The First Law of Bad Literary Novels is simple: there are no happy endings.
It’s the same story with Big, Beautiful Movies with Sad, Stupid Endings.
Now, that’s not to say every book and movie needs a prototypical Hollywood happy ending. Tragedies should have sad endings, and there are plenty of classic movies where the ending is ambiguous.
Rocky actually loses his first fight. The victory comes from not getting knocked out – and from the journey from loser to contender. Rocky suffers, sacrifices and grows. That’s why the movie is good: there’s a big contrast between where Rocky is in Act 1 and where he ends up in Act 3.
The trouble with these movies is the audience doesn’t want to see them again, if they ever saw them in the first place, because the ending sours everybody, despite the beautiful imagery and amazing acting.
I’m not saying you can’t make a great movie without being low-brow and throwing in more explosions than Michael Bay ever dreamed possible.
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.