Dear Author . . .

I spent a bit of time perusing the Dear Author for the romance category boards over on Amazon. It was hilarious . . . until it wasn’t.

I’m in the process of editing one of my earlier manuscripts that I have received my rights back from the publisher. I knew the writing was rough because I was young when I wrote the book and inexperienced as a writer. I had no idea how bad it truly was until I got two sentences into the edit. Sad that it only took two sentences for me to start rolling my eyes. I actually would have been eye-rolling at the first four words except I was too shocked to be capable of the eye-roll.

I made a lot of mistakes in those first books, mistakes that would instigate the words, “Dear author . . . Please don’t . . .”

It’s important to remember your audience and to read enough in the genre in which you’re writing so you understand the cliche’s and sand-traps of that genre.

Basically, what I’m saying is . . . learn your craft.

I was so glad to have been published with those first couple of books, so excited to be an “author,” that I jumped in before I was ready. Was it a mistake? Maybe. Maybe I never would have published and worked to get better if I hadn’t had those first books come out the way they did. Or maybe I would have kept writing until I grew in my craft and had a first book release that would have stunned the world. Who knows?

For now, I am editing and eye-rolling. And paying close attention to notes like, “dear author . . .”

Feel free to peruse the Dear Author board on Amazon for yourself:

And do you have any memos you wish you could say to authors in general? Things you wish they’d stop doing or do more of?

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11 Responses to Dear Author . . .

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    We seem to have been channeling the same literary spirt this week, Julie. My husband just read _The Outliers_, which as many of you know purports it takes 10,000 hours of hard labor at something to become expert. It put me in mind of writers who succeed early, young, and who aren’t really nearly as good as they will become. It left me pondering some of the advantages of not succeeding young as some of my friends did, including one or two who, I thought at the time, didn’t write as well as I did *at that time.* They improved under the scrutiny of the public’s eye and with a paycheck, so that balances out any embarrassment they might have felt on a re-read of earlier work, which, like the novel you mention, wouldn’t hold up well against what they became able to write. IDK. There is something to be said for growing up before success hits and how that process influences what a person writes. Every now and then I hear about some hugely successful novel written by a person in their twenties and I always read it and always come away knowing I’ve read the writing of someone who hasn’t really faced much of life yet. Unfortunately, too many people with huge potential give up and never put in that 10,000 hours (without that paycheck, it is harder) and we never get to hear from them. I wish I could shake all the young Mormon writers out there who consider giving up because they can’t manage to get published, but so and so can. We all know most of a writer’s early works aren’t masterpieces, and may even sense our rejected ms is just as good or better. Its just a different path, but we all have to walk the same path toward good becoming our best selves. Unfortunately, we don’t usually get to choose which path Heavenly Father puts us on. I want to hear what you have to say someday. Pls don’t give up. (Sorry if I took this in an unintended direction, Julie.)

  2. Scott Parkin says:

    There’s also a huge difference between early-author mistakes and bad-author mistakes. Many authors have a hard time making the turn from reader to writer, and their first efforts reflect a tendency toward cleverness, simplistic conflict, and flat characters buoyed up with overwrought descriptions. New authors remember the effect of what they’ve read before without understanding effective mechanisms of delivery.

    In other words, they don’t trust their own audience (or their own skills) and try to make up for it with intrusive techniques. But that’s okay, because trust can be learned and solid basic skills allow the author’s underlying creativity to show—we catch glimpses of the powerful creator behind sometimes flat or over-produced stories.

    I’m reading a novel manuscript from a friend-of-a-friend right now and having a serious struggle with how to comment, precisely because the author has not done much in the way of learning those basic skills.

    It’s a well-meaning story from a thirty-something first-time writer that has all the heart in the world and none of the basic skill of character, scene, conflict, or fundamental sentence writing. It shows a spark of creativity that gets bogged down in worn tropes and simplistic scenarios; in other words, it makes all of the new-author mistakes. I love the dedication that led to a 400 page manuscript, but the author still needs another 9500 hours or so of simple practice.

    So I’m a bit stuck. I can’t give it the kind of critique I would offer a publishing novelist because the author hasn’t risen to that level of fundamental competence (though I think the author could well get there with quite a bit more practice).

    I want to say “read any three Writer’s Digest books and do the exercises,” or “keep writing for another five years as your apprenticeship, then start this again from scratch” (which is essentially what I was told early on, except it was a short story and the Big Name Pro said ten years), but I’m not sure how to do it without being condescending—especially since I’m not a Big Name Pro (though I’ve spent more than two decades in writing groups with several of them).

    The problem is that the author really needs to hear it. There may be talent there, but right now lack of fundamentals makes it hard to see that talent, and it won’t do the author any favors to pretend otherwise. And while the author can certainly self-publish, they won’t get a regular publisher to come anywhere near it in its current state.

    • Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

      Ouch, Scott. Good luck.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Ouch indeed. I’ve been in that position — and have no idea whether the way I handled it was useful for the author.

    • My practice has been to be very encouraging about the idea’s possibilities, and also very encouraging to the author to get more training in writing, editing, rewriting, etc. I usually recommend that they read books like Lukeman’s FIRST FIVE PAGES, to see all the things that can give editors reasons for rejecting manuscripts.

      It is tough to tell someone what they need to hear in a way that can help them be able to really HEAR what they need to hear. I think that goes for life as well as for writing.

      • C. M. Malm says:

        Some authors really just don’t want to hear it. My husband has a good friend, Bill, who has written a number of books and self-published them. My husband tried to tell him, when Bill asked him for some advice as he was preparing to publish the first one, that he really needed the services of a proofreader, but Bill didn’t want to listen. Now, several years and several books later, he’s hearing negative comments from reviewers about his spelling/grammar. He asked me a few months ago if I would be willing to proofread (seeing as I have an MA in English); I said, “for a fee,” partly because I need the money, but mostly because I’m not willing to put up with the kind of author who will argue about every change I suggest (and he *is* that kind of person) unless I’m being paid for my time. But he decided he didn’t want my proofreading skills badly enough to have to pay for them. Yet he’s spending a fair amount of money making a book trailer to promote his series. Leaves me scratching my head….

  3. This is some great advice. Reading it, I feel some intrepidation… where am I? I’m not sure. I’ve been writing seriously for five years, so I meet that criterion you mention. But maybe my five years of writing aren’t the same as somebody elses’ five years. Maybe I needed five years just to get to the point where everything that flows from my keyboard isn’t crap.

    Maybe this novel I’ve got coming out in spring is terrible!

    I’ve thrown away about five manuscripts so far. I’m in the process of reworking the second of those thrown-away manuscripts. I’m feeling a lot better about it. I go to critique group every week and take the burden of all their suggestions home with me, and I’ve finally gotten to the point where I’m confident in the critiqing-rewriting process that don’t have to force myself to write the morning after.

    I think one of the strange paradoxes in writing (and probably all forms of artistic expression) is that, quite often by the time I’m finished with a piece, I almost feel like tossing it away and starting over because I’ve learned so much I know I’m writing on an entirely new and better level. That feeling of “starting fresh with a new piece,” and incorporating all the skills I’ve learned and not making mistakes I’ve learned I make, is wonderful. And then by the time I’m done with the manuscript, I feel the complete opposite about what I just wrote. But at some point, we have to save it, don’t we. And try to market it. And show it to the world. At some point we have to decide that what we’ve written isn’t crap. Or at least, hope that the crap is spread thin enough that people are going to want to suffer through it to see to the art we have created.

  4. Julie–Loved your thoughts. I’m grateful for the many rejections I received early on and particularly rejections for the first novel I wrote which will never see the light of day. :) But I also think that every author should have a goal that their next book will be better because that is how it should be if we’re constantly working on our craft.

    Those comments on the board are hilarious and spot-on. I’m still laughing over this one,
    “Please don’t…have several characters with the same first initial in their name: Cindy and Cissy or Tom and Todd. For goodness sakes, you’ve got the whole alphabet to choose from.”
    Maybe I’m laughing because it always take me a long time to select each of my character’s names for that reason and many others.

  5. Jonathan Langford says:

    The sad fact is that the only way to get past the kind of early-author mistakes that people make… is to make them.

    While I was writing No Going Back, I came on a piece of advice from Orson Scott Card to the effect that when you’re writing a story, you need to write it as well as you’re capable of doing at that point in time–and then let it go. (At least, that’s how I remember it. Part of that may be what I supplied, based on my own situation.) Sure, you get as much advice as you can from good readers, and improve your manuscript accordingly. And you trust people you know have good judgment if they universally say that the story isn’t ready for prime time. But once you’ve got it as good as you can make it, you go ahead and let it fly into the world–even knowing that five or ten years from now, you might (hopefully will) look back on it and see a dozen ways it could have been better.

    I agree with Lisa that we love potentially good writers from lack of persistence in putting in the time and work to develop their talents. But I think we also lose a few–possibly among the best–because they doubt their own work, and the talent that is in them, too much to put it out there.

    • Jonathan Langford says:

      Sorry. That should have read “we lose potentially good writers” (in the last paragraph, first sentence).

    • Scott Parkin says:

      I think this is inherent in that idea that “no one should be forced to read your first million words…” (not my words, but I can’t recall who said it). The number of words varies by author, but the point is that until you actually do the work—aka, write one or more stories—you won’t either meet or overcome those challenges.

      For me it was an intentional effort to clear my mind and creative instinct of my first twenty years of reader-fandom (I read at an alarming rate as a young person—between one and three books a day for most of ten years). I had a lot of half-formed ideas gathered from all that reading that were cluttering up my mind, so I wrote thirty short stories in thirty days to clear all of that stuff out. When I was done I took a week off, started a new story from scratch, spend a full three days writing, and sold it immediately—along with 5 of the next 7 stories I wrote.

      I never got over the hump of consistent professional (fiction) publication; while my core skills are adequate, the stories that interest me apparently don’t interest much of anyone else. But that’s because what I write is boring, not because it’s poorly crafted or delivered—an entirely different problem.

      I agree—write and move on. Learn to finish this piece, then move on to the next. As Robert Heinlein suggested: write, submit for publication, rewrite only per editorial request. I think most of use go through a little more write/rewrite early on, but the point is well taken—send it out and start the next project, rather than obsessing over previous work. It’s all useful work, even if you don’t sell some of the earlier stuff.

      And if you do sell earlier stuff that embarrasses you later, be happy that you sold and stop worrying. It’s fun to read a good writer’s less polished work and see how they’ve improved with time. It’s all part of the game for reading fans.

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