How I Got Published by Ignoring Bad Advice
Anne Rice said the worst writing advice she ever got was, “Write what you know.” It’s not difficult to understand why Anne Rice especially felt that way!
There are two pieces of advice I wish I’d never heard. The worst was, “The more you write, the better you get.”
Uh, no. No. No. No. No. No.
The real advice should be, “The harder you work at writing, the better you get.”
I spent years happily typing awkward descriptions and pointless conversations, telling myself, “This page is better than the last, and my next one will be better than this one.” Sometimes when I read other struggling writers, I can almost hear them thinking the same thing.
I was around 10 or 11 years old when I discovered books transported me in a way movies and TV couldn’t, and I vowed to give other people that experience someday. I completed my first manuscript in 1990 called, The Sins of Saint Vesna. If you read it with a squint, you can see a faint precursor to Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code, full of secret religious societies, murders, and other mayhem.
Back then, you had to type query letters, put them in stamped envelopes, and send them off to potential agents. I sent one query to an agent in New York and was amazed when I got a reply about a week later, saying she’d love to read it.
She was well-established on the New York literary scene for decades, and within a month of getting my manuscript she offered to represent it because she knew an editor at Doubleday who was interested in such stories. She also warned me that she didn’t know where else to send it if the editor turned it down.
Well, the Doubleday editor was very excited about it and took the next step of sending it to the committee level, where all members (my memory is that there were 11 or 12 people) had to agree to publication. The committee didn’t approve St. Vesna. My agent asked me to send any other manuscripts, and I tried to turn out new work, but I’d lost the spark and I struggled to finish other novels. My literary career sputtered.
I still wrote. Man, did I write. For the next twenty-five years, I wrote unreadable novels and finished only a few.
Back around 2013 or so, I started a novel set in Restoration England. After two years of research and writing, I finished a 400-page opus. I felt good about the story and characters, but I knew it needed editing. I hired a friend who is a former English teacher and asked her to make any edits she felt necessary.
She tore me to pieces.
It was such a brutal takedown I considered shelving my lifetime dream of being a published author. I stared at the pages with disbelief because I’d let my writing get so sloppy, with passive voice and meandering thoughts. I couldn’t argue with her edits. It was right there on the page.
I thought every page magically got better! The more you write the better you get! Why didn’t I improve?
Fortunately, it was also a very pricy edit and I felt I had no choice but to sigh and plunge into the revisions. Every page was more tortuous until about two-thirds of the way in, when I stopped moping and I started to grasp the way she reshaped every sentence, making it active, punchier, more readable.
That savage edit was the best thing to happen to my writing. After the final revision I closed that file and haven’t opened it since, but I was determined to apply what I learned.
I’d already started on my next project, a family story and murder mystery called, Somewhere Over Lorain Road. The very next submission to both of my writer’s groups was better than anything I’d written in years, and for the first time I thought, “If I write the whole book this way, I could get this published.”
Bold Strokes Books published Lorain Road in 2018. It was shortlisted for a 2019 Lambda Literary Award.
My writer’s groups are also crucial for me. I understand many people don’t like submitting their work to other writers for critiques, but I rely on them to ask questions I ask myself and, for some reason, promptly ignore. They raise legitimate issues I didn’t consider or offer suggestions that help me solve problems.
Most groups are filled with people who want to help. If you find a group where you can be honest about your critiques, and you can accept criticism with grace, you’ll probably find them extremely useful. Yes, you sometimes have a member who is sketchy af, who is disturbingly casual about plagiarism, and who seethes with a vindictive need to settle scores with critiques. They are the rare exceptions.
And now for the second piece of bad writing advice that tripped me up for years, paraphrased: “The strongest writing is when you don’t say it explicitly.”
Is it permissible to say “bullshit”?
Okay, over the course of a novel, you might find yourself amazed at what you know about people and situations that the writer didn’t spell out. For me, the best recent example is Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, a masterful look inside the soul of a character without a single POV word.
But with individual scenes, write what you mean. I’ve written countless scenes trying to be subtle about the hidden meanings, only to find nobody else grasped my oh-so-clever hints. Lay out the situation instead of expecting readers to understand your clues.
I should add a few things: Most readers are sophisticated enough to recognize when a writer is instructing them to insert feelings into previous scenes. If you need a character to feel a long-simmering emotion, you can’t claim they’ve been feeling it all along without adding it earlier. Readers will resent you haven’t taken the time to do the work.
Also – force yourself to write the difficult scenes. I’ve read too many drafts where writers expect you to accept the omissions. Doesn’t work.
And finally, readers expect characters to go on a journey to reach a goal. This is an especially common trap for writers of historical fiction, where everyday details consume the story at the expense of plot. When your characters have no goals, every scene reads the same as the next – the dramatic death scene feels the same as the dull scenes of everyday life.
I’m not Prometheus here, giving you the fire that will get you published. Remember, the harder you work at writing, the better your writing will get, and this is how I did it.