So here’s a writer’s guide that is not for the faint of heart (though of course writing itself and certainly attempting to get published are not for the faint of heart either): The First Five Pages: A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile by Noah Lukeman. Unlike Anne Lamont, whose tone is funny if a little ironic and, at times, heartwrenching, this guy is like the astronomy professor in your 8 a.m. class for the science credit you and a bunch of other liberal arts majors had to get. He’s no fun. No matter how much you wanted to romanticize astronomy or referred to your lifelong fascination with it or tried to label it a fun subject, that professor would start in with his rate of declination equations and his calculable ascension angles and you’d just swim in how much not fun it was. This guy is like that guy. No matter how enthusiastically you tear into these pages or how nobly you remind yourself that you will forever hold tightly to your dream–nay, your quest for publication, Mr. Lukeman will take all the fun out of your pursuit. He’s the Debbie Downer of writer’s guides.
Here’s the thing, though: I’d rather be left downtrodden and slightly mopish about my chances in the slush pile if it means I’ve gleaned some truth about the process, and I think the book gives valid and honest advice. You won’t get anywhere reading about the glory of writing for writing’s sake or how good it feels to tweak a tale just perfectly to your liking and damn all the rejectionists out there because you have a story in which you invested your heart and soul. There are those types of writer’s guides out there, but I won’t be profiling them here. No, I’ll stick with Mr. Lukeman and his oh-so-subtle arrogance, because he says what those inspirational “guides” won’t — that you shouldn’t write commonplace conversation in dialogue because it marks you as an amateur. That one too many adverbs or adjectives in the first couple paragraphs will get you form rejected. That the sole objective of an agent or editor upon beginning to read your query or pages is to find some grounds upon which to say, “Nope, not this one.” But here’s the thing; if you follow the advice in The First Five Pages, you stand a far better chance than the typical querier.
Written in 2000, the book is a bit dated in its first two chapters on presentation–the discussion here refers mostly to the way your writing appears on paper, and he never gets into e-querying because that tsunami hadn’t quite yet hit the writing community. But the rest of the chapters present hard-core how-to advice and patiently reiterate the major flaws you as your work’s primary editor must hunt down and kill. If you don’t get the gist of each chapter in the text, he follows his topics with end-of-chapters examples and exercises that make what not to do blindingly clear–indeed, his examples are practically caricatures of bad writing. From the way he belabors show-don’t-tell, good dialogue tags, and avoiding info-dumping, I think Mr. Lukeman makes well known the auto-reject standards he upholds. From his tone, he has taught writers these same pointers over and over since he was a wee babe of an agent and editor. Reading it, you can almost hear his long-suffering sigh.
Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life is probably my favorite book on writing, and I’ve read a pile of them. Lamott has a take-no-prisoners, hyper-realistic attitude on writing, so this book is not for the faint of heart; it oozes with proof that A) writing hurts and B) we, as writers, have to suffer a bit to arrive at anything artful on the page. This isn’t a new theme in discourse on the craft, but Lamott’s insights are fresh, practical, and graphic. Writing, she’ll have you know, is “about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.” Pitching your book idea at a conference can feel like “you put your head in the lion’s mouth.” She describes the long, long hours you might sit at the computer without ever typing one good sentence, and the long, long pages you might compose to mine just one idea that has potential for revision. She suggests having a go-to pal who will read your draft and really critique it to pieces, comparing this reader to a man she used to know who would take friends’ animals to be put down when they just couldn’t do it themselves.
But along with the pain and suffering of writers, another theme rises up in Bird by Bird: that writers are not helpless or hapless, and that we can tame writing into a corner… by beating it back with a stick, if we have to. The title is an immediate example; Lamott recalls her father’s advice to her brother when he once began writing a lengthy research paper on birds: “Just take it bird by bird.” Her advice has given me the edge over proverbial writer’s block many times: start with just one tiny thing, just whatever of your scene or character that you can see through a one-inch viewfinder. Start with that, and describe it. And know that the first draft can be bad. Really bad. No one will ever see it but you; let it be bad, who cares? The real writing happens bit by bit, draft by draft. Bird by bird.
Is this stark voice with zero tolerance for sugar-coating disconcerting or uncomfortable? Not in the least. I’m appreciative, more so each time I revisit her words, to have someone tell it to me straight, as if I’m having coffee with a friend whose advice I trust inherently, even when it hurts. I am grateful for the consistent lack of fluff. The ultimate consequence is that when Lamott hits you with pure inspiration, she hits you hard; on noticing details, for example, she says, “There is ecstasy in paying attention.” And you know what? There really is.
I am a lousy blogger.
I know this to be true, because in the last two years I’ve tried a couple blogs and I’ve given up on them almost immediately. I never could keep a diary, either, and I have yet to scrapbook my second son’s baby pictures. (He’s four next month.) I think it has something to do with stamping a date on something–a post, a photo, an entry–because then it becomes a marker of time. How much time, how little time, how much time gets away from you between updates. Too much pressure, the passage of all that time. I’d probably do much better with a dateless blog, just a stress-free blank wall of space to make notes or put up quotes or jot a thought or two.
I am, however, a writer. And I’d like to reconcile my anti-blogging side with my writer side and see if they can’t get along.
I’ve been published in lit mags and anthologies, and this past year I contributed how-to articles to two excellent writing guides. I’ll talk about those in upcoming posts, as well as other great guides to this craft. Middle grade fiction and agent searching are subjects near and dear to me right now, since I’m writing a MG and starting to look for someone to rep me. Another common thread you’ll see through future posts: some thoughts on trying to break into a writing career while parenting two small boys, freelancing a part-time job, and keeping home and family. (Thought: it’s like running a marathon on a balancing beam. Thought: it’s harder than teaching high school. Thought: I love a challenge.)