Okay, I’m surprised that George R.R.R.R.R.R.R. Martin wins this contest, though for some reason they skipped over Stephen the King, who may be a literary god, but who also can turn a grocery list into 1,034 pages featuring an evil clown.
Also, J.R.R. Tolkien gets credit for writing some kind of 60-page prologue to LORD OF THE RINGS that was like some sophomore history sociology major’s paper on hobbits and elves. It put the B in Boring and made me throw the book across the room, which was hard to do since I was on a beach in Maui, drinking margaritas and in the Best Mood Ever.
Also-also: J.R.R. Tolkien gets double-credit for starting the whole stupid trend of fantasy and sci-fi authors, male and female, renouncing first names in favor of initials for some reason. The trend will continue and hipster authors writing about elves with lightsabers riding dragons will, within ten years, pick pen names like “GRRRRR the Grizzly Bear” and “Sw33tn3ss M00nb3&m the Z0mbi3k1ll3r” and “Darth Elvis Skywalker III.” Bonus points if you indie-publish a book with any of those pen-names.
Readers and writers need each other, and we won’t connect when there are thick, artificial walls and book covers so filled with testosterone – or estrogen – that you may as well nail up signs that say “NO GIRLS ALLOWED” or “RUN AWAY, MEN, FOR YOU ARE UNWELCOME.”
I don’t want fiction so segmented that it becomes little fiefdoms, or ghettos, with this section for men, this one for women, little kids here, gay literature over there, big kids there, lesbians here, left-handed straight white guys here and right-handed women who are into quilting and cats in this corner. I read whatever Dan Savage and David Sedaris write, though I’d never have found them if you hidden them in a gay and lesbian corner, which is a bit too near a closet.
Good writing is good writing, period.
Here’s a brief plot summary for a novel. Read it and tell me where it belongs in Barnes and Noble.
Hank is an investigator who solves murders. But he can’t stop a new serial killer, at least not officially. Because that killer is going after the employees of his wife, a prominent businesswoman. This is a case Hank can’t touch and can’t ignore. The killer knows it — and he’s getting ever closer.
All too easy, right? This is pure mystery/thriller. You put it next to Lee Child and James Patterson.
Nope. It’s a romance novel. Some stores might get wild and put it in Romantic Suspense. This is BETRAYAL IN DEATH by J.D. Robb, aka Nora Roberts. All I did was change the genders of the protag and love interest.
The initials Nora Roberts put in her pen name also tell us something. Why do female authors, even crazy famous and insanely successful ones like Nora Roberts and J.K. Rowling, have to hide behind initials?
You could say J.K. Rowling went with initials long before she got famous, out of fear a female author wouldn’t be taken as seriously writing an epic fantasy novel. I blame J.R.R. Tolkien for this trend. (Sidenote: George R.R. Martin, you’re a copycat, but I love you.)
Yet after J.K. Rowling earned enough money to buy her own planet and staff it with Brad Pitt clones, she wrote a non-Harry Potter book … using the pen name Robert Galbraith.
So even the world’s richest author, who just happens to be female, still seems to feel there’s a bias against female authors.
As a writer, a reader and a man, I think that’s sincerely screwed up.
My wife has the World’s Largest Collection of Novels, including 5.92 metric tons of Deep Literature, fantasy, romantic suspense, non-fiction, plain old romance, sci-fi — basically everything. I wrote this post after comparing the backs of her romantic suspense collection to the blurbs on the back covers of my Ginormous Horde of Mysteries and Thrillers and saying hey, these are ALL THE SAME THING.
(Related post: Why every man MUST read a romance — and every woman read a thriller)
Let’s look at two more plot summaries, one for a book that turned into a movie and another for a movie.
A poor and passionate young man falls in love with a rich young woman and gives her a sense of freedom. They soon are separated by their social differences.
Has to be a romance. Even if I switched genders, there’s no other subplot involving a presidential race or a stolen nuclear bomb. Nothing but a love story, straight up.
Nope. Didn’t switch genders or touch this summary at all. Pulled it right from the IMDB page for THE NOTEBOOK by Nicholas Sparks, who says he doesn’t write romances or even love stories. He writes literature, and his stuff belongs next to Hemingway. (Not making that up. Go ahead and google it.) And yeah, they don’t shelve his books in the romance section, because “Duh, he’s a man.”
I’ve met a ton of romance authors from this silly blog, and whether they write historical things involving men in kilts, romantic suspense or wild stuff involving Shapeshifting Dolphin-Men and the Women Who Love Them, they are united behind one core belief: a burning hatred for Nicholas Sparks. (Related post: The Red Pen of Doom guts THE NOTEBOOK)
One last shot, this time a movie:
Vanessa is beautiful, rich — and haunted by the deaths of her parents and her lover, who died during Vanessa’s secret crusade against the criminal empires tearing at the city. Now a recluse, Vanessa is jolted when a charming burglar steals her mother’s pearls while a new villain threatens the entire city. Should she open her heart up to the handsome new member of her board of directors, or should she risk everything by trusting the cunning thief in a risky battle to save the city?
Tough one. Might flip a coin here. Here’s the trailer for this movie, and yeah, all I really did was switch genders and leave out a description of the Batcave.
You might argue these are isolated cases, and that romantic suspense is a very different genre from romance, seeing how the love story is far stronger than what typically passes for a love interest in mysteries and thrillers written by male authors.
That argument is weaker than a half-cup of Folger’s Instant Decaf.
Lee Child is the kings of thrillers today. Every one of his novels has a love interest, typically the biggest character aside from the hero, a strong woman with a badge and a gun who (1) is crucial to helping Reacher beat the bad guys or (2) gets kidnapped along with Reacher, so it’s just the two of them against the idiots who made the fatal mistake of breaking our hero’s folding toothbrush.
Want to get more literary and old school? Take away the relationships and love scenes from the Easy Rawlins books and you’d cut them by two-thirds, making Walter Mosley cry. From reading every book in this series, I can say the heart of it isn’t really solving mysteries or racism back in the day, but the bromance between Easy Rawlins and his deadly best friend, Mouse.
The villains get far less attention. The latest Easy Rawlins novel has a villain showing up in the climax that I barely knew existed, and that was fine, because the real point was connecting Easy with all his friends and family one more time, especially Mouse.
You could argue all those books are written by men, and these other books, well, they’re written by women. And sure, there are women who’ve always written thrillers or mysteries and their work has always gotten shelved in the neighborhood of Lee Child and James Patterson. But not many.
The reverse is also true. There are men writing regular genre love stories novels … but hardly any use their own name, or even initials. They’re using female names.
Online, these walls fall away. Books don’t have to get shelved in only one place – you can tag them in all kinds of categories. However, I’m one of those people who likes to go to actual Stores of Books, and hold them in my hand, and buy them using pieces of paper decorated with dead presidents. Call me crazy.
There is a benefit to a few walls. There’s no point in throwing everything together and making people search for books alphabetically.
I’m saying it’s possible to go too far in the other direction, and to miss out on broader readership by making tinier and tinier niche markets, year after year, with only a few books by big-name authors marketed to everybody. Keep this up and we’ll have one tiny shelf labeled MAINSTREAM and it’ll all be authors who’ve figured out they’re so big now, they don’t even have to write the novels, because they can put their name in big letters, the co-author in little print and let the checks come in the mail. Hey, it’s not a bad gig, if you can get it, and these authors worked hard. James Patterson is a master of co-writing a zillion books and you can tell he works hard with co-authors so each book is in his signature style.
What’s crazy is how far this trend has gone, seeing how an author being dead isn’t a barrier anymore. Books by Tom Clancy and Robert Ludlum will keep haunting prime real estate of bookstores as long as lesser names are willing to cash the lesser checks.
It’s like Hollywood sequels made long after the original director and star died. Even if the book or movie is great — and Eric van Lustbader is a far better writer than Ludlum — it still feels weird. All those Tom Clancy books that Tom Clancy never wrote will, for years and years, take up a crazy amount of prime real estate at book stores. And that’s what I’m really talking about here: real estate at book stores, which is getting so Balkanized, the Balkans are going to sue for copyright infringement.
Break the mold, then set it on fire
“We’ve always done it this way” is a bad strategy. If you study breakout hits in any medium, they don’t stick to the mold. They pick that mold up, break it and set it on fire.
The first Harry Potter book was clearly aimed at kids. Look at the cover. And sure, 12-year-old boys buy books, and they see a lot of movies, and yes, Michael Bay has made 6.2 bazillion dollars with endless TRANSFORMER movies based on this demographic alone. Yet it wasn’t just 12-year-old boys who bought all those Harry Potter books.
People actually pay more attention to something out of the ordinary, as long as you don’t try to keep it caged up in its own little demographic closet.
It’s not true that men only want to read books, written by men, about young, perfect tough guys who are 6’4 billionaires. Who’s the most popular character on GAME OF THRONES, among men and women and whoever? This guy. BECAUSE HE’S AWESOME.
On paper, Peter Dinklage should get nowhere in Hollywood, while all the tall, young actors with chiseled abs should skyrocket into fame every time they’re cast into the latest action movie that costs $300 million and still bombs. Dinklage, Brian Cranston and the rest of the cast of Breaking Bad prove that actors don’t just have to look like Abercrombie and Fitch models to make it. Acting skills kinda matter.
Mike from Breaking Bad is an old man, but he’s far tougher, and more interesting to watch, than 99 percent of the perfect 20-something actors who get asked to carry movies like TRANSFORMERS 15: OPTIMUS PRIME GETS AN OIL CHANGE.
Find a wrecking ball
These days, publishers and booksellers are doing plenty of other demolition work. Every time a novel becomes a hit movie, teams of carpenters show up at Barnes and Noble to create a new section for this new genre that isn’t really new:
Young Adult Fantasy (HARRY POTTER clones)
Young Adult Fantasy Romance (Hey, TWILIGHT made a bazillion dollars, why not us?)
Young Adult Dystopian Craziness (HUNGER GAMES, DIVERGENT)
Next month, it’ll be Young Adult Zombie Dystopian Coming of Age Stories in Stick Figure Graphic Novel Form, (DIARY OF A WIMPY KID meets WORLD WAR Z)
Blake Snyder was onto something with his SAVE THE CAT books, where he smashed the myth that story and genre is about setting (westerns are in the Old West! Sci-fi happens in space!). Doesn’t matter whether your protag with a badge and gun wears pants or a skirt – it’s a mystery/thriller.
Snyder broke down story into what happens and why, and how the story works. In the old, stupid model, JAWS is a horror movie, FATAL ATTRACTION is a domestic drama and ALIEN is a sci-fi film. Wrong. That’s looking at the setting instead of the story.
All three of those movies are a primitive, visceral version of the story he calls Monster in the House, which is one of the oldest tales ever. There’s a monster in the house, and either you kill the monster or it kills you.
Eating you is optional. Villain’s choice.
So this is my not-so-plaintive cry, which is different than a plaintiff’s cry, because I’m not suing anybody: I don’t care whether the story was written by a man or a woman, whether the protag is a man or a woman, straight or gay, short or tall, young or old. I don’t give a rip whether the story is set in 18th century London, present-day Seattle or a space station orbiting the seventh moon of Jupiter.
All I care about is whether the story is any damned good.
Thrill me, surprise me, make me laugh.
Bust the locks on some of these literary cages. Unshackle authors and readers from the obsolete expectation that demographics is destiny.
I don’t care what you’re writing: whether it’s spy thrillers, speeches, newspaper stories or romances about men in kilts, the only thing that matters to the reader is the journey you take them on.
How far – and how fast – is that ride? Where does it start and where does it end?
The roller coaster you take readers on is far, far more important than how pretty you’ve painted things with words.
Oh, there are people who write so beautifully that they can make a trip to Safeway sound more interesting than the latest Michael Bay explosion of robots and cleavage. And yes, there are people who are bestsellers despite the wordsmithing skills of a middling sixth-grader whose main hobby is eating paste.
Those bestsellers are millionaires because story – structure, really — beats pretty words.
Ronald Reagan wasn’t considered the Great Communicator because of his verbal skills. Go back and listen to his Berlin Wall speech, considered a great one. He’s got all sorts of verbal tics and delivery problems. He wasn’t that smooth of a speaker. Reagan’s genius was in being a great storyteller.
The same thing is true of great reporters. It’s not the quality of the prose that makes us hand out Pulitzers and buy Bob Woodward’s books. What he’s truly good at is getting people to give him juicy things to write about, so he can tell a great story, with twists and turns and shockers.
Bad writing is all bad in the same way.
People want a thrilling ride? The Michael Bay School of Storytelling says OK, let’s blow their minds with the most intense story ever. Except when everything is dialed up to 11, the audience goes numb.
Here’s the script for every TRANSFORMER movie ever made. Act 1: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions! Act 2: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions! Act 3: Robots fighting! People running! Explosions!
You see the same problems with bad action movies starring Chuck Norris, Stallone and Schwarzenegger. If it’s exciting to watch the hero take on five bad guys on top of a roof, then it must be twice as awesome to have him dismember 10 thugs with a chainsaw in Act 2 and three times as cool to torch 20 thugs with a flamethrower in Act 3. Except it’s not.
It’s not much different with the typical Boring and Pretentious Literary Novel, which starts out wallowing in misery and angst in Act 1, moves on to more misery and angst in Act 2 and ends with, just for variety, an extra dose of misery and angst for Act 3.
Technically, the insanely rich hero does go on a journey. He goes to the country club. He goes to dinner. He goes to a polo game where he sneaks a rendezvous with his mistress, who he secretly despises.
The other kind of Boring and Pretentious Literary Novel features a noble poor person, who suffers even more than the rich schmuck, and yes, he also technically goes on a journey, though going from one cardboard box in a bad section of Skid Row three blocks down to a rattier cardboard box WITH HOLES IN IT in an even sketchier part of Skid Row isn’t much of a trip for the audience.
A story like this isn’t a thrilling roller coaster. It’s a slow slog on the Train of Misery.
This is why tragedies work. Inherently, they are a fast and exciting ride, because you start at the very top, with a king or president or otherwise Important Person Who Has It All.
Then, because they can’t resist temptation, or otherwise succumb to hubris and stupidity, they plummet from the top to the bottom. Not that they don’t fight back. They try. They pull out of the slide a couple times, and you think they might make it until their inner demons get the best of them.
That is exciting. You’re letting the audience peek into a different, secret world – the Land of the Rich and Famous – and bringing one of the exalted few down to earth. Who doesn’t want to watch that, or read that?
Reporters make a living doing this. Greek playwrights were doing it 2.94 bazillion years ago. Novelists and screenwriters are still doing tragedies, and will be doing them until the sun turns into a red giant and fries the earth.
The reverse story, Underdog, is so simple and well-known that I won’t make a silly chart for it, because I have faith in you.
I believe, deep in my soul, that you have seen ROCKY once or twice, and watched THE KARATE KID many times, because that movie still rocks to this day despite the lame remake starring Will Smith’s kid, which didn’t involve karate at all, because IT WAS IN CHINA and was about kung fu, not karate. Though I do love Jackie Chan.
Unlike the Bad Action Movie, the hero in an Underdog plot doesn’t start out as some insanely skilled and handsome muffin of stud who, if armed with a folding toothbrush, can take on 43 bad guys. Driving tanks.
Rocky starts out as a washed up boxer, a loser. Ralph Macchio starts out as a skinny kid who gets his butt kicked by local bullies 25 hours a day.
Rocky and Ralph go on real journeys, from rock bottom to the top. Ralph goes from getting beat up by the bullies to beating the leader of the bullies in an honorable way, and having his foe shake his hand. He gains their respect. He suffers and sacrifices in order to change and grow. Also, Mr. Miyagi is the Man.
ROCKY has a more interesting plot, and the script won a freaking Oscar because of it. I kid you not: Sylvester Stallone, Mr. B Movie, started out by winning an Oscar for screenwriting. That is the only thing in the world he has in common with Matt Damon.
The end of Rocky isn’t your typical action movie, which features the hero (a) impaling the Villain of the Week, (b) throwing the Villain of the Week into a bottomless pit or (c) watching the Villain of the Week get impaled after he falls down the bottomless pit.
Rocky ends without a victory at all. He doesn’t beat Apollo Creed, despite all his sweat and blood.
He battles Apollo to basically a draw, and for him, that’s a huge moral victory. He has grown. He has changed. And when he gets the girl, it’s not perfunctory movie nonsense, the typical, “Oh yeah, it’s the end, so the hero needs to kiss the girl after he says some clever one-liner.” You care about this schlub getting the girl, even if you didn’t care one bit for TANGO AND CASH.
Sidenote: I did enjoy DEMOLITION MAN, mostly because Sandra Bullock was awesomesauce, Wesley Snipes was believably insane and they made it so after the apocalypse or whatever, every restaurant was Taco Bell.
To whoever wrote that script, I salute you.
The lesson here: no matter what you write, figure out the ending, and that determines the beginning.
If you have a down ending, you need an up beginning. Otherwise, you’re not taking the audience on any kind of ride.
If you have an up ending, you better have a down beginning. The lower, the better.
ROCKY and THE KARATE KID are minor examples.
Let’s go big. The billion-dollar stories follow this formula: STAR WARS, the Harry Potter movies and THE LORD OF THE RINGS are the three biggest stories on this planet, spanning many movies, countless spin-off books and enough merchandise to sink the continent of Australia.
George Lucas and J.K. Rowling have more money than God — end of debate.
All three of those stories start down. Way down. The evil emperor is gaining power. Harry Potter is an orphan because Voldemort killed his parents, and now he’s coming for Harry the Potter — and meanwhile, this big glowing eye on top of a volcano controls all sorts of trolls and scary dudes in hoods who ride black horses of the apocalypse. Our only hope is a tiny man with hairy bare feet and a magic ring whose mighty magic power seems to only turn him invisible and really grumpy.
Sidenote: while in Maui, I read the preface to the introduction to the liner notes for LORD OF THE RINGS, and around page 83, after the index of Elvish words and an anthropological study of Hobbit culture, I was still waiting for the actual story to begin. I did not throw the book across the room, because there were no men in kilts in it that I could detect, but I did lay it down gently and look hard for a hollowed-out pineapple full of alcohols.
Now, I’m not saying all stories are either comedies (up ending) or tragedies (down ending). That’s simplifying things way too much.
For example, dramas and sitcoms are the most common things on TV, right? And they are completely the opposite of what you expect, when you drill down into the story structure of dramas and sitcoms.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: dramas are not tragedies. Dramas end up.
LAW AND ORDER is probably the most famous drama, since at least five cable channels play nothing other than reruns of LAW AND ORDER, LAW AND ORDER: CSI, LAW AND ORDER: LA, LAW AND ORDER: SPECIAL VICTIMS UNIT, LAW AND ORDER: SOME FIELD IN NEBRASKA and, best of all, LAW AND ORDER: BRITAIN, which I threw in here at the end as a sneaky segue allowing me to play The Best Video On the Planet.
Yes, dramas are about horrible things like murder and rape and war.
Except what they’re really about are heroic people who swim in the muck and chaos caused by idiots and greed. Dramas really say, “Despite how bad things are, there are people who’ll try to make things right.”
That doesn’t mean they succeed every time. About one out of twenty times, LAW AND ORDER lets the bad guy get away with it, and yes, it seems like one out of three times, but if you’re reading this, you’re a writer, and bad at math, and you’re not going to go back and watch all 4,398 episodes to do a tally. So I could make stuff up all day.
Comedies don’t always have down endings, per se – but they are NOT happy.
Comedies are about how absurd, hopeless and screwed up things are.
Specifically, comedies target an institution.
Sitcoms usually go after marriage and family life, usually middle-class suburban families.
M*A*S*H was an indictment of war.
ANIMAL HOUSE lampooned frats and college life.
Comedies have mixed endings. It’s OK for the hero to get what he’s after – but only in an absurd way. His best efforts to achieve his goal always backfire. Things don’t happen like they should. It’s screwball.
The other kind of mixed ending is ironic. The hero gets what he wants, but decides he doesn’t truly want it. He finds the king’s treasure after slaying the dragon and decides he doesn’t want all that money, that he’d rather go back home and be a simple farmer. That sort of thing. ROCKY is a bit of an ironic ending. He doesn’t win the fight. He wins other things: self-respect, a future, a girlfriend. Then in the sequels it gets all conventional and boring, though Mister T, for a brief moment in time, before he sold out and joined the A-Team, was a scary, scary man.
Bonus material for story nerds and intellectual types
There is another type of ending, Random Nonsense, which is more common in indie films with subtitles. Think black and white. Think French existentialism.
Here’s an example: the hero is a downtrodden detective, investigating a killer far smarter than he will ever be. His only son hates him, his boss wants to fire him and wife just left him, though he starts up a flirtatious thing with a girl who works at his local café. Just as he starts catching some breaks – he’s walking the café girl home from their first date when he spots the killer running from an alley, the scene of his latest crime – he’s hit by a drunk driver. The End.
Random Nonsense has a message, too, just like tragedies are about hubris, dramas are about the human spirit overcoming adversity and comedies are about how absurd life is. Random Nonsense is trying to make a point about existentialism and chaos, that we don’t really control events. Things just happen.
This may make for deep conversations in your Philosophy 301 class, and you may feel all intellectual talking about what the movie really meant at 3 a.m. at Denny’s while you eat sides of fries and drink bottomless cups of coffee while smoking cigarettes bummed from your roommate, the sociology major. Sociology!
But it makes for a terrible story. There’s no roller coaster. That’s why the audience for these kinds of stories fits on a postage stamp.
I don’t care who you are — you need an editor. And you always will.
In fact, the more successful you are as a writer, the more editing you’ll need.
The time crunch.
You’ll never have as much time as you did when you were struggling to break in.
A journalism student can get away with writing and polishing a major story for weeks or months.
Once you get a job as a reporter at The Willapa Valley Shopper, the first step on your path to The New York Times, you’ve got to crank out two stories a day, every day.
I used to write three or four stories before 10 a.m. every deadline day at papers of news. You get used to it. But it’s a shock at first. The time crunch is real. Which leads to problem No. 2.
The sophomore slump
Think about famous debut novelists who had a tremendous first book, and when you hopped inside your automobile and raced to Borders — back when Borders existed, and sold these things we called “books” — to buy their second novel on release day, it made you weep like a Charlie Sheen who’s run fresh out of tequila and tiger blood because that second book sucked like Electrolux.
Why does this happen?
Because debut novelists spend years polishing that first novel until it shines like a diamond made of words.
And when a debut novelist finally makes it, and has a three-book contract with Random House to crank out a book a year, it’s a struggle. They aren’t used to writing that good that fast.
You only need editing three times: when you start out, when you’re middling and when you’re a busy pro
Some people who write for a living — and didn’t spend time at newspapers or magazines getting edited every day — sometimes think success means they’re infallible. Their words are perfect, becausee otherwise why wouldn’t they be famous? Or they are richer than God and simply don’t care.
And even great writers sometimes just write long. They’re in a rush. They have to crank out the product and move on to the next thing.
Stephen King, who I adore, writes beautiful little short stories and novellas while cranking out novels that clock in at 800 or 1,000 pages.
I could close my eyes, reach onto my bookshelf in my secret lair and grab five King novels that weigh more than most second-graders. Some of these novels are fine being that long. Others are overloaded semis with a sleek sports car of a novel lurking inside and waiting to burst out.
Even literary snobs now admit that King’s novels — even the giant ones — are good. But you could chop 400 or 500 pages from any of his monstrously overlong novels and make them even better.
Think about J.K. Rowling, and how with every paycheck and movie deal, the next book in the Harry Potter series doubled in size, until Boeing had to invent a new freight version of the 747 just to deliver the last novel so we could find out why Hermione winds up with What’s-His-Face, the redheaded doofus sidekick, instead of Harry, her true love.
Get the right editor
Most people get the wrong kind of editor.
You don’t need an editor for nancypants nonsense like dangling modifiers and misplaced commas. That’s a proof-reader, not an editor. Any semi-literate fool can proof-read a document. Microsoft Word can take a whack at that.
The editor you need is (a) a professional who (b) edits or writes for a living in (c) the specific type of writing you want to do FOR MONIES.
Any old professional will NOT do
A roomful of reporters and editors at a newspaper is a good example. They all write and edit for a living, and 99 percent of them want to write the Great American Novel — but 99 percent of the time, they fail.
Because it’s not their specialty.
Hear me now and believe me later in the week: Writing short non-fiction newspaper stories is far, far different than writing 400-page novels. The structure reporters use for news stories — the inverted pyramid — is exactly backwards for fiction.
Now, there are exceptions. Opinion page editors and columnists could make the transition to speechwriters, and vice-versa. The structures and techniques for persuasion on the page are quite similar to the ones used in speech and rhetoric.
But if you want to make a switch, the fact that you already write for monies doesn’t guarantee anything.
It’s like professional sports. The fact that you play shooting guard for the Bulls doesn’t mean can play left field for the White Sox.
That’s exactly what Michael Jordan tried to do. This is the greatest basketball player of all time. He’d won enough NBA championships. He’d climbed every basketball mountain. He was one of the best athletes on the planet.
So when he decided to try playing major league baseball, it wasn’t a silly dream.
And he did it right. He didn’t try to muscle his way onto the White Sox starting lineup by having lunch with the owner. He trained with baseball coaches and played for the minor league Birmingham Barons, batting .202 with 3 home runs, 51 runs-batted-in and 30 stolen bases.
Batting .202 isn’t good enough. Jordan went back to basketball.
When you try to cross-over, you’ve got to be just as careful and serious and hard-working as if you’re trying to break in for the first time.
Your editor needs to do it for monies
If you really want to pay the mortgage writing full time, you’ve got to go all in with an editor who wields their Red Pen of Doom for monies, too.
Not your husband or wife or best friend. Not a coworker or a buddy who writes something sort of close to what you’re doing, even if they do it full time.
It’s an achy breaky big mistakey to use a non-pro as your editor. Friends and family may be great readers of books but horrible at editing. Either way, you’ll take what they say far too personally.
Dreams will be crushed. Friendships will fray. Marriages will sour. DO NOT DO THIS.
Even if you’re friends with somebody who writes or edits for a living, and they say sure, they’ll edit you as a favor, that might be OK for one small piece. A short story. Your first shot at a stump speech. But not anything of length. And not as a habit. When you start cashing checks for what you write, stop being a freeloader. Set your friend free.
Better yet, don’t lean on the friend too much in the first place. Because they’re your friend. They won’t tell you if you truly stink up the joint.
Your editor must be in your specific field
It’d be silly to use a professional writer or editor in a different field.
They won’t know the conventions and quirks of another type of writing. They’ll make you feel confident that your text is perfect when it has some formatting flaw or deadly structural boo-boo that neither one of you spotted, because your buddy writes screenplays and you’re doing a novel about elves with lightsabers who ride dragons.
Find an editor who does exactly what you want to do, whether that’s writing novels, newspaper stories, magazine features, non-fiction books or speechwriting for the politicians.
Now, the natural response to this is, “Professional editors cost money, and I am a poor, starving writer with six kids who lives in a cardboard shack and feeds my family Top Ramen, raw, like popcorn, because we can’t afford a pot to boil the stuff in, so there’s no way I can pay some fancy editor to bleed on my words, words that I carefully put on this paper towel in my own blood because Bic pens and Underwood typewriters and Toshiba laptops are out of my budget, unless I spend my every weekend robbing the local 7-Eleven, which for some reason hates AP style and won’t go with Seven-11.”
To this I say: suck it up.
Professional editors don’t cost THAT much. Scrape together $100 or $200 and have a pro look at the first chunk of whatever you’re writing. Believe me, they don’t need to read all 400 pages to know what your strengths and weaknesses are. Though it’s a lie that you can figure that out after five pages. It only takes one page, to be honest.
If you were trying to cut hair for a living, it’d cost you more than a couple hundred bucks to get a license. A writing conference plus three days in a hotel can run you $1k, and that’s if you NEVER EAT ANYTHING and completely abstain from bourbon. So suck it up and find somebody good to look at your first bit, long before you write the entire shebang.
Because a great editor is priceless.
Plug: Theresa the Stevens, who reads this silly blog and makes witty comments, is a professional editor and former literary agent who also edits for publishers.
Theresa the Stevens is also kind, because she does a special deal where she wields her wicked pen on the first 75 pages of a novel PLUS the synopsis PLUS the query letter.
Think about how long it takes a human being to write and rewrite and rewrite a novel and synopsis and query letter. Hundreds of hours. Bazillions. Think about paying yourself minimum wage for those hours.
Then close your eyes and imagine there’s a glowing mystical being who, for the price of the complete first and second seasons of The Jersey Shore on DVD, could save yourself hundreds of more hours of pain while making you (a) seem incredibly brilliant and (b) have ten times the shot of not only getting the thing published, but making decent money at it.
Is that worth a couple hundred bucks?
Cowboy up. If you really want to write for a living, and not toy with it as a hobby, find yourself the best professional editor possible. And pay them in something other than thank you’s and cups of coffee.