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Entries in advice (5)

Tuesday
Jun072011

Writers on Wednesday -- literary agent Christina Shideler


  1. Hooray! After a whirlwind of writing and getting my latest proposal ready to launch, finishing up the kids' homeschool portfolios for the state evaluator and adding Sampson to our family, I can return to my regular blog postings. I haven't forgotten about Monday Musing--I have been tossing one around in my head about how caffeine is to those of us approaching forty, what beer was in our twenties, and of course I have bene compiling photos and musings for my weekly dog blog. As far as Favorites on Friday, right now my favorite thing is Mrs. Meyer's geranium scented all purpose cleaner--I'm housebreaking a rather clueless puppy.


    But what's really exciting is to return to the Writers on Wednesday series. This week Christina Shideler, a literary agent with LMQ who has been representing me for three years, agreed to answer a few questions from the other side of the industry, a peek inside agency doors. I have enjoyed getting to know her this year and appreciate her keen editorial skills and finding out more about what makes her tick. She calls it soapboxing--I call it passion, and it's refreshing to see someone caring so much about what they do. Enjoy!



    1. What was the first book you ever loved?

 

There were two books I was obsessed with as a child, and both in distinctly different ways. The Secret Garden was absoluely the book that most sparked my imagination as a child. I would walk through the lightly wooded area near my grandmother's house and endlessly hope and imagine that I would stumble upon a beautiful hidden world like that. It immersed me completely.

 

There was also a book that I adored as an objet. It's called Marguerite Go Wash Your Feet illustrated by Wallace Tripp. It's a fun little book full of old limericks, poems and one liners with fantastic illustrations. The wit of it all really captured me as a child. I could really get lost in all of the intricacies of his drawings. It's the one book from my childhood that I still have.

 

2) Here it is--the question you're probably sick of: What do you see as the future of the hands-on, paper and ink book in the new world of e-readers? 

 

Well, it's an important question, and one we are on the cusp of figuring out. Of course I, like any literary nerd, desperately want to dig my heels into the sand and hold onto a tangible book until it crumbles into dust but it's just not possible! I think trends are telling us that, at least in the short term, more commercial works will be read largely as e-books, while more literary works will continue to be consumed in book form. Those that love aesthetics enough to obsess about literary fiction are not going to let that attention to art fall when it comes to the package containing the work.

 

Still, I think it's probably inevitable that eventually most works will be digital, but I do think that's further off than some doomsdayers would have you believe. And, I think we're likely to see a “slow readers” movement (think slow food, etc.) who champion books as beautiful objects. McSweeney's has done this with great success, and I've been heartedned by the success of something like Anne Carson's Nox, which is this beautifully packaged book art work. So it'll be interesting to see one trend pushing for books to become more artful even as the majority become just words on a screen. Still, there are certainly exciting things about e-books, of course! I think Electric Literature is doing a really great job of getting viral attention for top notch fiction in making their one sentence animation videos, and while I fear enchanced e-books because I feel like reading should be a solitary, reflective activity, it can be used effectively to enrich the work by providing context. So we'll see! I'm optimistic, though, that the art of the physical book won't die, it will just be somewhat marginalized and exaggerated.

 

3) What has been the most surprising thing you have learned while working in a literary agency?

 

How much of a good faith industry publishing is! I think some writers (understandably, given the heaps of rejection they face) think of agents and publishing as a bunch of grumpy, arms-crossed critics who are arrogantly trying to keep people out of their literary theme park. But, no! The most surprising thing to me was how desperately we all want to fall in love with new work. Believe me, we read query letters and manuscripts hoping to connect with your work and dying to love it. There are a lot of heavy sighs around the office when something just doesn't quite come together for us. We have to be tough, because there's so much work out there, and it's impossible to sell something and support it through publication and beyond unless you love it. But we want so desperately to love it and are trying every day to find something amazing.

 

4) What is your best advice for a new writer trying to get his query noticed?

 

A few things! Most importantly, I'd say do your research and try and target your query appropriately. Check the acknowledgments of a few books you love and see the agent's name. Referencing other work the agent has done and ensuring that it's up their alley wins you a lot of points. It shows you're serious.

 

The other big, more nebulous thing, is to communicate what your work is really about. I was just talking to an intern of mine the other day about how a lot of writers at the querying phase aren't good at articulating the deeper themes their work addresses. It's such a huge draw when an author is able to summarize the plot expertly and then give a sentence or two about what's at the heart of the novel. Is it, at its heart, a story about isolation in the digital age? Is it the anti-Americna dream story? Is it about what generations of secrets can do to a family? Remember, you've got to sell this book over and over again—from the querying stage, to editors, and finally to readers. Spend the time thinking and writing carefully about what it's really about before querying agents!

 

5) What author would you most like to have lunch with? Why?

 

Oh dear, probably Miranda July because she does everything and I feel like she reached into my brain with her short story collection and put it through some machine that turns brains into words. She is fabulous.

 

6. Top 5 books of all time?

 

This is tough!

 

No One Belongs Here More Than You- Miranda July (see above about brain to paper machine)

Love is a Dog From Hell (poems) by Charles Bukwoski (he may have been a terrible mysogynist but he was the king of one liners)

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Bluets by Maggie Nelson (a recent addition and amazing!)

The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

 

7) What's on your nightstand now?

 

So, so many things! I just finished Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, which was excellent. I've been in the middle of The Means of Reproduction by Michelle Goldberg for a while (feminism!) and am at last reading George Bush, Dark Prince of Love by Lydia Millet. To read: The End by Salvatore Scibona, Ship Fever by Andrea Barrett and many, many others!

 

8. What great question didn't I ask that I should have?

 

How do you feel about the state of women writers?

 

I really hope and think that we're at a turning point for women writers in this country. As a young feminist and a lover of women writers, it is incredibly frustrating to me that an industry that is majority women continues with the same male-centric biases from generations past. There has been a lot of deserved hub bub this year about the lack of recognition of some really excellent women writers, including VIDA's excellent report on the percentage of women's contributions to top literary magazines. And I am often disheartened at how publishers attempt to push women writers into commercial women's fiction territory, often trivializing a lot of the strength of their prose. We, as an industry, definitely need to move to elevate more women writers and package their books in a way appropriate to their content.

 

It's a particular mission of mine to find and get published “quirky” women writers; those whose voice falls welll outside of the expectations of a woman writer. Writers like Lynne Tillman, Yiyun Li and Lydia Millet who write female characters that are not classically sympathetic, and certainly are not the intuitive, emotive martyrs women characters one so often finds in fiction. And I think we're on the cusp of this. My meetings with young editors certainly leads me to believe that a new generation is fed up with the male-centric aesthetic that's led writing in this country for so long and we're eager to change it.

* *** * 

Bio:  Christina Shideler was born and raised in Texas, and no she does not have an accent.  After a stint living in France and drinking away a portion of her 20s in Austin, she moved to New York to finally do something she loves. Having started her career at Europa Editions, she now works at Lippincott Massie McQuilkin with her lovely colleagues and dog/mascot Mammoth, who is the luckiest dog in New York.  She is a vintage clothing fanatic, low-level connoisseur of scotches and sparkling wine, and a deep lover of science, though fiction has always had her heart.
Wednesday
Apr272011

Writers on Wednesday -- Maya Ziv

Today I have the distinct pleasure of bringing someone from the writing world, an editor at HarperCollins who worked very closely with me to bring CHOSEN to life, the lovely and talented Maya Ziv. Maya graciously answered many questions, some submitted by readers, some I just dreamed up, to share with you the life of an editor and some inside scoop from the ever-changing world of publishing. Welcome! 

 

 

1) What was the first book you ever loved?

I feel like I never know how to answer this question! I can say that as a young girl, I was absolutely obsessed with the Cinderella story. I had versions from all around the world and watched the Disney adaptation—and any other adaptation I could get my hands on!—about a million times. I also had a tape deck (so dated now!) on which I played the Disney soundtrack so many times my father almost broke the tape on purpose. It was this fervent obsession that made my aunt, also a book editor, comment that I was a born English major.

 

2) What originally drew you to the publishing world?

 Not to be corny, I was just born a reader. I was one of those kids that ate books, and unfortunately, was not very strong in other areas (read: math and science). When I was nine, we had “Take Your Daughter to Work Day”, and I couldn’t go with my mother, who’s a therapist, so I went to work with my aunt, the book editor. I walked into Simon & Schuster, saw the rows of books, and fell in love. I think what also helped was that for lunch we went to the 21 Club and I ate french fries. I think it was the french fries that really sealed the deal. I still have a note that I wrote that day stating my intention to be an editor when I “grew up.”

 

3) What is the publishing accomplishment of which you are most proud?

That’s a good question, one that I’m not sure I can answer. I guess a touching moment that stands out to me, was the first time I gave a debut author an early copy of his finished book. It was the first book I had worked on and so, in many ways, I think I over-identified with it. We both teared up looking at it, and it hit me that we had created something tangible that was indeed out there in the world. 

 

4) Readers ask me all the time if it hurts the author when they buy my book for their Kindle or other e-reader. I've always figured a sale is a sale is a sale, and at least it's probably harder to loan someone a book that you bought electronically. What's the inside scoop?

My personal opinion is that sales are sales, and while e-books are undoubtably here and making an impact on the market, I don’t think it’s a negative thing at all. Change is scary (I’ve always hated it!), but in this case I think it’s exciting.

 

 5) As part of a major NYC publishing house, what do you make of conversations like this about prominent writers abandoning their publisher and going out on their own? What about for the everyman? 

I’m embarassed to admit that sometimes I’m so caught up with emails and manuscripts that I don’t actually follow some publishing stories enough to form an opinion, so I feel a bit uninformed to make an intelligent answer. Re: the argument that there may not be a need for publishing houses, I always direct people to Laura Miller’s excellent piece on Salon. As someone who has been up to my elbows in slush, I think it makes a great point! 

 

6) Another stock question, but one I know some of my readers will want to hear the answer to: what is your best advice for a new writer trying to get his/her manuscript published?

 My best advice is to revise your manuscript until you would want to send it out yourself. And then read comparative titles, see what’s working in the market. And lastly, build a platform: Network with other authors, try to get pieces or stories published, gain a following on a blog, Facebook, or Twitter. I think the best thing an author can do is be informed and engaged in the process.

 

7) I know you're a runner--what do you listen to while you run? 

 

 

I actually don’t listen to anything! It’s me time—thinking through things, composing emails in my head, going over a mental to-do list. It’s my only real destresser.  

 

8) What book do you most wish you had been part of? 

 I’ve never been asked that, what a great question! I know I should be adventurous and name a book that involves time travel or exotic places, but the truth is, I’ve always longed to live in a Jane Austen novel. I want to take walks with Elizabeth Bennett and be friends with Emma. I know those women comparatively had very dull lives, but I’m a sucker for the clothes and for the period language. 

 

9) What author would you most like to have lunch with? Why?

 

 Well, when I was in elementary school I won a tea with Judy Blume, which is pretty much the highlight of my childhood. As an adult…I think Laurie Colwin. I just love her books and aesthetic so much, that I envision her making us a delicious homecooked meal while she gives me sage advice. Does that make me sound completely selfish?

 


10) Which book would you most like to see adapted to film?

Tricky question! Too many that I just can’t think of. I’ll stick to the classics and say that as much as I LOVED the Anne of Green Gables movies, there could be room for a new adaptation. 

11) In the movie version of Chosen, who would you cast as the main characters? 

After seeing Water for Elephants I am completely confused about casting direction. For now, I can definitively say Rachel McAdams as Chloe. (Chandra, do you want to kill me?) CKH: No, I can see it. I was thinking Claire Danes, because she does such a good job of being an ugly crier and wearing her anguish on her face, but maybe she's getting too old to be Chloe? 

 

 

12) Top 5 books of all time?
Disclaimer: This question changes everytime someone asks me, so this is the answer as of today:

 

Cowboys Are My Weakness by Pam Houston

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin

The Known World by Edward P. Jones

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

 

Diverse enough for you?

13) What's on your nightstand now?

Ha—what isn’t?! Bossypants; As Always, Julia; The Saints Will Find Their Way; Persuasion

 

14) What great question didn't I ask that I should have?

Q: What book has motivated you to do something new? I have to say that Julie Powell’s Julie and Julia motivated me to start cooking more, while Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project helped me implement small changes that made day-to-day life seem more manageable. 

 * *** *

BIO: Maya Ziv grew up in New York City, and after a stint in the Midwest for college, returned to New York to work in book publishing. An avid reader and runner with sadly no other real hobbies, she lives in Brooklyn, NY. 

You can find/follow her on Twitter: @Maya784

 

Friday
Apr082011

Writers on Wednesday -- INTRODUCING JULIANNA BAGGOTT

 Last week I broke down and after much reluctance and resistance, I joined Twitter. It felt a bit like standing on the outside of a playground cluster at a new school where they speak a new language, wondering how to participate in the conversation. And then I found a few friendly followers, and looked up a writer who had contacted me about her upcoming book, and found this fabulous blog post retweeted by another author from Julianna Baggott. As someone who is just finishing a year of homeschooling and book touring with my three Hoffspring, I'm a sucker for people who drag their kids all over the world in the name of research and writing. I loved this post, and lost several hours to digging around on her blog and ordering her books and disappearing into the prolific and witty world of Baggott, Asher and Bode. 

 

I am so grateful to Twitter and SheWrites for building the forums where we writers can share our stories and wisdom. I am happy to introduce Julianna Baggott, writing under her pen name Bridget Asher, and her new novel THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED.

 

Bon Mots from Julianna Baggott

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

 

Hint. Circle. Reveal. This is something I teach. Make mention of something -- "that was before the fire" -- then circle it -- "She looked different after the fire. There were the burns on her hands but also a different look in her eyes. -- and then reveal. Tell the story of the fire.

 

You can also do this backwards. You reveal the entire story up front. Circle back to it -- you've invested in the creation of the image and your character has been stained by it so let it come back to the character and the reader. Hint at it, once more, at the end.

 

 

Tell us a tale from the publishing world – something, ANYthing about that process from your perspective.

 

The longer I'm in this business the more I acknowledge that I don't know why some books hit and others don't. I always go to bat for my books once they're out in the world. I push them along every way I know how, but there's only so much that can be done. The rest is mysterious. Sorry. Not really a tale.

  

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

 

I was in a room with two other novelists -- high accomplished ones. We were waiting for someone to arrive. We sat there. All of us very tired. One said, "Writing novels is hard." The other two nodded, and then one of them said, "We could talk nonstop for two weeks and talk about why, but, in fact, that's all that needs to be said." So that was it.

I hope this helps. It is hard. It's brutal to try to extend a lie for 300-some pages, to know your characters deeply, to see the world with fresh eyes and relate it to the reader.

Hard. Hard. Hard.

 

What's your worst writerly habit?

 

I still will write a scene. Things will happen. My character will live it, but not really experience it. I still write first drafts with a main character who's more of a camera (a witness, a writerly look at the world) than a real character. I always have to go back and add a layer where the character reacts to whats going on -- not just going along with it.

 

 

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

 

I love research -- mainly because it manhandles plot. It doesn't let you do what you want to do. It bumps you up against history. I love anything that takes me as the author out of authority. It also gives story -- history is filled with narrative. Being true to it means not inventing but imagining. A relief.

 

 

What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)

 

Each novel teaches you how to write it -- just as each of my children have taught me how to raise them.

 

And I never know what novel is going to turn into a bear wrestling match until I'm deep in it. THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED terrified me. I had no idea how the second half of the novel was going to work out. My characters held all kinds of secrets, many of which (and some huge ones) they weren't sharing with me. And yet it was great to write because I developed a new way for me to process the narrative -- a matching of real-life events fictionalized to epiphanies/insights put into a path of rising action. It was really fascinating to work in a new way. Liberating.

 

BIO: Julianna Baggott is the author of seventeen books, most recently THE PROVENCE CURE FOR THE BROKENHEARTED under her pen name Bridget Asher, as well as THE PRETEND WIFE and MY HUSBAND’S SWEETHEARTS. She’s the bestselling author of GIRL TALK and, as N.E. Bode, THE ANYBODIES TRILOGY for younger readers. Her essays have appeared widely in such publications as The New York Times Modern Love column, Washington Post, NPR.org, andReal Simple. You can visit her blog at http://bridgetasher.blogspot.com/ and her website at www.juliannabaggott.com

Tuesday
Mar082011

Writers on Wednesday--Diane Lockward

Today, on International Women's Day, I am excited to welcome a first here to Writers on Wednesday- a female poet. On the site SheWrites, a gathering place for female writers, members received messages encouraging us to shout out another female writer today, to promote the success of women. I am happy to shine a light on Diane Lockward with her essay on her unique journey to poetry and following that, publishing success. This is a tribute to never giving up, to the value of all the elements listed in her title below. Enjoy!

 

Patience, Persistence, Belief, and a Bit of Serendipity

 

 

I'm in a place of high excitement these days. Temptation by Water, my third full-length poetry collection, was released several months ago. That hardly seems possible when not too long ago I wondered if I'd ever have a first full-length collection.

 

I am not one of those poets who has stories about what a splendid poet she was in third grade. No sixth grade teacher encouraged me to gather my poems into homemade booklets. No high school English teacher recognized my gift for words. I served as editor of no literary journal in college. In short, I was without any early poetic promise whatsoever. But then, I never had a single teacher who asked me to write a poem, never had an opportunity to fall in love with poetry until years after I'd graduated college, had taught high school English for four years, married, produced three children, then decided, in spite of my lusterless undergraduate performance, to apply to graduate school. And they took me in. There I discovered, quite to my astonishment, that I had a brain! I also discovered poetry—not the writing of it, but the study of it. I fell in love with, of all things, Renaissance poetry. I could not get enough of John Donne.

 

When I graduated, I returned to teaching. Several years later I saw an advertisement in the English Journal. William Stafford was writing a poetry textbook for high school students, and he wanted teachers to volunteer to test the assignments. What the heck, I thought, and volunteered. Every two weeks for the next six months I received one or two poetry prompts. From the very first one, I was hooked. I had never experienced anything so emotionally intense. Poems danced around in my head all day and often all night. I tucked drafts inside my grade book and worked on them during lunch. Poetry became an irresistible temptation. Then to reel me in even deeper, Stafford took one of my poems, an acrostic, as a sample poem for his textbook, Getting the Knack: 20 Poetry Writing Exercises (NCTE). In 1992, that poem, aptly titled “Serendipity,” became my first published poem.

 

I wanted more. I spent weekends going to workshops and readings. During summer vacations, I attended the Frost Place Conference, the Catskills workshop, and the Fine Arts Work Center. I worked with poets who encouraged me to believe I could be a poet. I began sending my poems out for publication. Every once in a while some editor took a poem. Then an entire year went by with no editor taking anything, but that didn't stop me—I told you I was hooked. I've never minded the inevitable rejections all that much. Early on I developed a theory that it takes twenty rejections to get an acceptance, so I viewed each rejection as just one step closer to an acceptance.

 

As acceptances started coming in again, I stepped up my game and aimed higher. In 1997, Beloit Poetry Journal took two of my poems. I was thrilled. That was by far the most prestigious journal I'd been in. The people at Poetry Daily saw the poems and sent me a letter—they were in their early days and still using snail mail—asking permission to feature both poems. When “Vegetable Love” appeared, it was sandwiched in between poems by Tom Lux and Pablo Neruda. Not bad. When “My Husband Discovers Poetry” appeared, Garrison Keillor spotted it and featured it on The Writer's Almanac.

 

I also won a local contest in 1997. My prize was the publication of a first chapbook, Against Perfection. Of course, that set me to thinking that if I could have a chapbook, maybe I could have a book. I put a manuscript together and began sending it out to contests. I spent a significant amount of money on postage. I spent a lot of time waiting. For the first few years, I received only rejections. Each summer I devoted a few weeks to revising the manuscript, taking out what seemed to be the weaker poems and substituting with what I hoped were stronger poems. Every new poem I wrote was headed for that manuscript. Then I had a semi-finalist response from Sarabande. Not an acceptance but enough to encourage the belief that if I just persisted it would happen for me. But six more semi-finalist or finalist spots and it still hadn't happened. The initial thrill of the gee-I-almost-made-it had worn off, and I was feeling like I'd never get beyond that one manuscript. Not to mention the money flying out the door.

 

In 2001, I decided to leave teaching and spend my days living as a writer. That summer I took another workshop in Provincetown. One day I checked my email and found a message from some guy in Kentucky who wanted my snail mail address. Hm, whatever for? But his name was vaguely familiar, so I sent the address. When I returned home, there was a letter from that guy, a publisher, inviting me to submit a manuscript if I had not yet published a first book. I remembered why the name had seemed familiar. The publisher used to be the editor of Wind Magazine where two of my poems had previously been finalists in the journal's yearly contest. Since then, he had begun his own small press, Wind Publications, and was publishing books by poets from Kentucky and the Appalachian region. He’d remembered my name from the contest and had been following my work. When he wanted to expand his roster beyond his established region, he’d decided to contact me. And that’s how, in 2003, my first book, Eve's Red Dress, came into the world.

 

In retrospect, I am grateful that no one ever took those earlier incarnations of the manuscript. I know there were poems in them that I subsequently would have wanted to suck out with a vacuum cleaner. I am also grateful to have ended up where I did as my publisher stuck with me for the second book, What Feeds Us, and now for the third. That rarely happens with contest wins.

 

Now I'd be grateful for some new poems. I find myself in that odd state that's a mixture of exhilaration over the new book and anxiety about the next one. Right now the folder is pretty empty and the blank page leers at me. I need some self-imposed discipline. I need the thrill of creating, of laying down those words, of getting high on the poems, of capitulating to temptation. I want that back. And I'm going to get it. Patience, persistence, belief, and a bit of serendipity.

 

Bio: Diane Lockward is the author of three poetry books, most recently, Temptation by Water. Her previous books are What Feeds Us, which received the 2006 Quentin R. Howard Poetry Prize, and Eve's Red Dress. Her poems have been  included in such anthologies as Poetry Daily: 360 Poems from the World's Most Popular Poetry Website and Garrison Keillor's Good Poems for Hard Times, and have been published in such journals as Harvard Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, and Prairie Schooner. Her work has also been featured on Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and The Writer's Almanac. She lives in northern New Jersey. 

 

Visit her website at:
www.dianelockward.com
Visit her blog at:
www.dianelockward.blogspot.com

 

 

Tuesday
Feb222011

Writers on Wednesday--Leah Stewart

This week I have the musings of Leah Stewart on the process and craft, the delicate art form, really which is editing. Since I'm up to my eyebrows in revisions and spent the better part of this afternoon helping my senior student reshape her flash fiction, this couldn't be more appropriate. Enjoy!

 

In my experience the more convinced writing students are that not a word of their work should be changed, the worse their writing is. That resistance to editing is usually a sure sign of an amateur, someone fervently convinced that writing is about the pure rush of inspiration and expression, and not about the hard work of learning a craft, of taking editorial advice, of revising and revising and revising. How to explain, then, the much-admired and well-known writer who told me that when he got the marked-up manuscript of his last book from his editor, he sent it back in the box it came in, saying he couldn’t bear to have it in his house? They published it exactly as he’d written it, to much acclaim.

 

It’s worth noting that he himself said that, had he not been too “raw” to look at his editor’s suggestions, he might have been able to make it a better book. Still, even as a young writer, he chose not to publish a piece rather than take the editor’s suggestions, a choice it’s hard for me to imagine making, especially at the beginning of a career. When my first agent sent me the marked-up manuscript of my first book, I called a writer friend in despair over the changes he wanted me to make. My friend said, “Well, you know you don’t have to do everything he says.” No, I didn’t know that. I was an unpublished writer. He was an established agent willing to take me on. The notion that I didn’t have to do everything he said had honestly never crossed my mind.

 

In the end, thanks to my friend, I didn’t make every change my agent suggested, especially on the sentence level. But I did make at least one rather significant change I still regret, even now, ten years after the book was published. I went against my instinct to make that change, because he insisted on it, because he seemed so sure. My own convictions about my work waver. I have faith in myself as a writer, but not always in the writing I produce. There’s incontrovertible evidence, after all, that even the best writers write bad books. And then there are those supremely confident students as proof of the lack of relationship between certainty and skill.

 

My books are better for being edited. When I think about the changes I made to my second and third books, I feel no regret, only gratitude to my thoughtful, conscientious editor, who helped me make the books so much better than they were. I’m lucky to work with an editor like her, someone who offers feedback on plot points and lines of dialogue and everything in between, which not all of them do these days. There are times when I do exactly what she suggests, and other times when I balk. Some of her ideas might work for the novel at hand, but not for the writer I am. When I don’t want to make the change she suggests, we talk until we determine why she’s suggesting it. If we can pinpoint the problem, most of the time we can come up with a solution I can execute.

 

My better students, the ones so riddled with self-doubt they might actually become writers, sometimes come to me after workshop confused by their classmates’ contradictory assertions. They ask how they’re supposed to know which comments to value, which to ignore, where your own convictions about your work should give way to other peoples’. My advice is vague and clichéd, if accurate: Go with your gut. You have to doubt yourself to get better, but you have to have faith to write at all.

 

Did the writer who sent his book back to the editor act out of faith or doubt? I don’t know. Some writers are high-wire artists; some are bricklayers. He’s a high-wire artist, and maybe having reached the other side of the wire he couldn’t bear to tempt fate by stepping back on.

 

I wish sometimes that writing was like math, precise and indisputable, instead of the messy, subjective thing that it is. I’m a believer in pragmatic advice, of the “move this scene here” variety. But there are places where technique alone fails you. Writing well is not math but alchemy, a disputed and mysterious science, a chemistry of faith and doubt.  

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Bio...

Leah Stewart is the author of the novels Body of a Girl, The Myth of You and Me, and Husband and Wife. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Cincinnati.