The Writer’s Desk: To the Nameless Guy in the Steam Room

So, Nameless Guy, you’ve written a 900 page book—which is not yet finished.  You want to know if I am acquainted with publishers at Little Brown, so maybe I could nudge them into reading your masterpiece.  Nope, I don’t know anyone there.  You want to know if you can get published without an agent.  Well sure, you have at least a slug’s chance in beer.  But if you really have written a masterpiece, then get an agent.  That means that you will need to finish your work.  Nobody gives advances to unknown authors for their good ideas.

You say several of your friends have read your opus, or at least started it.  One of them called it “a real page turner.”  Another said, “You’ve got to finish this!”  You want to know if you should take these compliments seriously.  Of course you should!  They’re your friends and they’re being nice!  You should always take niceness seriously!  But don’t equate a friend–who doesn’t want to offend you–with an editor, who doesn’t particularly care about your feelings.

You want to know what the three most common errors beginning writers make.  My answer: First: They don’t leave space for readers to enter with their own imaginations, but say silly things like, “He felt apprehensive when he reached into the shrubbery where a coral snake had just slithered.”  Apprehensive, huh.  In this context, that is a DUH word.  (As in, “Well DUH!”)

Second: They tend to be wordy and to overuse modifiers.  Modifiers are neon lights, and can be magical and illuminating when they’re just the right choice.  Otherwise, they bog the sentence down and diffuse the focus.  You say that you’ve already taken care of wordiness.  Congratulations on that.  I pare my writing down with every reading, making the comb finer every time.  So, to be honest, I really doubt that you have “taken care of wordiness.”  It’s not like swishing a mop over a filthy floor; it’s hard core scrubbing, steam cleaning, checking the corners, bearing down.

Third: Beginning writers tend to create stock characters with little nuance.  One of the reasons I enjoy talking to you, nameless guy, is that you are quirky.  I am observing you and listening to every sentence you utter. I especially loved your question, “So would it be all right with you if you died right now?”  I’ve played with that one for weeks, thinking about polite serial killers and courteous surgeons.  I will almost certainly put you into some work of fiction.  That’s the thing about writers: we recognize that the world is ours to examine and touch and sometimes embellish.  Every sentence we hear is something one of our characters might say.  Every time we step outside or inside, the world offers a scene—or just a leaf—which might open a chapter.

You want to get rich from your writing, you say.  Nah, follow Doug Thayer’s advice: Steal little old ladies’ purses if you want to get rich.  If you write, do it out of love, and write about things you care about, not about things you presume will top the New York Times Bestsellers list.  If you want to be a celebrity, do a reality show about what happens in steam rooms.

You wonder if I will edit your piece.  Why no, Nameless Guy, I will not.  (That was easy, wasn’t it.)  I look at friends’ and former students’ pieces, but like most writers, I have projects of my own to finish.  But you can certainly find an editor and pay something for their help.

You say I might regret not having a part in your future writing career, and now is my opportunity.  Hey, I’ll take my chances.

You know, every time we’ve met in the steam, you’ve said that you really ought to finish your book.  Believe me, if you’re not excited enough to finish it, I doubt I’ll be excited about it either.  You need to love your characters so much that you can’t wait to let them loose in your imagination.

So here’s my final advice:  Move out of the mists, Nameless Guy—unless you want to do that reality show (and then you have to figure out how to keep the cameras from fogging).  Read what you’ve already written to energize what you’ll write next.  Read established authors’ works to fertilize your own creative seeds and spores.  You will not write well if you don’t read well. Buy books you can mark up, and ask the authors to teach you.  Imitate them in exercises. Discipline yourself to write two hours daily—and hold to that standard.  Freewrite for ten minutes every morning.  Work hard, and maybe post this quote from Flannery O’Connor on your computer:

“Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction. It’s not a grand enough job for you.”

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8 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: To the Nameless Guy in the Steam Room

  1. Mark Brown says:

    I love this. Sassy and wise. The advice about common beginners’ errors is particularly good and I will always give you credit when I pass it along to my students.

    The O’Connor quote is especially useful for a people so intent on staying “clean” even when it’s the wrong kind of clean.

  2. Jayme says:

    I clearly need to start stealing purses from old ladies!

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      You might want to make sure the purses you steal don’t belong to old lady writers.

      A fun read Margaret.

  3. Brett Wilcox says:

    Great info. Packaged so well!

  4. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    I’m really having a hard time picturing Margaret alone in a steam room with a nameless guy. There’s a story there, I know it.

  5. Actually, I enjoy the steam room immensely. Sometimes, I can’t tell if I’m alone until the steam clears. Other times, I see men in speedos doing exercises–arm lifts, mostly–which make them look like angels ascending in clouds of steam. But when I really think about it, I am positive that angels do not wear speedos.

  6. Mark Brown says:

    Only European angels. American angels wear bermuda trunks with a modest t-shirt.

  7. Julie Wright says:

    I apparently do not spend enough time in steam rooms. What fun! Of course, meeting a stranger in a foggy room who asks me if it’s all right with me if I die . . . I think I might be inclined to NOT hang out in the steam room after that. Though it is a great opening scene for a murder mystery.

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