Register Now for One Good Scene

Hey writers, welcome. This post’s for you.

THE WORKSHOP: I’m pleased to announced that the next session of my fiction-writing course, One Good Scene, is now open for registration for January 2019 session. It is an intensive 7-week online workshop that includes weekly lectures, writing assignments, peer critiques given and received, and detailed feedback from me on every assignment.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:  One Good Scene is based on two premises.

First: that a story or novel is composed of a series of scenes strung together with narrative, the way beads are strung on a chain.

Second:  that all the skills needed to write a story or novel come into play in the composition of a single scene.

A writer who can produce one shapely, tense, fully-realized scene after another can write a publishable novel. By focusing on the very manageable goal of crafting one good scene, writers hone the very skills needed to write a novel. For more details about the course, see the description on my website. Here’s some feedback from writers who’ve taken the course, including  some who’ve gone on to publish.

WHO IT’S FOR:  This workshop is open to fiction writers of all levels of experience, from beginners who want to build on a solid foundation to published writers intent on honing their craft. Because its focus is on the crafting of an individual scene, the workshop is useful for fiction writers of any genre, as well as memoir writers. As in all the “Next Level” workshops, my goal is to help writers reach the next level, whatever that is for each individual. I do this, in part, by keeping the classes very small.

ABOUT ME: I don’t just talk the talk; I’ve walked the walk, as a writer who also worked extensively in the publishing industry. My 8 novels were published in the U.S.  by Viking, Doubleday, Morrow, Simon & Schuster, as well as publishers in England, Japan, France, Italy, Israel, Holland and other countries. I coauthored two nonfiction books that were published by Crown Books and Harcourt Brace. Before I gave it up to focus on writing, I had a successful 20-year career in publishing, first as an editor, then as head of my own literary agency.

I began teaching fiction writing at SUNY Farmingdale and Hofstra University. After initiating Hofstra’s online program with a course on self-editing, I founded my own online school, Nextlevelworkshop.com, where I work with writers come from all over the world.

My career has allowed me to see publishing from just about every angle. Now I bring all that practical expertise into the classroom, along with a strong focus on craft.

TUITION AND REGISTRATION: If you have questions or would like to enroll in the course, please email me at next.level.workshop@gmail.com. If you are interested but not quite sure, I invite you to take advantage of my special get-acquainted offer while it’s available. You can get feedback on your work and at the same gauge the likelihood that you will profit from this workshop. Tuition is $395, with a discount for returning students. Please note the money-back guarantee: if you start the course and decide that it’s not right for you, you can withdraw, and I will refund your tuition.

Please don’t send money before you hear back from me. Spots are limited, and some of those are already taken by people on a waiting list. I keep these classes very small to allow for close attention to each participant.

 

 

“ONE GOOD SCENE” WORKSHOP SCHEDULED

Hey writers, welcome. This post’s for you.

THE WORKSHOP: I’m pleased to announced that the next session of my fiction-writing course,  One Good Scene, will soon open for registration for a fall 2018 session. It is an intensive 7-week online workshop that includes weekly lectures, writing assignments, peer critiques given and received, and detailed feedback from me on every assignment.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT:  One Good Scene is based on two premises.

First: that a story or novel is composed of a series of scenes strung together with narrative, the way beads are strung on a chain.

Second:  that all the skills needed to write a story or novel come into play in the composition of a single scene.

A writer who can produce one shapely, tense, fully-realized scene after another can write a publishable novel. By focusing on the very manageable goal of crafting one good scene, writers hone the very skills needed to write a novel. For more details about the course, see the description on my website. Here’s some feedback from writers who’ve taken the course, including  some who’ve gone on to publish.

WHO IT’S FOR:  This workshop is open to fiction writers of all levels of experience, from beginners who want to build on a solid foundation to published writers intent on honing their craft. Because its focus is on the crafting of an individual scene, the workshop is useful for fiction writers of any genre, as well as memoir writers. As in all the “Next Level” workshops, my goal is to help writers reach the next level, whatever that is for each individual. I do this, in part, by keeping the classes very small.

ABOUT ME: I’m a writer who has worked extensively in the publishing industry. My 8 novels were published in the U.S.  by Viking, Doubleday, Morrow, Simon & Schuster, as well as publishers in England, Japan, France, Italy, Israel, Holland and other countries. I coauthored two nonfiction books that were published by Crown Books and Harcourt Brace.

Like most writers, I had a day job, but that “day job” was a 20-year career in publishing. I was an editor for Fawcett Books and a literary agent for many years. After I sold the agency to focus on my own writing, I began teaching fiction writing, first at SUNY and Hofstra University, then through my online school, Nextlevelworkshop.com, where I work with writers come from all over the world.

My career has allowed me to see publishing from just about every angle. Now I bring all that practical expertise into the classroom, along with a strong focus on craft.

TUITION AND REGISTRATION: If you have questions or would like to enroll in the course, please email me at next.level.workshop@gmail.com. If you are interested but not quite sure, I invite you to take advantage of my special get-acquainted offer while it’s available. You can get feedback on your work and at the same gauge the likelihood that you will profit from this workshop. Tuition is $395, with a discount for returning students. Please note the money-back guarantee: if you start the course and decide that it’s not right for you, you can withdraw, and I will refund your tuition.

Please don’t send money before you hear back from me. Spots are limited, and I keep these classes very small to allow for close attention to each participant.

“Revising Fiction” Workshop Scheduled!

Attention fiction writers: My annual “Revising Fiction” has been scheduled to begin on March 16, 2017, and is now open for registration.

Plato

For those who are not familiar with it, this intensive online workshop is for writers with a completed draft of a novel or a body of short stories to work on bringing their fiction to the next level. Whether it’s a first draft or a 10th, participants’ books will undergo a process that will result in much stronger manuscripts, along with tools they can apply to everything they write in the future. This is the most advanced workshop I offer; it’s geared not only to talented aspiring writers but also to published writers who know how important it is to keep growing their craft. Please note that the workshop requires a significant investment of time, typically 10 to 16 hours a week over 14 weeks—but that includes time spent editing your own work.

Getting published is hard; staying published may be even harder. Writing for one of the big five houses is to writers what playing professionally is to athletes: in addition to talent, you have to be at the top of your game to have a chance. Athletes train for years to reach that level. Some writers expect to achieve it with the first story they write. Very few do. Most published writers have had to go back of the same book time and time again, or write another with the lessons learned from writing the first, before they break into print. Editing is an essential part of the writing process, and the one most often neglected. First drafts are where writers capture the story, pinning it to paper so it can’t escape. Subsequent drafts are where they turn that raw material into art.

When I was an agent, the hardest submissions to reject with were the ones that came within a draft or two of being publishable. Often these were books by talented writers whose execution doesn’t quite measure up to their talent. They weren’t salable as written, and like most agents, I didn’t have time to teach aspiring writers how to finish their work.

Now more than ever, writers are expected to learn the craft on their own dime.

That craft includes the essential ability to self-edit, the final step in the actual writing of the book, before it is taken up by an agent or publisher. As William Zinsser said, “Rewriting is where the game is won or lost; rewriting is the essence of writing.” But of course that’s easier said than done. Most writers want to revise their work, to bring it closer to the ideal novel they envisioned when they set out on this journey. They know that, no matter how impeccable we are, our first drafts are just a rough approximation of what our stories are meant to be. Editing is not just a matter of chipping away excess bits or changing a word here and there. It also entails building up, shifting emphasis, adding or omitting characters and subplots, clarifying and enhancing theme.

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Good writers are good editors.

Everyone knows that, and everyone aspires; but there are obstacles to effective self-editing. One is the difficulty of getting feedback of a quality high enough to raise our level of play. Another is the fact that by the time we finish a complete draft of the work, we’ve read it too often to address it with the objectivity required for editing. The “Revising Fiction” workshop was created to address both those problems, and to provide fiction writers with a methodical way of going about revision.

I’m proud that quite a few writers who’ve taken this workshop have gone on to find agents and publishers, but there’s no guarantee of that outcome. All I promise is that participants will come out of the course with better drafts and more tools in their writers’ toolbox. I back that up with a money-back guarantee: anyone who takes this course and decides within a few weeks that it’s not appropriate can withdraw and get their tuition back. I teach the course myself, read and critique every word by every participant, oversee peer critiques, guide discussions, provide lectures and supplementary material.

WHO I AM: I’ve worked in publishing and as a writer for over 40 years. I started out working for Fawcett Books, then a top paperback house. After that I became a literary agent, founding and running my own agency for 14 years. I also know the publishing world from the perspective of a writer, having had eight novels and several works of nonfiction published by major houses, including Viking/Penguin, Simon & Schuster, Doubleday and Morrow. I edit fiction and teach fiction writing, formerly at Hofstra University and SUNY, currently in my own online Next Level workshops.

That’s the short version. Here’s a longer one.

HOW TO REACH ME: If you’d like to apply for the Revising Fiction workshop or have any questions about it, email me at next.level.workshop@gmail.com.

WHAT YOU NEED:

  1. A completed draft.
  2. Time. Most writers have day jobs, and I don’t expect you to quit yours or neglect your family, at least not totally. But you will need to carve out a minimum of 10-12 hours a week to devote to the workshop and your own editing.
  3. Dough. Tuition is $795, much less than you’d pay for an equivalent semester-long university course, but still a chunk of money. Don’t send any now, though! I’ll ask accepted students for a deposit after putting together my roster. There is a 10% discount for returning students.
  4. A writing sample, specifically the first five or six pages of your novel.
  5. An open mind.

For more specifics on the course, see my website; for comments from former participants, see the testimonials page…and check out the  publishing credits beside their names.

Don’t wait too long if you’re interested. I keep these workshops very small because I spend so much time working with each writer; and I try to put together groups that are compatible but varied. It’s not always possible for me to offer every applicant a spot, but one way or another, you’ll definitely hear back from me. I generally offer only one of these workshops each year. If the timing isn’t right for you, but you know a writer for whom it might be perfect, please pass the word along.

And now, may the wild rumpus begin!

Two New Courses Scheduled!

Attention Fiction Writers: Major announcement! I will be teaching not one but two online Next Level Workshops this fall and winter.

champers

The first will be One Good Scene, which will begin on Thursday, November 3, 2016.

There’s a story behind this course. Before I gave it up to write, I was an editor at Fawcett Books and after that, a literary agent. In those capacities, I read about a billion unpublished first novels.  In many cases, the plot idea was intriguing and original, but the writer’s skills were not yet where they needed to be. These writers had undertaken to write a whole novel before learning to write a single good scene, and the results were not pretty.  On the flip side, writers who could put together shapely, tense, fully realized scenes were generally able to produce creditable short stories and novels.

So when I started to teach writing, the first course I created was “One Good Scene,” for aspiring fiction writers who want to master and build on the essential skills of fiction-writing. It’s an intensive 7-week online workshop with weekly lectures,  writing assignments, peer critiques, and personal feedback from me on every assignment. For more info, including tuition and topics to be covered, please see the course description on my website. You can also read feedback from writers who’ve taken the course.  Fun fact: I’m so convinced of this workshop’s usefulness that I offer a money-back warranty…but I’ve never been taken up on the offer.

One Good Scene is now open for registration. Class size is strictly limited, and several spots have been filled with writers who were on a waiting list, but I have a few places open.

After that, I will offer an online Revising Fiction workshop, to begin in January 2017. Revising Fiction is a master class for writers who have completed a draft of a novel or a body of short stories and want some help in bringing it to the next level. The goal is for writers to emerge from the process, not only with a much improved manuscript, but also with tools they can apply to everything else they go on to write. I’m proud to say that quite a few novels that have gone through this process have ended up published and sitting on my bookshelf.  (Many of these are listed as credits beside the authors’ names on the website’s testimonial page.) The workshop is comprised of a series of separate edits, one per two-week session, each focusing on a different aspect of the work. Big ticket items come first: structure, pacing, conflict and characterization. We also look at theme, language and style. Every session includes a lecture and multiple discussions, the opportunity to share scenes from participants’ novels and to give and receive critiques, including my notes on every submission.

This workshop is intense and, as one participant wrote, “life-changing, or at least writing-life-changing.” Participants can log on at any time that suits them and join in ongoing discussions. The class is limited to six writers, primarily those who have already taken One Good Scene or worked with me as an editor. Applicants whose work I don’t know will be asked to submit a writing sample. You can read more about Revising Fiction here, including tuition cost and warranty.

If you are interested or have questions, please respond here in the comment section or drop me a line at next.level.workshop@gmail.com.

Revising Fiction

Ladies and Gentlemen, an announcement: The next online “Revising Fiction” workshop has been scheduled to begin on August 13 and is now open for registration. This workshop is for writers with a complete draft of a novel or a body of short stories, who want to work on bringing their fiction to the next level.

writing class

I’ll tell you more about the workshop in a minute, but first, a digression. At a party not long ago, I overheard two aspiring writers talking about difficulty of selling their work. “It’s all about who you know,” one said. “You can’t even get an agent unless you have got an in.”

“Totally,” replied the other. “They don’t even read the stuff that comes in over the transom. It’s a fixed game.”

I envisioned that scene in a Harry Potter movie in which Harry and Ron are whispering during Professor Snape’s class: not a smart move, when that character is portrayed by the inimitable Alan Rickman. He positions himself behind them, rolls up his sleeves, and in one swift motion bangs their heads together.

I myself refrained, with some difficulty. I’ve heard this claim so often, and it is so untrue and counterproductive. New writers get published all the time. Over the years, I’ve seen many of my writing students sell books that they labored over, sometimes for years; none of them had contacts in the industry. I’ve been in the writing/publishing business for over 40 years now, including 12 years as a literary agent. A lot has changed, but one thing hasn’t. While many factors are involved in an agent or publisher’s decision to take a chance on a writer, great writing trumps them all.

slam dunkIt’s hard; why wouldn’t it be? Getting published by one of the big five houses is to writers what playing professionally is to athletes. In addition to talent, you have to be at the top of your game to have a chance. Athletes train for years to reach that level. Some writers expect to achieve it with the first story they write. A very few actually do; they have that level of talent and ability. But most published writers have had to go back of the same book time and time again, or write another with the lessons learned from writing the first, before they break into publication.

Consider another comparison. Getting published commercially is to writers what a gallery show is to painters. Aspiring painters study their art. Writers? Not so much.

When I was an agent, the hardest submissions to deal with were the ones that came within a draft or two of being publishable: the almost-but-not-quite books. Editors don’t want to invest the time, or don’t have it to invest. Agents who give notes and ask for revisions have filled in the gap to some extent, but writers are still expected to learn the craft on their own dime. Editing is an essential part of the writing process, and the one most often neglected. First drafts are where writers capture the story, pin it to paper so it can’t escape. Subsequent drafts are where they turn that raw material into art.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’d like to believe that all writers understand the importance of editing. As William Zinsser said, “Rewriting is where the game is won or lost; rewriting is the essence of writing.” But it’s easier said than done.  Part of the difficulty for writers lies in getting the necessary feedback in order to raise their level of play. Another part lies in the fact that writers are often too close to their work to see it objectively.

That’s why “Revising Fiction” was the first workshop I created, with the intention of addressing both those problems. To succeed in this market—no, more than that, to succeed in their art—writers need to edit their work. This does not take the place of having one’s work edited by a professional editor, whether supplied by a publisher who buys the book or hired by a writer prior to self-publishing. That’s essential, because we only see what we see; it takes an outsider to point out what we don’t see. But revision, or self-editing, comes before that; it’s the final step in the actual writing of the book.

You can read more about “Revising Fiction” here, along with some testimonials from writers who’ve taken the workshop. Participants emerge with a much improved draft, along with tools they can apply to everything they write in the future. This is the most advanced workshop I offer, and it’s open to published as well as aspiring writers. Please note that the workshop requires a significant investment of time, typically 12 to 18 hours a week over 14 weeks—but that includes time spent editing your own work. If this sounds useful, and you have a finished draft, I’d be happy to hear from you. Applicants should include the first 5 pages of their mss. The workshop is limited to eight writers, because I spend a ton of time working with each; and I try to put together groups that are compatible but varied. It’s not always possible for me to offer every applicant a spot; but one way or another, you’ll definitely hear back from me.

ONE GOOD SCENE

Attention Writers!

I promised you a major announcement, and here it is.

Before I gave it up to write, I was an editor and a literary agent for many years, and I still mentor many writers. Consequently I’ve read a ton of first novels. Most have issues—hence the difficulty, of which you’re surely aware, in selling these novels. In many cases the story itself is intriguing and original; the problem is that the writer’s skills are not yet where they need to be for the book to attract a publishing offer. I always feel it’s an awful shame that these writers had undertaken to write a novel before learning to write a scene.

writing classSo I created a course for aspiring fiction writers who want to master the skills of the craft. It’s called “One Good Scene,” because scenes are the basic building blocks of fiction. The skills that go into the crafting of a single good scene are precisely those needed for the crafting of a novel, and any writer who can master the former can succeed in the latter.

It’s an intensive 7-week online workshop with weekly lectures, assignments, writing and reading assignments, peer critiques, and personal feedback from me on every assignment. For more info, including tuition and topics to be covered, please see the course description on my website. You can also read feedback from writers who’ve taken the course. Personally, I think the workshop is so useful that I’d make it mandatory for every fiction writer…but then, I may be somewhat prejudiced. I will say that I offer a money-back warranty for people who start the course and find it’s not what they expected, but I’ve never been taken up on the offer.

“One Good Scene” will begin on April 2, and is now open for registration. Class size is strictly limited, and more than half the class is filled already with people who were on a waiting list, but I have several spots left. If you are interested or have questions, please respond here in the comment section or email me at next.level.workshop (at) gmail (dot) com. If you have writer friends who might be interested, feel free to  share this post. I’m always interested in students who are serious about learning the craft.

The Dreaded Silence: How I Nearly Gave Up Writing

I’m delighted to welcome Jenny Elliott to In Cold Ink. Jenny is the author of SAVE ME, a delightful blend of paranormal and romance. She’s also a lovely person and, I’m proud to say, a former student of mine. Jenny’s first book sold to Macmillan and came out last month to terrific reviews: a very happy ending to a long journey that almost didn’t happen. But I’ll let Jenny tell the story, and I’m guessing quite a few readers of this blog will relate.

Jenny ElliotOn January 6th, 2015, Macmillan published my debut paranormal romance novel, SAVE ME, under its Swoon Reads imprint. Swoon Reads is a crowd-sourced publishing model, so I landed that contract without an agent. And Macmillan also has an option on my next novel. Needless to say, I’m glad I picked up writing fiction again, after a nearly fifteen-year hiatus.

I’m not proud of myself for giving up my fiction-writing passion for so long, especially one that ultimately rewarded me with a Big 5 publishing deal. But I hope that my story will prevent others from quitting like I did. I’m confident that it can, because I’m sure I’m not the only writer who’s sensitive about her writing. It’s a scary thing to send our creative “babies” into the world, even if only to trusted readers, for feedback.

From the beginning, fear of feedback wasn’t my biggest concern, though. I welcomed constructive criticism. What I got instead, unfortunately, was what I deemed, “the dreaded silence.”

At age eighteen, I’d written 200 rough pages of a novel. I shared an excerpt with family and friends, then waited for feedback. No one said a word. I heard a message all the same, though: “Your writing is so bad that we don’t want to hurt you by saying so.” Sadly, I felt plenty hurt by their lack of response.

I didn’t write another word of fiction again until I was twenty-three, when I decided to edit the novel I’d begun when I was eighteen. Again, I gave an excerpt to a few trusted friends. Again, I suffered the dreaded silence. This time, I turned to studying non-fiction, which I also appreciate, but don’t enjoy as much as fiction.

One marriage, two property purchases, three children, and a full kitchen and flooring remodel later, I was losing my mind. I credit my impending insanity at the time for my escape into fictional worlds. I became an avid fiction reader, and one particular story idea brimmed in my mind and coalesced into a full outline that demanded to be put to the page in novel format.

I was incredibly pleased to have completed my first rough draft of a full novel. Now that I was in my thirties, I figured my age, at least, would garner respect, and therefore feedback, from readers. I sent my entire manuscript to a handful of family members and friends. To my dismay, the dreaded silence once again loomed.

In defense of my solicited readers, 250 pp. is a huge reading commitment. I should have shared an excerpt. All the same, I sank into the biggest funk yet over my writing. I desperately wanted honest, and preferably helpful, feedback.

I turned to Google and found Barbara, who would become my mentor. At the time, she was offering a special for a critique of a writer’s first 10 to 20 pages of a work of fiction. Finally, I received thorough, thoughtful, honest, and professional feedback. I had a lot to learn, but Barbara saw potential in my writing. I was elated.

writing classThe first of Barbara’s Next Level  courses I took was One Good Scene, in which I began to learn to hone my craft. Next, Barbara invited me to her Revising Fiction course, where I worked to shape and sharpen my novel. Then I queried agents.

Actually, like many beginning writers, I started querying way too early, with what was essentially a spruced up first draft. Not surprisingly, there were no takers. After Barbara’s Revising Fiction course, however, I received four full requests. Each agent took months to review my story and ultimately passed. Nearly a year had gone by.

In addition to the critique partners I became involved with in Barbara’s courses, I also joined CritiqueCircle.com. One of my critique partners from that site encouraged me to submit my novel to SwoonReads.com. Needless to say, I’m glad I did so. Readers and writers, as well as several editors on the Swoon Reads staff, including the sales director, were impressed with my novel. Ultimately, I landed a Big 5 publishing contract through Macmillan, who also has an option on my second novel. Because of that, I’m looking for an agent to work with me on future projects. At the end of the day, I can’t do much else but be grateful for such blessings. My story is a happy one to share.

Save MeOf course, my story could have been a lot less happy on the writing front if I hadn’t come back to the fiction-writing craft. And if I hadn’t found a mentor like Barbara. Or if I hadn’t developed critiquing relationships with other writers. Those things have hugely contributed to my success. I hope my example will also contribute to yours.

 

Thanks, Jenny, and congratulations!

To my writer friends: I’m going to be offering classes again very soon, starting with ONE GOOD SCENE, and as always the first notice will go out to folks on my emailing list. I keep these classes very small in order to provide lots of personal feedback, and I don’t offer many of them; so they tend to fill up fast. If you’re interested, drop me a line at next.level.workshop (at) gmail (dot) com and I’ll put you on the list to be notified when the course opens for registration.

 

Settings

The best way to sell a book has nothing to do with creating a platform or schmoozing with editors at writers’ conferences (though neither of those things hurt.) It’s writing a book that’s what agents call bulletproof—one so good that no one in the long chain of approvers can resist it.

Bulletproof_vest

In this blog, I talk a lot about the business of publishing, which is in a fascinating state of flux at the moment. I also write a lot about the process of submitting one’s work. But every now and then I like to take a step back to consider the basics. Writers who want to sell their work  must learn to write on their own dime; they need to master their craft. Dare I suggest that for people with writing talent, time invested in learning craft– by reading books on the subject, taking courses, working with mentors and good critique groups–will ultimately yield better results than the same amount of time spend networking?

This is part two in a series of blog posts about the craft of writing. It’s adapted from one lecture in a course I teach at www.nextlevelworkshop.com called One Good Scene, and it focuses on the importance of setting. In a later post I’ll go into the nuts and bolts of describing setting.

 Every scene takes place somewhere. That particular place and time may be actual or imagined, but that setting must feel real to the reader or nothing that takes place there will feel real. The way to accomplish this is through description that is vivid, concrete, and specific. I’ll talk more about the techniques for conveying setting in a later post; right now I want to focus on its functions in the scene.

Good writing is efficient writing. Novels may be expansive compared to short stories, but all the parts must mesh together and function in tandem or the thing won’t run. Thus setting should not be chosen at random any more than characters should be. Rather, it should be an integral part of the whole, chosen to enhance whatever the writer is trying to accomplish in that scene.

Like every other element in fiction, it should multi-task.  Setting always serves to enhance the reality of a scene, but it can also define and affect characters, advance the plot, reveal themes,  and create an appropriate atmosphere. D.H. Lawrence, no slouch in the setting department, wrote that “setting provides an ‘emotional landscape’ upon which a character’s own temperament may play counterpoint or may resonate in a wonderful symphony.”

In real life, all of us have a relationship with our environment. It affects us and we, in turn, affect it. On a macro scale, think of global warming; on a micro scale, think of the impact one person’s troubles has on his home or work environment.

In fiction, too, there is a necessary relationship between character and setting. Sometimes that connection is overt and in the foreground. In THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA, for example, the sea serves as the antagonist. In a story about a pioneer family staking out a homestead, the push-pull between human desire and nature’s power  is likely to be an explicit part of the story’s plot and theme, as well as a testing ground for character. In a haunted house tale, the setting provides plot as well as characterization, since the characters’ reactions to what happens there will shed light on them.

But even in stories whose setting is kept in the background, there is still, or there should be, a relationship between setting and characterization. Our characters’ homes, their possessions, the contents of their drawers: all these can reveal much about them, if we pick the right details to highlight.

Fiction gives us the ability to inhabit our characters and see through their eyes. As you describe your setting, always consider whose eyes you’re seeing through. What your viewpoint character notices about his environment  tells us as much about him as it does about his surroundings.  A cop walking down a city street will notice completely different things than a love-struck young girl walking hand-in-hand with her boyfriend down the very same street.  In Pete Dexter’s wonderful novel Paris Trout, the title character runs a grocery store in the pre-refrigeration South. When his wife walks into the store unexpectedly, he looks at her as he would “six crates of melons that showed up unordered.” How much does that lovely bit of description tell us about Trout and the state of his marriage?

Setting  Reveals Theme and Create Atmosphere

For examples of settings that embody a book’s theme and create its atmosphere. think of the great Gothic novels: the descriptions of Manderlay in Rebecca, of the heath in Wuthering Heights. As John Gardner wrote, “Description is the author’s way of reaching deep into his unconscious.” It is symbolic, not because the writer deliberately plants symbols like someone secreting Easter eggs around the yard, but rather because the symbols arise out of the writer’s deep, often preconscious understanding of what the book is about: its theme.

Because descriptions appeal directly to the senses, they evoke the emotions that are linked to those sensory memories, some of which are fairly universal. The smell of fresh-cut grass, fresh-baked bread, or a baby’s hair are likely to evoke not only images but feelings in the reader. And those feelings create a certain atmosphere.

To illustrate, here are two different versions of a brief scene:  a character walking to his van.

1. Caleb walked down the street to his van.

 

What do you know about Caleb from this line? Where is he? What time of day, what season? What does his van tell you about him?  How do you feel about him? What sort of feeling does the scene leave you with?

Don’t know? Let’s try version 2.

 

2.    Caleb shuffled down the avenue in his oversized duffle coat, his cap pulled down low. He kept to the curb, skirting the light cast by plate-glass windows full of Christmas decorations and fancy goods he couldn’t afford and wouldn’t want if he could. His stomach growled at the smell of roasting chestnuts and spitted meat, but he passed the carts without pausing. Women were all around him, soft and fleshy, streaming out of office buildings, weaving between cars,  pooling on corners as they waited for the lights to change, bending to adjust a shoe strap, flashing their legs, swinging their shiny hair, laughing and talking, though never to Caleb. He saw them, but they never saw him…until he was ready for them to see.

He circled the van before opening the door, checking for tickets, but of course there were none; he’d been careful to park legally. The van was a white Dodge Caravan, not so old as to attract attention but too old to warrant stealing. The exterior was grimy, the interior immaculate. The engine was good. He hadn’t had to do a thing to the van since taking it off the old man, except for the tinted windows, and those were a necessary expense.

 

What do you know about Caleb? Where is he? What time of day, what season? What does his van suggest about him?  How do you feel about him?  What sort of feeling does the scene leave you with?

Can you answer those questions now?

What about your own work? As you think about it now, is setting integral or incidental to your stories?

 

More on settings

More on craft

Information on ONE GOOD SCENE and my other online writing workshops

I’m delighted to announce that A DANGEROUS FICTION is now out in Penguin paperback.  (It’s perfect for book clubs, if you belong to one–I’ll even skype-bomb the discussion if I can.)  NPR called it a “clever exploration of our capacity for self-deception… an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end.” You can read the opening here.

Good Writers are Good Editors

 

Consider this scenario.  The first novel of writer John Doe has landed on the desk of a leading literary agent. Attached to the title page is a post-it from the agent’s assistant: “Good writer!” it says. The agent eyes the note and sighs. She has meetings lined up back to back all day, fifty calls and emails to return, and a three-foot pile of manuscripts waiting to be read. But she has ten minutes before her next meeting starts, and so she reaches for the manuscript.

The first couple of pages are enough to tell her the writer has talent. She takes the manuscript home, reads a few chapters, and stops when she determines that the writing is not quite good enough. The next day, she hands it back to her assistant. “Close,” she says, “but no cigar.”

Potential isn’t enough. Talent doesn’t equal execution. Either it’s on the page, editors say, or it’s not. Back the book goes, and in all likelihood John Doe will never know why or how close he came.

The only fictional part of this scenario is the writer’s name. The event itself  happens all the time. One could write a whole book on Why Bad Things Happen to Good Writers, bemoaning the impersonal, bottom-line state of publishing, but such a book would be of little comfort or service to writers struggling to break through.  Rejection is part of the writer’s world, perhaps even a functional part of the artistic process. (See “What if JP Rowling Had Self-Published?”) What’s really unfortunate (though unavoidable, given the volume) is that most rejections come with little or no explanation or guidance. Writers are expected to master the craft on their own time, which means learning not only how to write but also how to edit.

As the comment section of my last post revealed, there’s a lot of debate about the value of outlining for fiction. But there’s virtually none among professional writers about the value of revision…probably because they couldn’t have become professionals without learning  it. In my experience, including 15 years as a literary agent and editor, most writers spend as much time editing their stories as they do writing them.

Here are a few thoughts on revision from some writers you may have heard of:

“My pencils outlast their erasers.” — Vladimir Nabokov

Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends. I rewrote the ending of Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, 39 times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.

“Writing and rewriting are a constant search for what it is one is saying.” — John Updike

 

256px-Roald_Dahl“By the time I am nearing the end of a story, the first part will have been reread and altered and corrected at least one hundred and fifty times. I am suspicious of both facility and speed. Good writing is essentially rewriting. I am positive of this.” — Roald Dahl

 

“But why must writers edit their own work?” I’ve been asked by aspiring writers.  “Writers write and editors edit; isn’t that the way it works?”

Well, no, that’s not how it works. Writers do need editors to see what they’re too close to see, but that’s at a later stage. To get to that stage, they first need the ability to edit their way toward the heart of their stories.

Imagine Rodin sculpting “The Thinker.” Does he simply envision the finished work, grab his chisel, and sculpt it fluently in all its detail? Of course not; such a thing is inconceivable. The vision must be there, or nothing will happen, but we understand instinctively that the artist must first produce a rough version, which he then goes on to refine and perfect.

450px-Le_Penseur_de_Rodin_à_Saint-Dié

So, too, with fiction. No matter how impeccable writers are, their first drafts will be but a rough approximation of what their stories could become. Editing is not just a matter of chipping away excess bits or changing a word here and there. It also entails building up, shifting emphasis, adding or omitting characters and subplots, clarifying theme. Many writers do not fully understand what they’re writing about until they’ve written it. Only after they become conscious of their underlying themes can they go back and enhance their expression.

Good writers are good editors.

Disagree if you dare; or share some of your own tips on editing.

 

In my Next Level school of writing, I offer a 14-week online workshop called “Revising Fiction,” which leads participants (who must have a completed draft of a novel) through a series of edits. This workshop is intensive and requires a significant commitment of time. But the reward is commensurate with the effort, as students come out the other end with a greatly improved novel and tools that they can go on to apply to everything else they write. The next workshop will be offered in the August 2015. A couple of spots are left. For more information, or to get on my emailing list  (most classes fill entirely from that list), drop me a line.

 

 

What To Look For When You’re Looking For an Editor

 

Suppose you’ve written a novel, submitted it to literary agents and publishers, and found no takers, Chances are you’ve had little or no substantive feedback of explanation of where your work fell short. Because they receive such daunting quantities of submissions, agents usually stop reading as soon as they determine that a book is not for them. Not only do they not have time to write critiques of books they’re rejecting, in most cases they haven’t even read the whole book. The result is an enormously frustrating Catch 22 for writers. It’s difficult to get good enough to publish without smart, detailed feedback; but you don’t get that feedback until your work is sold. Writers can end up with enough rejections to paper a room and no idea of why.

At that stage, many writers pack it in. Either they shelve the book or they self-publish it in its current form, just to get it out there. Other writers double down by looking for an editor or workshop to help them hone the book before starting a new round of submissions or self-publishing. My last post, Have Red Pencil, Will Travel?, considers whether and when it makes sense to seek out professional help in the form of an edit, an evaluation, or a writing workshop.

Full disclosure: I’m a writing teacher myself, and I also do fiction evaluations and edits. I’m not drumming up business, though; in fact, I’ve put my workshops and editing work on hiatus while I work on the sequel to A DANGEROUS FICTION.

When it comes to hiring an editor, it’s buyer, beware. Anyone can call himself an editor. There are no official credentials, so it’s not like calling yourself a lawyer if you haven’t passed the bar, or a doctor if you never went to med school. Before spending money on a hired gun, better make sure he can shoot. Make sure, too, that the work you submit to the editor has already been edited to the absolute best of your ability. That will ensure that you get feedback on things you didn’t see yourself, instead of on stuff you already meant to change.  This post will provide some criteria to use in choosing an editor or writing teacher. The guidelines are similar but not the same, so I’ll present them separately. First up: what to look for in an editor.

1. Substantial, verifiable experience. Ideally, the editor will have worked for a major publishing house, or written for one. Academic credentials help—a professor of English will catch your grammatical mistakes—but the most helpful editors also have a background in publishing. And don’t just take their word for it; google them.

2. Track Record. Your goal is to get published, so you want an editor who’s helped other writers get there. There are no guarantees of success, but why not choose an editor whose students have sold books to commercial publishers? Note the word “sold.” Students who self-publish don’t count as a teaching creds. Many editors have testimonials and lists of published work on their websites. If not, feel free to ask.

3. No Inflated Claims. Any editor who promises or even implies that with his help you will sell your work is either a huckster or shilling for a vanity press. No one can make that promise, and no reputable editor would. All he can reasonably claim is that the book will be better than it was, and you will learn something about writing in the process.

4. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Look for an editor who enters into what you’re trying to accomplish, rather than imposing his own style and ideas onto the work. Editors have to be frank to be effective, but they shouldn’t run roughshod over their clients. You should come away from an edit feeling energized and enlightened, not steamrolled. Part of respect, though, is honesty. A serious critique from someone with professional standards can sting, especially at first; but if it’s too soft, you’re not getting value for money.

5. Expertise in your field. There’s no point hiring a brilliant science fiction editor if you write romance. Look for an editor who’s worked in your genre. If you’re not sure, ask.

6. Sample. Most important! Not every editor is right for every writer, and the only way to find out is to ask for a sample edit. Serious editors don’t take on every job that comes alone, so they’ll be happy to do this; they may even require it. The sample can be anything from a couple of pages to the 5000 words I read in my “Special Offer;” the cost should be nominal. Look for an editor who isn’t just making changes or correcting mechanical errors, but also teaching you something you didn’t know about writing. Send the opening pages; the feedback you get on those will be the most valuable. If you get a sample and you’re not sure the editor is right for you, keep looking.

One alternative to hiring an editor is taking a writing workshop, as rigorous as possible. Look for one that allows you to work on and share parts of your novel. In my next post, I’ll list some criteria for choosing a writing teacher. With the explosion of online classes as well as those offered in brick-and-mortar institutions, writers these days have many good options to choose from.

If you find these posts useful, you might want to sign up for the URL feed or subscribe via email. And now I’ll say goodbye for a little while. I’m going on vacation, and will be back posting on the weekend of November 17. But I’ll check in for comments, and would love to hear your thoughts about and experience in working with an editor.