Monday, April 15, 2013

Let it all hang out? Uh, no! A Roundtable Discussion

I love April. Next to November, it’s my favorite month. Just wanted to get that off my chest.

I really enjoyed Debbie’s post on Wednesday, April 3. She talked about how we, as writers, need to trust our readers and not spell everything out for them in minute detail. She added a couple of great quotes. This from Hemingway: "If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them."

And this from Les Edgerton, author of Finding Your Voice: "The writer should provide the "bones" or skeleton of the story and the reader furnishes the flesh..."

Wonderful advice from both.

For the past 2 or 3 years I’ve enjoyed the privilege of judging writing contests, one which is sponsored for unpublished writers. The biggest mistake new writers make, in my opinion, is exactly what Hemingway and Edgerton were talking about: All too often, new writers in particular don’t trust the reader. They feel they must tell everything they know about the characters and their plight – often on the first page – rather than allowing the reader to DISCOVER. And isn’t that what reading is all about, discovery? They give huge information dumps, and if we’re at all invested in the story, we have to sift through all that superfluous stuff to find the valuable. But the big risk these writers take is that we won’t become invested. Not even a little. I find myself in a strange place these days where time is concerned. It feels more precious than ever to me, and what spare time I have for reading is going to be spent on jewels, not junk. Sorry if that's harsh.

Sharon, I too have judged contests (mainly poetry, but sometimes those of novels too.) I have found that the problem isn't too much backstory. I found that what kills the chances of most contest entrants fall into two categories:  1) It looks and sounds unprofessional -- usually because of non-standard formatting, or other amateurish marks like poor punctuation, spelling, and grammar;  and 2) It's not interesting.

Now, that may sound harsh, too. But the writer is taking a tremendous risk -- a risk that the reader will keep reading to try to find a gem inside their writing. Perhaps relatives will. Perhaps friends will. But an editor just won't. If after a page or two there is no spark, there is no further reading. After all, the editor or judge didn't invest in that book, and he or she can throw it away without a second thought.

 I'm more convinced than ever, from my own writing journey and from reading for contests at conferences, etc., that the first issue of new writers is rushing. Rushing to get to the end (e.g. posting: I wrote 8,000 words today! And then not going back and really editing those words for voice, timeline, plot, structure), rushing the story--hence the backstory download--and rushing to put that story into the hands of an agent. I've sat across from writers who I have had to tell, "You have some good ideas, but no plot." The writers who are writers, the ones who will make it, usually express that they understand and will let these ideas simmer longer and wait for the story to form. Others get upset with me. I once had a writer complain to conference organizers about me because when she plopped her 300 page memoir down I hadn't had the "decency" to read a few pages (while she sat there watching, inside of the 15 minute appointment she had booked with me), and then I had the "nerve" to tell her that memoirs require a plot, the same as fiction, and that they need to be about something specific, not simply snippets of life stories strung together by long, loose threads. I said all of this gently, but she said I had been rude. The truth is hard to swallow when you've got a "finished" manuscript that you've worked so hard on. I get that. But a writer shrugs at all those hours of work and says, I can do better.

She got me back, though. As she stood to leave our little table she told me she had an appointment with D___________ (insert name of important publisher) and she would prove everything I told her was wrong.

When I graduated with a degree in English Literature and Elementary Education, I skipped off to teach  a roomful of fourth-grade students, believing I was prepared to make that year the best learning year of their lives. I was almost right. It was a great year of learning, for me! And I kept on learning the art of teaching and still do. When I plunged into writing, I had a trophy case of As to prove some really smart people thought I could write. That wasn't enough either. And the books I read on fiction writing or a clinic or two I attended weren't the beginning and end of making me into a writer. It takes TONS of practice.

My biggest mistake--and I still struggle with this, although I'm getting better--was not giving my characters enough conflict, interior and exterior. This is the mistake I see in the contests I judge. The result is a story where nothing happens. Boring! We want to be nice to our characters and show them in their best light. Conflict doesn't develop at all, or it's resolved too quickly and easily.
We need to get real.

 The mistake I've seen most often, as Bonnie observed, is the rushing.  Rushing to put the proposal in the mail, rushing to pitch the story to an editor, rushing to find a shortcut to publishing.  I think it's destined to increase with the rush to self-publish.  An author who has already sold a book to a publisher and gone through the experience of edits, rewrites, and marketing has an education under her belt.  She knows the value of hiring an editor and not cutting corners that compromise the integrity of the work.  But even for a published author, self-publishing is uncharted territory.  That doesn't mean that you shouldn't self-publish, but don't rush the process.  Get a professional opinion.  There are many legitimate editorial services available. Read through it one more time, and if at any point - ANY - point in your manuscript you stumble over a word choice or have to stop and clarify something or you yawn, it's time to at least do some tweaking, and possibly a bigger rewrite..  Never accept 'good enough.'


Marian said...

Thank you all for your honesty. I learn so much here at Novel Matters. :) I feel like I've enrolled in writer's school without paying tuition.

Cherry Odelberg said...

Harsh, but true. Oh, so true.
I have been guilty most often of the rush to publish, the desperation of needing validation NOW for all the hours of work I have skimmed from other duties. It is disheartening to hear that published authors continue to struggle. But, oh so encouraging the free and gracious sharing that goes on at Novel Matters week after week - what Marian said ^

Sharon K. Souza said...

Marian and Cherry, thank you for understanding our hearts. We're all in this together, and it's our desire to help our readers -- and ourselves -- grow as writers. We learn much from a good reading experience, and a poor one.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

I cannot be accused of rushing, that much I can say. After more than 10 years my story is well developed but still poorly expressed in many places. I am learning from the practice and you wonderful people. I do wish for the pleasure of sharing it and growing in that sharing. One day I'll have courage to join a writers find a writers group.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Henrietta, finding a good writers' group would be so good for you. Sooner rather than later. I learned so much from a group I was with a number of years ago. I'm so glad I stepped out and joined them.