Next Steps and Considerations

Katie Van Amburg, a recent college graduate, wrote in a few weeks ago and wanted to know what she should be doing next to further herself as a writer. Should she get an MFA? Should she work at a publishing house? These are some of the “next step” questions that a lot of writers have when they’re looking around and wondering if the writing that they do in their rooms is going to be enough to speed them toward their goals.

Is taking the next step and working at a publishing house or getting an advanced degree for you? Well, as a lady who has done both…

This is a tough answer to hear but it’s necessary: There is no magic bullet. I worked as an intern at Chronicle Books in San Francisco, and it was wonderful. I learned a lot. I also got an MFA degree and wrote a thesis, which was a completed fiction manuscript. Again, I learned a lot. But working at Chronicle didn’t get me automatically to some new level as a writer, and neither did the MFA. Neither ended directly in a publishing deal. I published a book this year but it took into consideration all of my experiences in publishing. And everything I wrote for Chronicle or for the MFA certainly must’ve played a role, but at the end of the day, the sum of all my experiences came out on the page.

Writing isn’t a linear progression. There’s no “go get your medical degree, then do a residency, then…” path outlined for it anywhere. That can be liberating, but it can also be scary because there are so many variables and fewer tangible results than in other fields.

If you do any of these things, you are doing them for YOU and to grow as a writer, not to get brownie points on your resume. Remember that. If you expect to wake up the morning after your MFA thesis is accepted and somehow be changed, it’s not going to happen. (Sorry to say, but it’s sort of like publishing a book. When I got the deal, I called Andrea. The first thing she said to me was, “That’s great, but just don’t think it will change your life.” At first, I thought she was being a bummer. Now I know she’s right. That one thing will not change your life…unless it becomes a megaselling hit and makes you lots of money. Most books are all about what you got out of writing it and then all about what you do with them. Waking up on publication day is like waking up on any other day.)

However, if you think a structured, workshop-based program will help you get to the next level, apply to an MFA and get everything you can from it. If you want to see how a publisher works from the inside out, go intern at one or work for a literary magazine or read for a literary agent. But don’t expect either of them to be more than what you make of them.

Sure, good programs and good publishers will furnish you with mentors and experiences you’ve never had before. And there’s a lot of value in that. But there’s usually no benchmark with something like this. The lessons and realizations (and then the energy and courage to use those insights when you’re back at the page) mean the ball is in your court. All of these things are just individual steps, it’s up to you to put them together into a ladder a climb it.

Writing on a Theme

This heady MFA question comes from Valeria:

Some writers say they work around one certain theme, others just find the theme later. But what are your thoughts on it?

Theme is actually something I’ve been thinking a lot about as I move forward (luck you!). We all hear the stories of the writers who finished their opus and then saw all the threads come together into their big, almost unintended theme. Sure, it must’ve been there subconsciously, but they never intended to put a Big Idea together in just this way.

That happens all the time, and I’m not criticizing it. In fact, I think it’s valuable to let your subconscious step in and plant little anchors throughout your story that have to do with a larger theme. But I’m coming around to the idea that you could — and maybe even should — write with a theme, Big Idea, or Big Question in mind. Here’s why:

It helps you refine your idea from the concept stage forward. If you know what theme you want to write about, you can more easily pinpoint yourself in the marketplace, and you don’t have to wait until you have a completed novel to figure out a) what you’re doing, and b) if it’s marketable.

What is the big question you want your story to answer? What is the thing you’re asking or hoping to express about the universe and life itself? What are you exploring? What do you wish you could solve about your own life? What have you observed about being alive? That’s your Big Idea and/or Big Question and I think every book should have it…otherwise, what’s the point?

Now take your Big Idea and find its layers. What is an idea that contradicts your central theme for the story? Can you work that contradictory viewpoint in through a plot event or secondary character? What are the shades of your idea? The layers? What are the twists and surprises that will keep your readers engaged, that will help them dig deeper into your story?

Every big, successful book has a big question or a big idea behind it. (BEFORE I FALL: What would you change if you could do it all over again? 13 REASONS WHY: What small things in life add up to big consequences? HUNGER GAMES: What matters in a society that works so hard to dehumanize its citizens? HOLES: How can you be in charge of your own destiny? Etc.)

You don’t have to introduce your Big Idea right on the nose in the beginning of your story, but hint at the questions that you’ll be answering, and make sure they grow in importance as you write. Your Big Idea or Big Question should be at work in all parts of your novel. For example, voice: What does your characters and narrator (if different) notice about the world? How do they notice it? What does it have to do with your Big Idea? How is it expressed?

Why am I so high on theme these days? You, as the writer, have one responsibility: you have to, as Ursula Nordstrom says, “dig deep and tell the truth” about the world as you see it. That plays directly into the “why” of your story, as in, why are you as a person telling this story to the world now?

What Big Questions are you asking? What is the thing you want to say with your book? What human foibles and characterizations do you want to bring to light? What kind of plot construction will let all that come together in an engaging way?

If you want to reflect life back to your readers with your own personal slant, you have to be committed to living and observing and distilling. Be honest with yourself and be honest with your ideas so that you can be honest for your kid readers. They’re still getting to know the world…reach down and pull them up so that they can experience the vista you’re seeing.

In addition to your big idea, you need to think about the idea of the Core Emotional Experience, which we talked about all the time in my theatre training. You’ve expressed your Big Idea. You’ve answered your Big Question, using this story as a tool to explore theme. What do you want your reader to put the book down and think or feel? In theatre, what do you want the audience saying as the house lights come up and they emerge from the “fictive dream,” as novelist John Gardner calls it, and stagger back into their real lives? How do you want to change them? What seed of an idea do you want to plant in their imaginations?

Your responsibility is to say something that’s true to you, true to your vision of the world, and a story that speaks in a big way. That’s where your theme comes into play and, ideally, you will have that framework in place before you start to write.

Showing Up For the Work

I just spent a lovely weekend in Montpelier, VT for the VCFA Children’s Writing MFA mini-residency. Did I mention it was beautiful? No? Here’s a shot of their cute little capital building (“cute” and “little” are perfect adjectives for Montpelier, the smallest state capital and the only one without a McDonald’s, as six different residents, yes, six, told me):

Isn’t it gorgeous? We had a relaxing weekend of hanging out on the veranda at the Inn at Montpelier, mingling with the locals, meeting current VCFA students and alumna/ae, listening to readings and pitches, and otherwise drinking in the creativity of this little hideaway town.

One thing that struck me about the program is how dedicated the students and faculty are. (Hanging out at the Saturday BBQ were Walter Dean Myers, Tom Wynne-Jones, Coe Booth, M.T. Anderson, and more…what an amazing roster of talent!) But I did notice something that bugs me about MFA programs, and about establishing a writing habit in general. This is something I saw much more in my MFA program, and I don’t know to what extent it exists at VCFA, yet this weekend did get me thinking…

A lot of alumni coming back to Vermont felt liberated, as if they could think, breathe, create again. For them, their time at the program was such a richly creative time, and one where they were pushed by their advisers and classmates to really put in the work and get some writing done. Apparently, some of them stopped writing or wrote less or felt less driven after graduating.

The same thing tends to happen to people who can only write between 6 and 8 a.m., or people who can only use a certain computer, or people who can only go to such and such coffee shop, or sit in this one seat, or wear those pajama pants. Having writing habits and a writing ritual and ideal circumstances for creative work…that’s all good and fine. In fact, having these habits and requirements is much better than having no writing practice at all.

But there’s also a hidden danger. What happens when you leave the MFA program? When your seat is taken? When the dog eats your pajama pants? I know perfectly wonderful writers who have been driven into a serious block when their (self-created, mind) requirements aren’t being met. Which brings me to the idea of creativity as this fleeting thing, and my disdain for the idea of writers having some temperamental muse.

No. Here’s what you do: you sit down and you write. First, you pay attention to what your mind is saying are your requirements (this mug of coffee, that chair, these pants). But what’s more important is that you establish a daily practice of writing. When something goes wrong and your coffee shop closes because they’re resurfacing their floor, you don’t go into a creative tailspin…you go home or go to the library or sit outside and you keep writing. When you graduate from the MFA program, you don’t go into a creative funk, you rally your former peers into a new critique group and you keep going. (VCFA people: please know I’m not talking about you…if anything, I’m thinking so much more about my own MFA experience!)

When you start showing up for work without these obstacles (self-created, again) weighing you down, without a checklist for the Ideal Creative Environment that the world must meet before you can write, that “muse” (your work ethic, actually) will start showing up, too. You will, in effect, train yourself to show up creatively every time you show up physically to the page.

Just write. Write when it’s easy. Write when you don’t wanna (I didn’t wanna blog yesterday, so this entry is a day late…we can’t all be perfect). Write when it’s raining. Write when everyone else on the freaking planet is at a picnic and you can’t go because you know you have to write. Don’t rely on that program or those pajamas or this coffee shop. Rely only on yourself. Practice discipline.

Always evaluate your writing habits and try to determine whether they’re helping you in the long term or hindering you. Keep an eye on what you think you need and what you really need. Rally yourself. And when yourself is feeling cranky, rally a community around you. (May you all be blessed enough to create the kind of peer group that they have at the VCFA, truly an awesome thing to behold!)

The writing life isn’t a simple thing, but the good thing is humans can be taught, and creativity can be trained to flow, as long as you make yourself available to it and focus your work ethic.

Speaking of which, here was my community for the weekend:

(l-r: Sam McFerrin, editor at Harcourt/HMH, Julie Scheina, editor at Little, Brown, Kristin Daly Rens, editor at Balzer+Bray/HarperCollins, me)

Thanks to the VCFA for hosting us and for all the hard-working MFA students! Now send me your stuff! 🙂

Should I Get a Creative Writing MFA?

“Should I get a creative writing MFA?” The age-old question! I have been meaning to tackle MFA programs for longer than I’ve had the blog. Tons of writers have asked me: is it worth it to get an MFA? Does that catch your eye in a query? Is the actual curriculum going to take my writing to the next level?

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Wondering if you should get a creative writing MFA? Some thoughts from an MFA graduate…

My MFA Experience: A Caveat

As many of you know, I recently completed my MFA. Before I can speak about the MFA experience in general, I have to speak about my MFA experience, which was not altogether positive. I mean no disrespect to the hard-working directors, professors, advisers, and students at the University of San Francisco. However, I want to be truthful. And the truth is, I often felt like a pariah in my program on two counts: as a children’s writer and as a publishing industry insider.

First, there were a lot of people there (all writing serious adult fiction) who didn’t get children’s books. My first workshop started with someone saying: “Well, I never expected profundity from a children’s manuscript.” (There were a few genre writers in the program who, I think, got a bit of the same snobby treatment because they weren’t writing literary fiction.)

That’s fine, though. There’s a well-known bias against kidlit in adult literary circles and I don’t waste my time defending my profession to people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Second, though, and more problematic, is that I worked in publishing and concerned myself with ideas of market and audience and sales hooks and all that unsavory business. I can’t help it. As an agent, saleability and hook is just how I think. People were very quick to brand me a corporate sellout. More on that later.

While I did have trouble fitting in, for the above reasons, I can say that I found workshop useful and that I met one of my dear mentors through the program. I also either started or finished several manuscripts over the course of the two-year MFA, and improved with each one. How much of this was the program and how much was it my growing experience in agenting and publishing? Hard to say. How much of it was the MFA and how much of it was my own writing habits? Also hard to say.

Should I Get a Creative Writing MFA? It Depends On What You Want Out of It

One of my issues with MFA programs is that it seems like a lot of students go there and buy the scaffolding to allow themselves to finish a manuscript. I’m the opposite, and ridiculously self-driven. I’d written something like four manuscripts and gotten an agent before entering the program, so I couldn’t relate to the majority of students who seemed to be there to finish a book for the first time in their lives.

A lot of people work well under pressure or deadline, and most of my peers seemed to be paying for the experience of a structured, two-year plan to finish. If you’re having problems executing a book, this might actually be the perfect fit for you: a completed manuscript is the “thesis” of most MFA programs, it’s a graduation requirement.

Another issue is that the professors and directors treat the MFA as an artistic cocoon. Writers are there to write and think about art and craft (which is great, don’t get me wrong), but the program doesn’t teach the industry or the business…you know, all the stuff that, ideally, happens after you finish your magnum opus.

I think it’s perfectly fair to focus on the gestation of the manuscript during the MFA, but the truth is, the publishing industry exists, and it’s a business. And no matter how much (the majority of) the students rant and rave against traditional publication, I know most of them are interested in actually getting their work published, paid for, and read widely.

Do You Want a Creative Focus or a Practical Focus?

Some MFA programs are great about informing their students of the ins and outs of the publishing process. Mine was not. Not only is industry talk relegated to one dreary afternoon — the “Life After the MFA” workshop — but it’s actually frowned upon in the classroom and socially. I asked one of my advisers, point blank: “How many of our alums actually get their books published?” She frowned and said: “Not many.”

Nobody is going to pay back their student loans with their contributor’s copies from the Small Time Literary Review (the only payment you get from most journals and magazines), but a lot of MFA students act as if this is the right and noble thing to do. The tortured/starving/pissed-off artisté cliche is alive and well. Lots of MFA alums have told me that the exact same vibe exists across the country. There are some more practical programs. If this is your mindset, you’ve been warned, and you’d do well to find one of those.

How Much Support to Expect From An MFA Program

My beef with MFA programs isn’t really what happens during them — all that focus on craft and writing is a beautiful thing — but what happens after. There’s precious little information about publishing to guide your next steps, and not a lot of empathy for those dreaming of publication with a big house. A lot of students in my program actually come back and audit classes after graduation to feel the community of the MFA again, since it’s the first time they’ve had a critique group or felt like a real writer.

The same students who need a MFA program to finish a book are also relying on their MFA program to be their only workshop opportunity, their legitimacy. And that’s an expensive way to learn how to write a manuscript. Last I checked, anyone can form a critique group, it’s just a matter of initiative and a little elbow grease to find the right people. I was in a critique group before and after my MFA, so the idea of workshop wasn’t totally revolutionary to me, either.

But if MFA programs had to start tallying up their publication stats — much like undergraduate universities advertise their job placement percentages for recent grads — a lot of them would be in trouble. Because for most programs, the stats aren’t good. The truth is, an MFA does not guarantee publication, because nobody and nothing in life (except worldwide celebrity) can guarantee a book deal. So MFA faculty and directors have taken the focus entirely off publication and put it on the writing journey.

If Your Goal is Writing, Go For It. If Your Goal Is Publication, You May Want To Look Elsewhere…

That way, the MFA process itself is fulfilling because there’s not quantifiable end goal. There’s no pressure. I totally get where the MFA programs are coming from with this. But I still think it’s detrimental to the writers, who now have two years of fuzzy writerly feelings and no idea what to do next.

To tell you the whole, honest truth: seeing that you have an MFA in a query letter doesn’t really impress me, unless you went to a really high-profile school. I’ve read the writing coming out of my MFA program and some of the work from second year students wasn’t much better than what I see from rank beginners in my slush. I’m not trying to be mean, at all. But I judge writing professionally, every day, and most of the work I saw wouldn’t pass muster.

I do wonder if I would’ve had the same experience if I’d gone to a program specifically targeted to children’s writers. If I could go back in time, I’d probably apply to Vermont (website). There are other programs that have MFA programs for children’s writers. Hamline (website), Simmons (website) and the New School (website) come to mind.

Decide What You Want, Then Decide If a Program Fits

Though, to be honest, I don’t know if I’d get an MFA if I had it to do all over. I’m not sure the whole experience — the nitty gritty writing mixed with the high-brow attitude — is a fit for me, as a person.

At the end of the day, I think I’ve learned so much more about writing by simply working in the industry than I ever did in the classroom. I also learned a whole lot by reading, and not just the same old short stories that seem to be part of every writing curriculum. I mean reading in my chosen genre, thousands and thousands of books above and beyond what I was assigned, because that’s just what I do.

My approach (work in publishing, become an agent, read thousands of books) isn’t realistic for everyone, but since I started in publishing at the same time that I started my MFA, I can’t tell which influence is really responsible for what I know now. I am a better writer than I was two years ago (in all my spare time — ha!), but I think that came from a wide mix of experiences, not the least of which is putting my butt in the seat and actually, you know, writing.

If I was running my own program — and several agents and I have discussed this fantasy because we get frustrated with the output from today’s MFA programs — I’d run a mix of MFA and MBA, much like suggested in this cheeky little article that I found this morning.

As a freelance novel editor, I have actually been called a “one-woman MFA program.” Kim’s words, not mine. If you’re looking for that comprehensive novel focus without going back to school, hire me.

How to Write a Novel Plot in Four Steps

Many writers get stuck on how to write a novel plot. How do I know? I’ve seen thousands of plots, and very few that worked well enough to sell. Plot is one of the most important elements of any story, from picture book to chapter book to middle grade to young adult.

Novels are quite the tricky kettle of fish. We’ve already talked about character, but characters mostly add internal conflict to a story when left to their own devices. They sit and contemplate how lonely they are, or how unpopular, or how much they want something exciting to happen. So what do we do? We give them external conflict: plot.

How to Write a Novel Plot in Four Key Points

I’ve had the tremendous luck to study with middle grade author Lewis Buzbee in my MFA program. Not only is he a very talented writer but he’s an excellent teacher. This way of looking at plot is cribbed almost entirely from him, because I think it’s just that good. (But he often gives this workshop in person and, if you ever get the chance, do listen to him talk about it… my version will be a pale imitation.)

So, basically, what Lewis teaches and what I believe is that there are only four key points to a plot. This is that “dramatic arc” that you hear so much about. Some writing teachers subscribe to a “three act” structure, some like five acts, some like to choreograph your plot right down to what should happen in a story when. I think these micromanaging techniques miss the point.

All The Novel Structure Your Need, With None of the Gimmicks

Put whatever you want in your plot, run your characters through the story that’s in your imagination, but when you’re reading your manuscript over again, make sure it adheres to this very simple arc:

how to write a novel plot, plotting a novel, novel structure
Memorize this little graph so you’ll know when to zig instead of zag in your plot.

Do you like my lovely drawing? I never said I was visually gifted, mind you. Let me explain what’s going on here, point by point:

  1. Normal: This is your character’s baseline. At the beginning of a story, your character is usually their normal self in their normal circumstances (as much as possible). Something has probably happened to knock them off balance but they are making do. They might even be doing well. Even if they’re starting on their first day at a new school, they’re making a friend or two, they’re not completely failing their classes, they discover a magic shop where the owner seems very interested in them, etc. This leads us to…
  2. The Rise: This, for the near future, is as good as your character is going to get. You want to spend some time, maybe the first quarter of your story, building relationships, exposing your character and their goals and motivations, creating a world and planting all the seeds of plot, story, theme and character that will be important later. If your story is longer, maybe spend only the first 1/5th or 1/6th here. Then get ready for…
  3. The Fall: But things were just moving along so nicely! Oh well. We don’t pick up books to read about nice people in calm, tranquil situations. All that stuff that you’ve established in the first quarter, fifth or sixth of your story… screw it up. Things go from okay to bad, from bad to worse, and from worse to impossible. The character’s relationships get troubled, their goals and aspirations are thwarted at every turn, they make dumb decisions and have to deal with the consequences, etc. The very bottom of this point on the graph is usually the climax of the story, aka. when things seem hopeless or so bad that they can’t get any worse. Then, the character triumphs, and…
  4. The Evening Out: No, not a nice night out on the town with a date. This is the getting back to some kind of equilibrium again. It shouldn’t be the same equilibrium because, hopefully, your character has changed over the course of their journey. It is a new normal, a new way of living and thinking and existing in the world of the story.

There you go. Now, you’ll notice that the graph outlines more of an emotional journey than specific plot points.

Focus on Character Emotions to Get the Most Out of Your Plot

Unfortunately, I can’t sit here and tell you all the things that must happen in your story. I don’t know. They have to be born from the character who’s starring in your book and the story that you want to tell. But take this four-point structure to heart and make sure that the plot you’re creating puts your character in roughly this emotional state over the duration of your story.

How you get them to these emotional highs and lows, to these particular experiences, is up to you, but make sure you’re massaging and revising your story into the above shape. It is the most effective and a great starting place, even if you do want to experiment later.

How to Write a Novel Subplot

Subplots don’t need to be quite as dramatic — the highs shouldn’t be so high, the lows shouldn’t be so low — and they don’t have to span the whole length of the book, but do make sure that they follow some semblance of this graph, too. Subplots are usually generated by secondary characters. Let’s say the plot of your book is American Pie-esque… a guy, Joe, trying to get laid before the end of his senior year in high school.

That quest will form the main plot. Let’s say, though, that he’s got a best friend, Sam, who can’t seem to stop getting laid, and he’s been hiding all his various girlfriends from each other.

Sam’s subplot is that he wants to simplify his life and get rid of some of his attachments. This subplot could interact with the main plot because Sam might try to pawn off girls on our hero Joe, for example, or one of the girls pretends to like Joe just so she can get back at Sam. So subplots usually belong to other featured characters in your story and have this same trajectory. The moments when they interact with the main plot should serve to move the main plot along.

Leave Room for Tension, Mystery, and Surprise

This brings me to my last consideration about how to write a novel plot. Readers like to be surprised, they like suspense, they like the unexpected. Your plot shouldn’t be so linear. That’s why I like using the emotional highs and lows of your story for guidance. For me, as long as you hit these emotional points, there’s a lot more room and flexibility for an interesting plot. Ally Carter, in a workshop I went to, talked about surprises. They’re characters and plot points that dig into the story you’re telling and spin it around, shooting it off in a completely different direction.

Make sure you’ve got key places in your story where a character or event acts like a bumper car and sends the story in a new or unexpected place. Let’s say Joe, our high school virgin, is about to ask his dream girl to the prom — where he’ll try to seal the deal — but she asks Sam, blissfully unaware of his Hugh Hefner tendencies. Now Joe is caught between his loyalty to Sam and wanting to save Dream Girl from Sam’s clutches. This creates a whole new wrinkle in the story.

Complications! Surprise! You don’t have to be zany for the sake of zaniness here, like I have been, but do try to keep the tension and suspense of surprise alive and well in your story.

Wondering what to do with your specific novel plot? Get one-on-one,  in-depth feedback on your manuscript when you hire me as a fiction editor. I can look at your synopsis, a partial, or your whole novel to really drill into how you’re using plot.

How to Write a Query Letter

There are a lot of “how to write a query letter” articles out there about what not to do. A lot. And I’m going to write some here in short order. But this is a different article. An article on how to do a query right, just so you can see my philosophy on queries.

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Writing a query letter that’s simple and compelling is an art form.

How to Start a Query Letter

It’s simple, really:

Make me care.

Cut out the cutesy jokes, the rhetorical questions, the extraneous subplots, the superfluous biographical details and get to the heart of your story.

Start simply, without a lot of throat-clearing, and get to the point:

Dear Name,

I’m writing to you because you represented BOOK/because I saw you at CONFERENCE/because I like your philosophy of WHATEVER. I’ve got a complete manuscript I want to tell you about: MY BOOK, a WORD COUNT – length novel for AGE GROUP.

So far, so good. Personalize the query to the agent and then give them the bare bones details of what your project is.

The Key to Writing a Fiction Query Letter

Now we get the meat. The meat is a longer paragraph (or two shorter paragraphs) that creatively presents the answers to the following questions:

  • WHO is your character?
  • WHAT is the strange thing going on in their life that throws them off their equilibrium and launches the story?
  • WHAT (or who) do they want most in the world?
  • WHO (or what) is the main character’s ally?
  • WHO (or what) is in the way of them getting what they want most in the world (their obstacle)?
  • WHAT is at stake if they don’t get what they want?

The above questions are essential to a complete story. They are, in effect, designed to get you thinking about the most important elements of your book. The funny thing is, when I read the answers to these questions, I start to care about the character! I start wishing I could read the whole story!

Unfortunately, you can’t just present the above information in Q&A format. These are the questions you’ll have to answer in prose, in a maximum of two paragraphs, in a style that tells the agent something about you, your book and your voice. Yes. It is moderately difficult to do. But now you’ve got tons of ideas for how to pull it off and what the meat of your query should include.

How to Finish a Query Letter

Then, you’ll finish your query with:

  1. Some brief biographical information. Things that are relevant: if your life has somehow inspired something in your novel, like you’re writing about a kid who’s obsessed with physics and you happen to be a physicist, also mention previous publication credits, advanced degrees like an MFA or anything else that is applicable to writing, etc. Things that are not relevant: how many cats you have, that your kids loved this book when they read it, how great the weather/food/backpacking is in your neck of the woods.
  2. A cordial invitation to request the full manuscript.
  3. Your signature and contact information.

Voila! Now you have a query letter that hits the very heart of your story, doesn’t waste any space and makes the agent or editor reading it care about the character and the character’s journey.

This is by no means the only way to write a query letter, but it does cut to the chase rather simply and brilliantly, doesn’t it?

Need a query letter editor? I’ve seen tens of thousands of queries, and I can help yours stand out in the slush pile.

Am I Wrong to Pursue A Writing Career?

For today, I’ve got a question from a reader! Take a look at what L.S. wanted to know:

I’ve been writing for a few years (I’m 17) and I know I want to be an author. It’s all I want to do but I know my writing needs work – a lot of work. I’ve heard from some people that the only way to improve your writing is to practice, just keep writing and reading. Is that true, or is it different for everyone? And is it wrong to pursue this as a career?

It seems like the most common advice is to do something else, “write in your free time”. I originally decided that if I made it to college, I’d major in Creative Writing. I thought that would help me become a better writer, but I’m worried now that it would be a waste of time.

There isn’t a single writer in the world who hasn’t doubted whether writing is the path for them. These questions are definitely normal. The first thing I have to say is that you’ve got plenty of time on your hands. A lot of writers discover their passion for it early. This is the part you might not want to hear, though: a lot of writers start early but then spend years and years and years honing their skills. To answer your question, yes, practice and reading are the best ways to improve as a writer. That’s not just for some people, that’s for everybody. The more you write, the better you get, and the more you read, the more you absorb for your own craft.

Even though you’re thinking of majoring in creative writing, don’t think you’ll get out of college with that degree and begin a career writing books right away. The truth of the matter is, you’ll learn a lot more from years and years of practice than you ever will in creative writing classes. Those classes were nice but did little to prepare me for writing a book and getting into the publishing world. Heck, my MFA in creative writing was only marginally better than college in terms of craft and literature curriculum. Luckily, nobody cares about your degrees or your resume when you’re a writer. They only care about the work, as should you. That’s your responsibility to hone, so don’t feel like you need to put so much pressure on your degree.

Being an author isn’t an easy career to get into. Most people don’t realize how long it takes to start writing good, saleable books. Most people have no idea how slowly the publishing world moves. I talk to writers all the time who say it took them ten years of solid writing to finally get a manuscript that sold. But if that’s the only thing you can possibly imagine doing, if writing is an irresistible, compulsive thing for you, then pursue it. Most people try and then drop out. This is a field where tenacity is pretty much a requirement.

The thing you really need to explore right now is your voice. For young writers, the voice is usually the last thing to develop and solidify. It’s true. To carry any kind of book for 300 pages, a writer needs a mature, dynamic and compelling voice. A voice that feels like a real human being, not just some caricature or persona. If there’s any advice I’d give you, it’s to educate yourself, put in grueling writing time every day and to work tirelessly on your voice. That and don’t give up just because it’s hard. The most worth-it things are always difficult.

Does A Character Have to Change From Beginning to End?

I just read a MS where the author’s answer seemed to be an emphatic: NO!

My answer? An emphatic: YES!

This question is much bigger than I have time for right now. I’ll do a longer post later. In short, though, I’ll leave you with a quote. My MFA professor, Lewis Buzbee, is probably not the first man to say this. But he said it again last night in class and it couldn’t be more applicable to what I read today:

“A story is a character’s journey from innocence to experience.”

Dunk that in your morning coffee. And no, I don’t think we’re just talking about Adam-and-Eve-style innocence here. More to come later!

Reductive Revision

There’s almost nothing harder than “killing your babies” and axing chunks of your writing. Everybody loves their writing. It’s always hard to lose a word here, a line there, sometimes an entire paragraph. But cutting makes for a leaner, meaner, more amazing manuscript.

I’ll be posting some craft articles on revision in the next few weeks. Maybe because I’m revising stuff myself right now, it’s on my mind.

At my MFA program, my teacher, Lewis Buzbee of Steinbeck’s Ghost fame, makes the class do reductive revisions. We turn in a manuscript of 20-30 pages, then everyone in the class takes two to three pages of that week’s submission and cuts, cuts, cuts until only one page remains.

It’s a lot easier to cut through the fat and be merciless when it’s someone else’s work. However, to be a successful revision expert, you’ve got to develop that sort of keen ruthlessness toward your own precious manuscript. Especially after your First Draft Goggles wear off and you have to streamline.

One of the biggest problems some writers have is redundancy. They’re not sure the reader gets what they’re trying to do so they explain it. Then they explain it a different way. And then, just in case, they introduce another way of saying the same thing.

This is all fine and good. Maybe your subconscious is spinning all these repetitive statements so that you, the writer, understand the scene better. But the reader doesn’t need them. When I’m looking at a manuscript, redundancy is the number one thing I axe for the reductive revision exercise.

Exercise:

Let’s do a reductive revision together. The objective is to halve the length. Let’s give it a try. I’ll do my revisions and then you can do yours in comments, if you want, to see how ours match or don’t match.

Edna looked Chris in the eye, her heart beating quickly against her ribs. Her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
“I know, me too.”
“If we don’t find this book soon, the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the shelves. “But where could the book be?”
Edna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open.

Okay, so this scene is serviceable as is. But notice some redundancy issues. The characters are sneaking around and they’re nervous. We get it. We can convey it in a much simpler way. Our word count is 93. Let’s see if we can’t come in under 50.

Edna looked at Chris in the eye, her heart beating quickly against her ribs, H her back was to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around the forbidden library. “I’m scared,” she said, her pulse quickening in her ears.
I know, me Me too.”
“If we don’t find this book it soon… the librarian will catch us.”
They looked around the forbidden library and scanned the forbidden shelves. “But w Where could the book it be?”
Edna shrugged. “I don’t know.”
Just then, with a ear-splitting creak, the office door flew open with an ear-splitting creak.

And this is how it reads without the delete lines:

Edna looked at Chris, her back to the office from where, any minute, the librarian might emerge and find them sneaking around. “I’m scared,” she said.
“Me too.”
“If we don’t find it soon…”
They scanned the forbidden shelves. Just then, the door flew open with a ear-splitting creak.

All I did was delete things the reader already knew, with the exception of rearranging the last sentence. Now, I was pretty ruthless. Notice, I took out all mention of the book and the library. That’s because they’re worried about the librarian and they’re scanning the shelves, so “book” and “library” are implied. I also got rid of all the emotional but cliched heart/eye/blood stuff that writers tend to lean on too heavily.

You might not want to go so sparse, but notice how much quicker the scene moves. We still get they’re scared and we still get a sense of danger. But guess what? Word count 49!

Have your own version of this revision? Post it below. More memos from the office of repetitive redundancy office coming soon.