Saturday, May 8, 2010

On Becoming a Finisher

I've been a member of the Romance Writers of America and the Washington Romance Writers for years. More than a decade. That's a long time. But I wanted to become a member when I first discovered them in the Washington Pink Pages during the short duration of my very first job at age 16, cleaning for the Writers' Center, then housed at Brookemont Elementary School, because I wanted to be a romance writer when I graduated from college.

And how many years ago was that, I hear you ask. Rudely. Longer than I've known you, would be my tart reply.

My high school English and Creative Writing teacher gave me a terrific piece of advice when I told him I wanted to become a writer: he told me to read. Novels, short stories, plays, poetry. And not just who I wanted to read, but to read truly gifted writers. Shakespeare, Austen, Browning (both), Joyce, cummings, Porter, Becht, and on and on went the list. It was a long list. (Some of it was very boring.) Dr. Galvin's sentiment was later echoed by Prof. Michael Alexander when I asked him why there were no writing courses at British universities like in the US; he told me, you cannot teach someone to write; you can only learn to write by reading other writers.

And it's true. You can only learn to write by reading.

So, I read (or tried to in the cases of Dickens and Dostoevsky - but I think that's a gender thingy). In high school, I supplemented the reading list with Tony Hillerman, Dick Francis, Carole Mortimer, Charlotte Lamb, Nora Roberts and Douglas Adams. And my writing changed from the then unknown world of fan-fiction (at that time, I was borrowing from Anne McCaffrey's Pern and making free use of her Dragon Riders), to the glam world of Harlequin Presents. Where men were distant and women were pliant. (Kinda like Pern.) I wrote about car accidents, amnesia, unplanned pregnancies, European financiers and lots of sardonic looks. And I kept reading. I wrote character profiles. I kept my chapbook up-to-date.

Because I was going to be a writer.

After college, my world was forever changed by Jayne Ann Krentz, Laura Kinsale and Julie Garwood. Their alpha heroes did not remain assholes until the final 2 pages of the book! The more I read, the more my own writing changed. Alongside these romances, I discovered Seamus Heaney, Barbara Kingsolver, Sandra Cisneros, Stevie Smith, PG Wodehouse, Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett, and Dashiell Hammett. To this party was eventually added Elizabeth Peters, Janet Evanovich, Marion Keyes, Helen Fielding, Jennifer Crusie and Susan Elizabeth Phillips. I read, I learned about both the lyrical and comedic voices. I learned about delving into the emotions of characters and giving them arcs.

But you see, there was something neither Dr. Galvin nor Prof. Alexander hammered home to me. Something I didn't quite catch. Missing from their advice was something so essential, so vital to any writer embarking on a successful career. Perhaps it was too obvious to these learned men who spent their days writing poetry or translating Anglo-Saxon for fun. All I know is my career was going exactly nowhere. That what I had to offer, the editors didn't want. And why was that?

Because editors of reputable publishing houses want to edit, purchase and publish finished manuscripts.

When I joined Romance Writers of America and my local chapter, I rolled my eyes every time an editor would tell us to finish the book when asked to give her best advice to an aspiring author. I was writing the book! I was revising the chapters! There had to be something more! Trends? High concept? Mischievous elves? Fewer exclamation points? !!!

Yes, yes, yes, there are trends and high concept and mischievous elves that all catch the editors or agents eyes and encourages them to read on. But nothing gets their goat more than an aspiring author querrying or pitching an unfinished manuscript. It wastes their time. It makes them twitchy. They delete the querry. They grow silent in the pitch session.

I know this. I've been there. I've annoyed senior editors because I had not finished the book I was pitching.

A week ago, I re-connected with a friend on Facebook. Someone I hadn't seen in donkey's years. He wondered about my writing career. Cos I'd talked about it with him... in 1992. 18 years ago. Eighteen. Years. Ago. And it hit me. I am not a finisher! The reason I am not published is not for lack of talent, not for lack of contract, nor the fact that the agents simply don't understand my voice and senior editors are big meanies.

The number one reason why Marjanna isn't published and settled onto the extended lists? (Tell us, Richard!!!) She hasn't completed a single novel-length manuscript!!! (ding ding ding)

So, I am going to tell you now. And I am going to tell you the truth. As I work on the final 30 pages of my current Work In Progress, the only way - and I mean THE ONLY WAY - that I or you, dear reader, will ever EVER get published, the only path to take, the only short-cut to ever acknowledge, the only quick-fix for your novel, the only way over the transoms, through the slush piles, across the editor's desk and onto the shelves of a bookstore (or sent as a download onto an e-reader) is to finish your book.

Don't just write the damn book, finish it.


  1. Excellent post, Marjanna. Excited that you're so close to finishing that WIP. Yay! Can't wait to read it. :) Writers learn to write not only by reading the great and not so great books that populate the bookstore shelves, but also by writing. With each manuscript we finish, we become stronger writers. Grandma was right, if it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger! ;)

  2. I second what Candy said -- excellent post, Marjanna. I'm so excited that you're close to finishing your book!

  3. You're right, Candy. We absolutely become better writers the more we write and (hopefully) with each manuscript. I think that by reading other writers, by writing, by listening to how other critique, whether my own or another's, all have made me better at the craft of writing. And hopefully, with every finished manuscript, I will also be become better at telling a story. However, writing the magical six letters is still the only road to take towards publication (no matter how that path eventually branches!)

  4. Thanks, Leigh!! These are heady days for us, aren't they? You with your first book on the shelves and me approaching my first completed one. Yay, Us!

  5. Fantastic post my friend!! Your going to be a finisher!! WooHoo!! I can't wait to read it!!

  6. Marjanna - Great post! Put a saddle on it and ride (or should I say write) it to the end. I've found that when I haven't been able to finish something it was usually because I was over-thinking the whole thing. Putting yourself on automatic pilot and just doing it is sometimes the answer.

  7. Marjanna, you've got something here.

    Many seem to think getting published requires a magic formula.

    But you've found the magic words that can make it happen: finish the book.

  8. Marjanna - I am a week late commenting on your EXTREMELY INTELLIGENT and INSIGHTFUL POST. :+)

    You ARE a finisher. You ARE a finisher. YOU are a finisher. You are a FINISHER.

    The Rockville 8 has got your back - we know you've got it in you and we know you're getting it out of you. And we will supply water in case of sudden dehydration.

    Just remember, when the going gets tough, the tough say, "I know I can, I know I can."

    Hugs and cheers!