The Top Ten Things I Learned from Writers in 2017--and That You Can Learn from Them, too

 Ms. Black and her elven ears

Ms. Black and her elven ears

At this time of year I’m filled with, well, holiday grouchiness, yes, but also a lot of gratitude for all the clients who’ve generously opened themselves up and shared their work, their process, and their questions with me.  I thought I might show my thanks by sharing some of the most helpful things I’ve learned from writers and artists this year.

In no particular order, here are my top ten:

1) From Holly Black, “Revising is like cleaning a toilet.  You can’t make the manuscript any worse, every swipe just makes it a little more clean.”

 Ryan Graudin

Ryan Graudin

Oh Holly, what a great thing to say! I almost don't need to write the rest of this blog post.

2) I heard Ryan Graudin speak at BEA, and learned that before she became a popular YA author, she was a librarian in South Korea. She said it was key to the writer she became, because the book selection there was limited, so she simply read almost everything in the library.  And that made a difference: she got ideas and learned about style because she read broadly. 

Thank you for saying that, Ryan! Gang, don’t just carefully analyze bestsellers in the genre you write in, but keep reading, reading, reading for pleasure. You’ll pick up so much more than you realize.

 a beloved copy of Rainbow Rowell's  Carry On

a beloved copy of Rainbow Rowell's Carry On

3)  I could write a blog post just about everything I admire in Rainbow Rowell’s writing. For now I’ll share just one thing. Reading fan fiction taught her that the brain, and fans, are flexible, but most of all, it taught her the importance of character.  If we care enough about a character we’ll follow them anywhere.  (If you want more evidence of this, read Hanya Yanagihara’s A little Life.  A totally unrealistic realistic novel with an eye-rolling plot, but who cares? I hid from my friends on our vacation this summer so I could keep reading it.)  

 French grammar

French grammar

4)  And speaking of vacations, I spent the month of October at l'institut de Francais in Villefranche-sur-Mer. It was a spectacularly beautiful and fun month of immersion (and I do mean immersion) in the French language. From when we arrived at school at 8:30 till we left at 5:00, we couldn’t speak anything but French.  And we, all of us, got corrected. All. Day. Long.

Here’s what I learned, besides becoming a much better French speaker. I came to understand, on a visceral level, that correction is just that—correction. It’s not criticism, it’s not commentary that I’m stupid or bad or can’t speak a foreign language or should have been able to conjugate the imparfait of faire by now for Pete’s sake. If you want to learn a language, you have to speak it, and make many many many MANY mistakes doing it.  Authors, writing is like that.  You have to write/revise write/revise write/revise and the number of times you do has nothing to do with your ability or talent or likability or looks or anything. It’s just how the process works.

5) I read, or, more accurately, devoured, Steve Sheinkin’s Most Dangerous, on Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers.  Having once tried to work with a writer on a manuscript about Watergate, I knew how deeply complex the subject Steve tackled was. And yet the book reads clearly and compellingly.  I asked Steve how on earth he was able to extract a coherent book from so much complex history. His advice? Follow the story. Oh, duh! Seems so obvious when Steve says it.  He means don’t put in everything that happened, choose the particular story you are telling, and lead it lead you. That's true for fiction, too.

6)  Allen Zadoff puts it another way.  I emailed him for advice when I was working with a client on a densely-plotted novel, and he wrote back, “I wonder if the issue has less to do with plotting, and more to do with your client not yet fully understanding the story she is trying to tell. Because there are a million plot points that can be jammed into any book, but only a few of them are necessary to track my hero’s journey. If I don’t know what the journey is, then I throw everything and the kitchen sink into my story. But once I understand that journey, I’m only interested in the obstacles that lead my hero to her transformation in act three. In a sense, the character’s journey becomes the filter for what fits and doesn’t fit. This is why I sometimes say that character suggests plot, not the reverse.”  That's right! It always comes back to character.

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7) I didn’t learn this tip this year, but I used it with clients at least a dozen times in 2017, so I don’t mind repeating it.  From Robert McKee, “Own your plotholes.”  From time to time there will be something you just need to have happen to make your story work.  All you need to do is have a character point out how ridiculous it is. “I couldn’t believe my sister came back on the same night as my prom…” or “You’d think after breaking my leg, nothing else could go wrong…” See?  McKee uses a great example from Casablanca. Victor Laszlo has to learn about the letters of transit that are so crucial to the plot.  So the writers have Signor Ferrari, owner of the rival bar The Blue Parrot, tell Laszlo about them, even though it’s completely out of character that he do so. Ferrari says, “I am moved to make one more suggestion, why, I do not know, because it cannot possibly profit me. But have you heard about the letters of transit?”

 Perfect = boring

Perfect = boring

8) In the past few years I’ve worked with a bunch of clients on their memoirs, and I’ve loved it. Memoir is one of my favorite genres to read; I will follow a good memoirist, like Mary Karr or Jeannette Walls anywhere.

And memoirists, here’s my most essential tip for making your story compelling. Don’t be afraid to tell one on yourself.  The story of how you climbed every mountain and solved every issue life threw at you can actually become boring, and quite quickly. It’s like reading the yearbook accomplishments under the photo of the most popular kid in the school.

We read memoirs because we want to know that other people are human and error-filled, just like us. Maybe you got in a bad situation with drugs or with a man or in raising your children, maybe because you made a stupid choice, or blew off some good advice. It’s fun to read when someone confesses what keeps them up at night, or talks about the time they really screwed up before, somehow, they turned things around.  That’s when we root for your success—when we know the vulnerable, mistake-filled parts of your story, too.

 From Brave Girl by Michell Markel, illus. by Melissa Sweet

From Brave Girl by Michell Markel, illus. by Melissa Sweet

9) I wanted to write something particular to picture books, but all the good tips I’ve gotten from picture book authors and artists this year apply to everyone who writes or creates. I should have known that! Anyway, I couldn’t recommend reading award-winning illustrator Melissa Sweet’s Sutherland Lecture more highly.  Melissa offers so many useful insights into her process. I’ve known Melissa since before she had a single book contract, when she was a greeting card illustrator married to a chimney sweep. (And doesn’t that sound like a made up bio for a children’s book illustrator?)  About that period in her life, Melissa says, “One day I called twelve publishers in New York City, and made consecutive appointments to meet editors and art directors one month from that day. The self-imposed deadline was purposeful. It left no time for deliberating.”

Here’s what I love about this—she boxed herself in so she had to jump off the diving board and get her work out there.  Gang, take your fear, take your neurosis, tell your therapist and send out your manuscript (or show your portfolio).  Just do it!

 Your future fangirl

Your future fangirl

10) This one comes from all the clients who have contacted me this year with questions like “I’ve gotten feedback that you can only list 3 characters in a query/that we don’t know what my main character looks like until page 30/that editors don’t want illustrations notes, but others say "Use illustration notes if you need to"/that "I'm looking for the next [insert majorly successful author that all writers would love to be]"/that my book “doesn’t have an obvious hook," etc. etc.

 Jason Reynolds

Jason Reynolds

First, don't panic, and don’t use a checklist or scrutinize rules too closely. I’m begging here.  Remember what I said about Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life? That book drops entire plot threads, is wildly unbelievable, and it’s hard to keep characters straight at first, but it’s an international bestseller.  And don’t get me started on the Twilight books, which I read a half dozen times back in the day. That series has a ton of problems (not much plot, dozens of descriptions of Bella biting her lip), but fans like me read for 2000 pages just waiting for Edward and Bella to get it on.  So tip #10 is, don’t let writing rules make you crazy. Write your book. Send it in.  Editors, critique groups, and revision will help you deepen, re-think, tweak and fix, but don't let "rules" make you nuts. Keep writing.

I’m going to end with a few words from Jason Reynolds, who told a story at Book Expo about visiting his family down south each summer when he was little, and how the kids would be sent outside to play—when it was HOT. They would sit under the pecan tree, eating pecans and keeping cool, all afternoon.  Jason said, “What if, as a writer, I get to be that pecan tree, providing shade and a little rich nourishment for kids like me?

What better words to end the year with?