5 reasons why I believe this person will one day get published

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One of the members of my writing workshop had a major breakthrough. “She’s writing at a publishable level,” I said (when someone’s work is being critiqued, we discuss it as if she’s not there). Rachel, the workshop leader, nodded and agreed and looked visibly moved: she’s been working with this woman for a while now and knows how far she has come.

I believe this woman is the real deal, and by that I mean: if she continues to do what she’s doing, someone will pay to publish her. It’s a delight to see, because “the real deal” doesn’t show itself like this very often. Many things have to knit themselves together in someone’s personality. Scott Berkun blogs about how the stars in his field achieved their level of success not because, or just because, they are passionate and innovative. The less-glamorous reality involves a “diversity of talents [these people] had to possess, or acquire, to overcome the wide range of challenges” to become rockstar entrepreneurs.

Writing fiction isn’t so different. What this woman has demonstrated (at least to me) is that she possesses the “diversity of talents” required to get to where she wants to go:

1. She is authentic in her motivation.

She doesn’t just want to “get published” or to “have written”: she’s passionate about the craft itself. You can see it in the way she lights up and animates when she discusses someone’s writing or hits upon a new insight.

People who love the task, and not just the potential outcome of the task, are more likely to work in a state of flow, — or as I think of it, in the zone. They work harder and longer because the work itself is what fulfills them. They’re also more likely to log the 10,000 hours of practice that is required to get excellent at something — fiction-writing included.

2. She makes herself vulnerable.

In writing, your vulnerability is your strength. There are two reasons for this.

You have to be willing to “go there”: dig deep into those personal places and write from the innermost points of your being. As a writer once observed to me, “The things in your life that you’re afraid to write about [however you may choose to write about them]…are probably the exact things you should be writing about.”

You expose yourself in your work, and you expose yourself in a different way when you show that work to people.

And you have to show your work to people. You must collect honest feedback and swallow the bad with the good. You must seek out the tough love of wise, constructive criticism.

This woman did exactly that. She found a workshop with talented members and an excellent leader/instructor. The group’s atmosphere is positive and supportive, but rigorous. When your work is critiqued, you are said to “disappear” from the group: no one is allowed to acknowledge your physical presence in any way, and you are officially forbidden to speak (until the end of your turn, when you’re asked for feedback on the feedback). The group examines their reactions to the piece, what’s working — and, perhaps more importantly, what’s not working, the flaws and weakness of craft behind that, and how they can be improved.

This woman has been with the workshop much longer than I have, and from what I hear she’s made a remarkable amount of progress. She’s made that progress because she’s learned how to open up her self and her work. She can take the criticism. She absorbs everything she hears, takes it in, mulls it over, and applies it to her fiction. She writes, writes, writes and revises, revises, revises. She learns. Then writes and revises some more.

3. She reads like a maniac.

One of the remarks I made about her work: “You can tell this author reads. She reads a lot.”

“She does,” the instructor confirmed. “She reads her ass off.”

Your reading informs your sense of craft. There’s no getting around this. If you don’t read all that much, and take your understanding of storytelling from movies and TV, your writing reflects this. Your story might move quickly, have plot and energy (and these things are important, no question) — but the writing is flat and generic. Your characters don’t ‘pop': they don’t come alive off the page.

Writing fiction is an art, but it is also a craft. There are things that writers accomplish through specific ways of handling language that you can also do to make your story rich and evocative, your characters memorable, your readers turning the pages. But it’s not enough just to ‘learn’ craft from a workshop or an issue of Writer’s Digest. You need to absorb it so well that it becomes a natural part of you: trained deep into your undermind, your subconscious, so that you can reach for it automatically, reflexively, whenever you need it. And the only way to do this is through the experience of constant reading (and then practice, practice, practice).

4. She consciously analyzes other writers.

She did this to me. I submitted ten pages of my novel-in-progress THE DECADENTS for critique. She expressed enthusiasm for my work and then said, “I want to try what this author does, where she has a bit of dialogue and then a character gesture and then more dialogue!” I was startled to have my writing reflected back to me this way. I do exactly what she described, but it’s become so ingrained in how I visualize and write my scenes that I wasn’t aware of it. It took a full day for me to remember how I myself picked this up from one of my favorite writers, Paul Theroux. At some point in my mid-twenties, I made the conscious decision to imitate the lean, clean way he handles dialogue and underscores it with subtle character actions…and then over the years this became such a part of my own style that I no longer think about it. I just do it.

I do it differently from Theroux, and this woman will do it differently from me: everything we (coughstealcough) from other writers gets filtered through our own sensibilities and, in the end, becomes our own. But this is an example of how a certain aspect of craft is noted, learned, practiced and incorporated into our writing-selves until it becomes second nature.

5. She’s willing to “slow it down”.

There’s a lot of talk in our workshop about “writing slow”, which is another way of saying “writing deep”. It’s a reminder to let both the work and the comments we receive about the work sink into our undermind. You need to give your subconscious time to work things through. That’s when you’ll flash on new insight, better ideas, deepened understanding. That’s when you’ll start to discover the images in your fiction, the ‘little things’ that didn’t seem like such a big deal when you put them there, but as the story evolves can gather associations and meaning. They do this in a way that isn’t forced or contrived but grows naturally inside the writing. Layered, textured fiction — the hallmark of a professional — needs time to cook.

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Jan 12, 2010
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23 comments · Add Yours

Great post. Thanks for underscoring the effort that goes into reaching that level of writing. These kinds of reminders go a long way toward inspiring someone like me, an unpublished writer. It must be wonderful for your workshop member to see how far she’s come.

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The problem I have with reading while on a writing binge is that whatever I’m taking in tends to infect what I’m producing. Same with movies and television. I read in shifting phases, as in set aside a series of days/weeks just to gobble up input, followed by a media-drought to keep my work as much as ‘me’ as I can.

Great article. I really like the idea of a workshop making you disappear and critique you just like professionals will once you get out in the ‘real world.’

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This post reminded me to thank you for writing your “READING IS THE INHALE, WRITING IS THE EXHALE: developing writer’s intuition” blog post. It re-awoke my love of reading that had been dormant for the last 2 exhausting years of high school. This Christmas saw the kid that read from “The Adventures of Robin Hood” to “The Counte of Monte Cristo” and rest of the Puffin Classics in 2nd grade receiving only two kinds of gifts. 20 books spanning the genres and a book stand. Thank you for pushing me out of my rut and rekindling one of the most important passions in my life.

PS. Your “jump to comments button” isn’t working.
PPS. I recommend you invest in a book stand and save your neck and back from unnecessary pain and stretching.

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Learning to read like a writer is a fundamental skill. I don’t know that’s it’s taught anywhere, certainly not in English classes, but also never in any writing class I ever took. I don’t think most people really know how to do this, and members of writing workshops are not, in my experience, any better than anyone else at it, with rare exceptions. Your posts about conflict and structuring narratives around resolving conflict address this directly.

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The problem I have with reading while on a writing binge is that whatever I’m taking in tends to infect what I’m producing.

Oh, ain’t that the truth! One saving exception for me: if what I’m taking in is so different to my output as scarcely to have any point of contact, I’m nearly immune. Liking genre fiction can be a real advantage here.

Reading while I’m not actively writing seriously brings out my inner magpie. You know those times when it suddenly takes you about three days to avoid spending the next three months writing Mother Alberta Campion and the Adventure of the Taciturn Ray-Gun? Er, no? I’ll get my coat… But when my writing is spinning its wheels in the sand, that’s when I have to be mighty careful.

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Writing is a work of practice, and the more you do it the less diffcult it becomes.

-cheers-

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Regarding point 3, I suspect my problem might be the other way around: I don’t watch enough TV, movies etc. I think that it’s influenced storytelling so much that I should, but I’ve just never been a TV person.

With 4, I don’t understand how some writers appear not to do it. When I was studying Mandarin (it is my mother tongue, but not my first language), I was taught to write essays by reading model essays. Same difference.

I think 5 might be the most difficult one for me. I’m very impatient. I want it done, and I want it now.

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Very well, said, I enjoyed this quite a lot.

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Thank you Justine for the great post. It has given me a lot to to think about and how I’m going to do the things that you mentioned. Thank you for sharing. Happy writing.

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I’ve been doing it for a while now, and I still find it just as difficult as it ever was. But more rewarding. :)

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Thanks. And yeah, progress is a wonderful thing. It never ends, either (so long as you keep striving) and remains just as satisfying.

I think part of the struggle of being “an unpublished writer” is the solitary aspect of it, so that often only you are aware (sometimes) of the progress you’re making. Friends, family, strangers only seem to respond to whether you’re published or not. It’s not like becoming a doctor or lawyer and hitting those visible milestones that everyone can recognize as markers of the journey (grad school, internship, whatever).

So I hope you remember to celebrate the different stages of your progress. :)

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The professionals are a bit more brutal, actually, except by that point you’re used to it and you understand the process for what it is (& what it needs to be). I maybe got a little too used to it…at my first workshop session I was critiquing people the way I was used to agents and editors critiquing *me*…the instructor had to remind me to be a bit more gentle and mindful.

I never worry about other voices infecting my own when I’m writing — I’m not sure why that is, since I’ve certainly been influenced. I’ve heard other writers express the same thoughts you have, so you’re definitely not alone in that.

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Your comment made me smile and then laugh out loud — thanks for it! That is so awesome.

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Good point (as always)…I’m not even sure I know what it means to read “as a writer” since I always read just to read…if something takes my breath away I’ll backtrack and reread, but whatever I “learn” seems to be mostly intuitive. I can sense the thing I like about a particular work — how Siri Hustvedt handles time, for example, in WHAT I LOVED — and maybe even how to attempt it myself, but I don’t know if I could put that into words.

To be blunt about it, I just don’t think most members of writing workshops read enough, be it “as writers” or otherwise.

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I think the technology of storytelling influences storytelling a lot more than television does — for example, the advent of word processing has made for a much more streamlined standard of fiction compared to the typical giant novel of yesteryear — and I think going digital and being read on ereaders and mobiles will also have an impact on how narratives are structured and organized.

Some famous high achiever (I can’t remember who) recently said that patience as a virtue is overrated. Maybe he’s right. The trick for you might be to have more than one project in development, so that you can be working on one while letting the other one cook in the back of your mind. :)

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thanks Kenneth! I’m glad!

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Thanks Jamie. Happy writing to you as well. Keep at it. Don’t quit. :)

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Gray – I write psychological horror/thriller. My antidote for infection? I laughed myself. YA. Yes, youth literature. There’s no way in Hades it’ll cause a conflict.

C.

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Awesome, Justine.

My partner, David, just found your site a few days ago and sent me the link. I’m so glad he did. Tribal author sites are an emerging trend, but you’re the real deal.

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Thank you, that gave me my first smile of the day.

I recognized your name & pic from the commentary on Kelly Diels’ site. Glad you’re here.

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Would you say Dan Brown is writing at publishable level?

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I can’t read Dan Brown — or many of the other bestselling writers — because I like good prose and depth of characterization *as well as* compelling storytelling.

But the evidence (ie: sales) suggests that Brown, if a lousy writer, is a great storyteller (or at least with CODE, he was). You have to understand that the first requirement for a book — at least from a commercial standpoint — is whether or not it keeps the reader turning the pages. From that same commercial standpoint, compelling storytelling trumps masterful writing each and every time. And learning to tell a compelling story is an art and a skill and takes just as much practice as anything else. It’s easy to slam books like CODE because they’re so artless, but even though everybody *thinks* they can pull off a book like that, because it looks so ‘easy’ — they can’t, and it’s not. (Look at all the writers who also thought they could imitate King and have at least some of his success.)

Because telling a compelling story that keeps readers turning the pages and caring about the outcome — is hard.

DA VINCI CODE had major, major buzz within the publishing industry before it hit the bookstores — even though Brown’s previous novels had middling sales, with CODE people sensed he was on to something big. And of course the book spread like a wildfire in the Malibu hills during dry season.

That’s why when I say “writing at a publishable level” — ‘publishable’ usually, but not always, means strong craft, strong writing. What it *does* always mean is a strong, compelling story that’s a little different from everything else out there while still being accessible to the reader. It means commercial, marketable, sale-able.

DA VINCI CODE is a black swan of a book — a very rare event, almost a freak of nature — and it’s highly unlikely that Brown himself will ever repeat that level of success (same with books like Elizabeth Gilbert’s EAT, PRAY, LOVE).

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My comment was meant to be somewhat sarcastic and now I fell guilty for promting you to write such a response, but thank you for all that juicy content, I’ve read it over several times.

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