The following are the "golden rules" that underly my day-to-day decisions about writing.
I revised The Hollow Kingdom three times before it was accepted, and the line-edit looked as if my editor had slashed her wrists over it, so much red pencil appeared on its pages. I found two consecutive sheets with no markings at all and told her that I intended to frame them! People sometimes ask me if it is hard to have "my" work criticized like that. No, it isn't. Revising is an enjoyable, rewarding process if it's viewed in the proper light.
I have my own secret stories and daydreams that I will never write down for others, but once I write a manuscript intended for publication, it isn't "mine" anymore. Books belong to two people: the writer and the reader. They are a jointly-owned piece of property. If I write something that the reader doesn't understand or want to read, I have failed in my communication. Protests and explanations aren't going to help: I need to change it so that the reader can enjoy it. Of course, I won't give up the ideas that led me to create the work in the first place, but if I have to, I will alter things radically so that the reader can better grasp those ideas. That is the attitude that I take when doing any revision, and so far, I have been pleased to find that revising has always resulted in a better product.
Some teacher somewhere taught me to picture my reader before I begin writing, and I wish I could find her and thank her. When I was writing in my professional field, I would carefully pick the perfect reader before starting the article. Was my reader a fellow cataloger, with special training and experience? If so, I could use certain terms without explaining them. Was he a member of the teaching faculty, or was he one of the classified staff? Then I needed to change my style entirely. I chose my library director as the perfect reader of the most important article I wrote, and that article became required reading for a while in several library schools.
Fiction is no different. Two years ago, I picked my daughters as my audience. Now that they are growing older, I try to spend time with other teenagers in order to remember what interests and education this audience has.
Some people tell me that they know they cannot write because they have tried and failed to write diaries or journals. I, too, have failed to keep a journal. It is the hardest type of writing I know. When I write a journal, am I writing for myself? If so, I already know all the things that have happened to me today. Am I writing for myself in ten years, when I will have forgotten the details? Or am I writing for my grandchildren, when they are grown up? Each of these different audiences will change both what I write and how I write it. Keeping a journal is not as easy as it seems!
Many writers, particularly untaught amateurs, feel that their writing has to sound very different from normal speech. It is true that writing is more formal than conversation, but there is no need to throw long words or unusual phrases into it just because it has landed on a page. Writing is simply stating ideas so that another can easily grasp them. Long words and strange jargon don't help a reader do that.
Good writing is based on clear thinking. If you are stuck on a particular sentence, you may find that your thought itself is confused. Try breaking a complicated idea into several manageable parts instead. I remember the patience of my good friend, Beatrice Caraway, who was helping a colleague with some very muddy prose. She would read out a sentence, turn to him, and ask, "What are you trying to say here?"
This is one reason I always read a manuscript out loud before submitting it. If it sounds funny coming out of my mouth—I change it.
This is something that my editor has taught me. The first version of The Hollow Kingdom was very long, and she asked me to abridge it substantially. I went through it, taking out every word I could. I was surprised to see, upon rereading it, how much energy the text had gained. Before, readers had been puttering through the manuscript in several days. Now some of them were staying up to finish it in one night. Through subtraction, it had become more suspenseful and fast-paced. I am better at writing a rough draft now, but I still find that I am inclined to cut out words or phrases upon rereading my work. Less is always better.
I can't explain what is essential, however, and what to cut out. You have to know that for yourself. Often a phrase that might seem expendable at first glance is actually very important—it may create a certain impression on the reader that you don't want to lose or foreshadow something that will happen dozens of pages away. But I can say that it is a good idea never to explain to the reader as a fact something that she can discover through dialogue or witness through the eyes of a character. The most glaring sign of inexperience I know is over-explanation in the early pages of a manuscript.
I always do this before I submit a manuscript, and before I submit a final version of a manuscript, I do it twice because I have usually made enough small changes to require a second pass. It is well worth the time that I invest. First, I find that certain phrases sound "wrong" when I say them out loud, although they looked fine on paper; this gets back to the issue of writing in one's own voice. Second, if I start to become bored with a section, I can tell it is going on too long, and I look for a few things to cut from it; often, during a read-aloud session, I can notice when even one short sentence should go away. Third, I become aware of word repetitions and catch unfortunate instances of rhyme or alliteration. Fourth, I am much more likely to notice small typos.
When I talk to others about my "writing rules," this is the one most likely to cause dismay. I should note, first, that I place no limits on reading literature, which I see as a very different animal. Literature is fiction that has been acclaimed by the highest critics, and it is what we study in school. I read lots of literature. That's very important to any writer.
But what about the regular stuff—the books that haven't won awards or critical attention? This is what I approach with caution. Sure, I love a lot of it, but it can be bad for my writer's ear (that innate sense of how a sentence should sound). My rule of thumb is that we write a little worse than the things we read. That's why I always look for something that will inspire me, someone whose work is much better than mine.
There are other good reasons not to read fiction. Writing and reading fiction both please the same part of the brain, but writing is harder to do, so any time I spend reading another's story is time I'm not spending on my own. Second, a writer can only write about what he or she already knows, so I tend to use my reading time now for expanding my horizons. I read history, which gives me all kinds of interesting ideas; memoirs, which are a useful study in personal expression and the chronicling of emotion; and works of geography and travel, which take me to places that I can then use in future manuscripts. If I were reading fiction, I couldn't and shouldn't borrow things for later use—that's plagiarism!
I should mention here that I spent a lifetime reading fiction before I decided to write it. My editor suspects that she rejects many manuscripts from authors who have not read enough. Their inexperience shows in relatively shallow or clichéd plots and characterizations. If you want to write a certain type of fiction, you should first read the classics of that genre and get to know what has already been done.
Since writing is communication with a reader, I find it very important to have readers give me feedback. Because friends and family members know my style and thought processes, they don't make good readers. The best readers don't know me at all. Since I write for teens, I search for target readers who are teenagers: the penpals of my daughters and the local Girl Scout troop have supplied me with readers, for instance.
A couple of things help to produce useful feedback. First, I try to avoid meeting readers until they have given me their questionnaires, and if I do meet them, I stress to them the importance of being frank and brutal. That's because people taking any sort of survey tend to be kinder to those they have met. I use lots of open-ended questions that invite criticism, such as "Even an exciting book can have slow parts. If this book had slow parts, what were they?" or "What part did you like the least?"
Target readers, particularly if they are not adults, are not professional critics. Often I get only a hint at what is confusing or what needs changing. It's important to have a positive attitude and not to get defensive. Because it is usually tentative and sketchy, I can block potentially useful criticism if I'm not careful.
I can only speak from my own limited experience. I have an ideal working relationship with my editor because, as far as I can tell, my editor is ideal. I realize that this isn't necessarily typical. If you don't have an ideal editor, I don't know what you should do, but I do know how important mine is to my work.
If my editor says there is a problem, large or small, in one of my manuscripts, then that problem is almost certainly there, and whining or protesting won't make it go away. She generally doesn't tell me how to fix the problem because that's my job, and sometimes it is so subtle that she can only be vague and point me in the general direction. But I had better give the matter careful thought because my manuscript has a problem and something needs to be done about it.
If my editor suggests a change that will break one of the goals of my work, that is my fault and not hers. I've obviously failed in some way to communicate that goal through my writing. At that point, I explain to her the goal and tell her that the change won't do. We get squared away on the background issues, and we're ready to work together on how to bring them out in the text.
The fact is that if a book is two-way communication, it will never be its best without help from the reader's side. A good editor stands in for all the readers who can't explain themselves and tells you what is and is not working. I don't follow my editor's advice blindly—each time I do a line-edit with her, for instance, I prepare a long document on the suggestions that I have rejected and tell her exactly why her wording won't work. But even when I reject a suggestion, I look at the underlying problem she was trying to fix and try to find a different way to address it.
When I send my editor a manuscript, it is as good as I can make it. Through her attention and suggestions, it gets better. By the time we have put it through edits and revisions, it has become the best book that the two of us can produce from that rough draft—and it is well beyond the quality of my solo work.
I can't explain how to write fiction, and I don't know if it's something that can be taught, although I do know that it can be developed and improved. If you know how to write fiction, you are in a tiny minority, and the world is counting on you to feed its imagination. Don't just write a blockbuster that panders or titillates. Do the world a favor, and write something worthwhile.
When I develop a new story, I pick a few major goals for it, things that I myself want to examine. In The Hollow Kingdom, I wanted to explore the idea of a personal relationship without physical attraction because I am a little tired of our modern love of beauty. I also found myself intrigued that our monster tales almost never let the monster win, and I wanted to give the monster a fighting chance. I wanted to portray strong characters who met their obligations and fulfilled their promises in spite of the cost, and I wanted to put a normal girl through severe culture shock and allow her to gain an understanding of a foreign culture without losing her own ideals or self-respect.
I feel strongly that fiction should give the reader something besides entertainment. Readers live vicariously through books; they explore things they couldn't—or even shouldn't—do in real life. That vicarious experience should build a reader just as real experiences do, and a book doesn't have to be propagandistic or didactic in order to do that. If you challenge yourself and grow through your writing, you will challenge your reader.
I write almost every day, and I think about my writing projects every day. I can't help myself. For me, writing is addictive. I have been creating stories, characters, and worlds since I was very small. I have tried off and on to eliminate this time-wasting creative impulse, but I have never succeeded for long.
Writing is a dangerous hobby. It steals large stretches of time away from those you love. I never even considered writing until I had no other pressing obligations, and I have to watch myself now to make sure that my family and other duties aren't getting neglected. A writing career takes as much time and energy as any other professional career. By the time I have finished my writing, correspondence, and research, I have put in a full day.
People often tell me, "I've been wanting to write a book too!" I usually ask them why. Do they just like the thought of being a published author? Do they think it would be interesting to say they wrote a book? Or do they really have a story burning away inside, a story that they want to live minute by minute as they capture it on the page?
I didn't write a single one of my manuscripts because I wanted to write a book. When I write, I want to get away and live inside another world, bring unusual beings into existence and watch them interact, vanish into an alternate reality. I want to unload the scenes from my mind, where they are taking up room and where I have to keep running over them so that I won't forget them. I want to find the perfect words. Sometimes I sit down at the keyboard, start writing, and notice shortly thereafter that four or five hours have passed.
The only advice I can give to those who want to write a book is this: write because you love to write, and the book will take care of itself.