The Only Advice Worth Giving

by Jordan E. Rosenfeld

“The Idea” shows up inside my head like a gift on Christmas morning, delivered with such immediacy it leaves me breathless—Wile E. Coyote’s nemesis couldn’t have dropped a more potent anvil on my head. It is perfect. So perfect. I want to inspect all its fingers and toes to be sure it’s real. If I’m lucky enough to receive it during waking hours, I carry it with great care, taking small, non-jolting steps, for it’s made of something like smoke and butterfly tears and can flee at the first tremor, to the writing desk.

I open the page. I uncap the pen. I begin to set it down in tiny ribbons of ink that feel a little bit like blood, in a good way—the way it must have felt when barbers of old bled the demons out of your veins, when the crimson pooling in a ceramic bowl promised redemption, health, freedom.

An alarming thing happens.

A puny, sickly, half-formed version of this beautiful creature burps out onto the page, sticky and weak and so much less than I hoped that I’m half-ashamed, half-terrified of what I’ve created. But it’s mine. I am its mother and I will have to nurture it, or usher it back to the void.

I am a novelist, primarily. I used to write short stories—the emphasis on my MFA program was certainly the story, for practical reasons. And then, suddenly one day, I stopped writing them. I realized they had been sprints for the marathon of novel writing, flexing and pushing my writing centers toward those long, cold journeys into the heart of a story, offering transformation.

Over the years I’ve learned that the early idea for a novel is always this malformed creation; things worth writing do not come out in whole cloth, fully formed. They get there in stages, much like children, developing with proper attention, sweat and time.

The only way I have learned to tolerate this first, strange, half-formed stage of the writing process, is to practice, through countless revisions, the equally fascinating process of seeing The Idea take shape, thickening, vivifying, with work and commitment and love. Sometimes it requires time away so that I can come back to it with objective eyes. Sometimes it needs the feedback of others (most of the time), and other times, it just needs a steady slogging, a forward persistence.

I have eternal empathy for those writers who come to me in classes, and as editing clients, crying about how frustrated they are with their first, even second or third, half-hearted attempts. And the best advice, the only advice, worth giving is simply: revise, revise, revise. Pump it full of lyric steroids; imbue it with superheroic talents; hack away its crisp and unneeded edges until you have something that pulses with life, that resembles the perfection born in your mind, a promise of what you would be able to write if you just keep at it.


When Killing is Kind

I know we writing teachers/editors can be glib with our aphorisms. “Show, don’t tell,” “Cut those adverbs,” and, perhaps most patronizing, “Kill your darlings.”

The last one used to really bother me. If it’s darling to me, it must good right? How dare you tell me that an entire scene, much less chapter, isn’t working.

I’ve had the good fortune to interview a lot of writers, both in my time as a contributing editor for Writer’s Digest magazine, and on my literary radio show Word by Word. And you know what I’ve found? There are writers out there who scrapped ENTIRE BOOKS and wrote them from scratch.

In my own revision I have discovered that those scenes and lines I hold most tightly to are often signs that I am having trouble seeing something else. I’ve said many times that the big, bold vision in my mind often feels like it comes out as a deflated little blot when I start to write. So I hold fast to my beginning impressions. If I only know my character at one layer’s depth, I’m reluctant to cut the scene that readers tell me doesn’t let them in, because it’s my first impression. Or I hold onto that original first chapter because I’m nostalgic for the magical moment in which my character first whispered herself into being in my ear.

And sometimes we have a hard time killing because we’re afraid to go deeper, further, afraid of being out of control.   Every time I have cut a scene, or a chapter, or several, that means that new ones have had to spring up in their place.

But it’s so, so worth it.

You Already Know (What you need to do)

When my clients send off their manuscript to me many of them will then embark on a 4 to 6 week-long process of agonizing. Some of them email me during the process, even though I say up front that I will only give feedback in total. They want to know if I hate it, love it, think they should give up altogether, or quit their day jobs. They fear what I am going to say.

It can be agony to wait, I know. Right now I’m doing the same thing with my own novel. Readers are reading it. Some have given me early feedback, bless them, but mostly on the first act. That leaves two acts hanging in the balance. And I am itching to revise because I’m still in the world of this book. No other project is calling me away. I’m not sick of it yet. I want to shape it to be as perfect as I am capable of getting it.

Yet as each bit of feedback rolls in, I have had the same reaction: Yes. Yes, you are so right. That does need condensing. She wouldn’t really say that. The language has been sacrificed for the action here…Some part of me knew that, and thought maybe I wouldn’t have to do it.

Most likely, you also know many of the problems with your own manuscript. Feedback is, then, a chance to validate what you suspect, to get evidence to support the change you know you must embark upon.  Sometimes we don’t want to see it. We are afraid of the work it will entail, and wonder if we can do it.

You can do it. You must, if you hope to be published.

But most likely, it’s no more work than you already imagined when you are honest with yourself (unless, I’m sorry to say, you have been deluding yourself all along).

So don’t be afraid. Get feedback. Revise. Start over.

It Happens to the Toughest of Us

“The first draft reveals the art, revision reveals the artist.” Michael Lee

No one is immune to the discouragement that comes in the process of scaling the craggy, seemingly impossibly high mountain of revision.

Just last night, after two weeks of gleefully gutting my manuscript I hit the sinkhole. The feeling that, even after all this revision, I still had so much more to do…was it even worth it? Should I gut the entire first act altogether? Should I rewrite the thing from scratch? Not my finest hour, I’ll tell you.

But I woke up this morning with that same sense of possibility: Oh yeah, I get to rewrite this. I have the power to change whatever I want. It says nothing about me that it isn’t “there” yet except that I am not done. And to quit now would be silly.

So, in April I’m teaching a 4-week class on Revision for Publication, and I’ve realized how important it is that I include, each week, several supportive strategies to help writers power through the discouragement and disappointment inevitable in the revision process. It will be as crucial as the editing tricks.

To Register:

Revision Grief Redux: We’re in this Together

My facebook/twitter status this morning: gutted and slaughtered darlings everywhere. It’s carnage over here in novel revision land (said gleefully, like a serial killer!)

I try to make clear to my clients and students  that I am a writer too. A working writer striving her hardest to get to the same place as they are: published. My hope is that this makes it a little bit easier when I tell them what has to go, what isn’t working, and what I think needs to happen next. Because we all know it’s far easier to be a critic than it is to produce material.

Yes, I’ve published a bit already–two writing guides, one fairly big press, one fairly small, but I also dream of the day that my novel sells to a publisher. Or wait, let me rephrase that…I also dream of being published, send my work out for feedback from people who will be honest about what has to go, what isn’t working, and what needs to happen next. And I too curse, cry and moan until the feelings pass and the answers start to rise from the mist.

I am in the same boat as my clients/students. When they email me saying they feel discouraged by all the work ahead of them, or are sad that a chapter or scene just isn’t succeeding as they’d hoped–I FEEL their pain. I know exactly what they mean. When the novel my agent tried to sell to publishers didn’t sell several years ago but “came close” as they say when you receive positive rejections, I had to take a really long time to recoup that loss. After all, writing a novel isn’t something you can do in a couple of days. Slowly, painfully, I mended. I wrote another novel (and let’s not talk about the first four abandoned novels I wrote early on), ran it by several people for feedback, saw its potential and its limitations and made the tough decision to let that one go too. It wasn’t coming together.  Then I picked up a different half-attempted novel and tried it back on. And this time it fit me. I was able to finish a first draft that I felt good about.

The whole purpose of this revision series has been to bolster myself through the revision process of that novel. But let me point out that every published writer on the shelves, from the flash in the pans to the mightiest of success stories was on the receiving end of some serious feedback at one point or another. Each one of them had a cringe-worthy moment or several thousand where they thought maybe they’d never get “there.”

And the only way they got there was by realizing that writing IS rewriting. That the pain is good for you. That it builds something beautiful just like exercise painfully sculpts a beautiful body.

REVISE for Publication:

In honor of all this, I’ve decided to teach a new 4 week online class in April on revising your manuscript toward publication. It will contain strategies and tips for how to revise your work in the most effective ways, including self-soothing tips for the hard times. I hope you’ll join me.

Full cost: $159. If you register before March 15, only $129.

 Until I get the paypal link up and running, email me if you’re interested in registering: jordansmuse (at) gmail (dot) com.