Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Writing Life -- Guest Posting at Peace Garden Writer

Roxane Salonen, of Peace Garden Writer, invited me to do a guest post in her series on writers and the writing life. It's a summary of my journey so far, and the link is here.

Since that post is a general reflection on how my faith life and writing are interwoven, I thought it would be fun to add a few more concrete, practical ideas here.

I was recently talking via email with a friend about writing, the publishing world, and books, and here's what I shared with her.

Things I've Learned in Retrospect

1. The importance of a platform. 

Don't wait until the book contract is signed to establish a presence. Decide now who you are as a writer and what you want people to think of when they hear your name. Be honest and authentic about that. Create a website or blog that reflects your work, so that you have an online resume. Don't forget that Google+ and Twitter can offer great ways to get to know people, both readers and other writers.

I started my blog primarily to have that online resume, and hadn't considered the word "platform" until my first talk with a book editor. You can learn from my mistake.

(And, okay, to be honest here, I'm not sure what people think when they hear my name, other than "coffee" and "her blog is all over the place." But that's okay -- I am all over the place.  That's honestly who I am. Get me another cup of coffee.)

2.  Don't assume that your first book will be the one you've already written. 

I remember when I was first talking with a book editor. I pitched ideas to her and her response --  eminently more polite, but here's the essence -- was "Yeah, yeah, those are nice, but we want a book on the Rosary. Do you have any interest in writing a book on the Rosary?" I did have an interest. I was thrilled to have the chance to write it. That was my first book.

Be open to ideas from editors. Be willing to abandon all your best ideas and try something else.

3. Don't forget that many of your words are expendable

The end goal is always to create the best book possible. The most valuable lesson I've learned as a writer is: let editors do their job and make me a better writer. There's a reason they get paid to be editors. They're good at it.

When Mike Aquilina (editor of New Covenant magazine at the time) bought my conversion story, which was the first thing I ever sold, he emailed to say he'd had to cut it in half.  (I'd cavalierly ignored their writers' guidelines and sent a piece that was far too long, so here's another piece of advice: don't do that. Not all editors are as nice as Mike was.) When I read the final version, I couldn't tell what he'd deleted. That's excellent editing, capable of correcting the rambling of a wordy woman.

I've always loved this passage from Annie Dillard's The Writing Life:

The line of words is a hammer. You hammer against the wall of your house. You tap the walls, lightly, everywhere. After giving many years’ attention to these things, you know what to listen for. Some of the walls are bearing walls; they have to stay, or everything will fall down. Other walls can go with impunity; you can hear the difference. Unfortunately, it is often a bearing wall that has to go. It cannot be helped. There is only one solution, which appalls you, but there it is. Knock it out. Duck.

Courage utterly opposes the bold hope that this is such fine stuff the work needs it, or the world. Courage, exhausted, stands on bare reality; this writing weakens the work. You must demolish the work and start over. You can save some of the sentences, like bricks. It will be a miracle if you can save some of the paragraphs, no matter how how excellent in themselves or hard-won. You can waste a year worrying about it, or you can get it over with now. (Are you a woman, or a mouse?)
 The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin.

When I sent that passage to the above-mentioned friend, Atticus also reminded me of William Faulkner's advice that sometimes you have to "kill your darlings."

Writers should know and understand that there are times when it's worth standing firm to keep a particular passage or idea, but those moments are more rare than we writers want to admit.

4. Publishing is a more organic process than I thought.

Things change and grow: during the pitching process, in the midst of the writing, throughout the editing. Be willing to explore new directions.

And know that it takes time -- time, time, time --  before the final product is done and in the bookstores.

5. Don't use as many parentheses as I do. 

Because (and this refers back to #3) the things you put in parentheses are often (not always, but often) things you can do without (even if you don't think so) and your writing (whether it's a blog post or a book) will be better off without it. (See?)

But, y'know, since I don't have my editor at my side when I'm blogging, you often (not always, but often) find too many parenthetical statements on my blog (sorry). That's just the way it ("it" referring to my general state of blog-being) is.


Roxane B. Salonen said...

Karen, a neat "addendum" to the post you shared over at Peace Garden Writer today. Good stuff! I enjoyed the Annie Dillard excerpt. And all of the great reminders and insights. Thanks. :)

Holly Rutchik said...

Blessings, Karen! I'm visiting from Roxane's blog and just wanted to stop bye and say thanks for sharing. Your writing story is REAL and I love that. Writing is hard, because it is always a second vocation to wife/mommy. You are a great example that if the Lord is calling you, He will call.
(I am also "all over the place" and I have a love for a , about every 3 words :) Blessings, Holly

Mary Kate said...

I am so guilty of the parentheses-thing! Doh!

Melanie B said...


Your story is wonderful, so full of twists and turns and unexpected surprises just like life with God in charge. I love that bit from Annie Dillard.

Liz said...

I also have an addiction to parentheses.