Friday, July 17, 2009

Friday Fricassee

Feels good to be back in the swing of things, doesn't it? But then, I'm not a bundle of nerves, waiting for my excerpt to be critiqued.

Of course, I wouldn't mind. I can't tell you how painful it was to have to pass up the opportunity to use one of the extra spaces with my shiny new YA dystopian.

That's just it, though. "Shiny new" doesn't cut it. I've several months of hard work ahead of me before it's ready for the Land of Query.

I tweeted something last night on which someone immediately took me to task--gently, of course. And since Twitter allows only 140 characters per tweet, I thought Friday Fricassee would be a better place to discuss this.

Here's my tweet:

It's not enough to write well. It really isn't. No matter what anyone says, it's not enough.

Some of you will immediately agree. Others will balk.

Here's my take, spoken from experience:

Since early childhood, I've been marked as a "gifted writer." You know how some talents float to the top while we are still young? I've got a stack of stapled-together, marker-illustrated story books as physical evidence of my innate writerliness. (Coined a new word, I did.) Despite this early "giftedness," though, I've actually begun to write well only recently.

Mark that. I've begun to write well recently.

I'm not finished getting better, either. Writing well takes a lot of time, a lot of work. A lot of willingness to grow. And growing hurts sometimes.

Most of the time, actually.

So, without tooting my own horn, I can say confidently that, yes, I write well. I've been told by agents and editors in various and sundry ways that, yes, I write well.

Bully for me.

You don't see my fiction on the shelves, though. You don't see me waving my "I've landed an agent!" flag. Not yet, anyway.

Therein lies the discrepancy. I write well, but nobody has gobbled up my novels. Yet.

So what's missing?

If there were an easy answer, we'd all know it by now, and we'd all be published. Or at least agented. Thing is, the algorithm of what-it-takes-to-be-a-published-author is so convoluted that there is never a pat answer.

Yes, excellent writing is at the heart. It has to be. And "excellent writing" constitutes not only the writing itself, but the plotting. For me personally, the writing comes more easily. Plotting makes me sweat (hence the plotcard saga). So when I call myself a "good writer," I'm talking about the actual writing -- grammar, syntax, sentences, pacing, voice.

But what if one does write well, is told so on numerous occasions, but is still coming up empty on the agent front?

*insert large, theatrical sigh here*

The following list of questions may help to clarify what's "missing" from a well written but not snatched-up story:

Is the story salable right now?

Is the agent or editor sipping coffee over your manuscript passionately in love with your story? Ready to shed blood over it, if need be?

Is there room on the agent's/editor's list for your story?

Is your story too "quiet" to attract attention? Beautifully done but not stellar?

(Okay, I really hate that word. One of the most stinging replies I've gotten from an agent was, "While this is very competent, it perhaps isn’t quite stellar." So no one told me I had to be "stellar." What the heck does that mean anyway? Hem. Sorry. Carry on.)

Is it too difficult to empathize with your protagonist?

Has the barometric pressure fallen too quickly during the final phase of the moon?

You see my point. There is so much more than just Really Good Writing that makes a novel a slam dunk for an agent or editor. And I think my piddling list of questions merely scratches the surface.

I've had personal referrals, agent to agent. I've had my manuscript passed around an entire agency in the hope that someone would fall enough in love with it. I've had the "I'll read this again with revisions" response. I've had praise for plot, for writing ability, for the "pluckiness" of my main character.

And here I sit.

Lots of good stuff, still not where I want to be. And pressing on.

Now it's your turn. What does "good writing" mean to you, and what do you feel might yet be missing? Or are you really of the "good writing trumps all" school of thought? The comment box awaits your lively responses!

As for me, I'm rolling up my sleeves for some heavy-duty editing today. Those stinky plotcards actually WORK. I'm already fixing something that jumped out like a naked nun. (Stick that on your list of similes-to-avoid-at-all-costs.)

And happy weekend! I'll see you bright and early on Monday with the unveiling of our sneaky and delightful Secret Agent.


  1. Clever video. And I agree.

    Does less than "stellar" writing find its way to publication? You betcha. Because somebody's reading it, and it answered one or more of those questions you posed.

    For years I took comfort in knowing all of the following were rejected: William Faulkner, J.K. Rowlings, Stephen King, Ursula K. LeGuin, John Grisham, George Orwell...
    So, I was in good company. Gave myself a small, but tearful pity party, and kept writing.

  2. Naked nuns huh?

    *reaches for brain bleach*

    My, my, I think it was a bit early in the morning for that simile...

    For me good writing is something that grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. I am attracted to books that have the same personality of most the people I like: aggressive, upbeat, almost arrogant, exceptionally confident. The kind of books that don't balk about describing a new world, trying a new situation, or sending their characters through the mincer.

    Some people like their writing soft and sweet, the demure little romance novel where eyes meet across the crowded assembly hall and everything ends HEA.

    I prefer a book where things explode on a regular basis, the characters are the kind of people I could see eating dinner on the back porch in jeans and a t-shirt before rushing off to save the world, and that doesn't have the language or situations that make my risque and foul-mouthed grandmother blush (go ahead... picture that- and I have my revenge for the naked nun).

    Good writing is what keeps a reader reading.

    Good writing us something that makes a reader come back for round two, three, and ten.

    Good writing is the story that sticks in the head long after the book is closed.

    Good writing is so much more than technically well written.

  3. I'm right there with you, Authoress. I'm always told my writing is good. The last non-form rejection letter I got used the words "lucid" and "beautifully written." And yet I'm still seeking the holy grail of an agent.

    I too am a "quiet" writer. It's hard to know that the world right now is looking for stories that move fast and keep you on the edge of your seat, when not all of us write that way. But not all the stories that stick with us are fast-paced. They're the ones that ring true. So I strive for truth and hope for the best.

  4. Boy, I sure wish I knew the answer to that one, myself. I just keep hoping that if I keep working at it and learning more, someday I'll get there.

    But with each new book I start, there's always this nagging doubt: Is this idea good enough? Am I going to spend a year on this, only to find out no one's even interested? Should I be writing a different kind of book? Would one of my other ideas be more marketable?

    Those kinds of worries do get in the way of staying focused.

  5. I'm one of the ones who balk. I think writing well IS enough, so long as you write well about an interesting topic (and not just one that's interesting to you).

    An author recently gave me a butt-kicking talk about how it really IS all about the writing. (I blogged about it, and the conversation in the comments is rather interesting.)

    Of course, we'll see if this rings true once my manuscript is complete and I'm on the hunt for an agent!

  6. Someone who I really respect once told me that getting a book onto the shelves takes three things you can control:
    * Innate talent
    * Mastery of craft
    * A really great idea

    And two you can't:
    * Luck
    * Timing

    I'm not sure we can define what attracts us to a certain character or story any more than we can define what it is that attracts us to a potential mate. There's just that certain something that we connect to--that draws us in.

    So, while I agree that good (or even excellent) writing isn't enough. I would say it's the only thing we can really control. And it's something to keep us busy while we wait for the stars to align.

  7. I think it's the hook -- and I don't mean the first few lines of writing. Agents are looking for Harry Potter or Twilight or the next Michael Chabon.

    Are you writing about something that audiences will gobble up? If you write really well, and I believe you do, then you could write a beautiful recipe for bread and that would be great, but an agent doesn't want it.

    Don't take this personally, as I have no idea what your latest idea is or what you're trying to sell, but I'm guessing it's the "idea" that's not selling. I don't just mean plot, I mean the (I hate to use this word, it's not the right word) "gimmick." What sets it apart from all of the other really well written YA manuscripts? What about your story would make a teen pick it up when Twilight is on the next table?

    I think if you're writing for yourself, it's not an issue, but if you want to sell... find that one thing that makes your book different from all others before it. And it can't just be your writing voice, all books have a unique writing voice (hopefully).

  8. What did the person who "took you gently to task" in the Tweets say? (I agree with you, so I was wondering what a 140-character dressing down would look like on this issue.)

  9. *fidgets* I think I've been in the same corner, but I've gotten both messages... or three different messages, actually.

    "You are a wonderful writer, please feel free to submit SOMETHING ELSE."

    Rejection based on the writing style which didn't appeal to whoever I queried. <- One agent was kind enough to explain exactly why. The form rejections I received after partials made me assume they felt the same way as that one agent.

    Rejection based on the plot. Actually, every time somebody passes on a query, I assume they didn't care for the plot. Makes sense anyway, right? Either that, or they heard about me from the agents who had problems with the writing. :]

    As far as the plot goes, I know it's different from what is already out there, but it probably didn't stand out enough to those agents who rejected based on plot.

    I'm content with that, which is why I'm letting that project sit for a few months and then I'll take it up again. I might be able to give it a fresher edge and see what I can do to fix the writing. Make it tighter, if possible.

    And I'm still writing other things. Just finished a project and am working on something new. Next editing binge will happen Sept. 1.

    I guess my message is - keep your chin up and computer busy. And believe in reincarnation - er, at least w/respects to your novels.

  10. To me, good writing is like a high-fat meal: It sticks to your ribs long after you've finished.

  11. It's my greatest fear that it's not the writing, but the idea that will not sell.

    The writing can be fixed. It's really hard to fix an idea once it's all laid out in 80,000 words.

  12. Funny, I just wrote a blog post about a writer's three hats. It's not enough to write well, especialy in today's market. We must also be able to edit our own work AND sell it. And they are all very different skills.

  13. Good writing. I think if anyone works hard enough they can become a self taught excellent writer.

    But it seems that is very different than telling a great story through your writing.

    Looking at it from a reader's pov, I read for emotion. It could be a great plot, well-written but if I don't get emotionally involved and feel that emotion on every page, I'll end up putting the book down. And that comes full circle to beyond just great writing but knowing how to infuse your story with emotion in the right way so its believable.

    I'll read a not-so-well written story if it has that emotional pull combined with a good story idea.

  14. All you have to do is look at what is selling and what has sold to realize that "a good writer" and "good writing" and "a good book" means a number of things to different people. I imagine to an agent, editor or publisher, it means quite a different thing than to a reader.

    I can't speak for agents and those involved in the business end of things, but for some readers, "a good writer" refers to writing mechanics -- the words themselves and how they fit together, word choice, imagery, etc. For others, it's the story that constitutes "good writing" and what makes someone "aood writer". Still others like the larger issues of pacing and plot - especially if you're into thrillers, mysteries. SF folks I know talk about "ideas" and would see a writer's ability to write about big ideas or new ideas as key to defining them as good writers or good books.

    You can write well in terms of words, sentences, paragraphs, etc. but not write good stories, or pace well, or plot well, or write about compelling themes.

    Getting it all together for your genre and the agents and publishers in your genre seem to me to be a real challenge.

    Ultimately, story sells a book to me. Stories are made up of great characters facing conflicts, solving problems, etc. If the writing is really clean and vivid, all the better. I have read books where the writing was second-rate but the story was just great, and vice versa. Those books where the writing was great but the story was second rate just don't do it for me.

  15. I wrote a book. It had interesting characters, an intriguing set-up, a great denouement. It went nowhere. I stuck in a drawer, where it stayed for years.

    A sensible person would have gone on to write another book, but I couldn't let this one go. I pulled it out and rewrote, and rewrote and rewrote again. I read chapters aloud, editing as I went. I edited online and I printed out pages, over and over again, and hand-edited. I imagined myself as each of the characters. I thought out every nuance of the plot and how it affected every character. I enlisted friends to read and give honest feedback, and paid attention to what worked for them and what didn't. I analyzed the pacing, and rewrote more. I dug deep into every scene, dumping the ones that didn't work, writing new ones, enriching the ones that remained.

    In May I sent out a dozen or so query letters. And had agents requesting partials and fulls so fast my head was spinning, and very quickly signed with a phenomenal top agent. No kidding.

    What made the difference? I gotta say, I never knew I could work so hard. I pretty much bled on every page.

    I think you have to get to the point that you are so invested in your story and the characters that it no longer even matters if you get published. And you have to be brutally honest with yourself about every scene, every line of dialogue, every character, and jettison or fix what doesn't work.

    And here's what it feels like when you get that phone call from the agent you barely dreamed of signing with.

  16. Why and how do people come to write? What are they ultimately seeking?

    It seems to me that ultimately the writer writes for oneself. This writer loves the feel of the words on their tongue, the way the structure shines and emphasizes one word over another.

    Then there are those who want to be published and write solely for that purpose. That is an entirely different skill set. If your goal is to be published then you work at increasing your odds.

    To publish it seems that you must study the trends, change YOUR STYLE to match what is popular, GIVE UP your preferred topics for something you may not like, you hound the workshops cultivating relationships (not for cozing up, but for learning what trends are happening right now in the industry), what 'gimmicks' (good call whoever mentioned that), and you recognize that there are buyer and there are seller markets out there. You do your damnest to have the right work reach the right person at just the right time. This you do repeatedly until something breaks. Your hamper will be full of books that fell behind the crest of the trend.

    Those are not negatives; they are facts. Is this what you want to do, or do you want to write the best you can--published or not.

    I breathe, I eat, I sleep, and I write. That is just a fact of life and after 35 plus years writing, it is something that I know I can never change. Published or not, I will write. And maybe, someone will want to publish it. Wouldn't that be a nice added feature to a life of happy writing? But if not? If so, it's not going to change who I am.

  17. As in everything, I believe all the ingredients have to come together perfectly to work. Would Harry Potter been as famous if it was published in another time, what about Twilight?

    As all art is, writing is subjective and if the mainstream is heading somewhere else then it's going to be doubly hard.

    I'm sure some people had vampire stories in their future WIP folder before Twilight and now since there is such a flood of vampire stories it's much harder to even get a chance.

    Who knows what the next big thing will be, but that's why we as writers shouldn't write for the hot thing at the moment, but just write the best book we can and wait for our break.

  18. Publishing has nothing to do with good writing (Yes, I'm a cynic.)

    The Da Vinci Code, Eragon, and Twilight have all gone on to be blockbusters, and they are all horribly written. The people who edited them didn't even take the time to fix the bad writing. What mattered was the story. All three are books that were interesting to a vast majority of people, and they made money.

    And that is what a publisher's goal is. To make money. The same is true of agents.

    Good writing is all the things everyone's mentioned so far, but the majority of the reading public has no idea of what "good writing" is. They don't buy books based on good writing.

    Despite this, I still try to write well, because it's my naqme, after all, that will be on the cover. The world might care if the book is well done or not, the publishers and agents may not care, and even the editors may not care, but I do. I hope I never reach the point where I'm writing solely for the money.

  19. That should be --

    Th world might NOT care . . .

    I obviously didn't write my comment well.

  20. Ahh, now I see where you are coming from.

    And I wholeheartedly agree!

    140 characters just isn't enough to express this adequately ;)

  21. Honestly, I think at some point you just have to act.

    Twilight was a piece of crap, but if Stephanie Meyer had realized it was a piece of crap and hesitated to send it out until it was good writing, it would never have been published and never sold millions.

    Some writers tool and retool their story over and over again, delay seeking an agent, then the time for the type of story they're writing has passed. (Vampries, zombies, werewolves, faeries-- all had their moment in the YA spotlight).

    These people just needed to forget considering every last detail and *act*.

  22. Jumping in late on this discussion, but writing well is good. Getting published requires being a good storyteller too. Not to mention the vagaries of luck and timing.

    Can't control the latter two, but we can practice until we write well--and hope we got the storytelling gene or a shipload of persistence to keep working on something until it becomes a good story.

    Jodi Thomas tells a story about being in an old cemetery, crying over losing a writing contest. She was leaning back against a four-sided marker when she glanced down. Between her feet, she read the word "through." Being a writer, her curiosity pulled her to look at all four sides of the gravemarker, each of which held one word. She went home immediately and wrote the phrase they made on her office wall:
    Through Persistence Comes Triumph.

    Good reminder. Write well. Tell a Story. Be Persistent. Succeed.