The Long & Short of It

It is a firmly established fact in the world of commercial publishing that there is a Correct Length for novels of each genre. This is why Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (775 pages) is exactly the same length as his Crime and Punishment (430 pages). It’s why P. D. James’s Original Sin (415 pages) is exactly the same length as Ross MacDonald’s The Chill (275 pages).

If a book is too long, it can easily be shortened without damaging the story in any significant way. A writer who is disturbed by this idea, who feels that her story is already trimmed as tightly as it can be trimmed, is just being defensive and egotistical. Thinking your story needs to be longer in order to be effective is just not realistic.

I trust we’re all clear about this.

I have a 110,000-word sort-of-YA fantasy mystery. A developmental editor (whom I believe is very good and whom I would hire to work on the book if there were some way to recoup the $2,500+ I would have to pay her) commented that it’s too long for the market. She surmised that the book could probably be shortened to 80,000 words without materially damaging the story.

Quite aside from the other indignities that are forced upon the writer by the commercial publishing industry (waiting two years for publication, having no control over the cover art, having to sign a contract indemnifying the publisher against “reasonable” attorneys’ fees), this attitude toward the length of the book is simply horrifying. And it’s universal. The agent thinks the publisher will think readers will think a book of this length is too long, so you’ll have to cut it down. If you don’t, it’s not “marketable.”

The other day I ran into a lovely quote from Bertrand Russell: “One should respect public opinion in so far as is necessary to avoid starvation and to keep out of prison, but anything that goes beyond this is voluntary submission to an unnecessary tyranny, and is likely to interfere with happiness in all kinds of ways.” That sums it up nicely. This whole business of the “marketable” length for a novel is just plain bullshit.

Back in the Sixties (my apologies to those of you who are too young to remember it), there was a cigarette ad that said, “It’s not how long you make it — it’s how you make it long.” That tells you everything you need to know about word count. You’re not going to be able to place your damn novel with an agent anyway, so why hack out a full 25% of it in order to conform to some sort of mass hallucination?

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Again and again, the developmental editor I hired to work on my Leafstone series wanted me to include more about the inner feelings of the characters. Specifically of the female characters; she never once desired to know more about the feelings of the male characters. I did add a few bits here or there, but her obvious bias suggested to me that possibly she was overly focused on women’s emotions. Her day job had something to do with helping abused women, which could have been either the cause of that or the result. Whatever.

Right now I have a couple of critique group people reading the opening chapter of my new novel — and I’ve run into the same sort of comment. My lead character is literally sobbing, the word “sobbing” is right there on the page, and the critique person wants to know more about what the character is feeling.

My dark suspicion is that readers today have been so emotionally deadened by TV, movies, and the speed with which the world is falling apart that they’re no longer capable of interpreting emotional cues that are present in the text. They need hand-holding.

Just for kicks, I pulled The Sun Also Rises off of my shelf. I’ve had the book for years, but I’ve never read it. Now, Hemingway was a fine writer, that’s not open to debate. But you would struggle in vain to find any description of interior emotion in the opening chapter of this book.

The chapter is only four pages long. The narrator is named Jake, and he plays tennis — and that’s absolutely the only thing we learn about him in this chapter. Jake is telling the reader about the early life of another character, Robert Cohn. We learn that Cohn has had his ups and downs. He “hardened into a rather unattractive mould under domestic unhappiness.”

On the fourth page we finally get to the opening scene. Jake, Cohn, and Cohn’s girlfriend Frances are sitting at a table in a Paris coffee shop. In this scene Jake says something and is kicked under the table, evidently by Cohn, although Hemingway never says that. Jake notices that Frances’s chin is lifting and her face hardening. (Those are Hemingway’s words.) Jake changes the subject and “Cohn looked relieved.” That’s just about it for emotion — two low-key mentions of things seen from the outside. At the very end, Jake tells the reader, “I rather liked him.”

I shudder to think what a modern reader or editor would think of this opening chapter.

The second chapter opens with Jake, once again, telling us about Cohn. Telling, yes, not showing. Jake (or rather, Hemingway) is insightful. We begin to get the idea that Cohn is going to make problems, for himself or for others. That’s as far as I’ve read, at the moment. The opening works as a hook by enticing the reader to want to know more about the trouble Cohn is going to get into. But the text gives us a view from the outside, not the inside — and a very distant view at that.

The lesson in this, for me anyhow, is that there is no right or wrong amount of emotion in a scene or a chapter. You could even make a case that the characters’ emotions are not what a novel is about. A novel is about character, yes — but a character is more than her emotions. Even if the character is feeling strong emotions, they may not be visible in the narration; the reader may have to infer them — and that’s perfectly all right. It’s a legitimate literary technique. It worked for Hemingway, and who are we to argue with Hemingway?

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The Crackerjacks

Writing is a solitary activity. Sitting alone in a quiet room staring at the screen, waiting for words to assemble themselves in one’s brain, for hours on end. For days, For years.

As Mick Jagger said, we all need someone we can lean on.

Today I’m exploring the possibility of starting a writers’ group of my own. Not just an ordinary writers’ group. I’d like very much to start (or join) a group of writers who are actually — how shall I put this? — good. That’s the word I’m looking for.

I’ve sought out other writers. Networking, you know. I’m a member of several Facebook writers’ groups. I’m a member of the local branch of the California Writers’ Clubs. Not too long ago I joined Sisters In Crime. (I’m an honorary sister.) Right now I’m taking the plunge with two critique groups. I’ve also read several novel-length manuscripts by friends who were not affiliated with any of the above.

The results have been consistently disappointing. I’ve met a number of very nice people, and possibly I’ve helped a few of them by offering critiques of their work, but I have yet to find a group of my peers.

I don’t want to give myself airs. I’m not the world’s greatest writer, nor anywhere near it. But I do have quite a lot of experience. I spent more than 25 years as a full-time staff writer and editor (of nonfiction) at a well-respected magazine for musicians. My first two novels were published in paperback by actual New York publishing houses. That was more than 25 years ago, and that first novel would not be publishable today; but nonetheless, I am quite legitimately a professional. My stories have been published (infrequently and not recently) in Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and other SF magazines. More recently I’ve self-published a four-volume fantasy epic and a fat historical mystery. I’ve edited (for pay) half a dozen music technology books, and have written (also for pay, not self-publishing) four of them.

The manuscripts I’ve read by others in the groups I’ve joined have suffered from an assortment of deficiencies so wide it would be difficult to catalog them. And I’m not here to kvetch. I’m just saying, these people are not my peers. I would like very much to hang out (via Zoom or whatever) with a few of my peers.

Trading beta-reads of one another’s manuscripts would help me, and I’m pretty sure it would help others to have me read their pro-level work. We can all benefit from insightful comments made by people who know which side of the bread has the jelly on it. (Yesterday I read a pleasant, fun, and successful SF novel that has the imprint of a major London publisher, and honestly, that author could have done better with her scene-setting, dialog, and characterization. As Joe E. Brown says at the end of Some Like It Hot, nobody’s perfect.) Brainstorming plot problems, giving or receiving a little encouragement when things are going badly, tips on file formatting for self-publishing or for pitching to agents when one is going that route — it would all be very helpful.

So how do I find these people? Emailing total strangers using the message interface on their author websites? That might not be the best method, especially if I choose them at random.

The interim name of this nonexistent writers’ group is the Crackerjacks. Or how about the Prose? And you’re invited to join! If you’ve sold a novel to a major publishing house and/or self-published two or more, I’d love to talk to you! Self-published work is not, I hasten to add, a guarantee of admission; there’s a lot of swill swirling in the sewers of self-publishing. But if you’ve done it, sure, I’ll have a look at it.

I’m mainly interested in genre fiction: fantasy, mystery, or SF, either YA or adult. I don’t claim to be a first-class beta-reader of literary fiction, but if that’s what you’re writing, I’ll tread cautiously while making notes on your text, and I’m sure I’ll learn a thing or two! Romance and horror, probably not, although I’d love to read a humorous romance with zombies. Memoir, no.

Them’s the parameters. If this idea appeals to you, hit me with your best shot. You might win a kewpie doll! More to the point, we might both win kewpie dolls.

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Four or five years ago I decided I needed to do something to broaden what we might call my social circle — my contacts with other humans. I had had some losses during the five years before that (Owen, Kelly, Larry, Rip, and of course my mother and then my sister). Not to put too elevated a tone on it, I felt I was running out of people. I’m an introvert, pretty much — I like to call myself an outgoing, gregarious recluse — but too much reclusiveness is not healthy.

So I joined the local Unitarian-Universalist church. And it worked! I met people. I got involved. I made a point of showing up every Sunday, and polished up my sight-singing. (The UU hymnal has quite a lot of songs with nice secular lyrics.) Over the course of three years I played cello in at least a dozen services. I was on the music committee. I gave a couple of lay sermons on weeks when the minister was off. I didn’t always appreciate the more woo-woo stuff in the minister’s sermons, but sitting through it was, I felt, not too great a price to pay.

On a higher level, I have also become rather active in the dissident freethinker faction in Unitarian-Universalism. There’s a lurking schism in the denomination; no need to go into that at the moment. The point is, I feel that I’m part of a community.

Or am I?

Yesterday’s email included a notice about this Sunday’s service. As I read it, I found myself getting upset. The service topic is not just irrelevant to me as a freethinker; it actively pushes me away. It enshrines a vision of Unitarian-Universalism that is the opposite of everything I value.

Here’s the text of the email:

You are invited to a Special Worship and Workshop on the future of Religious Education at UUCiL.

As we have been talking about this year, religious education is for everyone regardless of age or family make-up. From the very young leaders to our more experienced elders, we all have the need and opportunity to develop our spirituality, theological grounding and religious identity.

As we start to consider what reopening our church and society could look like, we invite you to join us to think creatively about how to adapt to the new world we are finding ourselves in. Come to think about new possibilities, what we wish to save and what we can offer to the world. Our worship will be followed by a fun, participatory hour-long workshop.

The prospect of “a fun, participatory hour-long workshop” frankly makes my skin crawl. I guess extroverts enjoy such activities, but to me they’re pointless and creepy. The way to think creatively is to sit quietly and THINK. Running around and scribbling words and phrases on pieces of paper pinned to the wall (which is what they did at the last UU “fun, participatory workshop” I attended) is fine for kindergarten, but it’s not for adults.

But that’s a side issue. The real issue is “our spirituality, theological grounding[,] and religious identity.” Oh, and we’re alleged all to have a need for same. This way of couching the business (“we all have the need”) is a blatant slap in the face of the freethinkers in the congregation.

I don’t know what spirituality is. The word means nothing to me, and I don’t much care what it means to anybody else. I don’t trust people who wave it around as if it were a flag.

Richard Dawkins once remarked that he thought Oxford really ought not to offer a degree in theology, because there’s nothing to study. That’s precisely correct. Theology (the word means the study of “God”) is an empty field of inquiry. Theology is pure hokum. Alex (the earnest young man who will apparently be leading the service) feels we all need to be grounded in hokum. In malarkey. In, not to mince words, bullshit.

I have no religious identity, and I want none. I joined the church for the people, not for the religion. I’m quite aware that both historically and in the present day, religion is a nasty, nasty business. It hurts people. It kills people. In my view, anyone who aspires to a religious identity is mentally defective. A lot of religious people are very nice people — but you can be very nice and also be mentally defective. The two are not mutually exclusive.

The upshot of this email is fairly simple: My local UU church is actively pushing me away. Pushing me out of the congregation. This email makes it very clear that freethinkers are not welcome in the congregation. We may remain if we like, but we will be expected to sit in the rear pews and to remain politely silent. If we speak out, we will be considered disruptive. Our input, no matter how heartfelt or respectfully phrased, will be ignored.

It’s a sad state of affairs. I will miss my friends, damn it!

I drafted an email response, which I’m not going to send. In it, I advised Alex to just stop. Just stop. Become rational. Rationality has rewards! Among the rewards, you will no longer feel quite so confident in making assertions about what other people need.

Unitarianism used to be about the right of the individual to believe whatever he or she found persuasive, and to cast aside whatever ideas he or she found unconvincing. But in the new UUism, that is no longer the case. In the new UUism, we are all expected to embrace spirituality, theological grounding, and religious identity.

Fuck that.

Oh, well. At least I’ll save a couple of thousand bucks by not tithing.

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Crit Crit

I am such a hard-ass. I should know better.

A guy in a Facebook group for mystery writers was recruiting for a critique group, so I said sure, count me in. I’ve been looking for a good critique group. Tried to start one in the local writers’ club, and that went nowhere. There’s supposed to be one starting up in Sisters In Crime, to which I belong (I’m an honorary sister), but the organizer seems to be flaking out.

So tonight I went up to google docs and grabbed two texts by other authors in this new group — and of course they’re terrible. Dreadful.

One woman is writing a cozy, apparently not the first book in her series, and the entire first scene goes nowhere. It ought to be deleted. It’s about a newlywed woman waking up in the morning and engaging in a little horseplay with her husband. There is discussion of writing thank-you notes for the wedding presents. The author has no clue how to put the reader firmly into the scene; her writing is largely devoid of scene-setting details. You know, the physical appearances of the important characters, stuff like that. A woman pulls up at the curb and then appears in the interior of the house without having entered through the front door.

The organizer of the group uploaded chapters 3 and 4 of his psychological thriller, and, well, it’s not thrilling, let’s put it that way. The lead character seems to have two problems: he’s attracted to a woman at work, and his memory is missing the seven years he spent in the army. But neither of the problems has any urgency. His friend suggests that he try meeting the woman through lucid dreaming to tell her how he feels — but there’s no mention that he might just ask her out. The author wants lucid dreaming, so by golly, that’s what we’ve got. Plus, this author formatted his chapters with no indents but with space between the paragraphs. That’s a nonfiction text format. Nobody ever uses it for fiction. Submitting a manuscript formatted in that manner to an agent would get it kicked to the curb in two seconds flat.

I added extensive notes to both files. It’s what I do. But now I’m thinking, would there be any value in having either of these people critique my work? I don’t see it. Do I need to spend hours critiquing their work, when it’s vanishingly unlikely that my comments will be taken to heart? Again, I don’t see it.

Everybody should write what they want to write! I have no problem with that. Write it, feel proud of it, show it to your mom, and then put it away in a drawer and forget about it. Please. The shredder would be another good option.

I’m a professional. Why should I try to convince myself that there is some value in participating in such a group? I’d really like to find some other writers to hang out with, that’s why. Maybe next time Lucy won’t jerk the football away.

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What’s Old Is New Again

Reading should be fun. If it’s not fun, why do it? A few days ago I ordered two 3-book fantasy series from Amazon, both by authors I had never even heard of. That’s taking a chance, but both series looked like they would be fun.

I was not wrong.

Both series are recastings of well-known fantasy/SF from the 19th century. The first books in both series were published in 2017, a couple of years after Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which I haven’t read. Possibly the eagle-eyed authors leaped on an emerging trend. Or maybe the brew has been bubbling for longer than that. I don’t read Publisher’s Weekly; how would I know?

Vivian Shaw’s series about Dr. Greta Helsing begins with Strange Practice. Helsing is the granddaughter of Abraham Van Helsing from Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Count Dracula himself has not yet appeared, but he’s mentioned. I’ve only read the first two books, so I don’t know what’s in store. The story is set in the present day, with cell phones and references to Monty Python; this is not a gothic. Dr. Helsing (her father dropped the “Van”) specializes in treating what she calls “the differently alive” — not just vampires but ghouls, mummies, assorted were-creatures, and so on.

She herself is strictly human, but two of her close friends are vampires. And they’re good guys. There are some bad vamps in book 2, Dreadful Company, but while they’re definitely bad, complete with throwing corpses in the Seine, they’re also sort of pathetically over-the-top MTV vamps. The female vamps wear stiletto heels, and even the males sprinkle themselves with glitter. The mix of horror and whimsy is quite effective. Oh, and the first book ends with a genuine diabolus ex machina, a guest appearance by the devil himself, in a flawless white suit and with beautiful white wings. Even the demons are not bad people.

Theodora Goss’s The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter digs deeper into the yellowing pile of 19th century literature. The alchemist’s daughter herself is Mary Jekyll, daughter of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous Doctor Jekyll, and sure enough, Mr. Hyde is lurking nearby. She teams up with Holmes and Watson to track down some really nasty serial killers in 1890s London. Along the way we encounter Renfield (from Dracula), the two monstrous but human creatures assembled a hundred years before by Victor Frankenstein, and some half-animal half-humans created by Dr. Moreau in the novel by H. G. Wells. There are probably other references in the story that I missed; I haven’t quite finished book 1 yet, and I’m wondering about Alice the scullery maid. Do you suppose she could be the Alice?

Goss uses a literary technique I’ve never seen before: All through the text of the story, the women characters (Mary, Justine Frankenstein, Alice, Catherine Moreau, and others) comment directly on the text in asides that are written as if they were dialog in a play. Goss breaks the fourth wall — and yet without breaking the fourth wall. At first it’s disorienting, because you’re reading comments from characters you haven’t yet met. But once you get used to it, it adds an interesting dimension to what is otherwise a fairly standard tale of adventure and horror in Victorian London.

A lot of the novels I start reading, I drop halfway through. The fact that I’m talking about these here rather than throwing them across the room may perhaps indicate that they’re fun to read.

With respect to the recycling of older literary materials, I haven’t quite made up my mind. On the one hand, it gets the novel off to a fast start, and it can be fun decoding the more obscure references. Also, it can lend credibility to what would otherwise be a grotesquely unworkable fantasy premise. If the alchemist’s daughter and the detective she enlists had different names, if Catherine Moreau’s nature as a half-human, half-puma were presented without reference to the Wells novel, I’m pretty sure the book would fall flat.

On the other hand, this trend may represent an impoverishment of pop culture. It’s like when Hollywood does endless sequels. Rather than take a chance on something new, let’s recycle a property that people already know and love.

I’m not sure that’s a problem, though. Homer was recycling the tales of the Trojan War, and undoubtedly adding some new bits of his own devising. This is how mythology works at the cultural level. In the absence of copyright laws, we would surely be seeing a lot more of it — recycled yet new versions of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, for instance. And that might not be a bad thing at all. For now, at least we have Holmes and Watson.

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Turbo-Charge Your Story!

We would all like our novels to be as good as they can be. Nobody wants to publish second-rate work! The temptation, when one finishes a draft, is to sit back and feel proud of one’s work. And that’s appropriate! But typing “THE END” is not the end of the story.

Yesterday I finished the 3rd draft of my next novel. That’s right, not the 1st or 2nd draft — the 3rd. In a week or two I’m planning to pay a developmental editor quite a lot of money to read it and make suggestions. (We’re talking $2,500.) So it occurred to me that before I spend the money, I ought to put on my own developmental editor hat. Nobody knows the book better than I do, right? Are there weaknesses? Things I ought to reconsider? Plot points that I’ve neglected? Stuff I can safely cut?

I opened up a new text file in Scrivener. Before I even opened the file, I decided I would make a list of 20 things in the book that could use a little more attention.

Twenty? That seems like an awful lot! This is the 3rd draft, for Pete’s sake! Shouldn’t everything be nailed down by now? Hah. An hour later, I have a solid list of 20 items to look at, most of which I’m sure I’ll want to fix. What kinds of things? Let’s take a look.

In the big denouement, the detective makes a couple of brilliant guesses about events that happened months before and/or far offstage. Maybe I need to give him better sources of information.

One of the characters seems rather undeveloped. I need to look at all of the scenes where she appears and try to make her stronger and more consistent.

The footman reveals that a couple of suspects visited the murdered man a few hours before his death. But nobody is in a position to know or say what was discussed in those visits. Those characters are already acting suspicious enough; I think I can cut that bit.

Naturally there’s a happy ending! But the young heroine has just gone through some very significant emotional trauma. In the last chapter she seems, frankly, much too chipper. I need a happy ending, but I also need to have her showing a little distress, a little lingering pain.

I could list other items, but I trust my point is clear. Even when you think it’s over, it ain’t over. There’s still more work to be done. I’ve been thinking of this as yet another self-published book, and that’s probably where it will end up. Spending $2,500 on a self-published book seems quite extravagant! But the editor I’m thinking of hiring has endorsements on her website from a couple of authors who landed professional book deals after working with her. So maybe it won’t hurt me to go the extra mile.

Above all, you have to be willing to be brutal with yourself about what’s working and what’s not. Failure to be brutal is partly a matter of being defensive, and it’s partly just sheer obliviousness. As Donald Rumsfeld pointed out, there are unknown unknowns. That’s why we hire outside editors. But if you’ve studied the craft, you’ll already have, at your fingertips or lurking in the back of your brain, quite a lot of knowledge about how your work could be improved. Use it.

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Lurn 2 Ryt Gud

Millions of people have, it seems, a craving to write a novel. God alone knows why. It’s a lonely activity, it’s hard work, and if you think you’re any good at it, you’re probably kidding yourself. If you were any good, you’d have grave doubts about whether you’re any good!

There are two kinds of aspiring novelists: those who think their work is fantastic and will surely win them fame and fortune, and those who are aware, however dimly, that their skill set could use a little burnishing. Or maybe a lot of burnishing. Today’s diatribe is aimed at the bunch who are in the latter category.

A few days ago I clicked on a Facebook ad for a writing course that is hosted by Stanford University. I think I clicked on another similar ad too. I was curious to see what was on offer. The Stanford course, I found, is expensive and very leisurely (it lasts more than a year). If the course description is to be relied on, it’s aimed primarily at the needs of novices, not at those who have already written several novels and are seeking help with problems of plot and narrative that are both complex and specific to their current project.

In the days since my innocent little mouse-clicks, my Facebook feed has been inundated with ads for how-to-write courses (see below). Some of them, I’m sure, provide a legitimate bang for the buck when it comes to providing good information on how to write. I’m not going to propose that any of them are outright scams. No, the problem is simpler than that. The problem is, if you think you can benefit from taking any of these courses, you’re a damn fool.

Why, you ask. So nice of you to ask! Here’s why:

All of them, without exception, are repackaging the same generic bits of advice. I state this confidently, even though I haven’t investigated any of the actual course offerings other than to read through a few online blurbs. I can state it with confidence because there are no secrets to successful writing. None. You won’t learn anything from course A, B, or C that will not also be explained to you in course X, Y, or Z. A different instructor may offer different anecdotes, provide different examples, or emphasize the importance of factor N while downplaying factor M — but it’s all the same stuff.

Of course they will use sex and your yearning for stardom to convince you that their course is special. Viz, to wit:

The simple truth is, you can learn everything that any of these courses offers by buying seven or eight good how-to-write books. The books will cost less than a quarter of the tuition in a typical course. Buy the books. Read them. Keep a pencil handy. Underline salient passages and scribble in the margins.

And write. Write, write, write. Try some experiments and make mistakes. Rewrite. Read lots and lots of books in the genre that you’re writing in. And read other writers’ fiction technically, not for enjoyment. Notice how your favorite writers handle dialog, flashbacks, characterization, world-building, conflict, opening sentences, theme, pacing, diction. The how-to-write books you’ve bought will tell you what you need to study in the work of your favorite authors.

That’s how you do it. There aren’t any secret formulas, and there aren’t any shortcuts. Don’t waste your money on an online course. The online how-to-write industry has a fairly simple goal, though nobody who organizes or teaches in such a course will ever admit it: to fleece hopelessly bad writers by convincing them that this time, they’ll learn the secrets of the pros!

Now, it’s true that personal contact with other writers can have some value. There are a few associations (such as Sisters In Crime and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) that may set up critique groups and have forums where you can chat and network with other writers. But joining such an association will be much less expensive than signing up for a course.

In an extremely rare case, the instructor in the course might be a writer who has an agent, and might be so impressed by your work that she will be happy to introduce you to the agent. That can happen. But if you’re truly writing at a professional level, why the hell have you wasted all that money signing up for the course? Networking with other writers has nothing to do with the content of the course, and dreaming that you’ll have that magical moment of contact is not a good reason to plunk down five hundred or a thousand bucks.

If you want to spend some money, scout around and hire a good developmental editor. You’ll pay a couple of thousand bucks to have your novel edited, but it will be one-on-one work with someone who is focused directly on your manuscript. That’s a much better use of your money. But first you’ll have to finish writing the novel — and let’s hope you have bought and read those books and learned to apply the principles in them, because those are the things a developmental editor is going to be looking at in your manuscript.

It’s not magic. There are no secrets. It’s just hard, lonely, confusing work.

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Props & Crutches

After looking at a couple of online courses in fiction writing, I’ve concluded (not surprisingly) that a course is not what I need. These courses are expensive, and they’re directed at novices. You’ll get a week on dialog, a week on how to write a strong opener, a week on how conflict works, and so on — the basics. I already know all that stuff.

Applying it is not always easy, but a course is not going to show you how to build up the conflict between two specific characters who are already firmly ensconced in your pages. A course just gives you some vague generic guidelines, with maybe some examples from books the instructor has read that you probably haven’t. After that, you’re on your own.

What I actually need is an ongoing source of support and encouragement to keep me focused on the novel that’s sitting here on my hard drive. I have a complete second draft, and it still needs some fairly extensive revisions, for reasons that would take many paragraphs to explain. This book is a complex project, and the points of confusion that get me discouraged are very, very specific. As in, why does Jeroe dismiss the guards he hired? (Or is the guard asleep downstairs? Will that work?) How can I work Mother Hagel into the denouement? How will she feel when she finds out she was hoodwinked? Will Graysall work out how Lady Murassala died? How do Prince Rufallo’s men know Danforth has the shawl?

These are all real questions about my actual project; they’re not made-up examples. And they’re not going to be addressed in an online curriculum where you submit two 3,000-word excerpts over the course of 12 weeks. What the hell good would it do to have your fellow students read a couple of 3,000-word excerpts? That’s not where the problems are!

Unfortunately, even admitting that what I need is a source of support is, in effect, a sort of catch-22. If I say it out loud (or here in the blog, which is as close to out loud as shut-ins get these days) and get no meaningful response, that’s an emotional body blow. I experience the lack of response as rejection. (This is to do with childhood issues, nothing I intend to explain. You just need to accept it; don’t even bother trying to talk me out of it with some sort of pathetic pep talk.)

But if I don’t say it out loud, how will anyone know I need the support?

Mick Jagger: “We all need someone we can lean on.” Exactly. You can call it a crutch, or a prop, or a balloon lift, the precise metaphor doesn’t matter. Writing is hard. As I used to tell my cello students, “If it was easy, everybody would do it.”

When you’re young, I suspect, you can give yourself some emotional support by dreaming about the success you’ll enjoy someday. You bask in the gauzy visions of the admiring fans who will someday flock to your book signings. But I’m 72 years old. I don’t for a moment believe that flocks of admiring fans will figure in my future. If a few people read my stories and enjoy them, that’s good enough. Beyond that, I just want to finish this novel because I think it’s good. I care about the characters. I re-read Chapter 1 this afternoon and it brought tears to my eyes.

A couple of weeks ago one of my Facebook friends (a woman I used to know pretty well down in Cupertino 30 years ago) said she had downloaded While Caesar Sang of Hercules and was going to read it. Great! And then … nothing. I have no idea if she even started reading, if she tried reading it and gave up because it didn’t interest her, if she read it and hated it, or if she read it and liked it but just hasn’t bothered to say so.

And you can’t ask. That novel has fallen into the void. I’m proud of it, but not a single person has yet said they read it and enjoyed it. (I checked. No customer reviews on Amazon.) So why should I struggle to wrestle another project, something that’s more of a struggle than that one was, into shape? What does it matter if I do, or if I don’t?

If it mattered to someone other than me, I’d be more likely to keep at it. But I’m not going to ask for support and encouragement, because if nobody responds, that will make the struggle much worse. Much worse when drums stop.

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The Text

Interpreting words on a screen can be a fraught undertaking. I’ve found myself in a few interactions on Facebook where feelings were hurt and friendships damaged. In asking myself whether I might be to blame or need to do things differently, I’ve realized that it’s probably very significant that I’m an editor. Retired, to be sure, but I’ve spent more than 30 years reading and analyzing text and pointing out, not infrequently in great detail, the errors therein. I made a living at it.

Because of this, I’m pretty sure I don’t encounter text the way most other people do.

It’s a truism that on Facebook your facial expressions and the nuances of your tone of voice are lost. Irony and sarcasm can easily be misinterpreted as sincere statements. But it goes deeper than that.

Most people, if I can say this non-pejoratively, don’t put together sentences in anything like a careful, analytical way. They sort of grope at or blunder toward what they’re trying to convey. Not infrequently it’s about their emotional state. The sentence or paragraph may contain things that appear to be facts, and the facts may be wildly wrong — but that doesn’t matter to the writer, because what they’re saying has little to do with facts. The alleged facts are no more than symbolic place-holders.

Having slapped together a sentence or paragraph that seems to reflect their feelings, they don’t pause to examine or fine-tune what they’ve written. They just hit Return or click the Send button, and there it goes.

When I read what they’ve written, I read the facts. I read the logic. If the facts and logic are incorrect, I respond as an editor. (Also, I may have a great deal of background information at my fingertips that they don’t have, because I have a good memory and read a lot.)

When I respond as an editor, it gets ugly. The person who wrote the text interprets my response as a denial of their feelings or as a rejection of them as a person. It never occurs to them to re-examine what they wrote with an editor’s eye to see if perhaps I might be right. In many cases they may not even have the skills they would need to do that.

Something similar can happen when people read self-published fiction. A typical reader (or, indeed, the author) may feel deep affection for a novel because it evokes certain feelings in them. I, on the other hand, read the novel (or at least the first 20 pages of it, unable to stomach more) as an editor. It’s clear to me that the novel is a piece of crap. It’s clear to me that the author ought not even to be allowed in the same room with a word processor. But I dare not say so, because it will seem to both the author and the fan that I’m dismissing their emotions and possibly denying their worth as human beings.

(Human beings have no inherent worth, but that’s a topic for another time.)

Should I remain silent? If remain silent, I’m stifling my own perceptions, my own gifts, my own personhood in order to tend to the other person’s feelings. That’s not a healthy thing to do, not as a regular course. I’ve only been to a couple of Al-Anon meetings, but I know that much.

There have been some articles recently in the British press about how universities are being asked not to lower students’ grades due to the students’ inability to spell, use good grammar, or construct coherent paragraphs. Fortunately, the academics seem to be pushing back. In the modern world, you do need to be able both to write well and to analyze what you’ve written to make sure it adheres closely to logic, facts, and simple common sense.

If you’re going to get all bent out of shape when someone points out that you have failed to communicate using written language, there’s really no hope for you. You might get along fine in a hunter-gatherer community, but it’s civilization now. You’re going to make a mess of it.

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