And now that you’ve plotted wrong, characterized wrong, and written wrong, even 9 ways to find the time to write. . .let’s talk about how to sit down with that baby and revise it wrong.
Be obsessed with letting your language ‘breathe’
This is code for: “Be unwilling to revise anything but inexcusable errors and typos.” This is because you must trust, you must trust in the process (didn’t your Discount Life Coach tell you that only last week?), you must understand that those words in that order in those sentences came out of you by Divine Inspiration and cannot be tampered with without losing their ‘freshness’ and ’spark.’
‘Freshness’ and ’spark’ being code for: “Accidentally getting it right.” Because you don’t actually have a clue what you’re doing.
Experience? Practice? Education? Time-tested techniques for shaping, honing, polishing written language? What do you think you are, a buffing wheel?
Don’t waste your time on rewriting stuff you’ve already written, whatever you do. Think about how many more books you could publish if you stopped worrying about how the last one turned out and got busy on the next. You’d be a millionaire in no time!
This is why so many people are self-publishing books these days with titles like God Wants You to Write.
Look for guidance only from peers on unsupervised critique forums
Because, as we all know, money always flows toward the writer. So be sure to get everything you need to become a successful author for nothing, as a fool and their money are soon parted.
At least you hope so. After all, you’re counting on lots and lots of fools out there with lots and lots of money to buy this book you’re accidentally writing in spite of yourself.
Be correct that your peers have little to teach you
Well, it’s true.
Which is why it’s so easy to dismiss them as callow unbelievers if they actually suggest revisions. Or—heaven forbid—going back to the drawingboard.
The problem is your peers don’t know any more about this work than you do. So their opinions, no matter how well-meaning, can’t possibly be any more than amateurs’ surface reactions to a deep, complex, multifaceted craft no one has ever completely mastered before they died. Not even Stieg Larsson.
The truth is you’re probably an unrecognized genius—that’s why your critiquers misunderstand you. I mean, what expertise are they going to use to recognize you with? They’re a bunch of amateurs.
Except the ones who are even more amateur than you are, of course. Those guys love you!
You are the only real authority on your own work, unlike all those OCD nitpickers who style themselves ‘experts.’ (Good thing publishers have unloaded most of them.) Publishers are a big, shiny store window. You are a customer.
And the customer is always right.
I only know this stuff because I’ve been there.
Last week we learned how to characterize wrong. The week before that we learned how to plot wrong.
And today I’m going to teach you how to cripple your book so that—even if your plot is maximum overdrive and your characterization nothing short of brilliant—no one in the industry will touch it with a ten-foot pole.
You know what I did yesterday? To celebrate Father’s Day with my wonderful, hardworking husband? Twisted my ankle and wound up on the couch watching him cook his own dinner.
I told you June was going to be all about doing things backward.
So get busy and write wrong:
Model your writing on crap
If the single best way to learn to write well is to study the literary canon with enormous care and all the intelligence you can muster to learn the techniques of the greats. . .that makes the single best way to learn to write wrong reading nothing but cheap modern crap and telling yourself, ‘If they can get away with that, I can get away with anything.’
Because writing is all about ‘what you can get away with,’ isn’t it? Heaven forbid it should be a highly-developed craft with a long and illustrious history of hard work, dedication, and sometimes real genius behind it.
It’s a slot machine!
Garbage in, garbage out.
Believe the uber-marketing hypesters who tell you, “The writing doesn’t matter”
So don’t waste your time actually learning how to write, people. The writing doesn’t matter. Throw your random, half-baked ideas into unpolished words—your ideas, your brilliant ideas that no one, not even the geniuses in the history of literature, ever, ever, ever thought of before—and shove them PDQ down the Golden Query Chute. And that deafening silence you get in reply? That just means they’re too busy shuffling through the mountains of shlock everyone else who doesn’t care about the writing keeps shoveling through their mail slots—they can’t recognize natural talent anymore when they see it.
It’s the era of entitlement! And you’re entitled to be rich and famous.
Don’t pause to learn how to write. You don’t have time. (Why not? I don’t know. But you don’t.) Just keep on shoveling. Someone’s bound to be young, inexperienced, and/or desperate enough to take you on. And after that—whoa!—it’s Easy Street.
Move over, J.K. Rowling.
Be in a hurry to get published
And this is why it’s best to read only stuff being shoveled as fast as possible through the chute right now, this minute—because that will show you what sells.
No, you don’t have a famous name or a devoted following of hundreds of thousands or insider knowledge of how writing and modern publishing work, like the best sellers who—for business reasons of their own—often no longer have the time to polish their work properly before they publish it.
But you’re going to skip right over that little detail. What they do you can do.
Without their famous name. Or their reputation. Or their understanding of the craft and industry. Or their publisher. Or their agent. Or their mega-numbers of readers. I guess. . .
So, when in doubt, be sure to ramble on for pages in exposition, explaining your story in vague abstractions for that dimwit you expect to buy it (a fool and their money, yesirree), substitute noises you make up yourself for dialog (“Waaaghghghgh! Nngngng. Uh, dunno, duncare”), brand names for telling details (doesn’t everyone know brand names? I mean, we’re all glued to our shopping malls and TV commercials together, right?), and the verb ‘grab’ for every action you possibly can (“She grabbed the door, ran in the house and grabbed her keys, grabbed a Diet Coke from the fridge, and as she ran out he jumped out from behind the door and grabbed her”).
Your reader will get the general idea. Because these days readers don’t read books carefully, anyway, only buy them for the famous names on the covers (although you did, you admit, skip over that little detail). And since they’re reading standing in line to buy cheap plastic crap they don’t need, anyway, that’s all they care about.
Literature? It’s the twenty-first century, people! We don’t need no stinkin’ literature.
Next week we’ll learn how to revise wrong.
Naturally, none of this helps at all if we don’t know 9 Ways to Find the Time to Write.
Hi, my name is Victoria, and I have written mountains of shlock. But I didn’t publish it—not most of it, anyway—and I’m working to get better now, one day at a time.
UPDATE: Phyllis K. Twombly has added: Neglect Feedback; Ignore Concepts Within One’s Chosen Genre; Don’t Research
So we know how to plot wrong.
Now this week let’s talk about how to handle character wrong. Because this one is trickier—character is a trickier element of fiction while, at the same time, an even more essential one than plot. It’s possible to get by on pretty darn thin plot, providing your characters are fascinating. But any kind of plot with boring characters is shlock.
Don’t write that stuff.
Give your protagonist only one need
This one happens a lot. I’ve done it a lot. Everyone’s always telling you, “Your protagonist needs a goal, your protagonist needs to be fighting for something.”
- They need their beloved to fall in love with them
- They need to survive a deadly plague from outer space
- They need to not get killed by the bad guys
Which is all well and good. . .but why can’t they get it?
So you add a lot of complications—interfering ex’s, domineering relatives, cruel bosses, nosy neighbors, malicious space aliens, fickle and faint-hearted gods of doom who victimize your characters until you find yourself weeping into your keyboard. All very poignant and meaningful to you.
But when you show it to readers, they say, “You’re a perfectly good writer. But why do I care?” And when you show it to agents, they don’t even respond.
We don’t care about victims. We care about strong people fighting against themselves. This requires more than one overwhelming need: internal conflict.
Make your protagonist’s needs weak or trivial
And this leads to the the next issue, which is giving your protagonist two conflicting needs but making them so minor the reader can’t work up any interest.
- They need to clean the house and they need to get Jeb back from the barn
- They need to watch the game with their pals and they need to prove they know the most about it
- They need to win the popularity contest and they need not to chip their nails
Once again, it all seems terribly powerful and gripping to you, your readers like it, and when you show it to agents they say, “You’re a good enough writer, but somehow I couldn’t get into this particular story. It just didn’t speak to me.”
You know tension is important, and you’re wondering how to increase the tension on basically boring stuff. So you add complexities, other people’s agendas.
And once again, you get the shake of the head, more final this time, and the slightly-crisp suggestion, “Maybe you should try another story.”
We don’t care about trivial conflicts. We have plenty of those of our own, which bore even us. We want stories about scary crap that affects lives.
Never force your protagonist to choose between their conflicting needs
So you think, ‘Aha! I know what’s wrong. Those two needs don’t matter enough.’ And you’re intensely pleased with yourself, because—you know what?
So you give your protagonist two big, overwhelming, dastardly, fabulous needs, and you make them in stark opposition to each other.
- They need to save the home they inherited from their tragically-dead parents that’s all they own and they need to survive a tornado/avalanche/desert island/inner-city gang war
- They need to save their boss’s reputation for the sake of their own career and they need to get their ex back from that boss
- They need to disable a covert operation aimed at world domination before all they hold dear is violated and they need to survive the bad guys’ ruthless efforts to thwart them
Wonderful stuff! Gripping, intriguing, conflicting. Such an exciting story to write! Even your readers are cheering you on every step of the way. “I can’t put it down! Write faster.”
But in the end it’s still. Just A. Flop.
And the agent who loved the premise, loved the story, loved you for coming up with the whole thing—stops taking your calls.
Because although your protagonist has those powerful conflicting internal needs (pride and survival, career and love, integrity and life) and even though those needs are huge and easy for even the most simple-minded reader to identify with, and even though you’re a perfectly good writer. . .your protagonist never has to choose.
They get out of it the easy way: by you letting them.
Make your characters fight themselves, make it important and painful, make ‘em choose. There is no other formula.
Next week we learn how to write wrong.
And the week after that we talk about how to revise wrong.
Of course, none of this is any use without 9 Ways to Find the Time to Write.
Can you believe it’s June already? You’d never know it from the weather on the Northern California Coast. It’s been pouring rain for days. It’s practically the Pacific Northwest.
So I’m going to spend the month of June talking about how to do everything backward. And I’m going to need your help with this. I’ve spent the bulk of my life learning everything about fiction the hard way, so I’m pretty conversant with that part, but there’s nothing like doing it wrong to bring out the unique creativity of the individual.
This conversation won’t realize its full potential without your creativity added to the mix.
Let’s start with plot, because that’s the simplest thing to learn and therefore the simplest thing to screw up:
Hook at the wrong place
Most aspiring writers have no idea what they’re going to write about in their novels—they just sit down and dive into something that seems interesting. And that’s a lot of fun! Whee, doggies. Who are these characters? What are they doing here? What are they up against? Why don’t they know it?
And this last bit is what bites them in the butt—Why don’t they know it? Because the writer doesn’t know it, that’s why. But the characters should know. They should be completely and shockingly clear on what they’re up against in the Hook. And they should be absolutely desperate to get it resolved.
When you launch into a story this way—expecting to keep this Hook in the final draft—all you do is share with your reader your own fogginess and indecision about your story. And they don’t want your fogginess and indecision. They have plenty of their own.
Unfortunately, your characters can’t possibly know, in all its depth and import, something you don’t know. You need to know why you’re starting where you start. That Hook casts its shadow forward over your entire novel.
Develop in the wrong way
And because these aspiring writers don’t know what their novels are about when they start writing them, they have no idea where to take them. They just keep writing scene after scene, bumbling along, feeling around in the dark, wondering what on earth is going on.
Again—all kinds of fun and excitement. For the writer. Beyond boring for the reader. The reader needs you to have already figured out what on earth is going on. Otherwise, they’ll go find a writer who has.
You would not believe how much of my time I spend kindly separating the wheat from the chaff for aspiring writers. “This scene is fabulous and gripping and carries your story forward exactly right,” I’m telling them. “These other ten scenes must have been great fun to write, I know. But they’re your background notes. They belong on your desk, not in your novel.”
If you could figure out just how much of my time that takes. . .you’d know just how much money you could save by doing that part for yourself.
Climax at the wrong place
And when these aspiring writers finally burn themselves out on all this random fantasizing, they tend to throw up their hands and end on the real point of all this for them: a long, detailed description of how happy all the characters are when they’re no longer struggling anymore. This can go on for a really long time. This can go on for chapters.
Which just caps off this exercise in writing for the sake of the writer. Unfortunately, this is vastly different from writing for the sake of the reader.
Even John Gardner was told to cut 1/3 of his 1970s magnum opus, The Sunlight Dialogues. (He did.)
Because this is the crux of the matter: you can write your first draft solely and entirely for your own sake if you like. Everyone knows how thrilling that is, what a pleasure to the writerly soul. We all wallow in it, to some extent or another. Otherwise, why would we be doing this work?
But if you want to sell that novel, that final draft must be plotted with unerring care and precision for the sake of your readers.
Next week we talk about how to characterize wrong.
The week after we talk about how to write wrong.
And the week after that we talk about how to revise wrong.
Plus, of course, we need 9 Ways to Find the Time to Write.
I can’t be the only person who learned all this the hard way.
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by PanMacmillan.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited his second novel, Memory of Water and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with her to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his work-in-progress Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with her to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling her liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.