Part 5: Finishing up and some thoughts on publishing

1.  Finishing Up
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As many people have said, writing a book is like having a child. You give birth to it, nurture it through its infancy, nurse it when it's sick. You pour yourself into it without robbing it of its individuality. You let it delight you. You let it break your heart. You give it every single thing you have, and then you go find something more to give it.

Then comes the hard part. You have to release it, let it go wander the world among strangers. Strangers who might not understand it. Who might not like it. Who might even think it's ugly.

In a word: Eeeeeeeeeeeeek.

My best advice to you is, don't kick that kid out until you're sure it's ready.

There it is, your book. A nice, thick stack of pages, filled with the creations of your imagination. A whole world brought out of nothing and made real in the form of a ten-mile sentence. You should be genuinely, deeply, proud of yourself.

And then you should put it away.

Put it in a box. Stick the box in a drawer, where you can't see it. Put it on the shelf you use for stuff you only need twice a year. Leave it there, and take a vacation. Learn to draw, go camping, get pierced, research the knotted-string writing of the Incas. Go to coffee-houses and write descriptions of the faces you see. Jot down the things people say and work them into scenes, just for practice. Look at someone at the next table and invent a history for her. Write three pages every morning, as Julia Cameron suggests in The Vein of Gold, about anything and everything. Or use those pages to focus on your childhood, the shapes of hands, how to describe a smell. Come up with all the possible synonyms for “said” and put them on a list of words you don't want to use.

Make notes for your next project.

In your drawer or on that shelf, your manuscript is quietly cooling. Fat is congealing and rising to the surface. Dead dialog is beginning to smell bad. Imaginary blanks are appearing to indicate missing chunks of story. The great idea you forgot to write is gathering its strength so it can spring out at you when you open the box.

After a few weeks, open the box.

We write in heat, but there comes a time when we need to read coldly. This is it. Read with a pencil in your hand, preferably a red one. Be merciless. Circle or underline everything that doesn't work. If you know how to make it work, put a note in the margin, then and there. If whole scenes or sequences are flat, draw a line down the page next to the type. If you realize you left something out, note it in the margin, where you should have put it in the first place.

Then go through that manuscript and fix everything. Don't get bogged down; if you can't make one fix, move to the next, and keep moving. Eventually, come back to the thing you couldn't fix and give it another go. When you're finished, print the whole thing out, all over again.

Then take a deep breath, steady your shaking hands, and give it so somebody to read.

This needs to be somebody you trust to be truthful. It can't be somebody with a destructive personality, but it can't be a yes-person, either. And, of course, it has to be somebody who's willing to read your 300 pages in the first place.

When that person tells you what he or she thinks, listen. No matter how hard it is, listen.

A book that's been accepted for publication goes to an editor, whose job it is to suggest ways the writer can improve the book. This usually takes weeks, while the writer (let's say it's me) twists helplessly in the wind. Then, one day, a letter arrives from the editor. Even before I open it, my fingers register that it's too thick. Then I open it and get the bad news.

I have been edited by some of the best in the business. My current editor works with a number of America's best, and best-selling, writers. She's an intelligent, sympathetic, amusing human being whose judgment I trust completely.

But here's this letter. And my first reaction, even before I read it is, She didn't love the book.

Well, it's not her job to love the book. Just as it's not the responsibility of the person to whom you entrust your manuscript to tell you how wonderful it is, if it isn't. In both cases, that person's job is to try to help you.

And it's your job to listen. Your first reaction may be depression, a sense of rejection, the belief that the reader didn't understand your work. You will almost certainly get defensive: What do you mean, my baby is ugly? You might want to go to bed. For three or four days.

Well, get over it. If they don't like pieces of the book, maybe you didn't write them well enough. If they don't seem to understand something, maybe you weren't clear enough. Remember, it doesn't matter if you can visualize something in your head, right down to the last rich, fulfilling detail. All the reader sees is what's on the page.

If someone criticizes your work and it throws you into a tailspin, here are a couple of things you might try to remember.

Writing is tough work but it comes from a fragile place. When you think about it, that explains two things. It explains why you bleed so easily when somebody doesn't like something. But it also explains how you wrote all the things the reader does like – you wrote them because you were tough enough, brave enough, and disciplined enough to get that stuff on the page. And you still have those qualities. They're available to you for rewrite.

Nobody can see all of anything. It's like the Buddha's parable of the blind men and the elephant – each man felt a different part of the elephant, and each man described the elephant differently. Your reader, whether it's a friend or a professional editor, is not inside your manuscript, the way you are. He or she is seeing the elephant from a different perspective. By the way, in the story as the Buddha told it, the blind men began to argue over whose description of the elephant was the true one, and eventually got into a fight. The Buddha's points were that people see things differently and incompletely, and that an egotistical or defensive attachment to the way we see things can blind us to the truth of another point of view. If I really need to drive this point home, here it is: suspend your certainty that you're right, and use what is suggested as a new way to look at, and improve, your work. Build a better elephant.

By the way, I have never had an edit that didn't make the book stronger. I've had two edits where the editor's perspective was so different than mine that the letter literally didn't make sense to me. I couldn't see what the editor was driving at. Ultimately, I just made the suggested corrections by rote, one at a time, without worrying about the fact that they seemed to be taking me in the direction of an anteater rather than an elephant. I just kept making changes, and – in both cases – a penny the size of a manhole cover suddenly dropped, and I saw the editor's elephant. And in some ways, it was better than my elephant. One of these edits was so profoundly inspired that I believe it turned a book into a novel.

So listen to the advice, get your ego out of the way, and try to follow the suggestions. See what happens. You'll probably wind up much happier with your book.

Now you need to take the final steps, especially if you're hoping to publish it. Proof read it. Proof read it again. Proof read it again. If you're not very good at proof reading, or if you're a terrible speller, or if apostrophes are one of the universe's most impenetrable mysteries, find someone who understands all that stuff and pay him or her to proof for you. (Ask the proof reader to make sure that “it” modifies the noun that preceded it (or at least the most important noun that preceded it, and that verbs and subjects are in agreement, and that he or she always knows who is talking.) Incorporate those changes, give the book a last read, and print the whole thing out again – double-spaced, in 12-point type such as Times Roman, Helvetica, or Garamond, and number the pages. Margins should be an inch on either side and an inch at top and bottom.

Then send that baby off.

If you've never been published before, you might want to read the piece called “About publishing.

2.  About publishing
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“Publication is not all that it is cracked up to be. But writing is.”

-- Anne Lamott
Bird by Bird

Getting published seems like the end of the line until you do it. Then you realize it’s the beginning of a whole new line: trying to get your publisher to promote your book, trying to contain the homicidal impulses that bubble up inside you when it’s not on the shelves of Borders or Barnes & Noble (the chains stock very few of the books that publishers release on the unsuspecting world), the absolute soul-rotting horror of a bad review. Sometimes it’s enough to make you wonder why you bother.

Still, if you really want to let yourself in for all that, here are some really basic pointers.

You need an agent. Publishers will not — will almost never — read a manuscript that comes in over the transom. So the first step is to get an agent.

Look for agents in the “writer’s market” books, such as Writer’s Digest. And maybe a better idea: Look at book dedications by writers whose work you like — many writers thank their agents. Get addresses by calling Manhattan information for the phone number and phoning the office directly. They’re almost all in Manhattan.

If you haven’t finished the book, send a proposal: an explanation (brief) of what kind of book it is, then a detailed plot outline and a strong sample chapter. This is not the time to send off work that you’re not completely satisfied with — it’ll not only get the proposal rejected, but it might also put your name on that agent’s “do not read” list. Everything should be typed and proof-read five or six times, and the sample chapter should be double-spaced in 12-point type with one-inch margins, preferably in a simple font such as Times Roman, Helvetica, or Garamond.

If you send an entire manuscript, it must be typed, double-spaced, in 12-point type, with one-inch margins. Proof-read it as though your life depends on it. The pages should be numbered. The title page should include your name, address, phone number, e-mail address. Preferably the manuscript should be boxed. It's a good idea to make another copy of the title page and tape it to the top of the box. The person to whom you send it is going to have a lot of boxed manuscripts in his or her office.

Accompany the manuscript with a cover letter that frames your book — one page, single-spaced. What it is, why you think it is strong, commercial, timely, etc.

Make a good copy — if the toner in the printer or copier is low, replace it and start over. You want this book to be very easy to read.

Send to two or three agents at a time, at most. Odds are very strong you’ll be rejected, so have a bunch more in mind. If you get a thoughtful personal rejection letter — especially if the agent tells you what she/he thinks is wrong with the book, then (a) be open to the criticism, and (b) keep that agent on your list for future submissions. The vast majority of manuscripts are returned with a form letter. An agent who takes the time to tell you why she’s not accepting your book is a valuable potential ally.

▸ To keep things in proportion, hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and book proposals are submitted each year. A minuscule percentage of these will be published. 60 percent of those that are published will be nonfiction, self-help, travel, cookbooks, etc — so that leaves about an even smaller number of novels, most of which are not in your genre. Roughly 1600 of those will be reviewed in important publications. And some of those will be panned.

▸ Even the most avid reader buys (at most) one in fifty of the books he reads reviews of. So we do it not because it will make us rich and famous but because we love it. And because as long as the odds against publication are, they’re a hell of a lot longer if we never finish the book. Because writing a book is an emotional and spiritual exercise that completes and fulfills us in a way that nothing else does.


“The primary purpose of writing fiction, and then publishing what you have written, is not merely to show off . . . but to entertain the first and second reader, the first reader being you and the second reader being every other person who ever comes alone to what you have written.”

— George V. Higgins

Write because you love it, first, foremost, and always.

3.  Writing for life
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“In writing, habit seems to be a much stronger force than either willpower or inspiration. Consequently, there must some little quality of fierceness until the habit pattern of a certain number of words is established. There is no possibility of saying, ‘I’ll do it if I feel like it.’”

-- John Steinbeck

This piece is intended to help you set up a writing routine, keep writing until you type THE END, and then move on to the next book. It’s going to repeat a lot of material from earlier sections, but then you probably didn't read them anyway. You may find you need none of these suggestions and you will probably evolve your own productive routines. However you do it, I wish you the best of luck.

If I Just Had the Time . . .

“I could write a book if I just had the time.” Or, “I've always wanted to write, but I don't have the time.” Whenever I hear either of these statements, I have to make a physical effort to keep from sticking my fingers in my ears.

Here's the hard truth: If you've always wanted to write, but you're not willing to make the time to do it, you probably haven't always wanted to write.

Look, every novelist in the history of literature wrote a first novel. (If someone can figure out how to avoid it, please share it with the rest of us.) The vast majority of these first novels were written by people with families, responsibilities, and full-time jobs. So were most second and third novels.

I wrote my first six novels while more than fully employed in a job that usually called for fifty-hour weeks and nonstop airline travel – a hundred thousand miles a year or more. Anthony Trollope (you remember – the one who set up a clock every morning and wrote until the time was up; even if he finished a novel, he went straight to work on a new one) spent the first half of his writing career working for the British post office. In fact, he invented the public mailbox. He worked from four to seven every morning. By candlelight. With that clock ticking at him.

There's a guy who wanted to write.

If you think you have a book in you, there's only one way to get it out. Make the time, turn it into a routine that can be disrupted only by war or earthquakes, and stick to it. Write as if your life depended on it, because your creative life actually does.

Developing a routine

Inspiration comes most often to people who are working at their craft. And I don't mean working at it when the clouds part and a large finger points down at you and a disembodied voice says, “Here's a great beginning for chapter two.” I mean working at it day after day, whether you want to or not. So what if it feels like drudgery sometimes? Get used to it. Drudgery often sets the stage for the inspiration, and inspiration drives the drudgery forward. I firmly believe that you won’t write well if you don’t write often.

This is what I suggest you do.

Set aside a regular time for writing, and for writing only. It should be a minimum of four sessions a week (five or six would be better) and a minimum of two hours per session (three to five would be better). During this period, as Raymond Chandler says, all you can do is write. You don’t have to write, but you can’t do anything else. Finish when you know where you’re going next. Never end a writing session with the end of a chapter, unless you're dying to start the next one and you know exactly how to do it.

Start by reviewing your past couple or three days’ worth of work. It’ll get you up to the terrifying snowy wilderness of the blank page more gently. It will reacquaint you with where you were and refresh your sense of the tone and rhythm you had established. Perhaps most importantly, it gives you a chance to do some rewrite on the fly.

If you can’t move ahead with your chapter, write something else that has to do with your book. If you can’t move the scene along even after you use the block-breakers listed below, do character sketches, descriptions of settings, an outline of what you’ve done so far, a scene that’s somewhere in the future, a bunch of noodling about the central issue of the book, a little meditation on what's at stake. Anything that deepens your understanding of what you're writing about.

Carry a notebook all the time. When you get an idea, write it down. Next time you sit down to write, look at those notes, figure out how to use them, or mark them for later use and drop them into the bucket – the box, or notebook, or computer file — whatever the catchall is for your book.

Print out your pages weekly or every two weeks at most. It makes a psychological difference to see those nice neat pages stack up. Don’t bother reading them until you’ve got 50 or more — just revise in the computer, and print out your newer drafts, throwing away your older ones. And, yes, you're going to go through a lot of paper. Buy several reams. There's something energetic in the sight of those tidy, rectangular packages, all those pages with nothing on them but potential.

Once in a while, take a break from the computer and read your work on the page. It looks different there. Read it once without making any changes and then again with a pencil in your hand. Then input the changes.

Find somebody to talk to — someone you trust, who will support you creatively. It’s amazing sometimes how ten minutes of reviewing a problem out loud will lead you to the solution, and even just giving another person a verbal update on where you are in your story can show you the strong and weak points and suggest next developments. You could do this in a writing group or with a single very nice person.

Back up your work religiously. Get the backups off your computer, out of your house. (As I learned, houses can burn down.) Back up to CDs, DVDs, portable drives, camera memory cards, gift-wrap ribbon if you can figure out a way to write to it. E-mail your work to yourself. If everything in the world goes wrong, your work will still be sitting there on Google.

By the way, if you can accomplish sixty percent of this you’ll be doing great. Remember: if you write daily, a page a day is 365 pages a year. That's a novel. Five good pages per day is 1825 pages in a year. That's a novel with a lot of revision and rewrite.

Zero pages per day brings the average way down.

Writing, as opposed to looking like you're writing

For everyone who’s actually finished something, there are literally hundreds of make-believe writers, the kinds of people who take a laptop to a coffee house as a pickup tool or who talk a book a day but never put two words together on paper. Avoid all make-believe writers. They’re Kryptonite to people who actually intend to write a book. Don't hang around with them. Don't write next to them. They'll leach your energy, disrupt your concentration, and offer you useless ideas.

This is not to say that you can’t work someplace cool, dressed in black. I’m sure many good books have been written by people dressed in black. Hell, I’ve written dressed in black, although it was usually by mistake. Just don’t look so cute that people keep hitting on you. It’s not good for the concentration.

You also want to avoid theorists. Nobody who says things like “post-modernist” or “anti-hero” or “deconstruction” is actually writing a book. And if he or she is, you don't want to read it.

When you're writing, you're alone. It's you and the page, even if you're surrounded by people. If, like me, you like to write in public places, choose them well, and be even more careful about choosing the people you write around.

Getting Unstuck

Sooner or later you’re going to get stuck. It’ll be over something small — a plot point, a line of dialog, a character inconsistency — or something big: for example, you suddenly hate every word you’ve written and also all the ones you haven’t written yet.

The thing to do is get past it. It can’t actually stop you unless you let it.

If you let it stop you long enough, you'll lose your book.

For more about this problem, look at the pieces in the “Getting Out of Trouble” section. In the meantime, here's a brief recap.

Check your characters. Are you making them do things they don't want to, just to move the plot along? There may be a quicker way to wreck a book, but I don't know what it is.

Go back to the stakes. What's at stake here? Is it something you care about? If it isn't find a way to come up with something you do care about.

Change your point of view. Rewrite the scene from another character’s perspective. Write it fast — you’re not going to use it — and see if this new knowledge about one of your characters doesn’t suggest something.

Listen to your characters. Start with your central character and then move through all the characters in the scene. Write an inner monologue about what the character wants/fears/hopes for/dreads/is amused by/is horrified by what happens in the scene. Do it again to explore how each character feels about every other character in the scene. (You can quit if you suddenly see where the scene should go.) If the penny still hasn’t dropped, write a brief narrative of each character’s day — what they did and where they were from the time they got up until the time the scene starts, plus where they think they’re going afterward. Does any character’s plans change because of what happens in the scene?

Write your problem. Start a fresh page with the statement: “I’m having trouble because . . . “ and finish it. Sometimes nothing will come to you immediately, so just write anything, no matter how silly, as long as it has to do with one of three things: your story, your characters, your setting. Much of the time you’ll come out of this exercise with the problem solved.

Take a walk. Get out of the house and walk, working on the scene mentally. This activity will frequently open up your perspective. Or shower. Or do your nails, or someone else's. Just don't do anything that engages your mind. You want it to be working quietly, while you're not looking.

Call for help. This is where that person you can talk to comes in. Tell him or where you are and why you think you’re stuck. Describe your characters and what they want from the scene. See what happens when you hear all this out loud.

If all fails: Back off and look at the scene from a higher perspective -- the 5000-foot view. Do you need it? Does it advance the story? Does the reader learn something about the characters? Look again at your shortest description of what your book is about. What does this scene have to do with that? If the answer is, “Nothing,” then dump the scene and come up with another one.

Write the damn thing anyway. Then move on. Come back to it when you've got a little more perspective. The worst thing that can happen is that you've discovered one way not to write that scene.

And whatever happens, keep writing.

Hit the books

The two best ways to learn to write are writing and reading. You should be doing both.

Read widely and often. Read novels. Read novels that are a little like yours and novels that have nothing whatsoever in common with yours. Read for fun, but also read to see how the writer is doing whatever he or she is doing. Look at the structure of the book. Look at the relationship between narrative and dialog, between description and the character’s points of view. Look at the way time is handled. Look for solutions to any kind of creative challenge you’re having trouble with.

When you see something you like, make a note. Underline. Highlight. Put one of those annoying little sticky notes on the page. Keep the books that teach you the most somewhere accessible, somewhere you can get at them when you need to steal I mean, learn – from them.

And e-mail me an invitation to your first bookstore reading.