Agent, Author, Craft, Fiction, Novel, Publish, Query, Writing

Yes, I’m angry!

PLEASE NOTE: This post is not a criticism of Elizabeth Strout’s writing, which I love. It is only a rant about some arbitrary writing rules.

This is the post that will probably get me in trouble. On Friday, I finally got a copy of Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge, which won a Pulitzer last year. Accessible literary books are what I normally read, but for some reason, after reading the first paragraph of this one, a light flashed on in the writer section of my brain and I began to seethe. Here’s that paragraph:

“For many years Henry Kitteridge was a pharmacist in the next town over, driving every morning on snowy roads, or rainy roads, or summer-time roads, when the wild raspberries shot their new growth in brambles along the last section of town before he turned off to where the wider road led to the pharmacy. Retired now, he still wakes early and remembers how mornings used to be his favorite, as though the world were his secret, tires rumbling softly beneath him and the light emerging through the early fog, the brief sight of the bay off to his right, then the pines, tall and slender, and almost always he rode with the window partly open because he loved the smell of the pines and the heavy salt air, and in the winter he loved the smell of the cold.”

Okay, I love this, but where’s the obligatory punch ’em in the face opening line? You know, the almighty hook! And … oh, no it can’t be … this entire paragraph is made up of only two sentences?! One of which is fifty-four words and the other is eighty-five words long! And whoa, what’s this? It couldn’t be snow and rain and fog in that opening because that’s the dreaded no-no weather. Oh … I get it, this is a hoax. This book was never published because no agent or editor would ever read past that first paragraph because nothing happens in it!

Yes, I know, I know, Strout had two books published before this one, so she’s allowed to break the rules. She’s a member of the “In Crowd” now. But if this had been her first novel, would any agent who reps literary fiction reject this book because of her “rule breaking” opening? Really?

So why am I seething? I’m angry at myself for taking to heart these arbitrary rules. I’m angry that I’ve rewritten my novel opening—as well as my query letter—a dozen times because they didn’t have enough in-your-face oomph! I’m angry that I’ve broken up uncountable melodic, well-punctuated sentences because they were “too long” and revised whole paragraphs because they were too “literary.”

I’m angry that I listened to my head and not my heart and soul!

So, now I’m taking a deep breath and going off to write the way I love to write. Who knows, maybe some day I’ll win a Pulitzer Prize.

Part Two, coming soon.

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Fiction, Novel, Query, Writing

First novel, love it or leave it?

I realize most of you who read this blog have never published a novel, but I’m going to ask for your opinion anyway. Often I’ve read the admonition you shouldn’t attempt to sell your first novel. I saw someone question why on Twitter just yesterday. If anyone answered, I didn’t see those tweets.

Of course, we all know there are exceptions to every rule. There are prodigies in every field. If you were one of those, you would be too busy with your career to be reading this blog. So, how do the rest of us know when this “first novel rule” applies?

Obviously, if you were ten years old when you last wrote anything longer than a shopping list, the chances are exceedingly slim that your first novel will be of publishable quality. And if your first novel was written during NaNoWriMo and you query it on December 1st, don’t be surprised when agents fail to fight for the privilege of representing you.

Is the real thought behind the rule that you learn to write by writing? If so, what if you have seriously studied the craft, whether formally or self-directed? What if you have written short stories? Then are you “safe” to query your first novel?

What is your take on the first novel rule?

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Advice, Block, Doubt, Fiction, Novel, Read, Tips, Writing

Ignorance stays out of your way

My last post concerned the idea that where you write can affect how you write. This post voices my overwrought opinion that what you know can affect how you write. In other words, sometimes knowledge can hogtie you, where ignorance lets you run free.

I wrote my first novel in six months. Certainly, it needs a deeper edit and, since I’m the only one who’s read it, there’s a good chance some revision is in its future. But still, it’s a whole novel. By contrast my second novel is taking more than twice as long. Why?

Probably the main reason for me, is that I know more about writing now. NO! I know more writing RULES now. When I wrote that first novel, I was just a Reader. I could spell and had a geekish grasp on grammar, but I hadn’t read any how-to-write manuals, or taken any classes or seminars. I just loved reading fiction and making up stories of my own. I usually kept these stories in my head, but occasionally I’d start writing them down. I’d even started a few novels, but never finished one. Then, a chance meeting sparked an idea that I couldn’t shake, and before I knew it, I had started writing another novel. This time the writing was different; the story flowed.

I had a wonderful time writing that book because I didn’t know it was supposed to be hard.

Back then, I wasn’t a Writer. I didn’t know all the rules that now cause me to second guess myself a thousand times a day. I didn’t know only well-published authors are allowed to use adverbs and adjectives and dialogue tags other than said. I didn’t know you should never start a book with a prologue, or with the weather, or that certain things had to happen at page 100, or 200, or whenever. I just wrote the story the way it made sense to me. Oh, how I wish I could write unencumbered like that again.

Now, under the burden of all these rules, I have a hard time letting the story flow. I’ve read some writing tips—underage rules—and tried some of them, but they didn’t work for me. I even tried typing blindfolded, but claustrophobic panic put an end to that.

And if I let myself think about writing the life-or-death query letter, or the number of other writers vying for “my” slot on the release list, or the state of the publishing industry—well, I start to wonder if I shouldn’t do myself a favor by deleting everything in my Writing file and taking up Reading again.

I know it would take awhile to quit editing as I read, but I think I could do it.


Except, well, there’s this one story idea …