I went to a great panel discussion this past week as part of my local university’s annual Writers Week. It featured Jay Varner, a Creative Writing MFA graduate here who just published his memoir, Nothing Left to Burn, and Jay’s editor, Chuck Adams at Algonquin Books. Adams also edited Sara Gruen’s Like Water for Elephants (one of my faves), a book that purportedly got its start during an early National Novel Writing Month.
These guys were both super informative, funny, honest and I wish those of you who read this blog regularly (thanks, ya’ll) and strive toward best-sellerdom could have been there. You would have enjoyed it. Then we could have gone for a walk on the beach together and talked about writing and publishing. Bliss.
But you have the next best thing: my summary. Bear in mind that I’m also cranking out a couple grand for NaNo every day, so this post is not going to be as, er, smoothly edited as some of my blog entries. And it’s too long. If you’re too busy churning out page after page of dubious prose for NaNo, just jump ahead to the really important stuff at the end of the post.
A lot of this is what we’ve all learned from reading about the publishing process, but hearing it from real live sentient beings kicks it all up a notch for me.
Chuck was asked right off, how does a writer without a platform (i.e., someone who’s not Snooki or an ax murderer) get picked up by an editor like you? He answered that for him, voice is the most important element. While most of the books he picks to work with have come to him via an agent (as had Jay’s book), he also reads queries that come directly to him in email. He is, in fact, currently working with a memoir that he got from email, and he usually gets about ten email queries a day. He reads them all, he said, unless he sees a grammatical error, then he quickly hits the delete key and moves on. You’ve been warned.
Chuck said he liked Jay’s writing when he first read it – sometimes there was a little over-writing, sometimes Jay didn’t get into the subject deeply enough – but the “bones” were there that meant, for Chuck, the book was worth working on and with.
Here’s the thing that bothered me: Jay Varner had just spent THREE YEARS in an MFA program where what he did, eight hours a day, was write. Or read other people’s writing. Or listen to people critique his writing. And then revise it.
So he had a manuscript that I assume was pretty polished when Algonquin signed him on. Then it took another three years until the book was finally published this fall. How much revision can any book handle? How much revision does a book with “good bones” need?
What does an editor like Chuck Adams want to see, aside from correct punctuation and usage? For fiction, he needs to see an entire manuscript. It’s not enough that a person can crank out a couple of chapters of beautiful writing; he needs to know that you can tell a story.
Non-fiction is different for him. If you have a good idea, and a great voice, you don’t necessarily need to submit a complete manuscript for him to be interested. I’m assuming Jay submitted a pretty complete manuscript. But he also had a compelling hook with his life story: he grew up in a trailer in a small town in central Pennsylvania where his grandfather was a serial arsonist. And his father was the town’s fire chief. I’m interested in reading about his childhood, aren’t you?
Chuck also talked about publishing as a business and the need to publish books that will make money. He had one manuscript that he loved because it was wildly original and when he took it to the editorial board, they asked him to compare it to another book or another author who was currently selling. He couldn’t – it was in a class of its own. They had no way of gauging the likelihood the book would be successful, so they bagged the manuscript and moved on to something they felt would be marketable.
Publishers need to have a buying audience in mind before deciding to publish a book – it needs to be “sort of” original, but there also needs to be something already out there to compare the book to. He gave these examples:
Bad: This book is just like Eat, Pray, Love, only better. (Don’t ever compare anything to Eat, Pray, Love. period.)
Good: Readers who like David Sedaris will like this book.
On MFAs and story telling:
Chuck said that much of the writing that he saw coming out of MFA programs was lyrical, filled with beautifully structured sentences and lush language, but it didn’t often include good story telling. He wasn’t sure whether or not story telling could be taught.
Jay found the benefit of the MFA program was the opportunity to write a lot, to get guidance and feedback. He learned how to think outside his own experience and tie it to something other people could relate to, how to structure his writing: “I just want to tell a good story that’s going to engage readers.”
I heard this word a lot during the session, also during the Joyce Carol Oates talk a week earlier. I have no idea what it means, whether it’s story structure or sentence structure, except it seems to be Important in some meta-structure way that perhaps only MFA people can understand. I welcome input here. I mean, I can diagram a sentence and I know about plot points and story arcs – but I think they are referring to something loftier and more organic here. Help me out…
The really important stuff:
These three points from the session are the ones that I’m posting on my bulletin board:
• The real talent is in the rewrite.
• You can’t do everything in every draft.
• There’s a story first that needs to come out.
So stop reading and get back to writing that story. 🙂