Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A writing lesson from the movies

So many writers think they are through when they write the story. 

Actually that's when crafting the story should begin. Like a director of a movie that takes all the raw scenes that he's shot and goes into the cutting room to weave them into a movie, the writer takes the raw chapters and starts working on the pacing and the flow, engaging the reader here and picking up the pace there. This is where the writer moves scenes to push a reader at the end of a chapter into the next one, watching to see that the story doesn't slow down at a point to where the reader loses interest. 

I get several hundred submissions a month of people wanting me to represent their work, and this is probably the greatest failing in them. The author may have a pretty good story concept, but it just doesn’t flow, it doesn’t guide the reader through it. In fact, a great number of them fail to get the reader off the very first page.

A major portion of rejections occur right at that point, I call it the “Barnes and Noble test.” If we want to learn how manuscripts are rejected, we just need to sit in a bookstore for a while and watch the patrons. They pick up a book, read the back cover and the first page, maybe sample a little more, but those two are all that we can count on. They keep doing this until one of them pushes them off that first page and down into the book. When that happens they will usually carry it to the checkout stand. 

Editors know this and judge them the same way. We can have the greatest story in the world, but if we don’t get them off that first page, it doesn’t matter. This is part of putting on that director hat and directing the book after we get the basic story written. Did you ever hear somebody tell a joke that was hilarious, then later hear someone else tell the joke using the exact same words and it bombs? The difference is delivery, the pacing and flow, knowing the timing necessary to get the laugh. George Burns told the same old tired jokes for 50 years but they were always funny, because his timing and delivery were impeccable. 

No, we couldn't possible handle as many submissions as we get. That means a good manuscript is not good enough. It has to be exceptional, it has to stand out from the crowd. A big secret to taking that manuscript past good and on to exceptional is realizing after we take off the writer’s hat and put on the editor’s hat to clean up a story once it is written, that is just grammar and copy-editing and formatting. Too few writers change the hat the third time to put on that director’s hat, go into the cutting room and think of nothing but how to make their story flow so it pulls the readers in and then subtly guides them through it. 

More writers need to be doing that – no, actually, all writers need to take that step.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Should I quit writing?

She caught me off guard with that question. She sat down for an appointment and instead of pitching her projects she launched into how her kids were interrupting her writing time, how church and work and just life in general left her no time to write. She listed obstruction after obstruction and said when she did find time to write that it wouldn’t come, that she was getting nowhere with it. Then she hit me with that question.

I didn’t hesitate a heartbeat but just said “yes.”

She was probably expecting a pep talk or at least for me to commiserate with her. I didn’t. I said, “I think anyone who can quit writing should do so. All of the writers I know CAN’T quit. They have words inside them that have to come out. The serious writer simply has to do it.”

Writing is not easy. There is never time to do it, and there is a huge amount of frustration and difficulty involved. Why would anyone put themselves through it if they didn’t have to? Oh, I know there are those who say “When the kids leave I’ll have time to write.” Or when I retire, or if I come into money, or any other factor in their life that will create this big block of time where they can easily write.

Never happens. Life expands to fill the amount of time available. There is always something to take up the time. The serious writer has to carve out writing time and jealously protect it. Maybe there are people who can dabble at it, a fun little diversion that they do here and there, and they don’t stress over it or worry about it not producing the results they want to have. That’s someone who writes as a hobby, and that’s okay. It makes a nice little hobby if they don’t care about getting a lot of books out and can settle for hobby results, a few books to family and friends, maybe a few outsiders.

But if they have to start trying to write better, to reach more people, to get serious about it. Then it won’t let them be, and it can be a hard taskmaster. Sure, if you can quit, do so, and spend your time on something easier that provides quicker gratification.

She left stone-faced, shaken. I saw her the next day and she said, “I took your advice and felt an immediate peace come over me that I could let it go. But it kept coming back nagging at me. Finally I realized that I really can’t quit.”

I smiled at her. “Then quit making excuses and feeling sorry for yourself. You don’t have any more things fighting to steal your time than anyone else. All writers face it, even the ones that seem to be writing full time and that is all they do. Don’t believe it. They are warding off constant things that want to steal their time. They just have to be disciplined and protect that time no matter what.”

She nodded and said she understood. “Everyone else has been feeling sorry for me and telling me things will get better. You’re the first one that has ever slapped me in the face and told me I should quit or get on with it.”

Really? Maybe there are others who need a wake up call on protecting their writing time. Why did I know what to say so easy? Because being an agent has stolen almost all of my writing time. Oh, the job had some help from family, church and life in general, but I made a conscious decision that helping other writers was more important than my own writing and now I get to do precious little of it. I was talking to myself as much as I was talking to her.