How many times this week have you admonished yourself for not writing enough? We’ve all heard about the famous authors who wrote every day for hours on end, who stuck to rigid word-count or page-count quotas. Forget those authors. At least, forget their torturous processes. Go easy on yourself. Know that, as you live your life, you are constantly gathering material. That day you flopped on the couch to binge-watch some guilty pleasure and let dust gather in the corners of your living room while dishes languished in the sink?
Agents & Editors Recommend
A dependable source of professional and creative advice, this weekly series features anecdotes, insights, tips, recommended reading and viewing for writers, and more from leading agents and editors.
Please be a positive force, outside of your immediate work, in the wider literary culture.
So many of the books I feel most proud of when the dust has settled, and that I truly feel will stand the test of time, are those on which both the writer and I engaged deeply with the editing process.
While some words, plot threads, and entire character arcs inevitably deserve to be left behind, writers don’t always look closely enough at what’s working—those elements of the manuscript that should be developed, expanded, or simply appreciated. So try this: Complete your next round of self-revision with a highlighter instead of a pen. Mooring yourself in the successes of your draft can help focus the direction of your narrative and reinvigorate your efforts. Once you have a clearer idea of where you’ve succeeded, you’ll see better where you haven’t. (Time to bring out the pen.)
Many years ago I contacted the widow of a well-known war veteran to see if she wanted to write a book. We had a lovely conversation over coffee, but it had been only a few months since her husband’s death, and she told me later that she wasn’t ready. I said I understood and wished her well.
Four years later I was sitting at my desk when my phone rang. It was the widow. “I’m ready to write the book now,” she said. Two years after that her book was published.
Reading has always been a pleasure for me, something I do alone that can bring me joy, escape, knowledge, catharsis. But as much as I love it, there is always other work to be done. I can tell I’m really into a manuscript when I feel almost guilty reading it. Shouldn’t I be doing something else? Isn’t there work on my never-ending to-do list that must be completed? Have I neglected my family? What day is it? If this happens while I’m reading a manuscript in revision, I know it’s close to being ready to go out to editors.
There are a lot of things I miss about publishing conferences: dishing advice to writers, connecting with authors, and traveling to interesting new places (even if I didn’t always get the chance to leave the conference hotel). But catching up with industry peers while sitting down and eating terrible cold sandwiches and warm, flat soda…perhaps I miss that the most. The comradery. The insider industry knowledge. And sure, the gossip.
Read widely and attentively. Read interviews and letters from writers.
Find a writing community and keep it until you grow ready for a new writing community.
You are a person who makes things—poems, essays, short stories—but this is not your whole identity. Go do things, outside, with other people.
Writers are vital parts of communities who archive and render legible ideas, events, and exchanges that might otherwise be lost or have only the short life of some piece of gossip.
If a book makes me laugh within the first few pages, chances are I’ll finish it. And if an author and I can laugh together in our first meeting, at least we know we’re on the same page about something—chances are we’ll be on the same page about a lot more, too. Humor is one of the quickest ways I can tell if an author and I will be compatible and if my edits will serve their work in the way it deserves.
I once edited a contemporary “vampire novel” set in an elite private school. When I asked the author to write a brief essay about her use of the vampire as a metaphor for the high school experience, she told me the novel wasn’t about high school—it was about writing. I suddenly understood why the editing process had been such a pain in the neck.
Another novel I worked on appeared to be about the interconnectedness of the lives of disparate characters in the Philippines. The author told me, to my great surprise, that the book was actually a condemnation of religion.