books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, December 30, 2012

An Editor Confesses: 6 Things Writers Taught Me...by Ruth Harris



Best Wishes for a Happy 2013 from Anne and Ruth! 


 Six Things Writers Have Taught Me About Writing 

by former Big Six Editor Ruth Harris

I’ve known and worked with a lot of writers over the years (decades). Some work first thing in the AM, others in the PM, some don’t get started until near midnight. Some write sober, some don’t. Some write on a computer, some on legal pads, and these days some write on tablets. Some edit as they go along, perfecting each sentence before going on to the next. Some keep strict, almost corporate office hours, some write irregularly but in hot rushes of productivity.

Others write a first draft as fast as they can, then go back to edit and revise. Some outline in detail; some prepare elaborate storyboards, others work from a jotted list of scribbled notes; still others let the characters do the work. Some brainstorm the plot with a trusted friend, spouse or editor. Some work with a crit partner getting comments and guidance along the way; others won’t let anyone see their work until it’s finished. Bottom line, there’s no ONE way to get the job done.

No matter where, when or how writers write, though, professional writers have taught me the following:

Let yourself go. Get rid of the inner censor, that stern, humorless second-guessing nay-sayer that kills your ideas before they’re born. That killjoy is telling you your idea is too outrageous, too unbelievable, too over-the-top to see the light of day? Don't listen. Tune him out, shout her down  Don’t quash that zany/loony/nutty idea; instead, let it rip. Play with it and see where it goes. The “unspeakable,” the “unbelievable,” the OMG! “you can’t write that,” are exactly the ideas that lead to the fresh, original breakthrough.

Don’t kill your darlings, kill your inhibitions instead. You can always tone them down later. Considering every possibility, no matter how over-the-top, is the reason TV writers’ rooms are noted for Raunch and Irreverence. The reason? "R & I" I break through the conventions, the “should’s and can’t’s” that destroy creativity.

Edit yourself. Heresy coming from an editor, I know, but professional writers are often excellent editors of their own work. After years of experience, they have learned to recognize their strengths and weaknesses and figured out effective work-arounds.  They have developed the ability to look at their own work objectively and their approach is practical: what works stays, what doesn’t work hits the cutting room floor; aka the delete button.

The ability to self-edit comes with time and experience but it’s a goal for beginning writers to keep in mind.

Consider your book from the POV of a marriage, not a hot affair. Spouses get to know each other very well, are aware of all the plusses and minuses and still love each other. Take off the rose-colored glasses of passionate romance, marry your book instead and live happily ever after.

Bag your lordly delusions. Most of the professional authors I’ve known don’t clutter their minds with undefined notions of “relevance,” “significance” or “art.” Instead, they are experienced, disciplined and competent storytellers and entertainers who understand that craft matters. Great books are about characters, plot, setting, if “art” is the outcome, so much the better but, as in building a house, don’t rely on a gauzy fantasy from a literary review when what you need is a hammer and some nails.

Know your genre. Successful writers whether of horror, romance, thrillers or mystery study their genre. They know what their readers expect and they do NOT let them down. Period. No unhappy endings for romances. Readers want the HEA (happy-ever-after) so that's what the pro delivers.

No “revelation” at the end that the whole book, the characters and their trials and tribulations, was the MC’s dream. We're talking compelling fiction here, not a shaggy dog story. No tearing up in tough-guy noir. Hard edges, dammit! No weepy heart-to-heart confessions in action thrillers. Paranoia is the WTG because paranoia works; paranoia is what the reader wants. Disappoint him or her at your peril. Don't think you can reinvent the wheel. Pros know better.

Rescue yourself. One of the great old-time pulp writers (200+ books) once told me “Each one is a pain in the ass in a different way.”  What he meant was that  at some point each book is going to present a problem. A plot going nowhere. A boring/stupid/addled/DebbieDowner character. Too much/not enough background/research. Too long. Too short. You name it, sometime, somewhere in the course of writing a book, you will get stuck and you won’t know why.

Professional writers have learned how to bail themselves out. Whether it means going back to the beginning and starting again, a light rewrite, a total revision, a personality transplant (for a character, not the writer—lol), the pros have learned how to get themselves out of trouble.

Write. Write a lot. Then write some more. Seriously. Professional writers turn out copy, they meet deadlines, they get the job done and the more they write the better they get. Same with any job, career or profession.  Do you want a surgeon who’s just out of med school or one who’s done hundreds of knee/hip replacements? See what I mean?

How about you, scriveners? What are the most important things you've learned about writing from your fellow writers? Do you write on a computer? An iPad? A legal pad? A clay tablet? Do you have a writing routine or do you work in hot bursts? Do you edit as you go along, or dump it all on the page and deal with problems later?

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29 comments:

  1. Best advice I ever got was if you don't know what happens next, skip it and write the bit you do know. Amazing how easy those gaps are to fill in when you come back to them later.

    Nice post. :)

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  2. No lordly delusions of art here! And if you're searching for deep meanings in my books, you are in the wrong place.
    I've learned listen to fans. Understand what they did and didn't like and what they want. As you said, make the fans happy.
    I work forever on an outline before beginning, and then the perfectionist in me writes every line and scene with care. It's slow going on that first draft, but the reward is minor edits afterwards as opposed to major revisions.

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  3. I'm a outliner/plotter, I like writing in the am, but will write whenever if the mood strikes. I edit as I go, it's the perfectionist in me, and I prefer the laptop keyboard most of the time.

    I pull out the pen and moleskine when I have a tough scene or I'm mulling over a new idea. Maybe it helps if I imagine I'm in Paris sitting in a cafe. I work out some of the problems that way.

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  4. Good to know about your writing skills and we would learn alot from your blog. Would love to visit your blog again. Please keep us updating.
    Computer science degree

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  5. TobyW—Never heard that one & it sounds like it could definitely help. Thanks!

    Alex–Very wise & sensible of you! Also like your idea of the careful outline saving time in the end. Works for some; not for others—just like everything about writing!

    DG—Sounds like you have a very flexible approach—a big plus. I, too, find switching from computer to pen & pad gets me through tight spots. Slows me down in a positive way!

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  6. Abigail—Anne & I keep at it, one post at a time, always hoping to help. Please do come back!

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  7. "Bag your lordly delusions." Grrrr. Is an artist's intention to create art, by whatever definition, necessarily a delusion? And lordly? How's that?

    "...disciplined and competent storytellers and entertainers who understand that craft matters."

    One notion does *not* negate the other. Whether intentional or not, Ruth, I think you are placing writers of literary stories (i.e. artistic stories) inside a corner and calling them delusional. Most writers of literary stories are not successful at selling their work, but those who persist, in spite of an audience of readers who prefer escapist literature over stories that require intellectual effort, do so with a passion. Perhaps most care more about the process and the product than they care about publication. Some, Raymond Carver comes to mind, cared about both, yet would not surrender one goal for the other.

    "Get rid of the inner censor..." For some of us, this oft-given advice, is akin to telling a person who worries, "Stop worrying." Or to a self-editing writer who seeks the perfect word, phrase, etc. as he writes, "Perfection is an impossibility, so surrender the effort and just write a faulty first draft." Your advice in this regard may work for some, but I ask you, "*How* does a writer who relies on his inner censor, get rid of that voice?" As well, I ask you, "Why try to do so?" In order to make money?

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  8. Ann,

    I totally agree with the advice to get rid of that inner censor!

    Do NOT write for your mother, your pastor, etc. Write for you. Especially if you write romance, like me, lol.

    What do you love to read? Write that. And then keep writing and learning.

    My best learning of 2012 has been Carol Hughes' Deep Story class online. Cheap price tag and of incalculable value.

    My best new tool is using a writing program with places for plotting, character sketches, etc. I use WriteWayPro, but I know there are many other great programs out there. It has saved me sooooo much time going back and forth in my manuscript tying plot points in and making sure each scene is pointing to the goal for that chapter and act.

    Thanks for the great blog,

    Happy New Year,
    Cathryn
    http://www.cathryncade.com

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  10. Just the post I needed to read to carry me into the new year! Many thanks

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  11. O'Brien—Thank *you* Carry on!

    Cathryn—Thanks for an terrific comment. Censorship—whether interior or exterior—is the writer's enemy.

    I haven't tried WriteWayPro but use Scrivener which does many of same things. They are excellent writer-oriented apps.

    Anthony—Thank you for stopping by and for taking the time to comment.

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  12. I love the advice of "letting yourself go". I think my self-doubt stymies my creativity before I even have a chance to give it birth most times. Writing is such a private desire placed in very public hands. Your point of giving the readers what the want is very well taken. Thanks.

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  13. Great post! I agree completely with everything you've said. I find that a book sags or stops in the middle. I run out of steam, temporarily. Then I need to focus on my characters, take a breather, then return. When I feel refreshed or come up with a new twist, my energy is renewed and I finish the book.

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  14. Julie—Letting yourself go really means letting your imagination go. It's amazing how difficult that can be until you realize that you're not actually "doing" the shocking/amazing/scary things you're thinking about. You're just imaging them!

    Jean—Thank you! I've read that the reason shopping is so tiring is that it involves making decisions—a known source of fatigue. Just think of writing: you constantly make decisions—which word, which plot twist, which character. It's unending so no wonder we run out of steam at some point.

    As you say, refocusing or taking a breather can make all the difference. It's something writers can learn through experience & what works for one writer won't work for another. No such thing as "one size fits all." It's all individual.

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  15. As always, Ruth, this is excellent advice. I do think though that one of your commenters (Anthony) had a point: there is such a thing as a writer who writes for the sake of the art of writing, i.e. literature with a capital L. He/she writes because he/she is driven by a higher goal and not looking back at any fan base. Indeed, it's likely that such a writer has no fan base whatsoever!

    The role models for such writers are usually lofty masters of the past, from Dickens to Victor Hugo to Tolstoy and Dostoievsky. No "genre" writers for them and they probably don't even read in any given genre...

    But these writers are the ones who will create with their work (eventually, if and when it gets published) the "genres" of the future...What I'm trying to say is that one should leave some space for the odd writer out! One major example of what I'm talking about comes to mind: Tolkien! He was an Oxford Don I believe, teaching History and specialized in medieval history (or was he at Cambridge? Now, I don't remember - anyhow, one of the two) and he'd written The Hobbit more to amuse himself than anything else - he published that before WWII or anyway, at some point in the 1940s. It took fully 20 years before his famous trilogy became the success we all know and the founding stone of a new genre, fantasy that is populated with best-sellers!

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  16. Claude, Thank you. I don't disagree at all but I don't think my down-to-earth observations are antithetical to art/literature-with-a-capital-L. Without a strong, reliable knowledge of craft & recognition of the dailiness of the effort involved, it would be difficult if not impossible to create art/Literature.

    Certainly Tolkein did not self-censor; instead he let his imagination lead the way. His strong concept—and excellent execution—created a genre although at the time he was working on it he probably had no idea of the profound influence his work would have.

    I would also imagine he, Tolstoy, VHugo (even Shakespeare!) faced the same periods of being "stuck" that most writers do & learned how to bail themselves out.

    Chuck Close recently was quoted as saying "Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us go to work." Einstein described his own work as "99% perspiration, 1% inspiration."

    I think it's healthy to take the "mystique" out of our work as much as possible so that the challenges become less formidable. Even if our goal is to create art/Literature, we still have to write one (well-chosen) word after another, one (well-crafted) sentence after another—and then get them in the right order!

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  17. I always find such gems when I come visit your blogs. I "know" these, but still struggle to keep to them all while I'm writing. Hopefully 2013 will be the year my internal editor takes a long vacation.

    Happy New Year.

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  18. Jen—Thanks for the kind words. I think it's a struggle for all of us to keep in mind all the things required to do our job well. No one—especially not me!—ever said it was easy.

    As to that internal editor, maybe a slooooow trip around the world with lots & lots of stops along the way???? ;-)

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  19. I couldn't agree more with this list. It's spot on. Especially about the R & I. Like you said, you can go back later and tone it down if you still think it's over the top. That and work. Work, work, work. Do it. I know a lot of people who talk about "dreaming" to be a writer "some day." It's like, dude, stop dreaming. Go write. It's not like, a unicorn or something, you don't have to dream it.

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  20. I used the write on typewriters and worked chronologically, getting stuck on transitions from one scene to the next. Now, I write in Scrivener and I write scenes without regard of how the character goes from one scene to the next. After the rough draft is done, I compile into an ebook and read the draft on an e-reader, noting where I need transitions, but I find that I rarely need transitions where one character travels from one point ot the next anymore.

    And the most important thing I learned is already mentioned - don't edit while you write or write while you edit. I strictly separate the two. Both require totally different mindsets. Separating them has improved my work enormously.

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  21. Thank you, Ruth for a wonderful post. I am writing a series in a new genre for me with an “unrealistic” theme. Also new for me. I appreciate the advice about letting the outrageous be outrageous. While writing some of my scenes I hear my practical self whisper, “Um…I don’t think so. Who’s going to believe that?” My writer self, that’s who. And if she can believe it she can make the reader believe. I hope!

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  22. John—Thanks! R&I are crucial for tearing off all the "coulds" and "shoulds" that block the essential fresh & unanticipated breakthrough that will bring your work alive.

    Yes, work. Dreaming is for wannabes. Working is for writers who want to succeed. One word at a time; one sentence at a time. Butt to chair, hands on keyboard. Head down & carry on!

    AmsterdamA—Scrivener is great, isn't it? As you say, things that used to hang us up (like transitions) aren't even necessary much of the time. Besides, transitions tend to be literal and therefore can be really boring. Never underestimate the power of the strategically applied delete button (or Scriv).

    Your point about now mixing writing with editing is excellent & one I probably didn't stress nearly enough. It's inspiring to learn that strictly separating them made a big & positive improvement in your work.

    Christine—Thank you for the flattering words. Glad the "outrageous" advice helped. It's good to remember that we're writing fiction. It doesn't have to be practical or realistic, just believable. As you say, if the writer believes it, so will the reader!

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  23. Great post. I tend to struggle with the inner editor which slows my process. One of my goals for the New Year is to just write and then edit later.

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  24. Thanks for the advice - all great tips. My question is this - how the heck do I market my novel?? Writing - piece of cake. Promoting - argh!

    Can you give us published writers some advice on how to market our books in spite of sagging sales and thousands of choices readers have?

    My new year's resolution is to promote, promote, promote...I learned this year that in order to continue getting published, one must prove that they can SELL! :)

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  25. Melissa—thanks! The Inner Editor is a problem for lots of writers (including me). I've gotten better (but far from perfect) by being aware of that tendency & consciously making an effort to ignore it/her. Good luck—I'm certain that with practice you will get much better at telling the IE to bug off & leave you alone.

    Stacy—Thanks for the kind words. As you so accurately point out, marketing & writing are different critters. Go over to the Kindle Boards' Writers' Cafe. There are lots of threads there about marketing, what to do, what NOT to do. You'll find some good ideas.

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  26. You mean I can't change my personality to fix a book? Oh but I so wanted ti try that *grins* I may also have to try that clay tablet method of writing... hey my heronies can get creative. I just had one trying to compose a spell in a cookie tray of flour (there wasn't any sand available)...

    Ahem

    On to the serious.

    I'm still in the early stages of embracing my writerly side so I'm starting to learn to do all you advise us to do. So far I think I'm doing decently enough with that. :}

    As to "No Place Like Home" - another yummy Camilla Randall mystery. *grins*

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  27. Cathryn—Thanks for the comment. Treat your writerly side well and she will treat you well!

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  28. I can't tell you how many times I've redone entire stories, either changing the POV or adding something quirky...always making my work about a million times better. Does that make me a pro? I don't know. Does it challenge me and keep my writing fresh?...for sure. This article makes me want to be a better writer. Thanks for posting.

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  29. Christina—I have always said it ain't the writing, it's the rewriting (and revising & editing). Sounds like you're on the right track! :-)

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