Fiction Training: Not All Writing Advice is Created Equal
When fiction writers are starting their careers, they need training. They don’t know how to discern between writing advice that advances their publication goals, and writing advice that is useless – or even detrimental.
In their eagerness for story feedback, aspiring authors often surrender sections of their book to any self-proclaimed professional, thinking that a magazine byline (for instance) is evidence that a writer knows how to improve fiction.
But writing commercial fiction is not the same as writing a magazine feature; writing a magazine feature is a far cry from writing a screenplay; and writing a screenplay is a whole different world from writing a novel!
Early in my career, I learned the hard way that asking my journalism colleagues to critique Romance novels was like asking the Terminator to use my manuscript for target practice.
Later in my pre-published phase, I discovered that published genre authors don’t necessarily have all the answers during story critiques. A special type of skill is required to analyze fiction writing. I was flexible enough as a newbie to accept the adage, “Books aren’t written; they’re rewritten” (Rita Gallagher), but I needed concrete guidance. Global criticisms like, “Weak Romance hero. Make him stronger,” didn’t help me in the least.
After I earned my first book contract, I was shocked to learn that book editors really don’t have time to pore over a manuscript, line by line, to advise a new author how to fix a passage that an editor has recommended for the chopping block.
I’ll never forget the day I received my first revision letter – all 26 pages of it. My Bantam editor advised me to cut 75 pages from the manuscript of my award-winning debut novel, Texas Outlaw. She didn’t say why. All she said was, “Your book is too long. Cut out pages XXX-XXX.”
I honestly had no idea why my editor found those pages so offensive. In fact, I was confused by her direction. As far as I was concerned, those particular pages were crucial to set up the bank robberies and chase scenes that I had written in the latter quarter of the manuscript.
I begged my critique partners to re-read the section. Three of those writers were published Romance writers; only one of them possessed the analytical (or intuitive?) skills to recognize that sexual tension was lacking in those 75 pages. (Sexual tension is mandatory in the Romance genre. Without it, readers lose interest in the story.)
Ironically, when I re-wrote those 75 pages, making them drip with sexual tension, my manuscript became longer than ever. My revisions must have eliminated my editor’s real (if unconscious) objection to my fiction writing, though. She signed off on my revisions, and Texas Outlaw went to press, making history as the first debut novel ever to be nominated for two Rita Awards by the published authors of Romance Writers of America.
The moral of this story?
Even professional book editors don’t always know how to fix a manuscript.
The good news is that sagging middles and weak heroes CAN be fixed, without scrapping your entire book manuscript. First, however, you must learn how to evaluate your own writing. A book writing coach can be instrumental to your training process.
Of course, you can choose other methods for becoming an impartial judge of your writing. You could devote countless hours of your free time to read the prose of other, pre-published fiction writers in your genre, hoping that by volunteering to participate in a critique group or as a contest judge will help you glean the insights that you need to strengthen your characterization, story plot, and novel structure.
However, if you’d like to shorten your learning curve, then I recommend that you hire a book writing coach who specializes in genre fiction.
For those of you who are interested in being mentored toward your publication goals, I’ve described the philosophy behind my story critiques as a book writing coach. You’ll also find the answers to frequently asked questions.
The real litmus test of any writing advice will be its specificity. If you receive story critiques that cannot show you HOW to eliminate the objections that your reader / editor is making, then your reader / editor may not be capable of helping you advance your fiction writing skills to the next level.
Remember: a fiction writer’s ultimate reward for soliciting writing advice from a coach should be a shorter road to publication.