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Writing by Committee

I worked with a client recently whom I shall call Phil. He had a complete manuscript of a memoir and had been sending out pitches to agents for several months to no avail. He has some bites off his query, but each time he sent requested chapters, he received a rejection. He came to me to learn why.

I reviewed the query, the rejections, and the table of contents for the book, as well as the samples chapters, and the problem was glaringly obvious: the book was very well nicely in the query, beautifully presented in the TOC, and yet the sample chapters were a wreck – disjoined, uneven, with no narrative drive.

I reported my findings to Phil and said that it was rare to see such a disconnect in a proposal. I wondered what had happened that his sample chapters were so weak compared to the description of the book.

“They were written by a committee,” he said, and then proceeded to describe all the people who had weighed in on the manuscript, including professional editors, workshop leaders, fellow writing students, writing group friends, family members, and even a neighbor or two. He had taken advice from so many people at so many different times that he had completely lost sight of his story.

I had to laugh, because last week, I posted a blog that included some lines from my own work in progress. I received emails from some readers who loved what I did, and emails from others who suggested I had, in fact, made the passage worse. If I tried to please both camps, I would probably end up with something that pleased no one – least of all me.

Many of us are so desperate for validation (Is my idea any good? Do you get it? Do you like it? Should I keep doing this? Am I crazy?) that we tend to lose our heads a bit when it comes to asking people to read our work.  We’re grateful when anyone shows interest or is willing to read pages, and so we spread it around to whoever agrees to pay attention. The knee-jerk reaction is to believe whatever it is they say, to automatically incorporate their ideas into your work, and to give up your power to the committee.

I thought I’d take a moment to say, “Don’t.”

Don’t pass your work around without intention.

Don’t take any advice that comes your way.

Good advice is not about what someone likes or doesn’t like, or what they think you should do or not do to improve the work. Ed Catmull explains good advice in his book Creativity Inc.:

 

Truly candid feedback is the only way to ensure excellence. When giving notes, be sure to include:

What is Wrong

What is Missing

What Isn’t Clear

What Doesn’t Make Sense

A good note is specific. A good note does not make demands. Most of all, a good note inspires.

 

Most important of all, don’t lose sight of your own heart. When you get advice, weigh it against what you think. Does it ring true to you? Does it strike a nerve? Can you see how incorporating it will make your work more clear, more logical, and more whole? If yes, then by all means, take the advice.

But if the answer is no, ignore it. You have no obligation to change your work according to the whims of your readers.

Your obligation should always be first and foremost to the book you are writing. Do what’s right for the work.

One of the reasons I am proud of my Author Accelerator program is that it gives writers what is so often lacking in their arsenal of tools: a trained editor who is paying attention to their work on a regular basis. I think this is one of the best ways not only to improve your work, but to strengthen your editorial muscle, which is to say your understanding of how narrative works, and WHY.

Someone who has built up that kind of muscle is going to know that writing by committee never produced excellent work.

 

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Giving Thanks for Books

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope everyone enjoyed a wonderful holiday!

I’m writing today to urge everyone to give books this holiday season (who doesn’t love a good book?) and to tell you about a fun way to do it.

As you know, this Saturday, the 30th, is “small business Saturday,” a day when we are encouraged to shop local and support independent businesses. This year, indie booksellers are staging an amazing nationwide event called Indies First, where they have invited authors to spend the day hand-selling books in the stores. Check out the Facebook page to find your local independent bookstore and see who’s going to be around. More than 1,000 authors are participating and there are some big names out there — James Patterson, Cheryl Strayed. It should be really fun.

I will be in the mix in the middle of the day. I will be at Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in Redondo Beach from 1 to 4 on Saturday.  I’ll be signing my own books and recommending many others.  If you happen to be out and about in the South Bay, please stop by and say hi.

Here are some of the books on my to-read list:

*****

I love reading business books, and learn so much from them about how to be a writer in a world of commerce. I think all authors should get in the same habit. I plan on reading The $100 Start Up because I’m so tired of hearing everyone else talk about it and having no clue what they are saying. (Peer pressure! It’s the reason I read a surprising number of books…) I am also very eager to read Start With Why because the author’s Ted talk, which some of you have seen in my classes, has reinforced a lot of my beliefs about telling good stories.

For non-fiction, I am looking at The Telling Room, the epic tale about a legendary cheese. I heard the author on NPR and was totally smitten. I want to read The Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago, and Kayak Morning by Roger Rosenblatt, because no one writes better about grief. There is a book called My Life in Middle March about one woman’s relationship with a great novel, and I so deeply love that idea that I think I have to read it, even though I have never been able to get through Middle March itself.

For fiction, I am eager to read the new Norman Rush novel, Subtle Bodies. It’s been ten years since his last one, but it has stuck with me all this time. I also want to read The Goldfinch by Donna Tart and  of course, the latest Alice Munro collection. She is one of my all-time favorite writers, and I was so thrilled when she won the Nobel Prize a few months ago.

For poetry, I am going to get the latest book from Richard Wilbur. I heard him read in person this fall, by complete accident, and the poem he read about mourning his wife brought tears to my eyes. He is 93 years old and the room was completely riveted by his performance. It is not the first time Richard Wilbur’s words have made me cry. I have had a poem of his on my bulletin board by my computer for many years. (I will share it with yo, below, because it’s spectacular, and because it’s called “The Writer" which means that it's speaking to you.) The president of my daughter’s college read this to the parents right after we left our kids freshman year. I almost fell over when he began to read. I mean, the poem is on my bulletin board! I cried so hard that I had to leave the room.

That same child is home this week, about to head into the home stretch of her senior year. I have so much to be thankful for.

 

The Writer by Richard Wilbur

 

In her room at the prow of the house

Where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden,

My daughter is writing a story.

 

I pause in the stairwell, hearing

From her shut door a commotion of typewriter-keys

Like a chain hauled over a gunwale.

 

Young as she is, the stuff

Of her life is a great cargo, and some of it heavy:

I wish her a lucky passage.

 

But now it is she who pauses,

As if to reject my thought and its easy figure.

A stillness greatens, in which

 

The whole house seems to be thinking,

And then she is at it again with a bunched clamor

Of strokes, and again is silent.

 

I remember the dazed starling

Which was trapped in that very room, two years ago;

How we stole in, lifted a sash

 

And retreated, not to affright it;

And how for a helpless hour, through the crack of the door,

We watched the sleek, wild, dark

 

And iridescent creature

Batter against the brilliance, drop like a glove

To the hard floor, or the desk-top,

 

And wait then, humped and bloody,

For the wits to try it again; and how our spirits

Rose when, suddenly sure,

 

It lifted off from a chair-back,

Beating a smooth course for the right window

And clearing the sill of the world.

 

It is always a matter, my darling,

Of life or death, as I had forgotten. I wish

What I wished you before, but harder.

 

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