Getting Published Day, 2 March 2013: Follow-up Notes

I was at the Writers’ Workshop Getting Published day as a book doctor on Saturday. I met a number of writers to give them feedback on sample material for their proposed submissions to agents, and I also led a workshop on voice, in which I talked about the value of the natural speaking voice. It was a lot of fun, as it always is when you get to meet writers directly. And as ever the Writers’ Workshop people were fun and well organised and direct in addressing the needs of writers: thanks to Harry, Laura, Nikki, Deborah, Lydia, John, and everyone else involved, and it was great to meet the other book doctors again or for the first time.

Here are a few notes to follow up, including some of the resources mentioned during the day.

The workshop
* To start, we discussed the idea of trusting the natural speaking VOICE as a vehicle for your writing, and considered how TONE in writing particularly concerns itself with introducing an emotional quality.

* We looked at some examples of professional writing for the structures and patterns we often use in business or academic contexts (e.g., an objective tone; lots of subordinating clauses). Such voices often lack personality, and intentionally. But in fiction or more creative forms, a neutral voice can feel colourless, and fiction can start to feel cluttered by certain forms of syntax that let us pack in or even bury information when we need it. Yet very often, these have become the ways we write – our natural way of writing.

* By contrast, thinking about the NATURAL SPEAKING VOICE (and thinking and remembering voice), we read a selection from Joe Brainard’s ‘I Remember’, and wrote our own versions and then read them aloud. This form is natural and easy to use, and it is notable how it relies on simple sentence structures (okay, we’re going to introduce sentence variety later). It also has the strength of instinctively focusing our writing on concrete and specific words, especially nouns and verbs (adjectives and adverbs are so rarely needed, even if they do add a certain something).

* I read aloud the opening from Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and noted not only its gossipy quality, but how every sentence in that first paragraph is directed towards the idea of STORYTELLING or NARRATION. (And what is gossip, if not storytelling?!) We also noted that the voice and tone here belong to a specific PERSONA (in this case, judgemental and even bitchy), and this can enrich the CHARACTERISATION in our work (this being the persona, not the bitchiness – though maybe that too!).

* We also looked at and listened to Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Girl’ as an example of writing that takes a particular tone, again a judgemental one. I wish I’d had a bit more time to discuss tone, so I’ll mention it briefly here: there are specific ways we can vary the tone in terms of not only form (e.g., word choices, using different parts of speech, sentence lengths, modes of address), but also content (the narrative ingredients selected for observation and inclusion).

Something I did not mention in the workshop was this great statement on simplicity in writing from William Zinsser’s On Writing Well:

the secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that’s already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what—these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence.

That might sound a bit extreme, especially if you’re working in a more literary mode. But this emphasis on simplicity – the simplicity found in the natural speaking voice – is perhaps one of the best foundations for most good writing.

Book doctoring
It was interesting that the writer whose voice I thought most striking and fresh from her submission turned out not to be a native speaker of English. Which perhaps accounted for the number of slips in spelling! But even those sorts of slips just go to show that a good voice shines through anyway. And also that there are differing definitions of perfection – after all, we need to keep some work for the copyeditors. Anyway, I’d never have guessed she was not a native English speaker; a particular name, in fact, made me think she was an English woman of a certain age, and that was what I was expecting. Wow. To do that in a language you weren’t born into; puts most of us native English speakers to shame.

In addition, this writer comes from a part of the world that might bring a fresh perspective to an established genre, and I encouraged her to think about introducing more of that into the writing too. Good luck to her!

Some of the things that came up in other samples: writing that packs too much in too soon; various other issues of pacing; developing a narrative focus, and letting unfolding action tell the story; overwriting, especially overexplaining (fiction can suggest, be allusive); using point of view to give a story an edge; prose style needing more life, texture, and colour (specific and concrete imagery often add a spike of energy, as do well-selected verbs and nouns).

It’s also a good idea to know your genre, and what might be expected of it – everything from conventions you can use, to trends, to word lengths. This knowledge can grow your own instinct in writing. It’s worth paying a visit to a larger or specialist bookshop, maybe during the morning when you might be able to chat with a bookseller about trends and popular writers. Pick up some recommended books, if you have not read them already, and sample them for what you can bring to your own work.

And beyond the writing, writers often need to think about the profile and platform that might help an agent or publisher promote your work. Even in fiction. In fact, personal experience can often inform the writing in good, instinctive ways, lending it depth and authority. Though of course we must always allow for flights of fancy and imagination, too.

Finally, don’t forget that publishing is something of a lottery. I tend to think that the best books eventually find a home, though whether they sell once published is another matter. And of course some not so great books get published and become roaring successes – but that is usually because they connect with something or other among a readership. What is that thing in your writing that might connect?

Recommended reading
Regardless of the genre you’re working in, these are some of the most useful books on writing. And yes, you probably can gain from doing a bit of studying of this sort, either on your own or in a creative writing class. Understanding techniques in writing will just add depth to your work.

Sin and Syntax, by Constance Hale
Steering the Craft, by Ursula Le Guin
The Making of a Story, by Alice LaPlante
How to Write, by Harry Bingham
On Writing, by Stephen King
The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner
The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler
20 Master Plots, by Ronald Tobias

Memoirists might also find useful:

Old Friend From Far Away, by Natalie Goldberg
The Arvon Book of Life Writing, by Sally Cline and Carole Angier
my own notes on writing a nonfiction book proposal

And for revising your work:

The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell

Thanks again to the Writers’ Workshop, and it was great to meet everyone else there too.

9 thoughts on “Getting Published Day, 2 March 2013: Follow-up Notes

  1. Andrew, thanks for your detailed feedback in the book doctor session. I am so glad I chose you as the book doctor! I loved the comments in your blog – am really inspired now ! It’s also taught me to be so careful in choice of prepositions and the like.
    (It was more of editing mistakes than spelling though?!)

    Your presentation on Voice was really good as well!

    Thanks again,
    Best Regards

    • Mona:

      Thanks for your kind words! And I am glad the feedback was helpful.

      I do think that it’s good to notice the difference between editing, especially line editing, where you’re often bringing on the style, and proofing, where you are making simple fixes to things like spelling and punctuation. Revision can be a layered process, with a different focus for different stages, and it can be helpful to separate out the needs of the writing; knowing that is how you’re going to be working can make the many tasks of revision less overwhelming.

      And, of course, it can also help when you develop such clarity in your writing (and voice) through spelling and punctuation in the first place. Have confidence that this can come with practice.

      Oh, and another book I must add to the list above is The Artful Edit by Susan Bell. Very good for thinking about style.


  2. It was lovely meeting you at the Getting Published Event, Andrew. Thank you, for being so sportive and kind about the imperfections of my work. The book doctoring session at the event was one of the best parts of it!
    I would like to add a few books to your list of recommended reading.

    The Art of Fiction by David Lodge
    How Fiction Works by James Wood
    The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker
    Negotiating With The Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood

    These book have been really useful to me.

    • Sometimes, you know, editors see these perfectly polished pieces of prose. And they can be so boring! They lack .. energy, a story, a heart, life. Sometimes a little mess or rawness is more interesting. Writing can be whipped into shape later, and inevitably an editor who acquires a book will have suggestions (even in this day and age where we hear so many stories that editing is a dying art …), and very often a new draft will be needed. And then it will be copyedited, and after that proofread … So that is where the PERFECTION takes place. Perfecting, and polishing.

      But before that comes the process of SEDUCTION. And I always think writers should try to put their best foot forward when approaching/seducing editors, and though they might anticipate a little further work they probably want to feel confident that what they take on is pretty much there (allowing for mostly straightforward editorial changes and copyediting). And before that, you have to seduce agents, who might register interest in a later draft when the writing is not yet there, waiting to see if further work makes it more attractive to them. Though sometimes some agents might feel more confident to take on a writer, or at least do some work with them if they see potential.

      These are all about elements of certainty and uncertainty, basically. And these are risk-averse times, in the economy of publishing. So the more tidying and housekeeping you can do, the better, not least for the purpose of clarity. Don’t be afraid to bring in some help! This is where writing groups can be handy – for finding useful readers with whom you can trade later drafts.

      Thanks for the book recommendations. Really good ones, especially the Atwood. I also recommended to a few people 20 Master Plots, by Ronald Tobias – it goes over similar ground to Booker (and is much shorter and has a larger typeface!).

      And thank you too for your kind words, and good luck with what comes next.

  3. Andrew, I liked the point about very polished books and lacking the energy. On the other hand, when there is so much competition and so many submissions, agents are prone to quickly dismiss any imperfect work as they think if this person is making typos and other such editing mistakes, then can they even write well?

    I am interested to know what you think of some books like by Jhumpa Lahiri and lately Lighthouse by Alison Moore? Jhumpa Lahiri writes so factually, so without any attachment almost, it can feel a bit flat sometimes. I just read Lighthouse, again the language is simple, not a trace of emotion. I personally liked Lighthouse as it’s so well executed but it certainly doesn’t fit any of the usual advice about writing.


    • Mona: Yes, you *are* right, and it would be irresponsible of me not to encourage everyone to put their Best Foot Forward. Some agents will dismiss submissions with glaring errors on the first page. We could complain about their lack of imagination, but let’s face it: a large proportion of writers making spelling mistakes will also have problems with deeper aspects of technique, such as point of view or structure. Always get any submission proofed by someone else. Even the best proofreaders miss things in their own work. The whole idea of book doctoring is to identify ways in which writers can increase their chances of being taken seriously.

      (HOWEVER any number of great writers were famously bad at spelling, e.g., F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner. John Irving had dyslexia, but does that stop him telling great stories? And there are other contemporary ones I’d best not mention … Perhaps though we need to ask ourselves: how would our writing measure up against the unedited manuscripts of these writers?!)

      For me, as an editor, clunky syntax is far worse than a typo or two. Typos can be easily fixed. Clunky syntax denotes something deeper that needs work.

      Lahiri: I do think she has a somewhat objective style, but that is a matter of style and to some degree taste. I do enjoy her short stories (I confess I’ve not read her novel), and I think that neutral tone is great for the sort of human observation that is her strength. But it is a very conscious neutrality, which develops other effects, and I don’t really think of her voice is flat. There’s a lot of earthy description, for example. And what is unsaid is often as powerful as what’s said (see: Hemingway’s short stories). And I think choices such as a neutral voice are often best sustained over the smaller canvas of a short story. It’s something that sometimes gets identified as an element of a New Yorker story, for example, and of course Lahiri has been published there, and that sort of writing has been influential in many creative writing programmes.

      The Lighthouse is an excellent example of a sustained flatness of tone in a novel: wow! I wouldn’t say it does not fit the usual advice: which advice?! It has a very polished command of language, and Alison Moore certainly makes it clear she knows what she’s doing. Her use of point of view is phenomenal, for example. Remember: no advice is gospel, and there are ALWAYS exceptions to every rule, and if there aren’t exceptions it’s up to creative writers to make something good and original out of them …

      Lecture over! Dinner’s nearly ready.

  4. Thanks Andrew – really enjoyed reading your perspective.
    How many of the olden day writers would make it now I wonder indeed..

    I loved Lahiri’s short story collection, at least some of them, but the novels after that though well written felt more of the same.

    I loved Lighthouse. ‘Advice such as add more dialogue, have an active protagonist – she’s even mixing the genres a bit. It’s a literary book but full of suspense as well. The general monotonous air makes you feel – something will happen now! I am not so sure though why all the women were so flighty, and the symmetry of the venus fly traps, lighthouse in Ester’s and Futh’s felt a bit contrived even . But ok, this is not a book club !

    Thanks so much for your support and advice – I will be getting that copy of Sin and Syntax asap!

    • A quick reply, but I love to imagine the classic authors battling their way through the creative writing industry. It reminds me of some of the classic rejection letters. Actually, I’m going to make another post with a link on that.

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