It took me three start-overs and at least twenty pass-throughs to finish my last blog (about voice) and it was only two pages long. Using that as a measure of success, my year of learning looks like a bust.
It wasn’t. I now think of “better” words (usually by the second draft), write “better” sentences (usually by the third draft) and my paragraphs are remarkably simpler and more effective than before (usually by the final draft); I use fewer words and say more.
I experienced writing a long adult book, experienced what a professional editor does for a writer, experienced the costs of a professional editor, and lived with the creation, revision, editing, and publishing of a single book for almost exactly a year. That’s no trivial accomplishment, but it sounds more impressive than it was at the time.
I read a lot of novels, a lot of how-to books, improved my craft, learned to hear dialogue from the readers’ perspective, and developed a significantly better personal process for writing novels. I learned how to stop thrashing.
Some major improvements were unexpected. Tempering my ego makes me write more effectively. I listen to experienced writers more. I produced enough words that I can now better judge the presence of voice in my work. I have a better feeling for plotting characters and how to make them endure through an entire novel.
I learned that I am, by nature, an iterative person and have to be patient with myself when I do more rewrites than I think real writers would do. Throw in tendencies toward perfectionism and it’s amazing that I ever finish anything.
Overall, I probably discovered what other writers already know, but, as with other parts of my life, it took the struggle to make it my own. Am I as good a writer as I’m going to be? No. But I’m as good as I can be now.
At the start of this series, I stated that my most meaningful lesson had nothing to do with writing, and everything to do with music. What happened is that I developed and used a metaphor to judge the strength of my VOICE. I’m going to put that word in all caps because VOICE has to be one of the biggest aspects of writing that everybody talks about and nobody explains. I, at least, have never understood it. I’m sure my metaphor won’t always work, but I’ll give myself credit for getting a better handle on the concept.
VOICE is that magical quality that every editor is looking for, the attribute that transforms ordinary prose into passages that glow, a way of expressing ideas that strongly resonate with readers, putting words together to make a story vibrate with intensity, the ability to make words flex with power and intent and focus and resolve and …. well, whatever it is, those who have a strong writing VOICE have an advantage over someone with a weak writing VOICE.
VOICE is what you’re supposed to discover at MFA (Master of Fine Arts) schools, or writing workshops, or what experienced writers teach to less experienced writers, or maybe what comes to a writer after wandering forty days in the wilderness; I don’t know. When publishers find a remarkable new writer, they invariably talk about the strength of the person’s VOICE.
We’ve all heard VOICE, whether we know it or not. A sentence will make a beautiful, though brief, melody: it flows, it sings, it has rhythm; it pleases our ears. We remember it. A series of paragraphs will carry an idea with harmony and consistency so that it expresses exactly how we feel. A writer’s casual observation seems perfect; it makes us wish we had said that.
VOICE can be found in “high brow” writing just as it can in more colloquial and informal. It’s how the words are put together, not the price tag of the words themselves. Even Jeff Foxworthy has VOICE.
Reading the excerpts on my wall, over and over, I began to “hear” the words and phrases. An underlying rhythm – a heartbeat – made its way through the printed letters. There was lift, flow, a dynamic quality that made the words and sentences ride on a pattern of beats and physical ticks of my tongue. Some sentences I could almost sing. Read Lincoln’s Gettysburg’s Address and see if you don’t hear drums in the background.
There’s a story of Zubin Mehta, the famous Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, riding a bus one day. A lady sitting next to him asked his line of work and he replied that he was a musician. She asked him what instrument he played. He thought for a moment, then replied “I play the orchestra.”
His response is the basis for my metaphor of VOICE.
A writer uses their keyboard as a baton and language as the orchestra, and how they put words together reveals their VOICE. It isn’t the words themselves, or paragraphs, or scenes, or transitions – it’s all of those. Those aspects are just the selection of instruments filling the chairs in front of the writer, and HOW the writer makes those instruments perform, individually and collectively, HOW the overall ensemble is used to produce music, HOW the melody comes and goes, HOW counterpoint melody is used to contrast to others, HOW the volume varies, the instruments are played in isolation or joined together, the music ebbs and flows, and HOW that music is different from when a different writer “plays” the orchestra, is the writer’s unique VOICE.
When writers read their poems or short stories or novels, their voices should take on the added dimension of music in the background. The story, the pace, the scenes, the actions, the drama, the conflict, the points with strong emphasis versus weak, all should be contributing to the wholeness of the performance. A novel should be as captivating to a reader as a symphony is to an audience. Maybe this is why books on tape are so popular.
Is it talent? Is it craft? Is it deliberate or is it unavoidable? Does it matter if it’s fiction or nonfiction? I don’t know. I hear it in Blood and Thunder, the biography of Kit Carson by Hampton Sides, as much as I hear it in The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe. Read the opening paragraphs of In Cold Blood by Truman Capote; they describe a little town in Kansas, and yet are nearly spellbinding.
Do writers have only a single voice? Remember that the author of IT is the same guy who wrote The Shawshank Redemption. You could give Stephen King the New York Philharmonic, or you could give him a hundred banjos and three opera singers, or you could give him a washtub, two fiddles and a table of cowbells, and he would eke out the nuances of every player to create a complete performance of whatever level of music the instruments were capable of. He knows how to use VOICE.
I’ve made the statement that writing is a craft. I believe it and it gives me hope for the future. But I think VOICE for most of us is an art and it comes from within a writer, perhaps more from his ears than his heart; it may be resonance, not performance. I believe that it is developed and revealed rather than learned, and it takes a lot of writing to find it. That’s why it’s unique to a particular writer. I also suspect that it involves as much an understanding of who you are, as it does what words you choose.
Seeing my words and ideas being refined under the experienced hand of an editor, while slaving over a long, intensive novel for months, I began to hear melodies behind my words. My words fit together better, producing something akin to music – varying rhythm, pitch, pace, emphasis, connectivity, flow, and power. Not always, but I was making progress. The palette of words, sentence structures, and paragraph design from which I could choose became bigger.
After my year of learning, I rewrote my Mogi Franklin mystery stories and they improved in ways I hadn’t seen before, proving that as I was learning what I could do, I was learning to listen to the result.
Accepting a free-lance editor’s offer for a free edit of two chapters of my practice manuscript – the first chapter and one from two-thirds through the book – Editor A returned to me six pages of comments. First, she said, the chapters were not yet ready to be edited: there were too many fundamentals missing to be worth it.
She was very nice in what she said and how she said it, but I’ll sum it up: the story was disjointed, overblown, wandering, with too many adjectives, adverbs, and descriptive details. The second chapter revealed flat characters, little cohesion of plot, lack of action, and too much lecturing by one of the characters. I had also used repetitious descriptors that killed the pace of the story.
If I had felt like an amateur before, I now felt like a third grader.
I swallowed my pride, corrected as best as I could, and sent it to Editor B. He came back with the same general comment – the chapters were not ready to be edited – and he gave me seven additional pages of critique.
How could I have written so poorly? I had published six novels that had received praise and I was on a deliberate quest to improve. What happened?
After considerable introspection, and with better articulation five years removed, I think that my heart, my head, and my hands had gotten out of alignment. I was so emotionally involved with this kidnapped boy and his house, and then the main character and how I blended him with the historical backstory, that my heart ruled everything. I was anxious to see the story unfold, I was presuming that my reader would be gripped by the story as much as I was, and I got in a hurry to finish.
In essence, my heart ruled my head and my head let my hand write whatever got me to the next page. Whenever I reviewed what I had written, my eyes saw what I had meant to write, not what I had actually written; I saw what was in my head and not what was on the paper.
I also needed to back off my ego. Writers for centuries have developed successful structures for novels, while human psychology has recognized what pleases people about stories and tales and poems. Most how-to-write books follow these guidelines, emphasizing the structure, the character arc, the hero model, and other things that produce workable and effective characters and stories. Okay, so I didn’t exactly pay attention or take them seriously. In writing my story, I used ways of telling the story that I thought were innovative and creative, and I was obviously wrong. Stepping back from the pages, I could see the confusion I had created and my failure to adhere to the simplicity that readers like. I needed to stop reading how-to-write books and how-to-write-books books and start embracing the training that those books offered instead of feeling like I knew better.
Editor C, by the way, never returned any comments.
I rewrote the manuscript with a more humble approach, cut about 10,000 unnecessary words, and reworked the plot and action. I accepted that the manuscript was still likely not ready for a line-by-line edit, so I hired Editor B to do an editorial edit, which meant making a similar critique for the whole work. That level of edit allowed him to go through the whole story without making detailed corrections. His fee for doing this was $1800.
What he returned to me was not what I expected. He stepped through the whole manuscript, line-by-line, and showed me what I was doing right or wrong, what was weak or strong, and what other choices existed for accomplishing what I was trying to accomplish. He covered plot, pace, structure, characters, drama, transitions, summaries, monologues, flashbacks, description, grammar, long sentences, short sentences, active versus passive verbs, how to create tension and then resolve it, how to capture the reader, how to delight the reader, how to satisfy the reader, and more.
In other words, he gave me a Master’s class on novel writing.
The significant thing is that he did it with my words, my sentences, my paragraphs, my story, my characters, my settings, my descriptions. All of his illustrations used what I had actually written. Never in my writing experience had anyone ever given me the detailed truth about my writing; never had I had so powerful a lens through which to see the material I had created. Friends and family had never been that honest, could not possibly have been that honest, and certainly would never have been able to comment with a background of skill and experience like Editor B.
Editor B was a professional craftsman giving me lessons about the craft of writing novels and that was my conversion to valuing editors. Forever after, my viewpoint is that every writer needs a professional editor to critique their work. Period. Pay the money.
This was the last sentence of his critique: “… and yet once again, you have written a really good book. Revised as required and edited and your book will be really quite excellent.”
I spent three months (with time out for Christmas) revising and rewriting, and was thrilled to see how my story “grew up” as I incorporated his suggestions. I revised the plot, decreased the number of characters, shifted priorities with my characters, strengthened the connection between the kidnapped boy and the present day main character, redid the climax and final scenes, and more. It was finally beginning to read like the fiction novels I bought from bookstores. I resubmitted the manuscript to him and he did a final line-by-line edit, where he did smooth out the words and sentences and made corrections. His fee was $2000 for that pass.
I was delighted with the result: the novel now flowed. It read better, was more understandable, had genuine drama and resolution, and I read it as if I was hearing it for the first time. It had better words, the sentences were direct and simple, and the paragraphs carried the reader along with no sidetracks, no confusion, and no unnecessary thoughts. The chapters were well-placed, the scenes fell in the right sequence, and the transitions were smooth. I’m sure it’s not perfect but it was good enough. It was time to quit.
I’d spent around $4500 for the whole process and could not afford more. I did my own proofreading, got help from family and friends to create the cover, did my own formatting for a 5x9 paperback, and bought my ISBN and barcode. I used Createspace to handle the printing of the book.
It’s called SMOKE DREAMS and it’s available only on Amazon.
That officially concluded my year of learning. I’ll summarize what I learned in the next couple of posts.
I hate long blogs, so I’ll summarize a few things.
Having noted looking at excerpts from good books and reading how-to-write books, I’ll not stun you into a daze with a list of the other things I did. I read good books, kept a journal (I just wrote ideas and lists and thoughts; I’m not big into keeping diaries or writing long entries), wrote three short stories (which were not very good), and wrote practice pieces that were pretend first paragraphs to possible stories. I looked at other first paragraphs in the books in my bookshelf.
I didn’t go to conferences or workshops, did not find a writing group, and didn’t have time to join the local college’s literature course. I didn’t hire a writing coach or other formal means of help.
By February, I was pretty bored.
Then I started having dreams.
In The Lady in White, which is book seven of the Mogi Franklin Mystery Series, I introduced a ten year-old boy in 1870 who is kidnapped by Comanche Indians. He spends seven years becoming a fierce Comanche warrior. His father was like six foot five and the boy unexpectedly (to his captors, anyway) grew to be head and shoulders taller than any Comanche, ever. And his hair was bright red, due to his Irish ancestry.
After seven years, the now famous Warrior surrenders to the Army at Fort Sill, Indian Territory (which later becomes Oklahoma), and is taken to a church school where previously kidnapped children wait to be claimed by their families. No one comes for him, since his parents are dead, and he eventually leaves to become a cowboy. He then begins a search for his little sister, who was six at the time that he was kidnapped, and was sent to relatives back in St. Louis.
I dreamed repeatedly about the boy, and I dreamed about his family’s house. His father had built a monstrous Victorian-style mansion in the canyons of the Canadian River, in eastern New Mexico, that was abandoned after the boy was kidnapped. It still exists in the present time that Mogi and Jennifer’s adventure takes place.
Remember that this is all fiction: I had made it all up. Even so, I could not get that boy and his house out of my mind, so I decided to write a story about the boy and the house, and it gradually turned into the rough draft of an adult novel. I intended – I really did – to make it a practice novel, one that I would rework until I was satisfied, get it polished, and then throw it away.
But a very bad thing happened: I fell in love with that little boy and the more I wrote of the book, the more I became attached to it. No way was I going to throw it away. Subsequently, I “practiced” less while writing it.
It took four months to produce a 110,000 word novel, which is three times the average size of my Mogi Franklin mysteries, and I was already thinking about getting measured for my tuxedo to wear to the Pulitzer Award ceremony. I believed the novel was great, and, to be truthful, it wasn’t the writing but the story that was unique and totally engaging. I thought that would get me through.
I had promised myself that I would submit the manuscript (once again, as a learning experience) to a professional editor, so I started looking around. I admit that I did not know what an editor did, even though everybody said one was required in preparing a book for publication. My impression was that an editor would go through the manuscript of my story, correct grammar and spelling, take out all the adverbs, and change verb tenses if needed. It hardly seemed worth paying for; why not just find a friend who used to teach English and cut them a deal.
This is what I learned.
Editing a manuscript can be done at different levels, all of which are attributed to an “editor.” They can read the manuscript and tell you what they think; they can go through the manuscript, passage by passage, or scene by scene, and comment about it; they can go line-by-line and comment about it, or go line-by-line and scrub each line for grammar, spelling, correct verb usage, plus suggesting ways to make sentences, paragraphs, or passages better, more vital, more dynamic, shorter, longer, or whatever is needed; and along the way, they can more-or-less act as a writing coach, depending on who you get.
Importantly, a professional editor can give you a context of what you wrote versus what other people have written. How does my book-to-be stack up against other fiction books? How does my writing compare to the average fiction writer? One thing they will refuse to tell you is whether it will be a blockbuster or not. There are way too many other factors in play to judge a book’s sellability.
Professional editors are willing to serve the needs of the writer, but each level of what I described above is hard work, separate and totally appropriate. Professional editors are very skilled at what they do, and usually have a vast amount of experience doing it. They earn their money, but don’t expect that one pass will be enough. Most editors go through a manuscript multiple times, for different purposes, and charge the writer a certain amount each time, according to the level of editing requested.
Like, how much? Two to four cents a word is common, per read-through. For 100,000 words, that’s $2000 to $4000. Not cheap. If they go through the manuscript more than once, the costs increase rapidly. I found a magazine article written by three writers and they, each, had spent $10,000 getting their books edited, proofread, covers designed, and published.
Fortunately, I had subscribed to a writers’ magazine with classified ads in the back where free-lance editors advertise their services. The ads typically offer to edit the first chapter for free, and then estimate the cost to edit the whole manuscript, based on the total number of words and whether the first chapter had been easy or hard. I want to apologize now for editor-abuse, but they did offer. Free was hard to resist.
I sent my first chapter to three editors and it was the best thing I did in my year of learning.
I encourage people to write. They can do journals, diaries, poems, speeches, fiction, nonfiction, memoirs, etc., but putting down words increases people’s ability to articulate what they think and, consequently, how to say better what they think. That benefits everybody.
I’m going to share my own writing experiences, but don’t think that I consider myself a good writer. I’ve been writing fiction a long time and have produced a number of short stories and self-published books, so I have capabilities. I have abundant imagination, I have sufficient knowledge of grammar and English prose structure, I’ve got a good vocabulary, I’ve read enough good writers to know who and what to imitate, I know story fundamentals, I’ve experienced good times and bad times, I know what scares me, and I know what excites me. I really, really enjoy reading books and I have a passion to share good stories with people.
The books I’ve written are good and I’m proud of them, but it might have taken fifteen to twenty full rewrites on some of them to get to a final product, and that was disappointing. I felt clumsy and amateurish with the fundamentals of writing my stories: I was working way too hard, improving way too slowly, and felt my stories were not as good as they should have been; I had some skills but needed correction and direction. At the beginning of 2013, as I introduced in my last blog post, I devoted myself to one full year of learning to write better.
I did not feel alone in what I wanted. Attend any writers’ conference and you’ll find that most attendees are looking for some level of inspiration or salvation. The talks and presentations offer common instruction or advice: attend classes on every aspect of writing, editing and publishing, read good books, read how-to-write books, find partners to write with, find writing groups to join, find readers to give feedback, take college writing courses or literature courses, find online writing courses or courses on CDs or DVDs, follow blogs, subscribe to writing magazines, submit, submit, submit, attend more conferences, attend workshops, mentor students, teach classes, go on writing retreats, and other activities.
I had already done a number of those, with dubious results probably due to my typically bad attitude due to my typically big ego, so I tried to be honest with creating goals for my year of learning. Of all that I needed to do, I would focus first on writing good sentences and paragraphs. Specifically, I would read good writers (fiction or nonfiction) and write down sentences and paragraphs that impressed me.
I thumbtacked the excerpts on the wall behind my desk. Every day, I read those words and asked “why do they sound so good?” One of my first books was The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin. I’d never heard of her but she writes sentences like a poet. I reread A Separate Peace by John Knowles; it’s full of passages that effortlessly sweep the reader along. Larry McMurtry can’t be beat for revealing a character’s thoughts. Ann Patchett, John Steinbeck, Ann Lamott, Jeanette Walls, John Nichols, Norman and John McLean, Harper Lee, Wallace Stegner – they all wrote well-crafted sentences and damned-near-inspiring paragraphs. When I found someone to admire, I’d read their book, copy out sentences and paragraphs, and add their words on the wall. How did they choose those words? What was the author doing that I wasn’t? Why did they structure the sentences that way? How did their words carry the story? Why does it seem so simple?
I soon ran out of space on my wall, but it was enough to show a pattern: the excerpts on my wall used sentences that had a connectiveness of thought and a strength of presentation that mine did not. The words those authors put together flowed like rain; my words dripped like a faucet.
Okay, so there was something there to learn.
Another good thing I did was to read how-to-write-books books.
I found three categories of those kinds of books, the first being concerned with story mechanics – idea, plot elements, scenes, transitions, characters, color, sound, pace, character arc, beginning, middles, ends, power words, power sentences, flow, suspense, tension, drama, vocabulary, sentence structure, etc. The second category dealt with the writer-on-the-inside – do you understand the story that you want to communicate? Do you write honestly? Are you revealing yourself? Are you saying what you want to say? How do you know? What’s the center of your passion? Are you grounded? What do you want people to learn from your words? How do you manage yourself as a writer?
The third was witness-based – stories from successful writers and authors about what they had written and what they learned as they moved through their writing careers. Where did they begin, how did they learn their craft, what did they do to refine their craft? What do they think is important about writing?
I started with the third category and it was good place for me. I was encouraged to hear their stories and adventures. All of them had things to learn, too.
There were times in writing my Mogi Franklin books when I thought I had a good historical hook, a good mystery, and a good plot, but couldn’t find the right words to create a good reading experience. My sentences felt shallow, the paragraphs squishy, the characters two dimensional, and the pace uneven. I saw no improvement even when I repeatedly reworked the manuscript.
I felt more amateur than what I thought I should be.
I was not happy. I was working too hard. I was reworking too much. I felt clumsy at telling the story and I did not understand why.
On December 31st, 2012, I gave up working a part-time job and gave myself one year to cure my writing inadequacies. I needed to learn to either write better or to relegate my writing to hobby status. This was not prompted by income, by the way. I have a pension; I don’t need to sell books. I don’t even need to write books – it’s just something that I want to do.
My quest was prompted because I wanted to write well: to produce good, interesting, well-written stories that people desired to read. I also wanted to have pleasure writing the stories, to have confidence as I was writing them that people would enjoy reading them, and to feel pride in my level of craft.
In the next several blogs, I going to tell you what happened during that year and you will be surprised by the most meaningful lesson that I learned.
It had nothing to do with writing and everything to do with music.
I’m learning social media. I’ve done Facebook, but only with a personal page and a suspicion that I should have a minimum of Friends. I haven’t sent many photos, I have an overwhelming desire to avoid Twitter, and try to minimize my emails. I still have warm feelings about my dumb flip-phone.
But I have lately become convinced that if I wish my books to be bought and read, then I have to advertise my books, talk about my books, and become a recognized writer with a following on some sort of smart phone-based application.
I am not comfortable with this. I’m an introvert; leave me alone. But I have found a good editor and a good publishing situation and the more I produce books that I think would be good reading for young people, the more I want young people to read them.
My aspirations have increased.
That being the case, I want as many young people as possible to know that the books exist and are available, and the current and best way of doing that is to use social media – texting, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter (for now; there’re always something new).
I was a big believer in the traditional ways of advertising: visiting schools, doing book signings at bookstores, having book launches at libraries where you put an ad in the paper, provide cookies and lemonade, and then sell and sign books afterwards. I also believe in reviews and winning contests and running ads in newspapers or magazines.
What I have learned, and what publicists have been telling me, is that every book-selling, book-advertising, and author-recognizing venue that I have in my memory has been totally trumped (excuse the pun) by social media. Americans alone send 69,000 text messages every second and six billion texts every day. In the span of twenty-four hours, a majority of American teens will have checked their social media feeds more than one hundred times. In the time that you’ve spent reading this blog post, around 350,000 people will have tweeted on Twitter, and more that 500,000 photos will have been shared. Add to that the 150 million emails that have raced through cyberspace in the last minute and it’s obvious that a revolution in the way that humans communicate has taken place.
For me, it comes down to numbers. If I want to be competitive (I do), if I have a product (my books) that I feel are worthy and beneficial for reading (I do) and I want to get above the two hundred or so books that I can sell to my family and friends and random people about town (and it’s a small town), then I have to participate in social media. And, according to sources, I will eventually enjoy it. And, they tell me, the results can sometimes be overwhelming.
I’m trying to make my social media indoctrination an adventure for myself, and I will keep you informed on how it goes.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.