Tag Archives: literary fiction

In Praise of Revision, or the Four Fails of Trying to Write the Last Draft First

by Mary W. Walters

When I was a new writer, I read a lot about how other writers wrote, and I became deluded into thinking that I could calculate how long it would take me to complete a writing project.

My reasoning went like this: if I wrote 500 words per day, I would be able to complete a short story in about ten days. If I upped the total to 1,000 words per day, I could finish a novel in 60 to 100 days, depending on the length of the novel. Those word goals seemed fairly modest to me, even a bit cushy: hadn’t I just been reading about writers who set themselves to write 5,000 words a day—and did it?

I got out my calculator and started pressing buttons. I reasoned that if I took a weekend off from time to time, and a week or two for vacation every year, I could still complete about a hundred novels and several collections of short stories by the time my 80th birthday rolled around. All I needed was the will power and fortitude to actually get the work done—and I was sure I had those in abundance. (I always feel that way before I start a project.)

It was then that I first faced what have come to think of as the “Four Fails” of trying to write the last draft first.

The first of these Fails occurred when I started my next novel. (It was my third, the first that would be published. My first and second novels had been abandoned part-way through, perhaps because they had failed to write themselves fast enough.)

I set out on the first day to write my 1,000 words, my schedule in hand and my determination firm. But I found I could not think of which 1,000 words to put down first—or, in fact, which one word to put down first. I told myself it was natural to feel this hesitation: with the schedule I’d set myself, a lot relied on the first word. The rest of the story had to ride effortlessly and smoothly on its back.

I dithered for days and weeks, growing increasingly discouraged as hour after hour passed away in fingernail-gnawing page-staring. My discouragement was laced with panic: if I kept dawdling this way, I might get no more than 90 or so books written before I hit my dotage.

By the time I did at last manage to get enough words down to constitute a first page, the second of the Fails kicked in: I found myself revising and revising and revising those first few sentences until the edges were worn off both them and me, and I could barely remember what vision had got me started in the first place. Still, I reassured myself again, if I got the beginning right, I could adhere to my schedule for the rest of the novel. It was only the first few paragraphs and pages that needed to be perfect. I’d loosen up when I got past this initial hurdle.

Fail the Third set in after I’d completed Chapter 1. In Chapter 2, something unexpected happened – Character X became more important than I’d originally envisioned and I had to go back to Chapter 1 and revise it to reflect the increased stature of X in the novel. More new plot developments in Chapter 3 required additional adjustments to Chapters 1 and 2. In Chapter 8, I realized that if there was going to be a smoking gun, I’d need to go way back near the beginning and hang that sucker on the wall. And if Character Y was going to fire said gun, I’d need to go back again and give her some precedent behaviour that would make her delivering the shot believable.

If I ever did write 1,000 new words in one day, the next day I’d end up revising them instead of writing another thousand, which would drop my average to 500 words per day. Two days later I’d be down around 250. Although the writing went more quickly as I neared the end of that novel, by the time the first draft was done, months and months had passed.

Done, but not Done

And still I wasn’t finished with the damned thing. In fact, it was at that point that Fail 4 announced itself as I realized that the final shape and potential of the novel had only really begun to suggest itself when the first full draft was down on paper. Themes had started to emerge that needed to be developed. Certain characters required additional depth and vibrancy. Some scenes went on too long and had to be trimmed; others needed to be expanded.

It was clear that I basically had to go back and rewrite the entire novel from the beginning—jettisoning some of the precious pages (and even whole chapters) over which I had earlier sweated bullets.

That novel took me a couple of years. By the time The Woman Upstairs had been accepted for publication (and, in the meantime, several short stories had been published, too), I figured I had learned enough about writing that the next time, I would be able to do a short story in six days, and a novel in six weeks.

But it didn’t happen that time either. In fact, the next novel that was published took me longer than the first. And the more I learned about what a short story could do if you really pushed yourself and made it the best that it could be, the longer it took me to write one of those as well.

I was growing so discouraged at my track record that I despaired of ever becoming a real writer. The real writers I had read about always seemed to write 1,000 words before breakfast and another 1,000 before lunch. I was proving to be a snail in the marathon of novel-writing. At the rate I was going, I’d probably never get more than a dozen novels written in my lifetime.

Why, I asked myself, did I seem to be incapable of simply letting go of what I wrote? Why did every sentence need to “sound right” to me before I could move on? Why did I need to hear music in each sentence, feel breath in every paragraph and chapter, find a coherent reality in the book as a whole before I could even show it to another person? Once the book was accepted, I’d just have to do more revisions anyway. Time was a-wasting here.

The Light Comes On

It was in finding the answers to my own questions that I began to learn about myself as a writer. In examining how I worked, I realized that I did all the revisions because I liked to do them. In fact, I loved to do them. Revision—getting everything just right, or at least as “right” as I could make it—was much more satisfying, deep and meaningful to me than writing a quick first draft could ever be. Most of the time, in fact, the first-draft part was total hell.

I realized that to me, writing was revision. I realized that for me, the first draft was just throwing down the clay that I’d then work with.

Everything I’ve done ever since has underscored the truth of this realization. I am Mary the Reviser: this is how I work.

Ironically, since I have learned this about myself, I can now get first drafts down as fast as my fingers can move across the keys. I write first drafts quickly now because I no longer worry about them: I know that before anyone else sees them, every sentence is going to be reworked and reworked, and that whole chunks are likely to disappear completely. For me, the important thing about the first-draft stage is just to get the ideas down on paper before I lose them: to make sure the clay I will be working with is at least somewhere close to the right colour and consistency. The form and detail will come later.

Now I know that when I start a novel, it is probably going to be three years before it’s finished, and that a short story will take at least a month—or several, if you count the parts where you need to put it away to let it rise like bread dough before you punch it down again.

By learning that for me, in writing, the pleasure is in the process, I have been freed from the tyranny of numbers and quotas. The end product is just a side benefit. I know that I would rather write one novel that sings (at least to me) from end to end than write 95 that consist of words strung over plots like carelessly tossed sheets on clothes racks. (Which is not to say that I do not strive at times to make my carefully edited text look like I’ve just tossed it.)

There are no fails in my approach to writing now. While there is no denying that to complete a project–whether it’s this blog post, or a novel—is satisfying, and a relief—the joy is in the work itself. The realization that what I love the most is digging has given the words “treasure” and “reward” new meaning.

Subsequent kudos from others and offers of publications become mere affirmations of what I already know: that I have done the best that I can do. I have given my work the respect it deserves. I have worked it until it is done, and I have seen that it is good.

“Chick lit”? “Women’s lit”? Plain old “lit”? Someone! Please tell me the difference.

by Mary W. Walters

A few years ago, I was less confused than I am now about the distinction between “chick lit” and other fiction. Chick lit usually had a brightly coloured cover that featured a stylized young woman, handbag, stilettos, and a martini glass. The title was written in a light-hearted often cursive font. The word “shopping” figured largely in the jacket copy, and the main characters had much in common with the main characters of  Sex in the City in regard to their sizes, shapes, occupations and consuming (!) interests. They generally had (minor) weight issues, men issues and life issues which were written about in a light-hearted, gently self-mocking way. Bridget Jones’s Diary was an early contribution to the genre.

I must admit to not having read much chick lit (aka “chic lit”). I didn’t have too much trouble avoiding it: I was able to distinguish it from other books by the aforementioned covers, plot summaries, and tone. I avoided these novels partly because I am happiest reading really well written  prose and poetry (I am a literary snob, as many readers of my blog and fellow contributors to literary fora have disparagingly pointed out before) but that is not the entire reason: I am sure there is some wonderfully well written chick-lit out there. (In fact, I did read Bridget Jones’s Diary, and found it thoroughly engaging.) But the main reason I haven’t read much in the genre (or sub-genre) is because it concerns subjects I’m not much interested in – such as shopping, hanging out with girlfriends all day long, dating, and seeking true happiness with the right man.  Or woman, for that matter.

I’m just not much of a “girly girl.” Never have been. My female role models are people like Helen Mirren, Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep, A.S. Byatt, k.d. lang, Renee Fleming. Brainy, independent women who happen to be beautiful. “Chicks” in a whole different sense. No bubble-gummers there. (Although Fonda had her moments.)

Women’s lit vs chick lit

“Women’s literature,” on the other hand, I have always read. Women’s fiction is quite different from chick lit, at least in my understanding of it. Women’s literature is generally  more serious than chick lit. It concerns bigger issues that are of concern to women – self-realization, domestic violence, philosophical inquiry, life and death.

I must admit I have often wondered why we feel the need to label women’s fiction. Is it to warn off certain men who might not like it? (Wouldn’t the jacket copy do an adequate job of that?) Or are we trying to get these books noticed by people who choose titles for study in university courses or reading groups?

It is true that men and women often have different interests and foci when they write, but the idea of pointing out that Barbara Kingsolver, Anne Tyler, Jane Austen, Toni Morrison or Alice Munro write women’s fiction makes as much sense to me as saying that John Updike, E.L Doctorow, Salman Rushdie and Joseph O’Neill write “men’s fiction.” We do not label the men that way. Why not? Does Cormac McCarthy write men’s fiction? Yes. Because he is a man.  So what?

Why not just call it all “literature”?

My efforts to figure out the difference between women’s literature and literature in general are further confused when I consider books like the wonderful Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Is that book women’s fiction because it was written by a woman? The main character is a man who is talking to his son about his life and his god. What is “women’s lit” about that? How about Amy Tan? She writes domestic dramas. So does Anne Tyler. What about Joyce Carol Oates? Does she write literature, or women’s lit?

Why it matters

The labels bother me because I think that labeling certain books as “women’s fiction” discourages certain other people from reading them—or gives them an excuse not to read them.  And for no good reason I can think of. (I have a friend whose husband was happily reading a P.D. James novel, and was talking about reading more by the same author. But he thought P.D. James was a man. His wife was going to hold back the truth for as long as she could because if he’d known the author was a woman, he’d have stopped reading immediately. He didn’t like books by women.)

The fact that there is also a “chick lit” category adds another dimension when it comes to discouraging readers. While some men may happily venture into books by “literary” writers who happen to be female—e.g.,  Margaret Atwood, Ann Patchett, Jeanette Winterson and so on—they are not likely to pick up a Candace Bushnell or a Sophie Kinsella. In fact, they are likely to turn their noses up at those books. For that matter, so are some female readers. (How come I get flak from female readers when I turn my nose up at chick lit, but guys just get an indulgent little shake of the head?)

What do I write? I may have no idea.

Do I write chick lit? Well, I didn’t think so. I am not interested in reading it, and have not read much of it, so how can I possibly write it? And yet within the past few months I have been told several times—and not only by readers and fellow writers, but also by two agents—that the reason I am having trouble placing my newest novel is because it is chick lit, and I am not marketing it properly. It is not “literature,” they tell me. It is not even “women’s literature” per se. It is “chick lit.”

An agent who read the first few chapters of my new novel responded to my statement, “This is not chick lit” by saying, firmly, “This IS chick lit.” As a result of this feedback from a person I respect, I have now started marketing my novel as chick lit. I have changed the title from The Whole Clove Diet to Finding Rita. I have revised the pitch to put the focus on Rita’s weight problems and her peculiarly dark lightheartedness about it and her sexual attraction to a mysterious doctor whom she meets by accident.

The book itself has not changed—it is still about a young woman who has buried her misery about some wrong choices she’s made so far in food, gaining 80 lbs in the process, and who must deal with some serious family crises and even the death of her father-in-law on her way to finding her way through it all–which she ultimately does. Her biggest problem is her isolation—she’s cut herself off from her friends. She can’t shop because she’s too fat. She doesn’t drink martinis, or work in publishing or advertising. Although her husband is the books editor of a newspaper.

Does that sound like chick lit to you? It does not to me.

So what has led these readers of the first few chapters of my new novel to insist that it is chick lit? Is it because the main character has a weight issue? If so, does that also make Wally Lamb’s fine novel She’s Come Undone chick lit?

The Questions

I need your help here, people—both male and female people. Not just for the sake of my novel and my writing, but because now I can’t stop thinking about this. I have heard in recent months that “chick lit” is going out of style. Is it gobbling up other kinds of women’s fiction in an effort to stay alive? Or is it going to take women’s fiction down the drain with it?

What does chick lit mean to you? Is every book that deals with women under the age of 40, who are looking for themselves, that includes some  humour, chick lit?

Does Tama Janowitz write chick lit? Fay Weldon? Laura Esquival?  Sue Grafton? Ruth Rendall?

Do these people all write women’s literature–as well? Instead?

Is everything written by a woman “women’s literature” or “women’s fiction”? Even if it’s detective fiction?

Do any women write plain old literature?

Do men ever write “women’s literature”?

And how can you tell?

“The Talent Killers”: The Litopia Dialogues

by Mary W. Walters

In four podcasts originally aired May 4 to 7, 2009, I was interviewed by U.K. literary agent and host of Litopia Daily, Peter Cox, about my essay “The Talent Killers: How literary agents are destroying literature and what publishers can do to stop them.”

These four podcasts are available free from iTunes as downloadable episodes that you can play on your MP3 player at your convenience. They are Litopia Daily episodes number 202 through 205 inclusive. Just go to the iTunes store and search “Litopia,” then click on the “album cover” of Peter Cox and you will go to the Litopia menu.

While you’re there, sample other episodes as well. Both Litopia Daily and Litopia After Dark provide interesting news, trivia, gossip, interviews and discussions that are relevant to writers everywhere. Each segment of  Litopia Daily (which airs Monday to Friday) is approximately 15 minutes long. Litopia After Dark (Fridays) is closer to an hour.

You can also access the four discussions between Peter Cox and me directly from the Litopia site. Under the text description of the program, find the icon that looks like this:

Picture 1Press the arrow part of it on the right, and voila!

Here are the four podcasts.

Episode 202: Agents are destroying publishing It is proposed that the “The Talent Killers” may be a seminal essay, as well as a symptom of the massive upheaval currently underway throughout the books publishing industry–an upheaval to which it would be wise for everyone involved in the books business at any level, from writers to readers, through agents, publishers, book buyers and booksellers, to pay attention. (Peter Cox points out that he does not completely agree with the the conclusions I draw in my essay. He does not feel we can lay all of the blame for all of the problems on the shoulders of literary agents. I am heard to concede that this might be true.)

Episode 203: Writers keep out! Peter talks about his recent blog post in The Bookseller“Dead Men Walking”— which predicts a dire future for agents, particularly newer agents, who aren’t paying attention to the changes in the industry, and I get so wound up about the importance of remembering that the writers ARE the TALENT that I knock my microphone around a bit.

Episode 204: Agents with attitude,  in which Peter describes me as “the scourge of literary agents everywhere,” but then goes on to drive his own skewers into a couple of agents in particular, whose approaches to writers are supercilious, condescending, arrogant and even rude. We  denounce ‘agents with attitudes’ in general, and the fan clubs that encourage them, while agreeing that not all agents  can be painted with this brush.

Episode 205: It’s Future-Agent! From the Litopia site: “What future is there for the agent in tomorrow’s brave new publishing world?  We stand on the cusp – it could be a new Golden Age, or it could just as easily be the eve of extinction. Those agents who truly study the needs of authors are most likely to prosper.” Our dialogues conclude.

* * * *

I am grateful to Peter Cox and Litopia Daily for giving me an opportunity to speak to the issues I raised in my original essay, for actually hearing what I was saying, and for restoring some of my faith in the system — not faith in it as it currently exists, but faith that change is coming, and that as writers we have a crucial role to play in determining our own futures.

I, for one, welcome the challenge. And I’ll be writing about it often on The Militaant Writer. My next topic is already beginning to percolate in that place inside my head where the writing always starts–working its way around even when I’m paying no attention to it. It’s going to be about writers, and our relationships with one another. (No. Not that kind of relationship. Don’t worry. Not spilling any beans.)

Hobby or vocation?

by Mary W. Walters

Are you over-reacting to rejection letters because you’ve got a disproportionate sense of your own importance?

Are you letting your writing consume your life when you could be allocating your energies in better ways–maintaining a proper perspective on the universe as a whole, and your place in it?

Were you aware that you ought to take yourself seriously as a writer only after you have published at least one book?

Did you know that until you’ve established yourself, your writing is just a hobby?

Nathan Bransford tells it like it is (or how people might THINK it is, if they’ve never actually talked to a real writer.)

[Note on the a.m. of Wednesday, May 6: Mr. Bransford has subsequently edited his post to withdraw the word “hobby.” I am pleased to see that. However, underlying assumptions don’t change as easily as words are edited. Many many people think writing is (or should be) a hobby — or at least an avocation–but for many of us, from the first moment we picked up a pen or pencil, or set fingers to keyboards, it has never been peripheral to our lives.]

I think Nathan is trying to tell some of his correspondents to just “chill” — to remind them that it’s not that big a deal when he sends them a rejection letter. He’s probably trying also to tell people like me, who have had it up to here with being rejected for the wrong reasons, that we should chill, too: not take our obvious bitterness out on his profession in literate blog explosions.

The bitterness that is is specifically directed at his profession, as we’ve discussed here and on Litopia, has erupted for a host of reasons, and if Nathan doesn’t get why we feel the way we do and what is wrong with the entire system that is causing us to feel the way we do, and what it is about our own basic compulsions to write that cause us to feel the way we do, he’s in the wrong biz entirely. We are who we are. Some of us respond inappropriately at a rejection letter, but almost all of us hit by an axe over and over again for reasons that have nothing to do with our writing, are bound to blow a gasket eventually. Or drink ourselves to death. Or try to give up writing and get all withered and dried out, and eventually just blow away.

_______

P.S. The award for perfect timing goes to Litopia! Don’t miss the third episode in my talk with Peter Cox of Litopia Daily, in which agents are denounced — in no uncertain terms — for their cavalier attitudes toward writers. The episode’s title? “Agents with attitude!” Enjoy! :)

The Talent Killers: Update #1 – comments and solutions from an unrepentant writer

by Mary W. Walters

I have been amazed and perplexed by the traffic that has visited my “Talent Killers” article. In the first ten days, the post received more than 13,500 “hits,” and more than 300 comments.

Here’s what I have observed in the feedback I’ve received:

  • Many, many of the comments (and, I am sure, the hits) came from wannabe-agented and wannabe-published writers who would have risen up to defend agents in general and their chosen agents in particular no matter what the accusations against them–mainly in the hope of currying their favour (update: on April 28, a correspondent pointed out to me that this is entirely speculation on my part. He is correct. I do not know for sure that this is an accurate description of the people to whom I am referring). This is fair enough, but hardly the kind of response that is likely to change my thinking;
  • A number of comments came from agents who felt unjustly maligned, and even at times defensive. This was also understandable, but also didn’t alter my perspective in the least. (By the way, several agents pointed out that they take 15% of an author’s royalties, not 10%. I have noted that correction in the body of the article);
  • A number of writers, agents and publishers argued that although there are greedy, heartless junk-dealing agents out there, many others are intelligent, caring individuals who do their work because they love good writers and good writing. Fine. I am happy to accept that point (I suspected it might be true anyway);
  • Writers who already have agents pointed out how valuable the agents have been in securing good deals for them, managing their rights and helping to build their careers (I knew that. Why else would agents exist at all?);
  • An editor or two said that they appreciate the ‘gatekeeper’ role of agents—and their assistance in sorting through the slush pile. The agents who have commented on the subject have insisted that they are acting according to the guidelines set by the editors at the major houses, and not on their own initiative, when choosing which new books and/or authors to present. I stand corrected on that detail if it is the case, but it doesn’t change my basic point–the agents are still the gatekeepers–the ones who decide which books/writers the editors will want;
  • Several agents have pointed proudly to their record of bringing debut authors to the marketplace. I acknowledged in my original article that debut writers (well, in fact, individual books by debut writers) continue to be “discovered”;
  • In discussing my article on his podcast at Litopia last Tuesday (the relevant bit starts around 14:30), London agent Peter Cox implicated the buyers for the major bookstore chains in determining which books get published and what those books look like when they hit the stands (Peter has invited me to discuss/debate with him the possible role of literary agents and others in the destruction of the literary arts. Our conversations will be aired as part of the Litopia Daily podcasts during the week of May 4 to 8, 2009 inclusive);

In addition to the above agent-specific points, many people (including a number of self-appointed critics and those who wanted to be seen merely as “interested readers”) came by to argue that:

  • literary writing that can’t command an immediate advance should not be published at all;
  • anyone who has already published a book or two and has failed to turn herself into an international bestseller has already had her moment in the sun and should not expect even a glance from agents or publishers (this approach tends to ignore the fact that it is rather difficult to build an international reputation with only 1,500 to 3,000 copies of your book in hand and a publisher who cannot afford to reprint. It also indicates that, to the speaker of such codswallop, the concept of “artistic growth” does not apply to writers);
  • self-publishing is a viable alternative to publication by established presses (it may be for some books, but for those that require the stamp of approval of a selection committee and outstanding editorial support throughout the publication process, such as literary novels, it is not);
  • if a writer’s work is not accepted by an agent, it is not good enough for public consumption—by definition. Case closed. The writer should just try to write more interesting novels that more people will want to read, learn to write a decent query letter, and–most importantly–stop whining!

I am unmoved

NO ONE who has responded to my article has said a word to dispute my underlying assertion (or accusation, if you will), which was—and continues to be—that literary agents are excluding from consideration by major publishing houses those writers who, after one or more books with smaller presses, have reached a stage where they are ready to reach a much wider audience–and whose books have the potential to make substantial sales in that wider market. Most agents do not want to work with these writers because they do not command the kind of advance that makes them worth the bother from an immediate economic point of view for the agents (and the agents alone: everyone else stands to benefit economically). Major publishing houses therefore never become aware of the existence of these writers.

Some solutions?

Nearly two weeks after this article’s originally posting, during which time I have carefully read all of the responses (some of which agreed in whole or in part with my thesis, and even enhanced my position), two possible solutions to this problem have suggested themselves to me–aside from the one I proposed in the original essay (which was to eliminate agents as a group).

Here are my ideas:

1) Those agents who believe that mid-list writers are essentially over-the-hill has-beens who are never going to make it in the world of commercial publishing–whom they would love to help, if they could only afford to do so–should say so publicly. They should announce on their websites that they discourage contact with them from all writers who have published books with established literary presses in the past. (This would be a huge relief to those of us who fall into this category, for several reasons. We would at least know what we are dealing with. It would save us significant amounts of time–it takes me about an hour to develop each and every query letter–that we could be using to write our next novels. It would allow us to realize that it is not our writing but our status that is being rejected); and

2.) Little side doors should open in the walls of established publishers that permit writers with one or more books previously published with established literary presses (NOT self-published writers) to bypass the agents and go directly to the editors–and to negotiate their terms with them directly if they wish to do that. This option simply acknowledges the excellence of an entirely different kind of jury/gatekeeper (the literary press) that is, like literary agents, pre-sorting the slush piles and picking out the very best writers. It also contributes to the idea that writers — like filmmakers, visual artists, actors, and flautists — may actually get better with time.

I encourage readers to submit other solutions and/or to comment on the ones I have suggested.

_______________________________

Note: Future installments of The Militant Writer will

  • explore how writers can separate the “good” agents from the “bad” ones (the “bad” ones being those who publishers do not like or want to deal with due to previous experience, and those who are too new to be able to reach the publishing companies on behalf of their writers) quite aside from the obvious issue of finding out which agents exhibit a modicum of interest in the kind of writing you are doing;
  • discuss the concept of literary presses as the “nurseries” for future world-class writers (in addition to their other roles, which include promoting voices that may forever remain marginal to the mainstream);
  • present a primer for new agents (and for established agents who have never thought about it) that explains the economic differences between representing a book, and representing a writer with a vocation that includes past and future books as well as the current one;
  • explore genre in literature; and
  • provide a forum for any other topic you or I want to talk about that relates to literary writing.