On how to write just right

 

 

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Every time a writer asks me, “Do you think if I do what this editor suggests, my novel will get published?” I have to pause to experience a moment of pity before I can respond. If only it were that simple.

Let me explain. In one corner are those editors who you might hire yourself to get your book ready for self-publishing or just to help you figure out why you’re not succeeding. These editors are not unlike the friends or colleagues you dragoon into reading your manuscript and whose responses you keep in mind while you’re revising. They are the editors who might have great ideas but they’ll never be able to offer a publishing contract. When you get advice from these editors, you have to consider whether it makes sense, suits your overall vision for the book, and is an actual improvement instead of just a change. So if that’s the kind of editor who has made the suggestion, all I can say is you know better than I do whether you should revise.

Then there are the editors who could publish your novel but they have no plans to do so. They usually send form letters and sometimes writers mistake these for something else. “When the editor says, ‘Not quite right for us,’ do you suppose it’s because I’m two thousand words over their stated word count?”

No, I don’t suppose that. Because if the only thing standing between you and glory was two thousand words, the editor would have said so: “This is an amazing novel but it is too long. Can you shorten it by two thousand words?” And if you got a note like that then my answer to the question would be yes. Yes, I do think if you were to do what this editor suggests, your novel would get published.

You can usually identify an editor who wants to work with you in this way because she will say so: “This was a terrific read but I didn’t love the ending. Would you be open to revising?”

Or she will say, “This is just not my cup of tea but send me your next novel.” So you know what to do, right?

But the not-quite-form rejections are the ones I hear about most, where the editor says something like, “I found the plot engaging but I just couldn’t get interested in the characters.”

Editors will sometimes explain a rejection instead of just sending a form rejection because they think you have promise and they want to give you a little encouragement. Sometimes it’s because you’ve submitted through an agent and they want to maintain a cordial relationship with that agent. Now and then it’s because the editor has worked with you in the past. (This happened to me once and the pain is still fresh.) Many, maybe even most, times these not-quite-form rejections are just rejections. It wouldn’t matter if you made the characters more interesting. The editor still wouldn’t buy the book. She didn’t like it. She’s never going to like it unless you write a new book. Then she might like that one.

An editor who is not buying a book is not spending a lot of time analyzing how and why it isn’t working for her. She just doesn’t have time for that. She’s not trying to be a mentor or give you a blueprint for revision, she’s just telling you she thinks the book may have had good points but it’s not going on her list, thank you anyway. So, no, I don’t think revising the book according to her suggestions will, necessarily, get you anywhere. On the other hand maybe she’s pinpointed a problem that suddenly you recognize as the reason why your book isn’t working and yay! You know what to do. 

I know what you’re wondering now. You’re wondering, if you get a rejection like this, with no invitation to revise and resubmit, should you revise your novel anyway for the sake of future submissions? On the grounds that Editor B will like your novel because you fixed the problems Editor A identified? A lot of writers think the answer is yes, but my answer is a resounding maybe. Just because Editor A has a problem with, say, your characterization, that doesn’t mean any other editor on this green earth will. Editorial opinions are subjective. They may be informed opinions, but they are still just opinions.

Now, if all of your rejections are saying much the same thing then you can assume that fixing that thing would help. If Editor A says, “I couldn’t follow the plot” and Editor B says, “The plot made no sense to me” and Editor C says, “I liked the characters but not the plot,” you’ve got the kind of consensus that suggests something’s wrong with the plot. So you know what to do.

[Note that the same general principles apply to querying agents.]

Getting published is certainly about writing a good novel. But it’s also about finding the right editor.  A few years back, when my then-agent was trying to sell Dojo Wisdom, she forwarded two rejection letters to me in the same day. Editor A said, “The audience for this book is too narrow; we could never publish it successfully.” Editor B said, “The audience for this book is too broad; we could never publish it successfully.”

I kid you not. Exactly how would I have revised the book to make both of these editors happy? I didn’t try. My agent went on to find Editor C, who thought Dojo Wisdom was just right, and who managed to publish it quite successfully.

In other words, sometimes it’s about you but sometimes it’s about them. The hard part is knowing which is which.

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If you sign up for my newsletter, you’ll get a free ebook version of Dojo Wisdom for Writers. Just type your email address in that little box that’s on the right-hand side of your screen unless you’re looking at this on your phone and then I don’t know where it is. Oh! Don’t forget that I’ve collected some Jessica stories in Travels with Jessica.

My buddy Jill Haymaker has a novel releasing today! Breakfast for Two is available on Amazon here.

And I love this tidbit sent along by writer Lynn Crandall: “A scent by any other name may be an odor. Unless my heroine has just been cleaning stalls, I don’t want to use the word ‘odor’ in her description. In writing a scene describing my heroine, I knew she didn’t ‘smell’ and she didn’t have an odor, but I’d used the word ‘scent’ a lot. My mind reached for the just-right word. Then I found a website that offered some help, here. It prompted the word I’d been looking for as well as a suggestion for a name of the scent. Sometimes a little help is needed.”

 

New–for writers!

I just finished two small books for writers. Both are based on popular classes I’ve taught. The first is Finish Your Book, a short guide (about 25 pages) that offers tips and guidance for overcoming the stumbling blocks that keep you from finishing that novel you started last year. The other is Write Your Book Proposal, a slightly longer piece (about 35 pages) on putting together a proposal for a nonfiction book. Both links will lead you to the Kindle edition. Both also have paperback versions, here and here. It always takes Amazon a while to link the two together.

Hope you find these helpful!

Some good news!

One of my lighthearted paranormal romances, Lessons in Magic, has been accepted for publication by Crimson Romance, and will be out on September 1.  Yay!

NOTE: Jessica Starre would like to make it clear that she is the alter ego responsible for this work and that it will be coming out under her name. She thinks I don’t give her enough credit, and she’s all, “You like Jenny Jacobs better!” Which is not true! I love all of us equally.

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My collection of travel stories, Travels with Jessica, is now available! Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here. And I’ve published my essay “For Jessica” as a small book. Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here.

Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter! I give random stuff away—and I tell more stories. Just wander over to my homepage.

On where I work

I usually spend some mornings each week at my favorite coffee shop, working. The change of scenery is good for me, and sometimes if I have to spend one more hour in my own house, I won’t be responsible for my actions.

But occasionally I go somewhere else, because sometimes (not too often!) change is good.

Recently I dropped Jessica off to bowl with a group at the local university’s bowling alley and once you’re on campus and have found parking, it’s best to just stay there, so I did. I ended up working at the student union, which brought back some pleasant memories of my grad school days.

I like the university because people don’t treat it like it’s an outpost of Chuck E. Cheese, not even the people with their small children in tow. (Okay, some of them treat it like Chuck E. Cheese, but most have a little respect.)

Also there are lots of young people there, full of enthusiasm and ideas, passion and feeling. I like that, and some of it will go into the book I’m working on. Also, random people see all your papers spread out, and they think you’re studying for something important, and they call out cheerfully, “Good luck!”

Sometimes (not too often) change is good.

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My collection of travel stories, Travels with Jessica, is now available! Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here.

And I’ve published my essay “For Jessica” as a small book. Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here.

Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter! I give random stuff away—and I tell more stories. Just wander over to my homepage.

On doing the work. Or not

I’m at the coffee shop and I’m supposed to be working on this book. I like the coffee shop because I can’t do my laundry here, or wash the dishes, or alphabetize the spices, all things I’ve been known to do when I should be tackling the work.

But the work is hard and I wish I were a millionaire. Why didn’t I invest in Microsoft way back when? I abandon the work to try to find out what the share price of Microsoft was in 1990, when I first had a glimmer they might be important to the future.

Then I realize one of my fingernails needs to be filed. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t write if one of my fingernails needs to be filed. Unfortunately, I don’t have an emery board with me. I check my coat and my bag: no emery board. I run my thumb over the offending fingernail and wonder what I am going to do. I could bite the fingernail, but sometimes that has unintended consequences.

I’m not going to worry about the fingernail. For fuck’s sake, I’m a professional. I turn my attention back to my manuscript and blow the bangs out of my eyes. How did my bangs get so long? How can I possibly work with my bangs in the way? I brush them aside. I don’t suppose I brought any scissors with me. Maybe the barista has a pair.

Oh, for cryin’ out loud. I bring my attention back to my manuscript. The barista is playing some zydeco on the sound system, and I can’t write when there’s a catchy tune to listen to.

Oh, honestly. It’s like the universe doesn’t want me to get anything done! I spend a moment wondering how I have managed to write books in the past. Maybe I’ve lost it. Oh my zeus, maybe I’m going to have to start selling insurance.

Well, it might be more profitable. Maybe I should start selling insurance. I google “selling insurance” and see what comes up.

Then I look at the clock. It’s been ten minutes since I last checked my email. Get a grip, I tell myself sternly. I decide not to check email, but Facebook beckons. . . .

In desperation, I fall back on my go-to reward: Get to work, or no chocolate for you!

I contemplate a day without chocolate, and I get to work.

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I wanted to get that out of the way first, in order to say I understand. I really do. Procrastinating is such  a seductive method of avoiding the work.

I know a lot of people who say that it’s just part of the process, and I’m not going to argue with anyone who has an entrenched position about this. Go procrastinate with my blessing.

But for everyone else, who doesn’t think it has to be part of the process, and wishes it weren’t, I have some thoughts for you.

That type of procrastination usually has one of two roots, (1) knowing the work is hard and spending time on Facebook gives a more immediate reward, and/or (2) not believing you’re capable of the work so if you put it off to the last minute, you can always blame any failure on it being done at the last minute. That means the failure is not in your skill or your talent.

Pandering to these two reasons for procrastination does not make you a better writer. What makes you a better writer is doing the work.

I get it, I really do. But procrastination is, at core, an unwillingness to deal with the discomfort required to do meaningful work. We all love that flow stage, where the work seems effortless, but sometimes flow is just another way of saying you’re on autopilot. 

When you start procrastinating, instead of beating yourself up or letting the procrastination take over, go a little deeper. Acknowledge that this is hard. Promise yourself a reward for doing it anyway.

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My collection of travel stories, Travels with Jessica, is now available! Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here.

And I’ve published my essay “For Jessica” as a small book. Kindle and paperback here; other ebook formats here.

Don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter! I give random stuff away—and I tell more stories. Just wander over to my homepage.

On being a specialist

One of the editors I work for recently commented, “You are a jack of all trades!” She meant that she was impressed with the variety of things I know something about, which is a direct result of the fact that I am easily bored. For this client, it helps that I know a little bit about a lot of things, since the books she asks me to work on cover a wide variety of subject matter. But what’s most important to her isn’t that I know a little bit about a lot of things. It’s that I know A LOT about the specific thing she’s hiring me to do—developmental editing.

The best work is available to people who have skills that other people don’t have. I have talked about commodity writers before. If anyone can write about something, a client can get anyone to write about it—including someone who’ll do it for exposure, or ten cents a word.

I see a lot of people focused on “I want.” That’s fine insofar as identifying what you’re looking for in your work. But too many people communicate this to potential clients. “Hi, I’m looking for a freelance job I can do from home, and I found out about your job.”

When I’ve been in position to hire people for various jobs, it has never mattered to me that someone wanted the job because they could do it from their living room. What mattered to me was, could they solve my problem? For one job, I had X number of manuscripts that needed to be edited in X amount of time by someone who knew what she was doing. People who said, “I see that you are looking for X. I have X, and here are the references that will confirm it” were the ones I hired.

That’s not to say that you can’t have a variety of different skills. But you have to pitch the right skills to the right people. The person who hired me to be an agent didn’t care that I also taught copyediting at the University of California – San Diego. The person who hired me to do developmental editing did.

If you’re like me, you enjoy knowing a little bit about a lot of things. But it’s having specific expertise that makes a difference in the work we do.

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Dojo Wisdom for Writers, second edition, now available!
Catch a Falling Star (by Jessica Starre) and The Matchmaker Meets Her Match (by Jenny Jacobs), two of my favorite novels.

And don’t forget classes for writers—and more on writing at BeYourOwnBookDoctor.com