Sunday, January 4, 2015

If you don’t have anything original to say, leave Lord Lytton alone.

So there I was, seated in the second row, at a daylong writers How-To. The room was filled with published, soon-to-be-published, and if-I-could-only-get-this-down-on-paper writers. On the dais were a collection of published authors assembled to share their experiences, love of craft, and general writing tips and principals. These authors were what I would consider mid-level authors—authors not yet on the NY Times bestsellers list so they also have day jobs. That’s ok. I didn’t expect someone on Dan Brown’s level, so I wasn’t disappointed. Truth be told, I was excited. I had every expectation of it being a full day of tips and insights I could run home with and polish up my latest manuscript.

It started off with a meet-and-greet over Danish and coffee, the obligatory smiles and raised eyebrow interest in our latest projects, and then got down to business. The morning session centered on character development, eased into plotting, and slid right into foreshadowing before the lunch bell signaled the end of the session.  The morning was light, interesting and involved audience participation, and I captured it all within four pages of notes. I was going to be a polishing fool by the time I got back to my manuscript that night.

Lunch was enjoyable. We clustered at tables in groups outside, going over different aspects of the morning session. We hurried through our box lunch, getting ourselves ready for the pearls of wisdom we were sure would be forthcoming in the afternoon session. Personally, my interest for the whole day was focused on an author in the afternoon session whose topic concerned the setting as a character. He was an author who also had an academic background.  

I yawned through the first author, whose name I forget. He spent most of the time convincing us he was well known. I pondered to myself how well known could he possibly be if he had to go through that much of an explanation? At some point he mentioned a few things about dialog, but my interest was forfeited long before he got to his talking points. He finally finished.

It was time. The topic I came to hear was about to begin. I turned to a fresh page in my notebook, neatly wrote the topic on the first line, and sat ready to be mesmerized. Imagine my disappointment when he starts out by reciting a portion of the opening paragraph of Paul Clifford, an 1830 novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. He posed it as a question and did so while omitting the opening sentence—a sentence much parodied and one most people would recognize whether you new the origin or not. This was followed by a regurgitation of myopic critiques on Lord Lytton. Needless to say, I put my pen down.

What was that first line, you ask? It read thus: “It was a dark and stormy night . . .” Sound familiar? It should, even Snoopy got in on the act by typing that line for the opening sentence in his attempt at the great American novel. But he wasn’t the only one. Poe penned the same line in one of his short stories, as did Madeleine L'Engle in her Newbery Medal-winning novel A Wrinkle in Time. So why pick on Lytton? I ask myself that every time someone uses it as an example of poor scene setting. It all goes back to Lytton’s contemporaries scoffing at such an opening for a book. Personally I would say it was more sour grapes than editorial critique. Edward Bulwer-Lytton was one of 19th century England’s most widely read and prolific authors, so it naturally makes him a target to the rest. Every great writer has his critics—before there was a New York Times best seller list it was the only way the public knew they were great writers. Face it, who would quote a nobody?

 Those opening their How-To lectures using this one obscure line from a vast body of work might want to think about basing their direction on something from this century and leave Lytton alone.  Or at least, give the man some credit while you’re at it. Bulwer-Lytton had a varied and prolific literary career, writing historical fiction, romance, mystery, and even science fiction. His plays were produced in London and New York, and his novels were the basis of operas by Richard Wagner and William Henry Fry. Here’s a couple other famous quotes penned by Lytton that should sound familiar: “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and, “pursuit of the almighty dollar.” Even Great Expectations would have had a very different ending if it weren’t for Lytton convincing Dickens to revise the ending to one the reading public would find more acceptable.

So, what does this all have to do with the How-To’s of writing fiction? It basically comes down to this. What someone did or didn’t do a hundred years ago is going to be more confusing than helpful, especially when it’s taken out of context. There are only four basic rules to follow.

1. Write your book. Not one based on how someone else says you should write it. Get it all down on paper. Reread it and refine it until you’re happy with it.

2. Get it copyedited. This is the tough one. When I say get it copyedited I don’t mean give it to your niece because she got straight A’s in English, I mean spend a few dollars and have a professional editor go over the whole book. They’ll look at grammar, pacing, continuity, etc. Working with a professional is an eye opener, and will be the best investment you can make in your writing career. If you have it in you to be a successful writer, a good copyeditor will help you bring those talents to the surface, with the result being a publishable manuscript.

3. Querying agents. This isn’t as bad as everyone makes it out to be if you keep one thing in mind—a rejection is only one person’s opinion. There are also 2 parts to this: 1-Query, 2-Submission.
The Query: Writing a query is to some extent harder than writing the book, but not necessarily undoable. Start with a high level outline and distill it down to 3 things: who your protagonist is, what they need to overcome, and who/what is stopping them from achieving their goal. Open with a tag line (the Hook) and jump right into the 3 Things. Finish off with any writing credits you might have, but don’t worry if you don’t have any.
The Submission: Do your homework. There is a plethora of information at your fingertips about the agents dealing in your genre.  Look over their current deals on their websites, check MS Wishlist for what agents are excited about that week. Purchase the latest copy of Writers Market. Think about attending writing conferences where you can have a scheduled one-on-one pitch with an agent. The list goes on.
This could take some time, so be ready for that. Like anything else in life, you have to put your manuscript in front of the right person at the right time. Getting a rejection doesn’t mean your book stinks; it just means it wasn’t right for that agent at that time. I’ve always looked at a rejection as a badge of honor. It proved to myself I was serious about my writing. I was out there, pitching my book, taking my best shot. So you keep doing it until you hit it right smack in the center. And until that day comes, you continue to query but concentrate on #4.

4. Start the next book. If you followed 1 through 3 think about all you’ve learned. Apply it to your next book and start the process all over. I think you’ll be surprised at the result.

One final thought. Allow me to quote the inspiration for this rambling on a more positive note. There’ll be a lot of dark and stormy nights in your writing process. As long as you remember you have all the tools necessary to weather the storm, you'll be just fine. So, get back to work.

Picture Credit: Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton by Henry William Pickersgill