My friend, the very talented writer, Ruth Horowitz, gave me some good advice about what to blog about next. She said: It makes sense that as an agent your emphasis is on the product that appears in your inbox — query, first sentence(s). For the writer, these concerns should only arise after a very long process of creating, crafting and revising. Thinking too much about them too soon can be stifling, because it puts you in the role of editor when you need to be a writer. It might be nice for you to blog about how/when aspiring writers should be applying your really excellent advice.
Well, Ruth clearly forgot it’s all about me and my needs. Oh wait! Did that slip out of my mind and onto the screen? It’s not true! It’s not true!
See that? That paragraph just above this one? That is what I mean when I tell writers to stop the throat clearing. When I’m asking to critique first lines I’m not asking for all that nonsense. But guess what? You need to write that nonsense! You need to write it so you can get it out of your head, just like I did. You need to write it because sometimes other things come out of it. Or it provides back story that you need to think about. Or like I did above, just to warm up before getting to the heart of the matter. Just don’t send that to me…
A Twitter follower (hi @LauraRenegar!) said: I’d love to read about how to beef up a manuscript when the story is in place, but the wordcount is low. I’m good at tightening but sometimes it’s hard to know what to add when you’ve finished a draft.
I told her: You can’t add words to increase the wordcount. You add words to tell more story, expand on ideas, draw a more detailed picture. Filling out a story when you just have bones is when you spin the tale, embellish, explain, trim the tree, decorate the house! (Metaphorically. Trim the metaphoric tree.)
I think there is something wild and primitive and elemental to the act of writing. I think if we think too much about it it doesn’t come out true. I think our characters really do have lives of their own and if we just listen closely enough we’ll be able to hear them tell their stories. To me there’s something Jungian about writing fiction, like we’re just capturing something that’s already out there in the collective unconscious and getting it down on paper. Listen to your characters.
And I beg you, don’t send me a first line for critique until your manuscript is complete. How can you know if you’ve started it off correctly if you don’t actually know where it’s going to go. You can‘t know, until you’ve arrived at the end. Ruth is so right. Allow yourself to craft your piece. Let it grow into something beautiful and authentic and honest. You don’t want to start trimming and clipping, editing and thinking too much, until it’s well formed.
After your story has been told, it’s already down on the paper, you’ve expanded and filled it out and it’s just a big, full-blown mess, that is the time to start revising, editing and thinking about first lines. And that is when you can enter a first line critique.
Don’t even think about writing or sending a query until you are 100% finished with your whole manuscript. 100% finished means totally, wholly, thoroughly, utterly and absolutely complete.