’s book and not Finney’s. 

In sum, 11/22/63 is an interesting and provocative romp through past and present by a master storyteller.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author

Come away with me, Lucille . . .

Photo by Franck V. on Unsplash

. . . in my merry DeLorean–but, of course, modified with nuclear fuel compartment, flux capacitor, and date/time indicators!

Time travel is nothing new. People have been doing it for eons. Everybody from H.G. Wells to Doctor Who. They travel in time machines; they leap across time by hypnosis; or sometimes, they just stumble through an unseen portal that happens to be in their path.

You can travel Forward into the Future, or Backward into the Past. Travelers to the future discover new civilizations, which are either utopian dreams or the stuff of nightmares—seldom anything in-between. (The most shocking plot twist would be if the hero landed in a future society just as ho-hum as our own, differing only in trivial details. I suppose it’s already been done.)

Into the Past

The other kind of time travel, Backward into the Past, is more interesting to me because it is based on reality: a real world that we know did exist, once upon a time. People who travel to the past either want to right some wrong in the present; or they simply hope to be detached observers . . . but somehow, they can’t quite avoid Interfering with the Fabric of Time and Space. Often with amusing consequences.

One of the best time romps of recent decades seems to go both directions—at least such is the implication of its title: Back to the Future. Everybody has seen this film, directed by Robert Zemeckis and written by Zemeckis with Bob Gale. (NOTE: If you are the only person in North America who has NOT seen it, put down this blog right now—just leave it open, face down, on your reading table—and go see the film. Then come back and finish reading this post.)

The title is a bare-faced marketing ploy. The filmmakers knew people would not have much interest in the Past—just mention “history” and observe the yawns—so they put the word “Future” in the title. To support that concept, they filled up the early scenes with gee-whiz gadgets, most notably Doc Brown’s gull-winged sports car with the Y-shaped gizmo inside that makes time travel possible. 

But then, Dear Reader, the bait and switch: When Marty McFly climbs in and steps on the gas, the souped-up DeLorean takes him straight to the 1950s—an era when his own dorky parents were mere angst-ridden teenagers. 

This movie is all about the past and how its influence seeps into the present. Setting it in the Fabulous ’Fifties gave Zemeckis and Gale dozens of cute cultural references to make viewers smile. But this tight screenplay has no room for idle nostalgia. There’s no archival footage of Chuck Berry doing the Duck Walk while performing “Johnny B. Goode”—but we do get to see Marty McFly do a fair imitation of it in a scene that helps move the plot forward in an entertaining way. All the while, Messrs. Zemeckis and Gale exploit every nostalgic-comic possibility from the situation.

Reality is Bumpier than Fiction

Marty’s task is to rescue his father, a teenager in the ’Fifties,  from the personality flaw that made the McFly family’s subsequent life a disaster. Through the simple device of having the brilliant, eccentric Doc Brown inhabit both time frames, Marty is led to shred the pre-formed shape of the Time-Space Continuum and write a new future. That is, you know . . . a new present.

Marty’s woes of today trace directly to his parents’ woes in the past. If only the past could be fixed, the present would turn rosy. 

But real life is not that simple. What if a great heartache of the present stems directly from a triumph or blessing in the past?  What if you must do your grandfather an injustice in his boyhood to prevent injustice to your family in the present? 

Such imponderables make me dizzy. Which is why I will probably continue trying to write fiction that only suggests the depth and complexity of life in earlier times, without trying to trace the tangled skeins of causality through decades or centuries. 

Nevertheless, reading time-travel adventures can be a delightful diversion. I’ve mentioned before the intriguing works of Jack Finney, who had a time-travel fixation. Right now I’m reading Stephen King’s experiment with time travel, titled 11/22/63. Maybe I’ll comment further in a future edition of this blog. Stay tuned.

And now, for something completely different:

©Larry F. Sommers, 2012.

What do you suppose this thing is? Any guesses? Tune in next Tuesday, and I’ll try to remember to tell you the answer!

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Author