Editor Theresa Stevens takes the podium for the last time as our Ask An Editor columnist. Theresa has been integral to RU’s success, and we are extremely grateful for her contribution.
Theresa, we will miss you!
This is my final column for Romance University. I’m sad to go, but I have some new demands on my schedule that are ushering in many changes for me. It’s been a good run here, stretching all the way back to the inception of this blog. I’m proud to have been a part of the origin and evolution of a site that has done much good for many authors, and I hope to carry forward the friends and contacts made here. Thank you for including me, RU Crew! And thank you to all the readers and commenters who have made it such a wonderful experience.
I’ve thought long and hard about my final post because I feel that this is my last shot to tell the RU readers the things I want you to know. The trouble with writing (which is also the joy of writing, in many ways) is that there is such a long learning curve. We must learn so many things, from the big sweeping things to the tiny details, and we must continue to learn even after we’ve become proficient. That’s the nature of the beast. It’s always hungry.
But if there’s one knowledge advantage I have, it is not about punctuation or pacing, but about the character of writers and writing. I see enough successful and struggling writers, enough good and bad projects, to be able to make some global assessments about what separates the winners from the hopefuls. The winners have some things in common, most of which have to do with how they approach the work, and the good news is that we can all adopt these methods. We can consider these the five major components of a successful writing attitude.
1. Be diligent.
If you don’t have a finished manuscript, you have nothing. Plot notes, character sketches, perfect partials, contest wins, networking, writing classes and seminars — none of these things are a finished manuscript. Your first and only job as a writer is to finish the manuscript, and that requires diligence. Let the act of writing occupy a space in your life. You and you alone get to decide the size and shape of that space, and then you and you alone must guard that space. Let nothing else interfere with that space, not even the things meant to serve the writing.
2. Be bold.
A good manuscript crackles with excitement and daring, and I don’t mean this in the adventure-story sense. Even a quiet, introspective story about character change will have that sizzle, but the source will be internal emotions rather than external actions. Whatever the source of your story’s magic, exploit it. Far too often, we see manuscripts that set up a premise full of possibilities, but the premise is left unexplored or underexplored. Or, just as weak, we see a premise explored in a way no different from a thousand other manuscripts with the same tired ideas. Find your story’s most compelling angles, and follow them. Hold nothing back. Scene by scene, paragraph by paragraph, dare to develop your story in a deep way. Leave it all on the page.
3. Be ruthless.
What if you can’t figure out a way to explore an angle in a deep, compelling way in the context of the existing manuscript? Cut it. Cut every line, every scene, every half-baked idea that never quite sets. Don’t cling to anything that weakens the manuscript. I know we resist this — we do fall in love with our darlings. But for God’s sake, why would you want to keep something limp and dull and embryonic on the page? You gain nothing by guarding soft spots in your manuscript. If you really love an idea, maybe it will work in another manuscript. But if it doesn’t work in this one, cut it.
4. Be meticulous.
Who has two thumbs and hates a sloppy manuscript? You’d better be pointing those thumbs at yourself right now. Because if you think the thumbs should only be pointing at an editor, if you think that it’s someone else’s job to polish your prose, then you’re only doing half the job. There’s a difference between a writer and a daydreamer who can type. A writer knows that the arrangement of words on the page matters in a deeply vital way. It’s really all we have. We don’t get lighting experts and makeup experts and laugh tracks. We get words. If your words are trite, misspelled, rambling, inadequate, poorly arranged or poorly punctuated, then they will act as a barrier between the reader and the underlying story. The words you choose and the presentation of those words should rightly be a major concern for a writer.
5. Be sensitive.
One of my creative writing professors was famous for continually admonishing us to observe the world around us. Our assignments included eavesdropping on conversations, describing childhood bedrooms and classrooms, and plenty of other tasks focused on first observing and then recalling those observations. He once set an object beside the classroom door before we arrived, removed it before he entered the room, and required us to write for five minutes on “the thing by the door when you came in.” More than half the class had failed to notice the object, a green fishing tackle box, and failed that small assignment.
Observation and recollection are crucial writing tools, but they are nothing without a kind of sensitivity to provide a context for the things observed and recollected. Of all the successful writing attributes, this sensitivity is the hardest to describe and perhaps the hardest to acquire. All I can tell you is that some people have a knack for understanding the “why” of things. These are the writers who generate properly motivated characters. These are the writers who use setting to advance the plot. Their stories have an internal logic and coherence which is born from their intuitive grasp of the world around them. They don’t just notice the tackle box beside the door. They know why it’s there and how it will change things for the people coming through that door.
These are the five attributes I’ve noticed in the way successful authors approach their manuscripts. I wish I could leave you with something more — some final line editing tip, some miracle time management technique — but the reality is that no matter how much I teach you, there will always be something new for you to learn. And that’s a wonderful thing. Thank you for letting me play some part in your learning. I really have enjoyed my time as an RU columnist, and I leave here confident that there are many good things ahead. For all of us.
What other traits or habits contribute to your success as a writer? Share them with us!
Please join us on Monday, December 24th when RU staffer Carrie Spencer steps up to the lectern.
Bio: Theresa Stevens is the Publisher of STAR Guides Publishing, a nonfiction publishing company with the mission to help writers write better books. After earning degrees in creative writing and law, she worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. After a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry to practice law, Theresa worked as chief executive editor for a highly acclaimed small romance press, and her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at http://edittorrent.blogspot.com/ where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.
- Weekly Lecture Schedule for June 20-24: Kate Douglas, Lindsay Faber & Theresa Stevens
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- Theresa Stevens on Habits and Processes