Seven Things I’ve Learned About Writing, Part II

December 21, 2008
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Dissonance
Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Buy This Book via Amazon.com

The Art of Fiction: 
Seven Things I’ve Learned About Writing, Part II

by Lisa Lenard-Cook

January – February, 2009

Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink. Read more about Lisa.

Mind of Your Story

Mind of Your Story by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Buy This Book via Amazon.com

"Open any book you love and read its first sentence to see how this is done. Then see how your own
fiction measures up."

—Lenard-Cook

Happy new year! Here are numbers 4 – 7 of what I’ve learned about writing. But read to the end and you’ll find a bonus!

4. The seeds of the end are in the beginning.

I used to shake my head at statements like this. I mean, come on, if the end is in the beginning, why would someone bother to read (or write) the whole book?

The more I honed my own first sentences, though, the more I saw that this is not only a truth, but a requirement. A look at all the things a first sentence ought to do serves as illustration:

· Establish the tone.
· Introduce the protagonist.
· Fire up the conflict.
· Create the voice.
· Unveil the setting.
· Set the pace.

Open any book you love and read its first sentence to see how this is done. Then see how your own fiction measures up. Be honest, now. If the seeds aren’t planted, who’s going to wait around to see if there’s a flower?

" Nothing, and I mean nothing,
is right the first time."

—Lenard-Cook

5. There is more to writing than writing.

Yes, you agree. There’s research, of course. And there’s owning a word processing program, and time, and ideas. But none of those are what I’m referring to here. Three things separate great writing from the merely good: being open to the world around you (see number 3, last month); allowing your manuscripts percolation time; and knowing how to revise and rewrite.

Nothing, and I mean nothing, is right the first time. This includes love at first sight, your first soufflé, and, for our purposes here, first drafts. You should rightfully be proud of finishing your story or your novel or your article, but once you’re done reaching around to pat yourself on the back, put your draft away. Put it in a notebook, a closet, or a locked trunk, but get it off your desk and out of your sight so percolation can begin.

Don’t think about your manuscript while it’s percolating. Right brain is doing that for you (it’s just not telling you, because that’s not right brain’s style). You’ll know when your draft has percolated long enough (I recommend at least a month, but the manuscript I just took out of the closet had been in there over twenty years – so long, in fact, I’d forgotten all about it). “Long enough” means you’ll be able to read your writing with a critical eye. You’ll discover if it’s worth revising or needs rewriting. Then, if it still matters to you, you’ll dig back in and find the diamonds that you’ve buried beneath all that other stuff. You may not be able to see them yet. But you will.

"Even if they’re not interacting, they’re reacting differently. What you believe you’re seeing or hearing will not
be the precisely the same as what another does."

—Lenard-Cook

6. Never slam a door behind you.

When I first wrote Dissonance in 1995, I was introduced to an editor who was very interested in the book. After reading the manuscript, though, he called and said that, while he found it quite compelling overall, he felt that the narrator too distant. Then he called me back, a week later. “I can’t get your book out of my head,” he said, and asked to see it again. A week after that, he called to say he’d been right the first time: my narrator needed work.

Heartbroken, I put the manuscript away. Five years later (see percolation time, above), I took it out, read it, then revised it extensively (see revision, above). I entered it in the Jim Sagel Award competition. It won. And then UNM Press bought it (see below).

That editor had been right, and I emailed and told him so. I could do this because, despite his rejection, I hadn’t slammed the door behind me; I’d left it open enough that he felt comfortable responding that he’d known I’d see what I needed to do with the book and that it would find a home once I had.

That was five or six years ago. A few weeks ago, I picked up his company’s most recent catalog at the Weekly Alibi, where I review books. As I turned the pages, I saw that he is publishing a wonderful variety of literary writers, and succeeding at it while much of the business burns around him. Impressed, I emailed him and told him so.

One thing led to another, and he asked what I was working on. Then he asked to see it. He’s got it now. My fingers (and toes) are crossed. After all, the man loved my flawed first novel enough to see it twice, and I’ve learned a lot (see above and below) since then. Stay tuned.

"You’ve likely heard that you should always aim to sit next to those movers and shakers at conferences. . . I disagree."
—Lenard-Cook

7. Sit next to Judy.

You’ve likely heard that you should always aim to sit next to those movers and shakers at conferences, that you should use every opportunity to meet them, talk to them, and tell them about your work. I disagree. I think you should sit next to Judy (and if you’re around my age, there are lots of Judy’s to choose from). Here’s why:

When I first moved back to New Mexico in 1998, I joined Southwest Writers, and soon after agreed to be the Young Writers Contest chair. At that year’s conference (this was back when SWW still had those fabulous weekend-long conferences – are you listening, guys?), I was late to the Saturday evening banquet, and the table of mucky-mucks with whom I was supposed to sit was full. I looked around for an empty seat and found the last one at a table in the back of the room. The woman I sat down next to smiled and introduced herself. Her name was – is – Judy. We started talking, and basically haven’t stopped since.

Judy wasn’t an editor. She wasn’t an agent. She was, in fact, a corporate attorney who’d always wanted to write. And she was writing, a little, doing short (unpaid) pieces for the Southwest Sage.

Now flash-forward a few years. Dissonance has won the Jim Sagel Prize (see above), but the prize didn’t include publication. By this time, Judy and I were meeting for lunch once a week, and one day were commiserating about how I’d ever find it a publisher.

Suddenly, Judy stopped in mid-sentence. “Oh my God,” she said. “Beth.”

“Beth?” I asked.

“Beth Hadas. She’s the director of UNM Press. I interviewed her for the Southwest Sage. She’d love Dissonance. I’ll arrange for you two to meet.”

And she did. I’ve documented the rest of this story elsewhere, so I’ll give you the short version. Beth took the manuscript, read it that afternoon, and called me as soon as she’d finished to offer to buy the book. And here’s the thing: This wouldn’t have happened if I’d sat where I’d been supposed to, at the table with the agents and editors. It happened because I sat next to Judy.

"So there you have them: Eight simple things I’ve done that have made all the difference in my writing career."
—Lenard-Cook

8. Marry someone whose job will pay for your writing career.

Malcolm Gladwell tells writer Ben Fountain’s story in his new book Outliers. Ben credits his success as much to his wife Sharie as he does to the years he spent writing and rewriting. Like Sharie, my husband Bob has a job he loves, and at which he earns enough to support both of us. It’s enabled me (hmm…maybe we need to come up with another way of phrasing that, since “enabling” has taken on a new meaning over the past few years) to do what I love – and what I’m best at: imagine and create.

 

So there you have them: Eight simple things I’ve done that have made all the difference in my writing career. There are more, of course. But none have been as important – or as life-changing – as these.

You’ll each make your own way, of course. But think about it. If you’re passionate and empathetic, do the first things first and recognize that the seeds of the end are in the beginning, if you understand that there’s more to writing than writing, never slam a door behind you, and, perhaps most important of all, sit next to Judy (and marry money), someday you’ll stand up in front of a roomful of people to share the things you’ve learned. I hope I’m sitting here when you do.

May 2009 be the year it happens.

   
Lisa Lenard-Cook
About
Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook’s first novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, and her second novel Coyote Morning short-listed for the New Mexico Press Women’s Zia Award. Lisa is on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference and Vermont College’s Lifelong Learning Program. Her book about fiction writing, The Mind of Your Story, (April 2008) can be purchased at amazon.com.

 

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