Tag Archives: writers have a lot to learn

Says the Editor: A Million Words of WHAT?


If you’ve followed me for these past 12 years, or if you’ve ever taken the time to wander through my archives, you may get an inkling of one thing about me that I don’t overly try to hide: I live life large. I’ve done all sorts of crazy and not-so-crazy things in my life. Of course, that leaves me with a lot of scars, a lot of painful memories I don’t talk about. Most, I don’t like to revisit. I’ll be honest about that.

Sometimes, something comes out of the buried ether to torture me, amuse me, or give me perspective.

What happened recently was the latter: all about perspective, baby.

It was right after I’d graduated from Pitt with my BA. I was taking graduate-level classes, trying to figure out if grad school was what I wanted or where else I might turn my face to a new path. We were meeting in the professor’s house because, hey, we were grad students and this is what we did. (Come to think of it, all these years later, that was the only time I had class at my professor’s house, which was quite a shame) We were a small group. Diverse, but not in the way you might think. One of Chuck’s favorite students had paid for her undergrad degree as a phone sex worker. Her writing never met my expectations, which was that I wanted to see that she’d lived life large.

Anyway, we were sitting around one night, and I’d put up a few chapters of a novel I was working on. It… got panned. Like really bad. That was the day that Chuck told me he wanted a German satellite to drop on my main character. And as much as it stung, I had to jab my tongue into my cheek — I still remember this moment clearly — and nod and agree. “When you put it like that, so do I,” I told him.

And then Simon spoke up. Simon was a Brit, he was a few years older than most of us, he had long brown hair, and I can’t remember if he had bangs or not. He was both scruffy — a ton of razor stubble, but not in the sexy way men wear it now — and polished. He would sit cross-legged on the floor and when he wanted to speak, he’d straighten out of his slouch and somehow rock on his crossed knees, raising himself up a good six inches. It always reminded me of a cobra, uncoiling from the basket the charmer kept him in. He’d tuck his hair behind his ears. His eyes would sparkle, and he’d weave his torso, purse his lips, move his hands (when they weren’t tucking his hair, which he’d do repeatedly while he waited for a break in the conversation) until he got to speak. We always liked it when Simon spoke; he was smart as hell. I bet if I could remember his last name (which I maybe never even knew, so maybe there’s nothing to remember), I’d discover he’s got a backlist of publications that puts my 15 to shame and he’s probably got some awards on top of all that.

Needless to say, I respected Simon. I was a little scared of him, but I respected him. When he spoke up in workshop, he tended to be right on.

“I believe,” he started cautiously, and I steeled myself, “that all of us writers need to write a million words of crap before we find our writer souls. You’re clearly talented, Susan, but…”

I winced.

“I believe this is part of your million words of crap.”

Ouch. And, like always, he was right.

“You are young,” he continued. “Get your million words of crap out of you. Write as much as you can. All of you,” he said, eyeing the room. “We all need to write as much as we can. Make sure those million words of crap are out of you. I know mine are.”

That was many years ago. I am not sure I believe that all writers have a million words of crap in them. I’ve met too many really good writers who knock it out of the park on their first attempt. (I’ve edited a number of them, too.) And while I agree that the project I was working on at the time was a mere seventy thousand of my million words, I’m not sure I ever hit a million. (Although, of course, there are some who’ll gleefully disagree.)

That memory got dredged up a few weeks ago, and hasn’t left me yet. I was working with a new author who didn’t take kindly to the realities of the editorial process.

But even now, all these years later, Simon’s words and assessment were right on. Even when I’m not consciously aware of it, his words are the basis for my belief that authors have to give ourselves permission to write utter crap for our first draft. Feel out the work. Get to know the characters, the setting, the message. Embrace the million words.

Not everyone can do that. It’s hard to embrace crap. I learned that day in Chuck’s house, sitting one person over from him and with Simon about five more to Chuck’s left. Because the comment about the German satellite, and Simon’s comment about the million words — they weren’t meant to be mean. They were meant to tell a writer to cut her losses and move on to something better. That if I could admit this was bad — which I did, right there, because everyone who’d spoken up had made great points about how and why it was crap — I could let go of the emotional attachment I had to the work and move on to something better.

I know I did, although I don’t remember what that was. It, too, wound up being trashed, stuck on a floppy disc somewhere, maybe a hard copy stuffed away in the cabinets here in my office. (I think I have the one that was so roundly trashed, too.)

The point is that it’s okay to write a million words of crap. It’s okay to write a million words of not crap.

But be a big enough person to realize that writing is a craft and it’s not a waste of an editor’s time to hire him/her/me and ask for help — but you gotta take that help that you’re given. Even when it hurts. Give it time. Go write something else. Live a little bit larger than you had been. And then come back to the page and make it better.

That’s the beauty of writing: for every million words of crap, there’s ten million of good stuff.


Write What You Know #atozchallenge


K. There are a lot of good k words. Kangaroo. Kumquat. Kitchen. and… Knowledge.

That’s what we’re going to talk about today, that old maxim to write what you know.

But… guess what? I’m not going to sit here and tell you to limit yourself. Nope! Not even close.

If you’ve been reading along all month so far, you know this. I said it during G is for Guns day: Go learn. Teach yourself. Find a teacher. Do whatever it takes to learn, to soak up that gorgeous stuff in life called knowledge. Add in some experience while you’re at it for a true ability to write what you know from a place of authenticity.

Oh, that doesn’t mean you should become the world’s best downhill skier, but you should at least have an idea of how to snap your boot into your bindings. You should know what the different types of snow are and what each means for a competitor. You should know how races are run — and not just the part where the skier physically hurtles down the slope, either. What about the backstage life? How does all that come together, unfold, become a major spectacle that’s so seamless, people never stop to think about the logistics behind it?

All too often, we authors sit and home and dream. That’s where the genesis of our stories comes from, and it’s important stuff. It’s important stuff to sit and pound out a first draft, then spend time revising and crafting and shaping it, then sending it to our beta readers or our critique group, and then revising some more.

That is, after all, where the image of the solitary writer comes from. And it’s important stuff.

But so is being able to write what you know. Which means you have to shrug off the solitary part of yourself and explore this great big huge, wonderful place called the world. Travel. Learn a new skill. Explore something you’ve always wanted to. Use your book as your excuse, but gosh darn it, our rears spread when we spend too much time sitting on them, and our souls empty.

Who can write on an empty soul?

Go fill yours. Write what you know, and devote yourself to knowing a lot of stuff. You’re a writer, after all. For the duration of the crafting of your manuscript, you can have that same career as your hero or heroine. (Note that I said crafting, because that often starts at the research stage). Embrace life. Live in the moment, learn what you’ll need to make your characters and your book their best possible selves.

And then come back and write about it.

Go on. You can do it.

Write what you know — what a great excuse to know things.


Guns Going Bang #atozchallenge


Although I’ve said this before, it was awhile ago now. Since there are new folks here for the A to Z challenge, I’d like to repeat myself. Besides, this is one that I feel very strongly about.

A lot of books involve guns. A lot of books, regardless of time period and genre — including some genres that might surprise you (like YA and romance — not romantic suspense. Romance). If a gun’s been invented, it’s possible that one will make an appearance in a manuscript that crosses my desk.

Now, we can talk about the gun culture and how including guns in our books so easily and with such frequency helps perpetuate it. Or we can argue that fiction is merely reflecting our reality. Guns are everywhere.

BUT we’re not going to.


What we’re going to talk about is how you, the author, are charged to write what you know. And that means that if you don’t know much about guns but want to include them in your book, you owe it to your credibility as an author, and you owe it to your reader to get yourself over to a range or a sportsman’s club and learn.

Now, not all ranges and clubs offer classes to non-members. I get that. But many do. (Mine offers a ladies’ pistol class every October, for instance. And they offer other classes, as well.)

(Yes, I just came out as belonging to a sportsman’s club. What of it?)

Writing responsibly about gun use means knowing what you’re writing about. Educate yourself. Take a class. Find a certified instructor and hit the range. (And, like you expect me to say anything less, WEAR YOUR EYE PROTECTION!)

Learn what it feels like to have a gun barrel kick into your palm. Into your shoulder, if you’re shooting a shotgun. Learn how to seat it properly in that shoulder; it’s not nearly as easy as it looks (she says… from experience). Learn what it feels like to flick the safety. To load. What a bullet feels like, what a hot casing feels like when it pops free and grazes your cheek (HELLO EYE PROTECTION). What it smells like, how heavy it is, what it’s like when you’ve been holding it for long periods. Do you find using the sight intuitive?

I can go on and on.

These are details your reader expects your character to know. That means, by extension, your reader expects you to know them.

If you’re going to write about guns, do it from a position of knowing how to use a gun, how to hold a gun, how to fire a gun, and all the rest. Know what guns cost. Know what ammunition costs!

Write what you know.

Which means that if you don’t know first-hand, go find out.

I bet you’ll learn more than simply how to write about a gun in your manuscript. In fact, I’d bet an entire edit on it. Because unless you grew up around guns or have a career that made gun safety a priority and something as natural as breathing, I know from experience. You WILL learn.

And your fiction will be better for it.

Just wear your damn eye protection so you can read about it once the book hits the market.*

*For you not in the know, no, I did not hurt my eye while at the sportsman’s club or while otherwise handling a firearm. But damn if I haven’t learned to go overboard on the eye protection issue.


#SaysTheEditors Turning Clients Away


I turned away a client this week.

It’s not that I’m currently so backed up that I did it in order to get Steve’s manuscript in front of competent eyes faster (if that had been the case, I’d have called in a subcontractor). Truth is that I’m waiting on about four clients to finish up and send their manuscripts along. If anything, I’m a little bored — and we all know that bad things tend to happen when I get bored. Still, if it means a better manuscript from my clients, I’ll gladly wait.

I’d just like to have something more to work on while I wait. Catching up is only interesting for so long. I mean, there’s a reason that stuff slid in the first place!

So then you’re asking why I didn’t take Steve on. I have the time. I need the income. So what’s up?

Well, I could have. I could have been like all those other editors out there who focus on taking money from clients. I would have done a better job by Steve, of course, because I’m good at what I do, but in the end, I decided it wouldn’t be fair to either of us.

Steve wasn’t ready for me. And he didn’t know it yet.

Folks, using friends and colleagues as beta readers and critique partners is valuable stuff. Learning the craft is vital. Yes, I can teach that. Yes, I now offer writing coaching along with pure editing. Yes, I like to work with debut novelists and first-time writers and all that.

So what gives? What made me turn this guy away?

Well, maybe it’s about morals. That I could have taken his money. A LOT of his money. And I could have given this manuscript my all. But… I’d have been miserable for doing it. I’d have spent too long gnashing my teeth and swearing about why I’d taken this on. Or I’d have hoped he would listen to me and take my advice and the next draft — because there would be a next draft — would be better than the first. Markedly better.

But the simple truth is that I wanted Steve to save his money. To find some critique partners, some beta readers. To join writing groups and spend some time learning craft. It’s a step we as writers all need; not even I, when I am writing fiction, operate as an island. I have people I trust to read and be brutal in their assessments. I have an editor. I read articles about writing, talk craft with my friends, listen to what I say to my clients.

Steve… he wasn’t there yet. He needed to go through all that. And so I turned him away.

Working with him at this time wasn’t in his best interests. It sure wasn’t in mine.

Sometimes, it goes like that.

And sometimes, I’m a little less bored and a lot more in love with my chosen career.

Keep doing the hard work, people. I’m ready for you once you have.