By Susan Mary Malone
I’m not a big proponent of books on writing. I know, I know, lots of folks swear by them. From the old Strunk & White to Julie Cameron’s inspirational works and everything in between, writers plow through countless tomes to help them pen that next bestseller. And I’m not saying some study therein isn’t helpful. It surely can be, and there are a couple I recommend, but only in very specific instances. More to the point, however, is that you can’t learn to write well just by studying the process. Writing is a doing endeavor.
Countless writers query book development editors, to employ their services, who haven’t written much. Perhaps a few chapters, with an idea of where the rest of the book is going. Perhaps even a first draft. Often this is their initial stab at fiction, and before they’ve even contacted one, they have already signed with an Indy house, have the cover and pub date. Possibly even a publicist. Oy!
That somewhat boggles my mind. In fact, novel editors won’t work with the latter at all. Serious writers are those willing to put in the blood, sweat, and tears to learn this very exacting craft. And that doesn’t mean publishing a first effort in its infancy. In the days of yore, those initial efforts routinely ended up in a drawer somewhere, and almost always deservedly so. I’m always fond of quoting the Hemingway story where he lost his first three manuscripts, leaving them on a train. Devastating at the time, but later he said that was the best thing that ever happened to his craft.
As a developmental editor, I can and do work with writers at very early stages, but not often. I counsel them to do their own legwork first, and that means, as the mantra goes, to write and write and write some more. Then, study others’ works, which means, of course, read and read and read some more. Of times, new writers do read, although only in the genre they’re pursuing. But the point is to read widely, including the classics, both pre-twentieth century and the more modern ones. I do laugh at how often my writers tell me later that I’ve ruined reading for them, as they’re constantly picking through substantive mistakes in others’ work. But I assure them that’s temporary—that while they’ll always find ways to make books better, they’ll eventually truly and so-gratefully appreciate great works. And they do.
When a writer has done the above, working with a gifted book editor proves so much more effective. That sounds quite obvious, but the reason has more to do with just skill level. The writer himself is then in a place much more conducive to learning, with a broader foundation upon which to build his craft and his book. Getting there just takes time and effort. It takes rolling up your sleeves, doing the hard work, mastering some patience, and also allowing your skin to thicken a bit in order to absorb criticism and learn from it rather than bristling and blaming the messenger.
And it speaks to something deeper and more numinous as well. For it’s those who stick it out through all of the above who indeed, have a wondrous love of this craft we call writing. And it’s from those book authors that brilliance comes, and we all remember why we do this in the first place, which in the end is the love of the word and the reverence for great writing. The ability to take the reader’s breath away in a few lines, and leave her longing for more.
Which is, of course, not a taught thing in the end. Yep, the pieces can be learned in many ways, but the putting together of magic emerges from that quiet, well-lighted room . . .