An Editor Confesses: 6 Things Writers Taught 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?


Get a new ereader or tablet for Christmas? Anne's new Camilla Randall mystery, NO PLACE LIKE HOME will be FREE on Amazon on January 1, 2 and 3! In both the US and the UK.  It's a comic mystery about a super-rich home decorating maven who ends up homeless. With the help of a trio of intrepid homeless friends and a little dog named Toto (and the ever-polite sleuth, Camilla Randall) she exposes the secrets of the "financial wizard" who has ruined her life and the lives of so many others. It's #4 in the series, but you don't have to have read the others. All the Camilla mysteries are stand-alones.

And #3 in the series, SHERWOOD, LTD, about mayhem and murder at rogue publishing company in Robin Hood country is still free on Smashwords. for all ereader platforms.

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