Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Be My Guest : Susan Malone

Please welcome our guest blogger today, Susan Malone. She is a terrific editor and writing coach, and we are so happy to have her join us as a guest every month.

Writing's Worst Monster

By far the biggest pitfall I see with writers has nothing to do with style, technique, characterization, plotting, and pacing—i.e., the nuts and bolts of actual writing—although those bugaboos persist. Nor does this pervasive and killer problem have to do with talent. All of these must be present to fashion a decent book. But none comprise the dragon that guards the gate of truly good writing. Rest assured, however, this beast will slay you every time until you face it.

The number-one stumbling block I see with writers, especially new ones, is getting into too big of a hurry. Rushing. Wanting to see your work in print at all costs, and most importantly, wanting to see that happen NOW.

Most of the questions I get from folks just completing novels revolve around marketing and publishing, rather than in perfecting the craft, receiving professional critique, and digging back in to make the work actually salable in the first place. That the self-publishing market has burgeoned into a real sea of this mess attests to this woe. For a very small fee, you can now see your work in print. But 99 times out of 100, you’re presenting your show horse in its work clothes, with pine shavings and manure dangling from its feet, its mane and tail all tangled and ragged.

Is this really what you want the public to see?

Writing is tough. You go for months and sometimes years without anyone seeing what you’ve done. And this drives a lot of folks batty. Well, okay, it drives us all batty at some point. If your creativity expressed itself in other pursuits, at least people would know that you have, indeed, been producing something, even if those efforts were elementary. But with words on the page, no one can experience your creative genius until you foist a manuscript into their hands.

So writers do. Since time immemorial, way, way before a work is ready to been seen by another human, writers put their babies into the hands of friends and family, if just to let those folks know that they’re really up there writing, and not just finger painting on stone tablets, or these days, screwing around on the Net. And for most of the history of publishing, this was bad enough.

But now, we have e-books. Instant gratification. Toss that manuscript out into the world with the flick of a few keystrokes (okay, so it’s not that easy, but still, compared to what it once took to publish a book, it feels like it!). Shazaam! The McNovel is out!

And the sad truth is that perhaps a really good book is buried under the words, but no one can find it through all of the, well, dung.

What makes a good book, and a good writer, includes a host of elements. But the biggest help, and conversely the biggest hindrance, has to do with time. There is an enormous amount to learn about writing, whether one has the talent of Hemingway or not. But his first novels were lost as manuscripts, left on a train. And even he later said it was the best thing that ever happened to him.

I’ve seen a lot of first novels that were great starts. As I’ve worked with the writers, they’ve taken the time and put in the effort to truly learn the craft, and gone on to publish. Three of those became Traditionally published authors this year—even in this insanely shrinking market. What’s really tough is to see a writer fixate on a first effort, when I know there’s a bigger book—a better book—within him.

Yeah, this is a brutal business. But when self-publishing was expensive enough to be out of the realm of possibility for normal people, it forced writers to actually learn their craft. To find their footing through all of the rejections, learning to sift the wheat from the chaff of critique. To find the strength and fortitude to keep going deeper into the art and science of writing—or give up entirely.

Learning the skills of great writing takes time. If you persist, you’ll always discover more tools—putting into practice the new as you build upon the old, adding texture and layers and depth to your work.

Remember that the Sistine Chapel wasn’t finished in a day. As Michelangelo, who painted a somewhat well-known mural atop, said: “I am still learning.”

Award-winning author and editor Susan Mary Malone has four traditionally published books to her credit (fiction and nonfiction) and many published short stories. A freelance editor, forty-plus Malone-edited books have now sold to Traditional publishers. You can see more about her, and what authors say about working with her, at:

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  1. Thanks for the great reminder that we are all still learning. This craft of writing isn't something that we learn in a year and then we are perfect at it. There are some days some new insight will come to me, and I have to smile.

  2. Susan, what a wonderful post. This is so true. A writing friend, author Juilene McKnight, once told me, "Take your time and enjoy writing that first novel. It's the only one that will be between you and God." Once you're traditionally published, editors may want to get in on the next book from the start, and you'll have to produce by deadlines. This first learning curve, with all its exploration, will be the most carefree writing time of your life—and what you don't learn now will have to be picked up on the fly as you approach another deadline.

  3. Excellent post, Susan! As a freelance fiction editor, I run into the same problem all too often - writers wanting a quick line-edit or final proofread when what they really need is a lot of "big-picture" advice, then to roll up their sleeves and do some serious revisions before the manuscript is ready for final copyediting and polishing.

  4. Well, I've never been accused of being in too much of a hurry ... usually it's the other way around ... but I have been accused of having pine shavings and manure dangling from my feet ... sometimes other things, too.

  5. I don't suffer from impatience, I suffer from fear. My manuscript isn't seeing the light of day until I'm satisfied with it. And...I'm picky.

  6. Great post. Patience is definately a valued commodity. It takes a lot of effort on my part to slow down and resist the rush!

  7. Welcome to the BRP club, Susan. I have to share with readers, though, that despite the ease of publication with e-books, I'm finding lots of excellent self-published novels to read. Because many authors have taken the reins, and can now afford to hire professional help, they are actually making money and solid reputations for themselves. It's very gratifying to witness. Maryann Miller is one example. Friday, we host LJ Sellers, another former blogger here, who has made a name for herself self-publishing. I love seeing this - and reading their books.

  8. You are so right about being in a rush to see your work published. I'm so happy the first novel I wrote was rejected!

  9. Couldn't agree more. I've unsubscribed from a few blogs because they've turned into info about getting published, while I'm still at the stage where I want to know how to make my work more publishable.


  10. This is so true. As badly as I want to be published, I know it's not going to happen if I turn my work in the way it is now. I'd get laughed out of an agent's office.

  11. Thank you for the post. This is so true. We, beginners, should concentrate on the writing itself, and take pleasure from the process, built confidence and technique, instead of rushing. It's always good to be reminded of that.


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