September 15th, 2010


On Self-Doubt...and getting it written instead of getting it right.

One of the absolute hardest things in writing is struggling with self-doubt. It might make you delete everything you write, becuase you're sure its crap. Or it might make you close the program all together and just not want to look at it.

This feeling is universal. If you're writing your first book, you worry you dont have what it takes. If you're writing your second, third, fourth book but you're unpublished, you worry its all a waste of time. You'll read published books and compare them to yours, and despair even more, becuase you dont feel yours can possibly measure up.

It won't disapear just becuase you've sold a book. In fact, it might get worse. Because you'll look at the total-piece-of-junk you think you're writing, and then you'll go to your shelf and you'll pick up your published book. And somehow your mind will blot out those months you spent with the guidance of an agent, an editor, a copy editor, a proof-reader.....

And you'll compare the rough first draft to the polished book, and the doubts will creep in again.

One of the interestings things about being both an author and an agent is that sometimes my clients ask me questions that relate more to my writer side. Recently a client emailed me to ask what exactly goes into revisions. What an editorial letter looks like, and whether an editor really can whip your book into shape.

So, since said Client had just read YOU WISH, I emailed her my revision letter for YOU WISH toi her, so that she could see the sorts of things I had to do to shape the book.

I thought I might share with you guys some random lines from my PRADA & PREJUDICE editorial letter. The 11 page bohemoth that taught me how to be a better writer/reviser.

Here are some things I had to do to make PRADA & PREJUDICE a better book. They should be vague/minor enough that they don't spoil if it you haven't already read it: 

 -Callie’s klutziness is super funny and great. I’d love it if you could work in her back story a tad more. It’s so good at the beginning, with all the stuff about Trish Marks and Katie and her mom not wanting her to go on the trip. Can you bring in more substance from her past throughout the book? 

-Work on your descriptiveness. In some places you are spot on. In some places I’d like more specific details of setting. 

-Need to BUILD the tension between Callie & Alex. Right now it sometimes wavers, rather than increasing. 

-We also need more instances of Callie asserting modern notions that intrigue but anger Alex—so we can track his feelings for her as they evolve.

-All characters can always use more specification and depth. But we especially need a better sense of Victoria throughout. Also more “seeding”: for instance, planting very early on that Emily is good at fashion. You sort of hint at this already, so we’re on our way.

--Here I’d just like to see a bit more emotional tracking—really chart Callie’s feelings from disorientation to confusion to nervousness to sheer panic and finally to the feeling that she’s lost her mind completely. 

--Trace the thread of Callie wanting to get back home through the whole book, and the fear of being caught out on her lie before she can do so. The tension around her lie about being Rebecca needs to peak—so [REDACTED FOR SPOILERY REASONS]

--Let’s see the house in even more detail now that she’s slept in it. She needs to wake with the feeling that she needs to get out—NOW. She’s calmed down from the night before, but only slightly.

--Can we set the breakfast scene somewhere else? Not necessary to show so many mealtimes

--I love when Callie has to hide behind the couch. But I feel we’re missing an opportunity here to have her actually discover something she shouldn’t. 

--This chapter (as I’ve cut it from chapter 3 and turned the end half into ch.5—see the ms) needs to do more. Don’t forget she wants to get home this whole time and is frantically looking for a way. 

So... this is just a fraction of the letter (much of it deals with specific plot points...) but you can see that the letter addresses a lot of key things: holes in the logic, missing description, flat characters, etc.

And above all that, it asks questions. An editorial letter makes you stand back and see your book as a whole for the first time. It makes you wonder why you wrote something a particular way, or why you put those two chapters together, why that character is neccessary, etc.

By the time you've completed your edits, your book has evolved. It's changed and taken shape.

After revisions, your book will have line edits, copy edits, and probably a few rounds of proofreads.

The book you read on shelves was NOT that pretty to begin with. It evolved into a polished book.

But it started with a crappy, hole-filled first draft. So the next time you despair, just remember: as soon as you finish that swiss-cheese first draft, you can go back and begin to shape it. And with a little luck, you'll have great critique partners to point out the holes. And an agent who will ask the right questions, and an editor who won't cut you any slack.

That's why my first draft motto is:

Don't get it right. Get it written.