Monday, October 8, 2007

I'll Spare You The Life; Just Take The Lessons

A couple of days ago I got an e-mail from a reader of this blog asking if I'd thought about doing an entry on editing to go along with the ones on writing.

My initial reaction was no, since I'm not a good editor of my own work. But after a fair amount of thought, I decided my initial reaction was super duper correct. I am blissfully oblivious to problems and weaknesses in my own writing. I tell the stories I most like to hear and write in the style I most like to read. What's there to criticize?

However it did occur to me I've been taught a lot of lessons about writing and being a writer over the millenia, and those I could pass along. These lessons are so significant I intend to use boldface. Be prepared.

1. My junior year of high school I wrote a humorous autobiographical essay for the school paper. A lot of people read it and liked it and told me so, making me very happy. Fool that I was, I pushed my luck and asked my English teacher, who didn't like me, what she thought.

"It's like everything else you do," she said. "Every sentence starts with 'I.'"

Naturally I denied it, but on further examination, I realized she had a point.

Now the moral of the story could be, The people who don't like you are more likely to offer honest criticism. But here's the boldface moral:

Don't start every sentence with the word "I."

This can be tricky in a first person narrative, but it's worth the extra effort if it keeps your main character from seeming like an egotist.

2. My senior year in high school, I took a creative writing class. The other students were all bright and talented; many of them ended up writing or editing. We'd stand in front of the class and read our stuff and be criticized viciously. I was so traumatized by the experience that I decided I had no future as a writer (my career plan since first grade) and went to college with every intention of becoming a Great Film Director instead. Luckily for me and the film industry, I stumbled back into writing. A number of years later, I read some of the things I'd written for the creative writing class and found there had been no change in my writing style from senior year of high school on.

So is the moral of this story, High school kids can be mean? Nah, we all know that. The moral is:

Your peer group, even if you have reason to respect them, may not be the best judge of your writing.

Remember that when you read your work to a writer's group. Some of their criticism may be useful, but don't assume it all will be.

3. The next three lessons have to do with my first book, Just Morgan. As a senior in college, I decided for reasons too lengthy and uninteresting to go through, to write a book. I knew I wanted to write one for 11-13 year olds (I was 20 at the time) because that was the age when I'd first developed critical awareness; I knew what I was reading was junk and that I could write better. I decided to write a story about a girl who gets involved in a political campaign as a volunteer. She meets a cute boy, but her candidate loses.

I told this basic plotline to a very good friend, who said, "That sounds like something you'd like."

Of course my immediate reaction was to deny it, but I gave it some thought and realized not only was she right (especially the part about the cute boy), but if I wanted to write for 12 year olds, what I needed to think about was what would 12 year olds like. I thought back to when I was 12 and remembered that all I'd wanted was to be an orphan. Immediately, I dumped the political plot and wrote a book about an orphan.

While the moral of the story could be, Your peer group, no matter how much you might scoff them, might actually know what they're talking about. But no, here's the boldface one...

If your audience is children, tap into the child within you.

4. So I write the manuscript and with the help of one of my professors, a publishing house reads it. I have lunch with two editors, who offered some sage advice on rewrites. One thing they specifically pointed out was that I had two characters that basically did the same thing in the story. "Keep the boy," they said. "Dump the girl."

I did as they told me and they accepted the book for publication. I bet you think the moral is going to be, Editors are smart. Well they are, but that's not the moral, which is:

Don't use two characters if one will do.

5. The plot to Just Morgan goes pretty much as follows: A girl is orphaned in the first paragraph and goes to live with her uncle. At first they're both uncomfortable with the relationship, but by book's end, she and her uncle have grown to love each other.

Sound familiar? Of course. It's the plot of Pollyanna and Anne Of Green Gables and Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm and every Shirley Temple movie ever made. That's the theme that resonated most with me when I was twelve, and what I tapped into when I was twenty.

The book got published and got startlingly good reviews. One highly respected literary journal praised it effusively, specifically referring to its original plot.

To quote Bret Maverick's old pappy, "You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time and them's pretty good odds." And a fine moral that would be. But the moral truly is:

It isn't the plot that's original in a story; it's what you do with it that makes it your own.

Tomorrow I'm off to NYC to have lunch with the Harcourt folk, those wonderful people who published Life As We Knew It and the dead & the gone (hi Google!). Here's the life lesson that a friend of mine taught me before my first business lunch: When you eat a piece of bread and butter in a restaurant, tear a piece of the bread first and then butter it.

Now there's a lesson that never goes out of date!


Unknown said...

Great article. I wrote something a while back about the different stages of writers. I remember that high school stage all too well :S. Arrogance and desperate need for improvement! Ha. I still probably need improvement actually :S.
Darnit, you just reminded me that I need to start submitting stuff again :(

Marci said...

How was the lunch? And why the wierd security letters when we go to post a comment? It says word verification. What's a futzflf? If that's what it is. I can never read the doggone things and just hope that I get it right.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious how the lunch was also, but, by reading this blog, are you saying that you sold your first book out of college? And also that you don't edit your work? Wow!


Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

Hi everybody.

Should I be worried that Glen is now Anonymous?

Lunch was great. There was a champagne toast and lots of nice things said about both Life As We Knew It and the dead & the gone.

The blog was much discussed. I was asked if I enjoyed writing it or did I find it a task and merely appeared to enjoy writing it.

I'm not that good a fake. Of course I love writing it!

It was an Indian restaurant (I had the halibut), so there was no butter for the bread. Traffic was difficult going in and coming home, and I wasn't crazy about the renovations to the Morgan Library (I went there after lunch).

Before I forget, my mother left her first (and quite possibly last) comment on the Tomato entry. This is a proud moment in any daughter's life.

And no, I pretty much don't edit. I do catch mistakes, and in LAWKI, I realized at one point that I was going in the wrong direction with something (remember the girl who was reported missing? Originally I had other kids missing as well, and then I decided with the world coming to an end there really wasn't any need for a serial killer, so I had the missing girl turn out not to be missing at all. I guess that counts as editing). But really, I am so delusional about my own writing, my polished first draft is almost always what I send off to my editor.

Oh, my editor did offer very high praise about the dead & the gone. She said she'd never had a book come in so fast that was good.

And the life lesson to that one is Think Before You Write. It Saves Time In The End!

Marci said...

Editing in your mind is just as valid as editing on paper. Clearly you do edit. And polish and reconfigure if necessary. And no, a serial killer would have been way over the top. Unless the victims were chickens, of course. That would be understandable in a food shortage.

A champagne toast is totally appropriate. So are big advances for your next book the final book in the Moon trilogy!

Olive oil on bread is even more yummy than butter. The Indian restaurant should have had some on hand (but only extra virgin works.)

My word today is 0gyxbud. A wierd Swedish flower? Uhoh! I guess I read it wrong. Now it is esrfzu. I give up on that one. I am such a dolt.

Anonymous said...

No worries about my anonymity; I just can't remember my password.

I wonder... what would have happened if you didn't like Indian food, I wonder? Would you have faked liking it? (I know I would have.)

Their are changes to the Morgan Library? I remember it mostly from when I worked in NYC and from the movie Ragtime. Nice place, speaking volumes of a lamented past.

By the way, in LAWKI, I was struck by the fact that you didn't do more with Miranda meeting her skating idol. There was so much in the beginning about it and then it just kind of trailed off. I suppose that was somewhat of the point (as what did it matter meeting your idol when the world is ending?), but I would have liked to have read more about their meeting. By the way, it also took me awhile to figure out that they all caught cold because of the neighbor with the sick wife coming over. That one though, I think was me. I was cursing on the Jersey Turnpike at that point of the audio book. Luckily, a long relaxing trip through Staten Island brought me back to a zen state.

This is a trilogy you're writing? I didn't know that. Is there some cool trilogy name associated with it?

Last question; do you read other young adult authors? My son just gave me the book GAMES by Carol Gorman which I thought was very good (I couldn't sleep last night and read it all the way through.)

Regards and congratulations,


Susan Beth Pfeffer said...

No! No!! No!!!

There is no trilogy. At least not at this moment. Harcourt has expressed absolutely no interest (at this moment) in a third book. None. Nada. Zilch.

Trust me, if a third book is ever in the works, I'll announce it. Loudly.

And no, I don't read YAs or really very much fiction at all. I just finished a book about Mary Lamb and have just begun one about Billy The Kid (is The capitalized? Is it in Smokey The Bear? Good thing her name wasn't Mary The Lamb).

And Google must really like me, because my "word" is an easy to verify dglos.

Anonymous said...

Why do you tear the piece of bread first? I usually stuff the whole thing in my mouth and then proceed to have a long conversation.


Marci said...

The trilogy may not officially be in the works, but it is the natural outcome of the two books. So I am rooting for it! My security word today is citnpea. Now really!!!!

Anonymous said...

So Marci, I take it by your commentthat you have read the second book already . Please do not give me any hints as to what happens in the dead and the gone. (And why lower case letters? Does e.e. cummings make a guest appearance?)


Unknown said...

the dead & the gone is lowercase because that is the way the title worked. It's how it ended up.

And I read in a couple of blogging books that CAPTCHA (that's what those weird words are) are bad for blogs and getting readers and comments and don't prevent spam when very little spam comes through anyway. But they are hilarious.

My word is oveli. Almost olive. ;)