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Advice to a Non-Reading Writer

17 Nov

I would not send a poor girl into the world, ignorant of the snares that beset her path; nor would I watch and guard her, till, deprived of self-respect and self-reliance, she lost the power or the will to watch and guard herself. —Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

As an editor, I would not send a writer into the world ignorant, nor would I do all the work for him, depriving him of self-respect and self-reliance, of the power to learn, to improve, and to correct himself.

Most of the inquiries I receive for editing are followed by requests for free services or for writing advice. A good number of those requests are for manuscripts not yet ready for editing. But then there are some, such as the one received in February this year from a new writer for whom English is a second language. He prefers graphic novels over prose novels, and feels as if his head will explode if he reads more than a few pages at a time. And yet he wants to be a writer.

Although I have enjoyed helping fellow writers prepare their work for publication, my experience with non-reading writers has been mostly negative. Therefore, the decision to step aside was a matter of moments. However, not wishing to leave him without any aid, I offered this:

Congratulations on writing a book!

Since you asked for advice, allow me to be honest. I am concerned you’re not a reader, because one of the keys to good writing is good reading.

I write fantasy and science fiction most of the time, but my reading is wide: histories, biographies, mysteries, classics, poetry, and more. If all I read were other fantasy and science fiction novels, I might be tempted to imitate those stories rather than writing my own. Reading widely helps me to come up with fresh ideas for my work and fresh approaches to storytelling.

So, my first suggestion: Start reading. Read wisely. Read much.

Second suggestion: If you have not already done so, print out the entire manuscript so you have a copy you can hold. Then, as you revise the book, cut it up and rearrange it. Spread the pieces of paper out on a table or a counter or even on the floor, and then tape them back together as you see the order / the shape of the book.

Whatever scenes or parts you decide to omit, set them aside in a folder or paperclip them together (you might need them later). The stuff you intend to keep, tape those paragraphs back together.

Why do this with actual paper, tape, and scissors, instead of doing it digitally on the computer? Because it helps you see your work differently. In fact, your brain will process the information differently while you handle the physical objects instead of merely reading the words on the screen.

Once you have the manuscript cut-and-taped back together, the next step begins. Open a new document on your computer, and start typing the story in its new form. You may see scenes that need to be expanded, details that can be omitted, holes in the plot, and more.

Then, after the manuscript has been revised and retyped, now’s the time to find at least one trusted reader, but no more than five readers, who will read the entire manuscript and give you honest feedback.

Be willing to accept their criticism. Consider what they say. If their responses are too vague (“I like it” or “it’s boring”, but without any useful details), then ask questions until the readers can give you specific answers (“I don’t like the plot because_____” or “The middle part is boring because _______”). Honestly consider what they say, and determine whether or not it will be useful to your work.

Then, revise the manuscript again.

At this point, the book should be ready for other eyes. Go ahead and find a new batch of trusted readers, make any further revisions you deem necessary, and then search for an editor.

All through the process, be reading. Study the structures of other novels, the order of short stories anthologies, and so on. This will help your writing in more ways than I can name.

Writing is hard work, but it can be rewarding in many ways.

It can stab at your pride, but it can transform you, too.

No one will care about your work as much as you do. Know that truth. Accept it, and don’t be upset when other people aren’t as nice as you’d like them to be when they offer opinions about your writing or your storytelling. Allow them to be honest. It is the ultimate kindness they can offer, and it will help you grow as a writer.

My best wishes in your endeavors, and I hope to hear good news about you in the future.

As a young writer — still a teenager — my pride was wounded when I encountered a writer who offered criticism alongside her praise. I thought I was better than I was, and she showed that I still had a long way to go.

A similar sting may have accompanied my advice to this writer. He never replied. Perhaps he didn’t actually read the message. I can only hope he reads widely and sharpens his craft.

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