Louise Penny’s Writing Advice

It takes us so long to find the right story, to be at the right place in our lives to be able to tell it, and then to have the time (and the community!) to make that story everything it can be. So it often takes authors by surprise when (1) Getting an agent is really hard, and (2) Even when they get the attention of an agent and their book gets published, it doesn’t actually give them the validation they were looking for. In A NOONDAY DEMON, Andrew Solomon recounts his greatest depression, which occurred after he’d published his first novel. For so long, he’d been living under the illusion that once he’d finally gotten his book in print, his life would stop being so damned hard. Then however, once his book was published and his life was still difficult, he had to confront the realization that publishing a novel wouldn’t bring about any magical restoration of his spirit.

Louise Penny is a great reality check for all of us.  Below is this talk she gave at Politics & Prose, which you should play in the background every time you open Facebook or Twitter or look at one more montage of Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher as you are “thinking about the next scene.” Getting an agent, getting your book published, and then getting people to actually read your book is a truly absurd process. But Louise takes you through all that absurdity with joy, with a sense of humor, and with a belief that what we, as writers do, matters, even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time.

What Revising with an Agent Feels Like

  1. You finish your book and write THE END.
  2. You send it to your agent. As soon as you hit send, you realize everything that is wrong with your manuscript and wish you could control +z that effer back into your inbox.
  3. You calm down and try not to think about it. That works for approximately two days as you do all the things you neglected to do while drafting (Laundry. Pay bills.)
  4. People start asking ‘How’s it going?” which messes up point three.
  5. Your agent gets back to you. She loves it! Small tweaks she says. Let’s talk, she says.
  6. You wonder if your agent’s definition of ‘tweaks’ is some obscure medieval definition that actually means large, seismic changes.
  7. You and your agent talk. Or, she talks and you madly scribble down notes and make stupid jokes. You agree with all her changes because she’s a genius. Or there’s one point that you push back on (or two, or three) but after talking it out, you agree, or convince her of your point. This talking, hashing it out is part of the work. You marvel at all the little pieces of thinking that makes a book go.
  8. You get off the phone with your agent and realize that you have promised her a bunch of changes (deep digs, cosmetic changes and killing off some people) in FOUR WEEKS. CRAP! These are medieval tweaks.
  9. You realize that one of those weeks is going to evaporate because it’s Christmas.
  10. You panic, gently, into your Holiday Spiced Flat White.
  11. A friend who is beta reading for you texts you from a plane to say she’s freaked out and can’t wait to read more.
  12. Another beta reader friend tells you she loves it…and gives you a whole bunch of suggestions for edits.
  13. You realize that writing is a living thing. It’s never over. It’s only ever evolving, growing. This, instead of throwing you into despair, makes you happy. A sustainable writing life. It’s what you’ve always started.
  14. You stop writing your blog post and get to work revising.

Writing is Hard

Let’s play a game, shall we? Every time one of us says, “Writing is hard,” we take a drink. Yes, I know it’s 8 O’clock in the morning. Nope, that doesn’t bother me at all.

As I (Michelle) move to the rewrite/redraft stage, and as I look at the structure of Draft 1 and each scene of Draft 1, evaluating if it’s fixable, if it needs to be trashed, or if it’s perfect just the way it is (just kidding, that third option is fake), I’m reminded again why writing is so damned hard.

*drinks*

So many elements have to fit together in every scene as well as in the greater structure, for a novel to create the emotional resonance needed for readers to really connect and for them to feel like, once they’ve read, they’ve been changed.

The best advice I’ve seen on how to weave all those elements together comes from David Mamet’s memo to the writers of the Unit. His advice is simple and intuitive, but as I’m learning with my rewrites, it is damn hard to implement. Because well, folks, writing is hard.

*drinks*

To that end, here is his memo, reprinted without permission, cut and pasted from a random website, written in ALL CAPS because if you’re David Mamet, you can do that without making your colleagues hate you. You can also, apparently, be liberal with your use of the word “dickhead.”

Without further ado:

“TO THE WRITERS OF THE UNIT”

GREETINGS.

AS WE LEARN HOW TO WRITE THIS SHOW, A RECURRING PROBLEM BECOMES CLEAR.

THE PROBLEM IS THIS: TO DIFFERENTIATE BETWEEN DRAMA AND NON-DRAMA. LET ME BREAK-IT-DOWN-NOW.

EVERYONE IN CREATION IS SCREAMING AT US TO MAKE THE SHOW CLEAR. WE ARE TASKED WITH, IT SEEMS, CRAMMING A SHITLOAD OF INFORMATION INTO A LITTLE BIT OF TIME.

OUR FRIENDS. THE PENGUINS, THINK THAT WE, THEREFORE, ARE EMPLOYED TO COMMUNICATE INFORMATION — AND, SO, AT TIMES, IT SEEMS TO US.

BUT NOTE:THE AUDIENCE WILL NOT TUNE IN TO WATCH INFORMATION. YOU WOULDN’T, I WOULDN’T. NO ONE WOULD OR WILL. THE AUDIENCE WILL ONLY TUNE IN AND STAY TUNED TO WATCH DRAMA.

QUESTION:WHAT IS DRAMA? DRAMA, AGAIN, IS THE QUEST OF THE HERO TO OVERCOME THOSE THINGS WHICH PREVENT HIM FROM ACHIEVING A SPECIFIC, ACUTE GOAL.

SO: WE, THE WRITERS, MUST ASK OURSELVES OF EVERY SCENE THESE THREE QUESTIONS.

1) WHO WANTS WHAT?

2) WHAT HAPPENS IF HER DON’T GET IT?

3) WHY NOW?

THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS ARE LITMUS PAPER. APPLY THEM, AND THEIR ANSWER WILL TELL YOU IF THE SCENE IS DRAMATIC OR NOT.

IF THE SCENE IS NOT DRAMATICALLY WRITTEN, IT WILL NOT BE DRAMATICALLY ACTED.

THERE IS NO MAGIC FAIRY DUST WHICH WILL MAKE A BORING, USELESS, REDUNDANT, OR MERELY INFORMATIVE SCENE AFTER IT LEAVES YOUR TYPEWRITER. YOU THE WRITERS, ARE IN CHARGE OF MAKING SURE EVERY SCENE IS DRAMATIC.

THIS MEANS ALL THE “LITTLE” EXPOSITIONAL SCENES OF TWO PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD. THIS BUSHWAH (AND WE ALL TEND TO WRITE IT ON THE FIRST DRAFT) IS LESS THAN USELESS, SHOULD IT FINALLY, GOD FORBID, GET FILMED.)

IF THE SCENE BORES YOU WHEN YOU READ IT, REST ASSURED IT WILL BORE THE ACTORS, AND WILL, THEN, BORE THE AUDIENCE, AND WE’RE ALL GOING TO BE BACK IN THE BREADLINE.

SOMEONE HAS TO MAKE THE SCENE DRAMATIC. IT IS NOT THE ACTORS JOB (THE ACTORS JOB IS TO BE TRUTHFUL). IT IS NOT THE DIRECTORS JOB. HIS OR HER JOB IS TO FILM IT STRAIGHTFORWARDLY AND REMIND THE ACTORS TO TALK FAST. IT IS YOUR JOB.

EVERY SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. THAT MEANS: THE MAIN CHARACTER MUST HAVE A SIMPLE, STRAIGHTFORWARD, PRESSING NEED WHICH IMPELS HIM OR HER TO SHOW UP IN THE SCENE.

THIS NEED IS WHY THEY CAME. IT IS WHAT THE SCENE IS ABOUT. THEIR ATTEMPT TO GET THIS NEED MET WILL LEAD, AT THE END OF THE SCENE,TO FAILURE – THIS IS HOW THE SCENE IS OVER. IT, THIS FAILURE, WILL, THEN, OF NECESSITY, PROPEL US INTO THE NEXT SCENE.

ALL THESE ATTEMPTS, TAKEN TOGETHER, WILL, OVER THE COURSE OF THE EPISODE, CONSTITUTE THE PLOT.

ANY SCENE, THUS, WHICH DOES NOT BOTH ADVANCE THE PLOT, AND STANDALONE (THAT IS, DRAMATICALLY, BY ITSELF, ON ITS OWN MERITS) IS EITHER SUPERFLUOUS, OR INCORRECTLY WRITTEN.

*drinks*

YES BUT YES BUT YES BUT, YOU SAY: WHAT ABOUT THE NECESSITY OF WRITING IN ALL THAT “INFORMATION?”

AND I RESPOND “FIGURE IT OUT” ANY DICKHEAD WITH A BLUESUIT CAN BE (AND IS) TAUGHT TO SAY “MAKE IT CLEARER” AND “I WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT HIM”.

WHEN YOU’VE MADE IT SO CLEAR THAT EVEN THIS BLUESUITED PENGUIN IS HAPPY, BOTH YOU AND HE OR SHE WILL BE OUT OF A JOB.

THE JOB OF THE DRAMATIST IS TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE WONDER WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. NOT TO EXPLAIN TO THEM WHAT JUST HAPPENED, OR TO*SUGGEST* TO THEM WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

*drinks*

ANY DICKHEAD, AS ABOVE, CAN WRITE, “BUT, JIM, IF WE DON’T ASSASSINATE THE PRIME MINISTER IN THE NEXT SCENE, ALL EUROPE WILL BE ENGULFED IN FLAME”

WE ARE NOT GETTING PAID TO REALIZE THAT THE AUDIENCE NEEDS THIS INFORMATION TO UNDERSTAND THE NEXT SCENE, BUT TO FIGURE OUT HOW TO WRITE THE SCENE BEFORE US SUCH THAT THE AUDIENCE WILL BE INTERESTED IN WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

YES BUT, YES BUT YES BUT YOU REITERATE.

AND I RESPOND FIGURE IT OUT.

HOW DOES ONE STRIKE THE BALANCE BETWEEN WITHHOLDING AND VOUCHSAFING INFORMATION? THAT IS THE ESSENTIAL TASK OF THE DRAMATIST. AND THE ABILITY TO DO THAT IS WHAT SEPARATES YOU FROM THE LESSER SPECIES IN THEIR BLUE SUITS.

FIGURE IT OUT.

*drinks*

START, EVERY TIME, WITH THIS INVIOLABLE RULE: THE SCENE MUST BE DRAMATIC. it must start because the hero HAS A PROBLEM, AND IT MUST CULMINATE WITH THE HERO FINDING HIM OR HERSELF EITHER THWARTED OR EDUCATED THAT ANOTHER WAY EXISTS.

LOOK AT YOUR LOG LINES. ANY LOGLINE READING “BOB AND SUE DISCUSS…” IS NOT DESCRIBING A DRAMATIC SCENE.

*drinks*

PLEASE NOTE THAT OUR OUTLINES ARE, GENERALLY, SPECTACULAR. THE DRAMA FLOWS OUT BETWEEN THE OUTLINE AND THE FIRST DRAFT.

THINK LIKE A FILMMAKER RATHER THAN A FUNCTIONARY, BECAUSE, IN TRUTH, YOU ARE MAKING THE FILM. WHAT YOU WRITE, THEY WILL SHOOT.

HERE ARE THE DANGER SIGNALS. ANY TIME TWO CHARACTERS ARE TALKING ABOUT A THIRD, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

*drinks*

ANY TIME ANY CHARACTER IS SAYING TO ANOTHER “AS YOU KNOW”, THAT IS, TELLING ANOTHER CHARACTER WHAT YOU, THE WRITER, NEED THE AUDIENCE TO KNOW, THE SCENE IS A CROCK OF SHIT.

*drinks*

DO NOT WRITE A CROCK OF SHIT. WRITE A RIPPING THREE, FOUR, SEVEN MINUTE SCENE WHICH MOVES THE STORY ALONG, AND YOU CAN, VERY SOON, BUY A HOUSE IN BEL AIR AND HIRE SOMEONE TO LIVE THERE FOR YOU.

REMEMBER YOU ARE WRITING FOR A VISUAL MEDIUM. MOST TELEVISION WRITING, OURS INCLUDED, SOUNDS LIKE RADIO. THE CAMERA CAN DO THE EXPLAINING FOR YOU. LET IT. WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERS DOING -*LITERALLY*. WHAT ARE THEY HANDLING, WHAT ARE THEY READING. WHAT ARE THEY WATCHING ON TELEVISION, WHAT ARE THEY SEEING.

IF YOU PRETEND THE CHARACTERS CANT SPEAK, AND WRITE A SILENT MOVIE, YOU WILL BE WRITING GREAT DRAMA.

*drinks*

I CLOSE WITH THE ONE THOUGHT: LOOK AT THE SCENE AND ASK YOURSELF “IS IT DRAMATIC? IS IT ESSENTIAL? DOES IT ADVANCE THE PLOT?”

ANSWER TRUTHFULLY.

*drinks*

*drinks*

*drinks*

IF THE ANSWER IS “NO” WRITE IT AGAIN OR THROW IT OUT. IF YOU’VE GOT ANY QUESTIONS, CALL ME UP.

LOVE, DAVE MAMET

 

 

This is The End. This is The Beginning.

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Do you like that Doors song, The End? It’s sort of moody and spacey with the keyboards doing their floaty ominous thing? I’ve always liked that song because, as my daughter tells me relentlessly, I am emom (get it? emo + mom? She’s hilarious.)

But, frustratingly for my doom and gloom tastes, I am also an optimistic fantasist! I believe that the end is the beginning and even with a disaster, dumpster fire of a year like 2016, good will come.

But I don’t wait around for good to drop by with coffee cake. I do good things. Writing is a good thing. It is good for the writer and (if you do your job right) it is good for the reader. But that’s not all writers do. We critique and beta other writers’ work. We engage in book talk like the nerdy fiends we are. We care about books because books are supercharged delivery systems for ideas. They are how we learn to be critical thinkers (and how, once we learn, we don’t forget.)

Books are awesome, we all agree. (Except you in the back. Show yourself out.) But how do we go about writing them?

Short answer, and you can knock off early:  You just do. You sit. You think. You write. You can mix it up a bit. Write while standing, sit to think. Or sit and write and think later – messy, but I’ve done it! Essentially though, that’s it.

Long answer: You try every trick in the book to fool yourself into devoting hours of your time to thinking, writing and rewriting.

You find other writers to complain to about how hard writing is.

You read. There are lots of ratios floating around here but I like to think of it as minimum 2/1 ratio. For every 1000 words you want to write, you need to read 2000 words. Read the way you eat (or, actually, the way I eat) voraciously and widely.

You subscribe to magazines (Writers Digest, Poets & Writers etc.), newsletters (PW, Shelfawareness, Goodreads)

You join a crit group/writing group and you make sure you do the work and show up.

You join societies or groups of writers (I belong to the Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators, SCBWI)

You attend local or regional writing conferences – some are almost a week long and really expensive, some are a day long conference at a meeting and absolutely reasonable. You go to what you can, when you can.

You commit to writing in a way that is real and quotidian.

Doing the above (and having help from many wonderful people) is how, as of December 2, 2016, I managed to write five books of 80,000 words or more. I’m not talking about whether those books are good or not. I’m talking about doing it. Writing. I have done it and I will keep doing it.

So, last Thursday I wrote THE END on my manuscript. Today, I’m already thinking, “What’s Next?”