Saturday, February 20, 2010

Learning to Sing

by Libby Malin

The last time I posted here, I talked about my "first love" -- music. Even though music was the first love I dedicated my energy and passion to, writing has always, always, always called out to me. As soon as I could string words together, I wrote stories, poems and essays. In creative writing class in high school, friends and I would exchange "fan fiction" -- stories involving our favorite television shows.

But I didn't start dedicating energy and passion to getting my writing published until later in life. For that I have my dear sister to thank. She's the one who encouraged me to try getting a romance novel published when I was between freelance writing projects and looking for something to do to make money. Once I knew that this very practical person in my family wouldn't think I was crazy for spending so much time at the computer writing fiction, I was on my way.

For most published authors, it's a tough slog from that first moment you decide to really try to get a book into print. First, there's the actual writing journey. Then, there's the publishing business journey.

I had a chance to revisit my own writing and publishing journey recently when I picked up one of the first manuscripts I'd written. I wanted to review it for possible revision. A couple things struck me as I reread it. One was the memory of how many doubts and questions I had when I wrote it. How long should a chapter be -- is there a standard page count? How many points of view can I include? Do I have to account for every minute of each characters' time? How much "telling" versus "showing" of the action should I do? If I use "are" too much, is my writing weak? What's the most riveting way to begin a story?

The answers to those questions came in the fullness of time as I gained confidence as a writer (there's nothing like confidence to help you develop your own voice), and as I became a more observant reader, analyzing what other published authors did that succeeded in moving me as a reader.

Not surprisingly, the answers to my questions can be summed up in this statement: in writing, pretty much anything goes as long as it works. Sure, there are guidelines for certain genre lines. But there are no rules that can't be broken, even in genre fiction, if you tell the story well.

Nora Roberts gave an excellent talk about this years ago at the New Jersey Romance Writers conference. I remember her saying that she didn't know about all the rules when she started writing, so she was able to blow past any fears and doubts associated with them. She counseled the writers in the room to break rules when necessary to tell a good story, not just for the sake of daring.

Another worry memory popped into my head as I reviewed my old manuscript. I remembered how I used to sweat the small stuff when preparing to send my writing to the publishing world. Now the questions became: should it be set in Times New Roman or Courier? Must it have exactly 25 lines per page? Should I send only the first 50 pages when asked for a partial or can I send 60 since a terrific scene starts on page 51? Can I query more than one agent at the same agency? How long should I wait before following up? Will an editor think I'm rude if I remind her she's had my manuscript for six months?

Here, I discovered the rules of good etiquette applied. The goal of manuscript preparation is to make your manuscript easily readable and your interactions with editors and agents professional and pleasant. A readable serif face with standard margins will do the trick. And reasonable follow-up is certainly allowed as long as you're not whiny or petulant.

In fact, just as in writing, I discovered that there weren't many specific rules about manuscript submission -- just the general etiquette principles -- and that you could approach many editors on your own as long as you treated them the way you'd like to be treated yourself.

Selling your manuscripts is hard. This business is filled with rejection. As time went by, I learned that I needed to stop rejecting myself -- that is, stop rejecting my own ideas -- based on what I perceived to be the "rules." Only then would my writing voice learn to sing.


  1. I have to laugh because I remember sweating all that small stuff before submitting too. Like editors really care if your margins are 1" or 1.25"! But I guess it's something you feel you can control, and once the MS is the door (or inbox), it's out of your control.

  2. Sweating the small stuff shows you are an author with heart. Now, having said when you stop sweating the small stuff doesn't mean you lose your heart. It just means you've grown and developed and now put that energy into more creative aspects of your work. You're giving your writing voice a little more volume. :)

  3. It really was an interesting experience revisiting the manuscript I mentioned because it unlocked so many memories of how I felt at the beginning of this process. It's hard to remember precisely when I started growing more confident as a writer. I don't think it was when I was first published. I think it took longer.

  4. It takes too long to explain here what I'd done in Heart of the Wolf, but I'm sure Deb wondered what was up! In any event, she bought the book despite the "letter a" popping up in a few places combined with an elongated hyphen. I still shake my head over it, glad we have the editor we do who will make allowances for dumb author mistakes as long as she loves the story!

  5. Great post Libby. I like the "learning to sing" metaphor--but my hope is to write better than I sing!

    The checklist of elements a writer juggles to create an engaging story will daunt anyone aware enough to realize there is a checklist.

    One of the smartest things I did to get the wobble out of my writing "baby steps" was to enter writing contests.

    Every contest is a practice run at submitting. I got comfortable with formatting (which terrified me at first!) and also with looking at my work slightly more objectively. I'm pretty sure I would never have learned to write a synopsis if I hadn't had to for a contest.

    Good contests don't judge wether you followed the "rules" but how well you succeeded with elements like voice, plot, character, pace, vividness etc. In other words, they judge the same way an editor does. The difference is that the contest won't send you a rejection letter. It will send you a score sheet.

    And then you know what to work on next.

  6. Mary Margret,

    Thanks for that reminder about contests! I entered them, too, at the outset, and they were immensely helpful for the reasons you mentioned. They really gave me a sense of how objective readers, who knew nothing about me but my stories, viewed my writing.

  7. Great post, Libby! It's true, we're our own worst critic and there's enough rejection along the road to publication without us heaping it upon ourselves.

    When I wrote my first book targeted at Harlequin (not the one that ultimately sold to Silhouette Bombshell and then got shelved when they canceled the line...long story) I remember sending it off and then nearly having a heart attack when discovered that "word count" didn't actually mean "number of words in the document." They had some complicated method of determining word count based on pages and font and the square root of your birthdate, and the whole thing rendered my pitiful little manuscript several thousand words too short (or too long, I honestly forget).

    Suffice it to say, it didn't make a difference in the long run, but I distinctly remember wondering at the time if I should just go stick my head in the oven.

    Thankfully, I've grown a thicker skin since then.

    Love the post, Libby!


  8. What a great post, Libby! Every beginning writer should read it. It's so easy at the beginning to get wrapped up in "the small stuff" and spend more time formatting than working on the story! I think it's because, when you start to write, you're hungry for hard-and-fast rules - something you KNOW you're doing correctly - because everything else is so subjective and there's so much to learn!

  9. Tawna, how right you are about growing a thicker skin. You learn over time what critiques to follow and which to discard.

    Joanne, that's true about controlling the small stuff. It does make you feel you are doing something unquestionably right in such a subjective field.

  10. I'm just glad I'm a part of the process that takes place AFTER you go through the other stuff :) Great post, Libby--I agree with Joanne that every beginning writer should read it!!

  11. Thanx for another WONDERFUL post, Libby!

    Oh boy did it bring back memories! But I think you and Joanne are right on. There are so few things we writers CAN control in the submission process, and the whole business is so subjective, that we obsess about the few (and largely insignificant) things we can control. I think the only real cure is time and experience. :-P


  12. LOL! I didn't know jack s**t when I started writing and I've had to learn a lot of things the hard way. But I do try to learn from my mistakes. Not sure it's helped me any, but I do try!

  13. I was in that totally ignorant crowd that knew zip about any of this "writing stuff" and simply went with what was in my heart. My style and voice are a compilation of something nebulous inside and the absorbed styles of my favorite authors. It all came together and was miraculously spit out onto the page!

    Later when I heard about all the "rules" I freaked! Then I stopped and reminded myself that I already had books being published with an editor who loved my work and a huge fan base, so therefore I must be doing something right despite my ignorance and breaking all the rules!

    But then, I have always been a bit of a rebel, so it feels kinda good. :)

  14. Excellent advice, Libby. I didn't have many rules other than general guidelines when I wrote my first manuscript. BENEATH THE THIRTEEN MOONS will be re-released by Sourcebooks in paperback this December. :}