The Book That Others Will Read
By Writing Gym Alumnus Brendan Thompson
I first got into writing on the conviction that I am a creative person with stories to tell. I have never surrendered that conviction, but in the following thirty years I have taken a lot of time to reflect on what kind of stories I have to tell. I have done quite a bit of living in that time, which has given me a lot more material to work with. I have read some fantastic books, visited some remarkable places, and known some amazing people. The richness of those experiences has continually added to my ideas for stories.
But it’s not just about having ideas. Any long time writer will tell you about the book they got halfway through writing, driven by the strength of its unique and compelling idea, only to see the project fizzle out and remain unfinished. However intriguing and compelling and alluring the idea was, it wasn’t a story. And in order to see the book through to the end, there had to be a story.
Let’s move forward, out of the 1990’s, through the 2010’s and up to the present day. I had assembled an oeuvre of around a million words. I had an outsized, grand, opulent, sprawling world of stories. I took my best work, a gunpowder fantasy epic, and walked it over to Annalisa Parent and her program, The Writing Gym.
It’s a scary thing to go from writing for yourself to showing your work to professionals. It’s one thing to put your work in front of friends and family. I had done that. It’s one thing to engage other writers to trade work, reading each others’ manuscripts in exchange for notes. I had done that, as well. But to put your work in the hands of a professional writing coach, a literary agent, or an editor, is an experience of an altogether different magnitude.
I will always maintain that a good writer writes first and foremost for themselves. That’s how you get started, moving ideas into stories. But selling your work requires moving your stories out of your own collection and into a market. You are asking people to pay money to read your stories. There has to be something in it for them.
Being a professional, Annalisa spared no time getting me deep, specific feedback that required extensive rewriting of my novel’s first fifty pages. Fantastic. That level of editorial interaction is what I had signed on for. It was a double edged sword, to be sure. It’s great to have good notes for rewriting, but it’s not great to have the task of rewriting. It’s great to find solutions to fix underlying problems, but that requires finding underlying problems. And you don’t want to find problems in your manuscript.
It’s natural to recoil in horror at the suggestion that you didn’t craft the best possible story on your first draft. Professional writers with massive followings still get those notes from editors, and they rewrite their works accordingly. It’s not a foolproof process, but it is a process that improves the work. Ideas move through the writer into stories, which move back and forth from the writer to the editor, becoming more and more refined, transforming into stories that are more comprehensible, more relatable, more gripping, engaging, and effective.
I found Annalisa asking me, with some reluctance, if I would go back to page one and start the process over. Completely optional, mind you, no pressure, but still her professional recommendation. Would I mind bending the narrative more in the direction she was pushing for, and doing it for the reasons that she had outlined? And here is what I told her.
I already know the version of this story that is most for me. I had already revised and reordered and recapitulated the narrative a hundred times, shifting the perspectives of who was telling the story, experimenting with the order of events, and who did what to who and who was the witness to it. A hundred variations on the story I was crafting. And through that, I already had a hundred different versions of the story in my head, understanding the possibilities that are so tantalizing and exciting in this world that I have created.
That is not what I want to publish. I want to publish traditionally and for a wide audience. That means continuing the revision and the crafting of the story, refining its very carefully calibrated inner workings to find the version that appeals to a target audience, a core of readers who will engage with the book, fall in love with it, and recommend it to their friends. I want to get beyond the story that is only for me, and get to the story that is for them.
So, write for yourself. That’s the only way to get started. When you are comfortable showing your work to others, go right ahead and do it. You might even get published right away, and if you do, congratulations are in order. For the rest of us, the next thing to do is to write some more. And start revising. Revise everything. Keep writing, and then revise that. And as you keep growing and developing and finding your voice, engage with literary professionals and get their feedback, and put it to use, and further grow yourself and keep improving your writing.
What you will find, whether gradually or suddenly, is that you are no longer dealing in ideas. Every time you sit down to write, you craft a story. You think in terms of story, and you can’t create in any other way. And when you revise, you will revise in terms of story, and you won’t have any other way to do a revision.
And you will find, as if by magic, that nothing you write, no matter how personal, is ever just for you. Not any more. You will be preparing yourself for the life of a professional writer, preparing to write for your readers.
Brendan Thompson is a writer and alumnus of the Writing Gym. His film, Bae Wolf, will be available in March.
Resonate with what Brendan says? I help writers to transition from the art of writing into the business of publishing. This is what I do to help people publish and get the representation they need. If you are ready to accept what the guidelines are and are ready to sell your book, let’s chat.