The bathtub at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, otherwise known as my favorite place in the world. I have not yet figured out how to take a bath in this old clawfoot tub, but I did manage to decorate it with a fluffy towel and a bar of Writer’s Block soap.
The past few months have been slow from a writing perspective, but huge from a learning perspective. I had my eight week apocalyptic fiction class followed by a two week LitFest: both hosted by Lighthouse Writers Workshop where I am a member. In one of my workshops, my instructor, Rachel Weaver, gave me words to salve my guilt for not writing much lately when she suggested we think of the writing process as seasonal: imagining, writing, editing, learning, and (someday) publishing. If all you do is sit down and write, write, write you actually will never publish anything. There are other seasons. So here on the solstice of my learning season I wanted to share with you readers some of the most thought provoking lessons of the past 12 weeks.
Jennifer Haigh taught me to find my writing scriptures. These are works that address one of the challenges you, as a writer, have with a particular work. Maybe you’ve never written in first person before and your story is in first person. Find a book that reflects your desired point of view and really break it down to understand how the author accomplished what you want to do. Learn from them and let their accomplishment teach you how you can do the same. You aren’t copying, they are your guideposts. That said, don’t use paralyzing books as scriptures – you know, the ones that are so good that you want to quit writing and go read under a bridge.
The Nelson Agency sat for an hour and showed a room of writers how agents read the slush pile. Each attendee was invited to bring 1-2 pages from a work and the agents would evaluate manuscripts live. The two agents, Joanna MacKenzie and Kristen Nelson, were brutally honest in their evaluations. In the twenty five(ish) manuscripts they reviewed only one would have even received a second look. Was it mine, you ask? No. Because I learned a hard lesson this day. I only provided one copy of my manuscript, while the instructions distinctly said two copies. Only one copy equals no evaluation. As writers we are told again and again to follow submission instructions to a tee, and I’m normally very careful, but this day I was in a rush so I messed up. Next time, when it really counts, I’ll do better. However I learned from other’s works as well:
- For your first novel you really only have 1-2 paragraphs to grab the agent’s attention so do not:
- Spend the whole opening in narrative or telling
- Jump into backstory
- Change point of view
- Create unnecessary confusion with the reader
- Tell the reader how they should be feeling
- Have the character not do anything
- Create an emotional response
- Create something interesting
- Create tension
- Make the readers want to learn more
- Have a strong voice
- Anchor your character in place and time
- Put your reader with the characters. Remove the distance.
For those of you who despise the idea of writing to a “formula” for an agent, Rachel Weaver put things into perspective. She said that you only have two paragraphs to get your first agent, so do everything you can to make your debut novel as readable as possible. Then have faith in yourself that once you have an established readership you’ll be able to be more creative.
Random other tidbits
- Sometimes you don’t need to edit. You need to rewrite. That involves putting your manuscript aside and actually retyping from scratch the scenes you wrote the first time, or making a new scene, or combining several scenes into one. Not everything can be fixed by moving words around on a screen – Vicki Lidner
- You have to earn emotional scenes in your work, otherwise you risk sounding sappy, trite, or melodramatic, which will make a reader put down an otherwise amazing work. Make sure the reader is invested in the character before you create scenes of happiness, love, nostalgia, or sentimentality. Never forget that tension, even in these sentimental scenes, adds power so layer happiness and sadness together. – Alexander Lumans
- When editing, there is an arc where your writing becomes better, then just different, then worse. Stop when you are in the different stage. – Rachel Weaver
- If you write something and it just sucks, don’t stop. Call that section a “placeholder” and go back and fix it later. Also know that early dialogue is always a placeholder. – Rachel Weaver
- Introduce your characters the way you would introduce yourself. Don’t provide pages of backstory and details the first time you write a character or risk him/her being the person no one wants to talk to or read about. – Rachel Weaver
- What is the difference between showing and telling? Envision this. You are standing outside of a house where an amazing party is going on. A man approaches and says, “Wow, there is a great party inside. There is a world renowned DJ and all these famous people are joyously dancing to his mixes. The food is the best thing anyone has ever eaten and it is paired with delicious drinks. Everyone there is having the best time of their lives.” That is telling. Showing happens when you get to go to the party. Let your readers go to the party. – Rachel Weaver
Now, with all that newfound knowledge I #amwriting and I #amediting, and I’m doing both in a way that feels more productive and inspired. The seasons are changing in Afthead-land.