What Makes a Novel Stand Out on Submission?

Susan DeFCreative Writing, ReadingLeave a Comment

There’s a lot of excellent advice on this blog for getting over the finish line with publishing a novel (and a lot of less excellent advice on the same subject elsewhere!).

But to my mind, there’s something critical to that conversation that rarely gets discussed.

I think because it’s so hard to actually talk about.

A solid story, compelling characters, and strong writing are a great start (especially when you combine that with an accurate understanding of the business of publishing).

But if you want your novel to stand out from the competition, in my experience, it has to have something extra.

It has to have a sense of meaning.

Meaning is subjective, of course. But even so, there are story elements that intersect directly with issues that we as human beings tend to find important, moving, and compelling: Moral questions, and the way they stir strong emotion. Characterization, and what it reveals about human nature. The way the story reflects the truths of our own reality—and the sense that this story actually has something to say.

This is not to say that superficial stories don’t get published all the time, especially in genres that privilege plot over character—and there will always be stories that fit this mold that get published, simply because their “something extra” is something else: a sparkly new speculative conceit, or a mind-blowing plot twist that’s going to get everyone talking.

But debut novels like that are the exception. And as I see it, increasingly endangered—not only because readers are hungry for meaning, but because superficial stories are the type that are most amenable to reproduction by AI.

And in fact I see this as one of the great challenges of our day, as writers: To write at a level of depth that only a real human being can. To write the type of stories that another human being will immediately recognize as one that could only have been written by another real human.

Not only are these the sort of stories that stand out in the slush pile, I think these are the types of stories that make for a better world, period.

To read my full blog post on the four things that I believe distinguish stories that have a real sense of meaning from those that don’t, you can read it on Jane Friedman’s site, here.

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When is the Right Time To Get Feedback?

Susan DeFCreative Writing, ReflectionsLeave a Comment

when is the right time to get feedback

Those of you who follow me online know that I’ve been working on a short story collection.

Some stories in this collection are older, and some are new, but many of them have never been seen by anyone but me–and this is a project I’d like to send out on submission by the end of the year.

So I knew it was time to seek out qualified feedback.

This year, I’m doing that by working with a mentor of mine, Ariel Gore, in her yearlong alternative MFA program (she calls her “maven of mythmaking” program, which I love).

And the more I get feedback on this work, the more I’m reminded how difficult it is, really, to bring any type of fiction to market WITHOUT that kind of feedback.

(And I say this as a person who provides professional feedback to others–book coaches really do need book coaches, and everyone who writes needs beta readers and critique partners!)

There are folks who seek out this kind of feedback but don’t actually change anything in their work in response to it. Ursula K. Le Guin said of such folks that they were were “singing in the shower”–meaning, they might like to write, but they didn’t care about what it would actually take to publish their work.

Personally, I might enjoy singing in the shower (writing alone), but I’m serious about singing on stage (getting my work published). So I knew it was time to seek out the right mentor and group.

The process has been super invigorating for me, after a period of focused solo work.

But I know from experience that there are times when feedback is most useful in a project–and times when it really is not.

Here are some signs, in my experience, that you’re at the right point in your work-in-progress to get feedback on it:

  • You have a complete draft, and a clear sense of the themes you’re interested in exploring, but are contemplating different options for revision
  • You don’t have a complete draft, but you’re really stuck–something doesn’t seem to be working, and you don’t know why
  • You’re pretty far along in the process, and starting to set your sights on where to submit, but not so far along with the story that you’re married to absolutely every passage, plot point, or theme
  • You need to know whether some critical aspect of the story (e.g., a speculative conceit, a character’s decision or action, a romance) is working

But if you’re still just working through your own ideas for the project? If you know what needs to be done but just haven’t done it yet? Or really feel like everything you have on the page is what you intended it to be?

That’s a time when you really should NOT seek out feedback. Either because the project is still too much in flux, and likely to get thrown off by other peoples’ ideas about it, or because you don’t actually want creative feedback–you just want someone to tell you it’s done.

(They say to a carpenter, everything looks like a nail; to critique partners, editors, and coaches, every manuscript looks like something that can be improved.)

Likewise, there are people whose feedback can be super useful–critical, even–to getting your creative work over the finish line with publication, and people whose feedback can be pointless, or even damaging.

In her book Playing Big: Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create, and Lead, Tara Mohr talks about the way that many of us who were raised female seek out feedback on our big ideas from all the wrong people–people who really know nothing about our industry or what our target market is looking for.

Instead, Mohr advises us to seek out qualified feedback–people who do know about these things.

And when it comes to fiction, those people are generally not just fellow readers, but fellow writers and publishing professionals.

Here are some questions I ask myself when seeking out qualified feedback on my work:

  • Does this person know how to get me to where I want to be with this project? (Meaning: Have they published work like this, or coached/mentored others who went on to publish work like this?)
  • Does this person read in my genre?
  • Is this person skilled at giving practical, actionable feedback?
  • Do this person’s “people” feel like my people?
  • Does this person share my values?
  • Do others speak highly of working with this person?

If you’ve been on the fence about whether it’s time to get feedback on your work, or who to get it from, I hope this helps to demystify those questions.

And if you’re interested in working with me on your novel, feel free to reach out via my client interest form.

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The Fascinating Neuroscience of Scene

Susan DeFCreative WritingLeave a Comment

There are two fundamental modes in fictional storytelling: summary and scene.

Summary is the storyteller’s voice—the one that leads us skillfully through the story, collapsing and condensing time as necessary in order leave out the irrelevant bits, and tell us what we need to know, in terms of background info on the story.

Scene is the story itself, unfolding in real time. In scene, we’re not listening as someone tells us a story, narrating a series of events—we’re actually living the events of that story for ourselves.

Summary is important, and it’s a tool that hearkens back to the very roots of storytelling. But to my mind, scene is where the real magic happens in fiction.

Scene is important first because it operates on the body of the reader, convincing them on a subconscious level that they’re actually there, in the world of the story, with all of their senses engaged. To my mind, this is what novelist John Gardner was talking about when he said that effective fiction creates a “vivid and continuous dream” in the reader’s mind.

And second, scene is important because it is the most memorable way to share information with your reader. This makes it a critical tool for establishing backstory, revealing character, establishing and advancing conflict, and revealing critical information about the plot.

Skillful storytellers often seem to grasp this intuitively. But why, exactly, does scene work this way? The answer appears to lie in the study of neuroscience. Read the full post I wrote for Jane Friedman on this topic, here.

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How to Carve Out the Time for Creative Work

Susan DeFCreative Writing, ReflectionsLeave a Comment

I’ve been busy this spring. Maybe you have too. I’ve had a few weeks where I didn’t feel like I had the space in my life for creative work. Maybe you’ve had a few weeks (or longer) like that too.

I’m all for letting the creative fields lie fallow after a big push on a story, for holding open the space that refills the cup and allows new ideas to percolate up from the subconscious.

That said, while in the midst of drafting or revision, I’ve found it’s best not to lose momentum.

But how do you do that, when life has thrown a series of flaming chainsaws at you? (Or, in my case, a class? Which I myself threw at myself, let’s be clear.) Many of my clients over the years have struggled with the question of how to carve out the time for creative work.

Many of my book-coaching colleagues have struggled with the question of how to make the time to do the same, when they spend all day helping others with their creative work. And all I can share is what I have discovered over and over again in my life, most recently just today: Everything changes when you make writing a non-negotiable, and do it first thing in the day.

Like, what if you just accepted that:
– You might not get back to each and every student with their feedback on their work by X date (that’s me right now—though I suspect I’ll still find a way, because I’m bullheaded like that)
– You might have to order in dinner, instead of cooking
– You might not be the perfect parent or spouse today
– You might not get that errand run, or those dishes done, or X, Y, or Z, because…
…you took the time to write today.

I’m not saying these are easy choices. I hate disappointing people, and when I make a commitment, I generally do everything in my power to keep it. But there’s something I learned from an early boyfriend of mine, an artist who was irresponsible in myriad ways but always put the time in for his art.

What I learned from him was this: Art is the magic thing. No one will believe you can do it until you have done it—and no one will ever give you permission to do it, or be disappointed when you fail to do it. But when you have finished a work of art, and caused it to live in the world, people will be astonished. They will ask you how you did it.

At which point you can decide for yourself whether to tell them the truth: You did it by disappointing others at times—but not yourself.

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