There is only one truly literary question, and that is editing.
You need to write something first though—that almost goes without saying. But you don’t write so you can edit. You edit so you can write.
The new tips that hit my Google Reader almost daily have me paralyzed over my first chapter. I’ve been over every line till it hurts to look any more, twisting, rewording, restructuring, trying to kill this or that potential problem. I’ll think I’ve got a paragraph or a page or a scene in order, and a day or two later I’m back, fixing something else–and then if I give it a little space and come back, I’ll notice that in my desperate attempts to alternate sentence structure within paragraphs and on the page as a whole, I’ve started five paragraphs in a row exactly the same way.
Too much good advice is bad advice. Particularly with the typhoon of writing-oriented blogs and websites (what did you expect writers to do when you gave them the internet?), the mechanics of writing a good story can seem, at times, only slightly more complicated than robotically reassembling the nuclear structure of a beluga whale.
But it doesn’t have to be.
Editing and Self-Defense
Writers love to write and editors love to edit, and it makes sense that they’d blog about what they love. It also makes sense, if you’re a serious editor and agent who has to read through dozens of unsolicited submissions a day, or queries letters a week, or whatever, that you’d want to encourage people to send you—well—writing worth reading.
It also makes sense, if you’re an established writer, that you want to have a stock answer you can push at the scads of people who want you to tell them how they can become you.
That’s why nearly every agency or publisher or writer, in my observation, has a page on their blog called ‘What We Want to See in Submissions’ or ‘Six Steps to Start Scribbling’. In one sense, it’s a form of self defense. Like any guideline, it’s there to keep down the crazies. It’s a way to keep people from sending you plagiarized copies of Gone With the Wind written with lipstick on yellow construction paper, with the character names changed to Gregor Smiley and Tabitha Bilk.
Which is understandable. If you’re an editor or an agent, you need a level of financial security—you want to publish people who will sell. How do you know what will sell? By looking what’s already sold. So the general advice—and this is a generalization so broad it’s almost crass—is: write what’s already out there, just in a different way.
What’s out there is stark, crisp, fast-paced and generally minimalist. American literature has not escaped the shadow of Hemingway. American pop-lit has not escaped the shadow of the penny dreadfuls. We want it spare and fast.
That works. Sometimes that works very well. But, for heaven’s sake, that’s not all there is to writing a good story. Or even to writing a well written story.
The Voices in our Words
I respect language. I respect voice. I respect the music of language in the idiosyncrasy of voice. When we write, we are engaging in dialogue with the whole cacophony of our written and spoken language. Words, words, words, the room is filled with echoes and music to which we add our own tones.
Among my generation in particular I see a hunger for beauty and meaning and wonder, for authenticity and reality. That sort of desire doesn’t sit well with the laconic scarcity and disillusioned minimalism of the postwar years. We are, perhaps, seeing the rebirth of Romanticism, a hunger for life and beauty. Read the Romantics—no, really. Go read them. They sound nothing like Hemingway.
(I’ll let you in on a little secret: they’re still great writers.)
So what do you do if you’re not Hemingway or one of his little friends? What do you do if your voice and style are different from what’s out there? If the shining example of What Sells is nothing like how you write?
Write anyway. Because here’s another little secret: there are still left in the world—as much as the cynics may scoff—editors and agents who are looking for beauty and wonder, too. Who can and do recognize great writing and great story when they see it, even if it sounds nothing like what’s already out there. Who are willing to take risks.
Write and keep writing. The art of writing is the art of speech, or speaking your own words, creative words that invoke beauty the imagination, prophetic words that challenge and declare, healing words that comfort and restore. And much, much more.
Friday, I’ll treat with a more pragmatic—and unavoidable—side of Jenna’s difficulty. We must self-edit, so—how?
I’ll also mention several books which will tell you, even if you don’t read anything else about it.
Are you an editor, agent, or established writer reading this? Please don’t navigate away in disgust—let’s talk. I’d love to get your perspective on these things, to let you explain what you’ve chosen as your guidelines for writing and why, what you’ve found helpful and what you haven’t. Dialogue with me—that’s why the comment box is there.