I’m Sorry You Scare Me

Writing takes courage — and so does reading. This is a thoughtful post about daring and not daring to read works that may be too challenging, too difficult.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Elizabeth Gaucher Elizabeth Gaucher

For those on our email list, an unfinished version of this post went out yesterday, our fault, not the author’s! Please enjoy the full version.

A guest post from Elizabeth Gaucher:

“I think I have to apologize for something,” the message from my longtime friend read. “At first I thought I need to apologize for not reading your latest published piece, but I think I have to apologize for or admit to something deeper.”

I felt my brows rise. This was coming from one of my oldest and dearest friends, someone who is also a writer, and it felt like a warning flare. I took a deep breath and read on into the mysterious sin. She had in fact finally read my column about the writing life for an online nonfiction journal. She was really moved by it. She apologized for not reading it sooner, admitting she wasn’t…

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On to Draft 2!

This past weekend I took a very deep breath and started draft 2 of Wolfie, my novel in progress.

The time had come.

I like to take a break between drafts. The longer the work, the longer the break, which means that with a novel or a long essay it can be a few weeks. This time I didn’t exactly take the break: the break took me. In late January I suspended work on the novel to focus my attention on a long, challenging editing job with an impending deadline. That deadline met, I turned to a review assignment whose deadine was also impending. I’d read the book and been thinking about it for weeks, but now I had to write the review. (For some thoughts about reviewing see “Reviewing Isn’t Easy.”)

Wolfie was never far from my mind. To push on with the first draft or to start the second? That was the question.

Draft 1 wasn’t complete. The Word file stood at 227 pages, almost 55,000 words, with a dozen or so handwritten pages yet to be transcribed. I had a pretty good idea of where things were headed. I probably could have forged on through climax to conclusion and then started the second draft . . .

The trouble was, a couple of significant plot threads have only come clear during the writing. One is hinted at in draft 1 but only sketchily developed. The other comes as a backstory dump in the handwritten pages I haven’t transcribed yet. It needs to start much earlier and be woven into the story.

Over the last year I’ve been taking Wolfie installments to my Sunday night writers’ group. This is a first for me. Usually I don’t let anything out in public until it’s in second or third draft — when I’ve gone as far as I can on my own and need some outside eyes. With Wolfie, though, the weekly deadline and my group’s encouragement have kept me going.

So — should I push on and bring the final chapters one by one to the group, explaining that the backstory to this or that wasn’t set up yet and they’d have to wait for the second draft to understand what was going on? I didn’t like that idea at all. I want the writing to stand on its own.

Maybe more important, I don’t really know how those last chapters are going to unfold. It’s going to depend in part on what my characters do and say in the parts I haven’t written yet, and I won’t know that until I’ve written them.

So I opened draft1.doc and saved it as draft2.doc.

old chap 1

Then I deleted Chapter One. It was an experiment that didn’t work out. The tall man is still in the story, but he doesn’t live in that house anymore. He’s no longer a viewpoint character either.

So far, so good. For me revision is usually about 80 percent cutting and rearranging what’s already there. Chapter Two from draft 1 is now Chapter One in draft 2.

new chap 1

My recollection was that this chapter didn’t need much work. It does a pretty good job of introducing one of the two viewpoint characters: Glory, a sixth-grade girl. What I’d forgotten was that somewhere along the way I’d shifted Glory’s sections from past tense to present, but her introduction is still in past tense.

And I’m still not 100 percent sure that present tense is the way to go. Rather than rewrite it now, I made a note in the margin. The muses haven’t given me a clear answer on that one yet.

For the new Chapter Two, I’ve gone back to writing in longhand. The story itself isn’t going to change much, but I need a new way into it — a way that hints at some of the things I didn’t know when I wrote it the first time. What this means is that with Wolfie second-drafting is going to look more like first-drafting than it usually does. It’s going to involve plenty of exploring, digging, and otherwise adding new stuff — writing, in other words.

Travvy

Travvy, on whom Wolfie’s title character is based, takes a break from digging in the snow.

For me, editing is relatively easy. The writing tells me what has to be done, and I do it.

Writing is more like breaking trail through two feet of snow. My dog and I have done a lot of that lately. It’s exhausting, and it takes longer to get anywhere than it does when we’re walking on good old dirt.

But second-drafting already seems less daunting than starting from scratch. This time around my characters are helping — some of them more than others, of course — and so is the story. If I listen carefully, I can hear what’s not being said. I can visualize the scenes that need to be there that aren’t there yet.

My writing will teach me what I need to know if only I keep writing.

My Voice! Where’s My Voice?

There’s a lot of gobbledygook out there about “the writer’s voice,” also known as “the author’s voice.” Writers worry about finding their voice, and about not finding it, and about not knowing whether they’ve found it or not.

Copyeditors worry about interfering with the author’s voice, often without being too clear on what an author’s voice is, what a particular author’s voice sounds like, and when it’s OK to mess with it.

Agents and acquisitions editors often claim that it’s the writer’s voice that lifts a manuscript from the slush pile and into the elite ranks of the Traditionally Published. What exactly do they mean by that?

When I hear writers talk about finding their voices, this is the image that comes to mind: "His Master's Voice."

When I hear writers talk about finding their voices, this is the image that comes to mind: “His Master’s Voice,” the voice coming out of the record player. Where the hell did my voice go? Who’s talking?

Time to cut through the obfuscation and mystification. Your writer’s voice isn’t something you find, like the prize at the end of a treasure hunt or the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It’s something you develop on the journey.

If you’re writing in English, you start with pretty much the same rules and conventions as everybody else. The way you use, abuse, ignore, and stretch those rules and conventions will be influenced by the things you choose to write about, the audience(s) you’re writing for, your traveling companions, the places you pass through and sojourn in, and so on and on.

Think about it: Our speaking voices are flexible. We can whisper or we can shout. The foul-mouthed among us can clean up our language when we’re in polite company or interviewing for a job. Our writing voices can be likewise.

In some kinds of writing, the writer’s individual voice takes a back seat. News reporting, technical writing, scientific writing, the writing in textbooks and legal documents: these don’t generally show much personality. They’re not supposed to. They’re supposed to communicate clearly and, often, concisely. The writers write and the editors edit with this in mind. It takes tremendous skill to do this well.

Note, however, that some lawyers and academics write novels, journalists write memoirs, business people write poetry, and scientists write essays for the popular press. The novels don’t sound like legal briefs, the memoirs don’t sound like front-page news stories, the poems don’t sound like annual reports, and the newspaper op-eds don’t sound like scientific papers, even though they’re written by the same person.

Even though the writers are almost certainly applying the skills they’ve developed in one milieu to the writing they’re doing in another.

Travvy

My malamute, Travvy, has a flexible voice. Here he is trying to persuade a tractor to move.

These writers have flexible voices that can be adapted to different kinds of writing. I know a bit about this because over the years I’ve written reviews, essays, poems, news stories, op-eds, newspaper features, short stories, one-act plays, and a novel, not to mention something like 500 blog posts. Some forms I’m more comfortable with than others, some I’m better at than others, but they’re all coming out of the same well of words, opinions, and experiences that is contained in my brain.

Flexibility is especially important for fiction writers and writers of “creative nonfiction” — which seems to mean by definition nonfiction that encourages a distinctive authorial voice. Characters speak in different voices, and all those voices come out of the writer’s head.

The writers of memoir and travelogue often have occasion to quote actual people. This requires first the ability to listen attentively and then the ability to translate the other person’s voice onto the printed page. Sometimes this means putting words in the other person’s mouth that the other person never said. If the other person is dead or fictitious, he or she won’t sue for libel — but astute readers often know when a character steps out of character. When the lapse is obvious enough, the reader may lose confidence in the character, the story, and the author.

My editorial diet is similarly varied. Most of it is nonfiction, but it ranges from scholarly books and dissertations to memoirs, essay collections to book-length works by journalists. Most of the novels I edit are stand-alones: they aren’t part of a series, and they don’t belong to a recognizable genre. Each genre and kind of writing has its own conventions and its own objectives, and in most cases some flexibility is allowed — even encouraged.

In the early pages and chapters — I work primarily on book-length works — I listen for the author’s voice. Sometimes it’s distinctive; often it’s fairly subtle. I notice the words and constructions that the author is particularly fond of. These are perfectly OK in themselves, but used to excess they can become cloying. Some authors (like me) like long sentences and write them well, but that doesn’t mean that the occasional long sentence doesn’t get tangled enough to trip even a careful reader up.

I do this pretty much without thinking. If you asked me at the end of a job to describe the author’s voice, I’d have a hard time doing it — until I went back with a more analytical eye and identified the various components that make up the author’s style. As a result, I can be a little suspicious when agents, acquisitions editors, and writing teachers go on and on about the importance of that mystical, mystifying entity, “the writer’s voice.”

A few weeks back, though, I was reminded of just how important a writer’s voice can be. A writer I didn’t know asked me to critique his just-completed novel. Like many another editor upon receiving a similar request, I was wary. Most such manuscripts turn out to need serious work before they become publishable, or even readable. “Serious work” translates into serious time, which means serious money. The writer doesn’t have it, or doesn’t want to spend it, and I can’t afford to work for nothing.

So I asked to see a chapter or two. I was already bracing myself for frustration.

Then I started reading. Sure, the punctuation needed work and some of the word choices were a little off, but it was clear almost immediately that the author was one hell of a storyteller and that he had one hell of a story to tell.

Send me the whole thing, I said.

Since then that storyteller’s voice has conjured scenes I couldn’t imagine, taken me places I didn’t want to go, and made me laugh at the same time. This voice isn’t my voice, but it’s so strong and distinctive that I’ve had no trouble slipping inside it and hearing it while I meddle with the punctuation, rearrange the occasional sentence, and ask questions about things that aren’t clear.

Editing doesn’t get much better than this.

When this novel makes it into print, you will hear about it. I promise.

 

Reviewing Isn’t Easy

Most of my writing time over last weekend went into an 1,800-word review of a nonfiction book. Monday was the deadline, and Monday I emailed it in to my editor. Editors love it when writers deliver their stuff on time. Trust me on this. They also love it when writers turn in copy that’s well organized and properly punctuated. Trust me on that too.

I’ve done plenty of reviewing over the years, mostly of books but also of local theater performances and the occasional concert or album. Reviewing is hands-down the hardest writing I ever do, which is why I don’t do much of it these days. My other writing has pushed it to the side. I regret this because I think reviewing is important and because I’m pretty good at it.

Reviewing is important. An author or performer puts the work out there, and the reviewer enters into conversation with it — a conversation that includes not only the work and its creator(s) but also the potential audience for that work.

Perhaps most important, reviews let prospective readers know that a book is out there and whether they might be interested in it.

So a review is like PR — free publicity for the book?

In some ways yes, but in other ways very much no. What reviewers write can persuade people to buy the book, but we aren’t part of the production team. Our job is not to persuade people to buy the book or put it on their to-read lists. Our job is to help them make up their minds.

What distinguishes reviews from back-cover blurbs and other promotional copy is that reviewers come to the work from outside. We haven’t been involved in the writing, editing, publishing, or promoting of the book we’re reviewing.

So what’s a review anyway?

Good question! “Review” covers the vast territory between a blurb and the kind of literary criticism that appears in academic journals. A review can be short, long, or somewhere in-between. It can be written down or delivered orally. Usually it describes what the book is about, provides some context — for instance, mentioning the author’s previous works, if any, or recent publications in the same field — and offers some clues as to whether the book is worth your while or not.

Beyond that, it depends — on the reviewer, the review medium (radio, blog, webzine, newspaper, Goodreads, Amazon, etc.), and the intended audience.

My writer friend wants me to review her book. Should I do it?

No. A thousand times no.

Personally I think your writer friend shouldn’t even have asked you. She’s putting you in a terrible position.

Since you’re in that terrible position, ask yourself these questions:

  • Can I tell prospective readers what they deserve to know about this book before they buy it?
  • If I give my honest opinion about my writer friend’s book, will we still be friends?

Of course, if you decline to review the book, the friendship may hit the skids anyway — see what I mean about terrible positions?

If you’re the writer with a forthcoming book, don’t do this to your friends. If your friends write well and want to help out, enlist them to write jacket copy, press releases, and brief synopses for your website. If they’re published authors themselves or have other useful credentials, they can write one of those signed blurbs that appear on the back cover of a print book or in the opening pages of an ebook. No one expects these things to be written by an impartial reviewer.

So what’s “impartial”? When is it OK to review someone’s book?

Good reviewers think about this a lot. We discuss it with other reviewers. In many fields and genres, authors, editors, publishers, and reviewers mingle on a regular basis, in person and/or online. Many of us wear more than one hat. We know each other by reputation even if we haven’t actually met.

Smart authors and publishers, including self-publishers, keep an eye out for reviewers who would be a good match for their books. Authors, especially self-publishing authors, may contact prospective reviewers directly. It’s up to the reviewer to say yes or no, and saying no to someone you know is not always easy, especially when they press you to come up with a reason. (Note to writers: Please don’t do this. It’s OK to take no for an answer. Last month I reblogged this excellent post: “Author Etiquette for Contacting Book Bloggers.” Read it and pass it on.)

How close is too close to write an impartial review? Here are some recommendations. You’re too close —

  • If you’ve seen any draft of the manuscript before it was published. If the author is in your writers’ group or workshop or writing class, you’re too close. If you were a second or third reader, you’re too close. If you critiqued or edited the ms., you’re too close. Possible exception: If you heard the author read from the novel in progress and had no prior relationship with the author, you might not be too close.
  • If you have any professional connection with the publisher, paid or unpaid, staff or freelance. This goes mainly for small presses, independents, and self-publishers. With huge trade-publishing conglomerates and even mid-sized university presses, it’s easy to be several arm’s-lengths away from any particular book.
  • If you’re more concerned with the author’s feelings than with telling prospective readers what they deserve to know.

What about when a book you’re asked to review really sucks?

Forgive my bluntness here, but this is the elephant in the booksellers’ marketplace so let’s not pretend it isn’t there. Some books really do suck, and some of those sucky books are written by people we know and like. You shouldn’t be reviewing books by your friends even if those books are stupendously good and in the running for major awards, but what if you get roped in to reviewing a book that’s really bad — as in, you really don’t think anyone should be wasting their time and money on it?

If you’re working on assignment from a book blog or other review medium, and whoever made the assignment has no personal connection to the author, this usually isn’t too hard. Explain that you don’t think the book is worth reviewing. Ask for another assignment.

If you do know the author, it’s a lot more difficult. You can try procrastinating. Some authors will catch on: Endless procrastination translates into “I really don’t want to do this.” Others won’t. In such cases, if you don’t say something, one of those elephants is going to take up residence in your relationship with the author. Saying something is hard. This is why those elephants aren’t on the endangered species list.

There is almost no good reason to review a really, really bad book, especially when that book is a first novel or a self-published book. If it doesn’t get reviewed, the book will probably sink with nary a trace. This is the best scenario for all concerned, though they probably won’t see it that way. The big exception is when the bad book is written and/or published by someone from whom we’ve got good reason to expect better things. In these cases, readers deserve to be warned off.

Slashing a bad book to ribbons can be fun, but it can — and should — leave a very unpleasant aftertaste. Don’t do it.

 

Write for a Living?

I just finished a long and demanding editing job, right on deadline. For the last 10 days or so, it’s been taking up seven or eight hours of every waking day. I’ve learned over the years that my daily capacity for demanding word work is about seven or eight hours. Beyond that my brain goes on auto-pilot.

deadline miracleWriting and editing aren’t the same, but they both qualify as “demanding word work.” Over the last year or so, I’ve managed to maintain a pretty good balance: edit for five or six hours a day, write for up to two. The writer grabs the first two hours after waking, my absolute best creative time. (I’m an early riser, but my internal editor tends to sleep late. I’m also easily distracted by the events of the day once they start unfolding.)

So for 10 days or so, I’ve neither blogged nor worked on the novel. My writing has consisted of a few emails and the occasional post to Facebook. This is scary. The further I get from the practice of daily writing, the more certain I am that I’ll never get back to it. My writing, I fear, is like a fire in the woodstove. If it goes long untended, it will go out.

If only I didn’t have to work! I think. If only I could write for a living!

The same thought has probably crossed your mind. Maybe more than once. Maybe whenever life — specifically your paid job — gets in the way of the writing that you’d much rather be doing. Sound familiar?

When time-pressed writers imagine writing for a living, or at least writing as part of their job, they often aren’t thinking about going into journalism or academia. They aren’t thinking about writing lengthy reports for think tanks or government agencies, or how-to manuals for computer software and hardware. They definitely aren’t thinking of writing ad copy and jingles, although this may pay better than most of the other possibilities.

The fantasy is usually about making a living writing what we want to write. The big attraction is getting paid to do what we want to do.

I get it. Most of my life I’ve been able to make my living doing work that I enjoy, that I’m good at, and that seems useful to other people and sometimes even the world at large. It has nearly often involved the written word — but it’s rarely involved writing. During my several years working for a weekly newspaper, I got to write pretty much what I wanted to write — stories about interesting people and events — but my job description was “editor.” Editing has been my bread and butter, and occasionally my beer and chocolate, since the late 1970s.

If you’re determined to write for a living, or even for a substantial chunk of your living, I know I can’t talk you out of it. I’m not going to try. For sure some writers manage to do it. If you look closely, though, you’ll often see that other factors are helping them stay afloat economically: maybe a partner with a well-paying job, maybe a trust fund, maybe gigs teaching writing in one way or another. Take a hard look at your own resources before you even think of quitting your day job.

Think about this too: For me to make my living as a freelance editor, someone has to be willing and able to pay money for what I’m selling. The same goes for writing. The money coming into your checking account has to come from somewhere. It may come from a publisher. It may come direct from readers who are dying to read your books. It may come from newspapers, magazines, or online media that want to buy your feature articles and maybe send you off on assignment to write more.

These things are not going to fall into your lap. You’re going to have to hustle — to do all the research and self-promotion necessary to reach those willing and able to pay for what you’re selling, then to persuade them to part with their money. While you’re hustling, you probably aren’t writing what you what you write. You’re writing proposals, synopses, query letters, and press releases. Is it starting to sound like a day job yet?

Here’s another question: How often do you spend your hard-earned money on other writers’ writing? How often do you take a chance on a novel by someone you’ve never heard of? Will you do it for $9.99? for $2.99? for free? What would make people who’ve never heard of you take a chance on your book? This applies to attracting agents, editors, and publishers as well as to engaging individual readers in the emerging online marketplace. Perhaps even more so: If an agent, editor, or publisher takes you on, s/he will wind up investing far, far more than $9.99 in you and your work.

The real bottom line here is that if you want to make a living writing, you have to write what people are willing to pay money for, and you have to keep doing it. You’ll have deadlines that can’t be blown off. Your fallow periods and blocks will become even scarier than they are now because they’ll threaten your livelihood as well as your sanity and your sense of self-worth.

Writing, in short, will become your job.

And it may well get in the way of your writing.