Monday, May 28, 2007


“When I write I aim in my mind not toward New York but a little east of Kansas.”
John Updike
“I don’t write for my friends or myself…I write for it for the pleasure of it.”

Eudora Welty
“I’ve always tried out material on my dogs first.”

John Steinbeck

When I first started writing, I had no idea if what I was writing was any good at all. My sister Delia, whom I trust completely because she never sacrifices honesty for nice-ness, was the first person who asked me that awful question when I gave her an early essay: “And what exactly is the point you’re trying to make?” To which I said, uh, ah, well… because I didn’t really know. She was also the first person to say, “You’ve got talent.” Her saying it made me believe in myself. Is that pathetic or what?

So, who do you write for? Whom do you trust to read your work in progress?

Good questions. This is probably a little scary (especially if you're my editor) but I wrote Pushing Up Daisies for myself. The only platforms I thought about were in a shoebox in my closet. I thought I had a pretty good story to tell and wanted to see if I could tell it. And I did. And eventually two other people thought it was pretty good. So now I guess I'm writing for the three of us. Nobody reads my work in progress. After a third or fourth draft, I'll let my pal Kathy read it, and trust her to tell me if I've lost my mind. Are you volunteering?

I'll read it! I'll read it! I can't believe you haven't let me read it yet, as a matter of fact.

When I was writing Prime Time, I would bring in my daily pages and make my husband (a lawyer) read them. He would dutifully read, dutifully laugh. Then then, after a few weeks, about chapter 5 or five, he said, Honey, is something going to happen soon? Yeah, I knew that was a problem. So he still reads, but I fear it's as much for reassurance that I'm not terrible or making some embarrassing legal mistake.

Still, now working on the revisions of book 2 and the proposal synopsis for book 3--at every page, at every word, I picture someone else reading what I wrote. Over my shoulder. Shrugging. Commenting the whole way. Huh, so what's original about that, one hovering 'reader' will say. Oh, that's kind of funny. Yeah, okay I like it. Whoa, unlikely, says another. Predictable. Hilarious. Tangential. The voices are constant. It's like writing with an imaginary but pushy critique group.

If I please the ghost readers, I'll try it on real people. But only when I'm completely finished. No one else reads it along the way.

I think in the first draft, for the most part, I'm writing just to make it all work, to make it surprising, and to reveal the characters -- especially the brand new ones -- to myself. I have to figure out who everybody is, what they are after, and how they are going to collide.

On the second draft, I'm thinking a lot more about the reader and I'm looking for ways to make the writing sharper and richer, and the characters deeper. I've got a picture in my mind of the tired, fatigued eyes, reading my book in bed at the end of a long day, and I'm trying like hell to make them jump on to the next chapter -- despite the late hour.

As for who I trust to read my in progress? That's you Hallie. Barbara and Floyd, too. My writers group helps keep me from taking too many wrong turns, along the way. At the very end, I give it to a few trusted volunteers with fresh eyes, usually my cousin Laurie and my friend and fellow writer, Naomi Rand to read the novel as a whole. If I have time, I give it to Robin Kall, a Rhode Island buddy, to catch the Rhode Island mistakes.

Yes, thank goodness for the writing group. But sometimes I wish I was the kind of writer who was so sure of herself that I could just write without showing it to anyone. That thing about writing being a solitary endeavour isn't really what it's like for many of us. I suppose if I didn't have them there would be little voices in my head, and then you never know where that takes you.


  1. When I write, I hear the voices of my writers' group guiding me, I see Hallie's lips purse (I took a workshop with her & she saved my manuscript in a number of places) when I write something too obvious, and (I know this sounds bizarre)I imagine Alice Sebold looking up from my pages, her eyes penetrating, her expression sanguine. What will she say? Nothing, of course, she'll probably never read it. But those are the people I think about when writing. I bet you didn't know that, Hallie.


  2. Initially, when I write, I write for my ears. Then, I read to my husband every night--he's got a great sense of words and phrasing (he was a journalism major) and he catches me when I start telling too much or over-writing. I also have a stash of 4 friends (all English teachers I used to teach with) who I'll send 50 or so pages to and they are brutally honest with me. I do this from the very beginning--I feel like it helps me stay in tune.

  3. I have a collection of Kurt Vonnegut's short stories(Bagombo Snuff Box) and he wrote a pretty comprehensive introduction with 8 Creative Writing 101 Tips. I love #7:
    "Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the whole world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia." It is said that KV wrote for his sister (who was deceased). My husband and I don't read the same books, so he rarely reads anything I write. I tend to write more for my father, because he and I always loved all the same books. One of these days I'll have to find a more accessible reader to share my work with, but knowing that what I write isn't going to be for everyone helps me to patiently wait until I find the right audience.

  4. I read a quote once from Bruce Springstein and he said something about always being aware that he had to "find his audience." It was the first time I heard it phrased that way. I think Lisa has a good point. I think all of you are saying the same thing. You write for a "select" audience, even when only imagining that audience. Discerning writers, all.

  5. There are always people who want to read what I've written. Let me see it, they say. I know it's not finished. It'll be fun.

    I'm so happy for their interest, but at that point in the process, the "along the away," if someone says something like "You know, I'm not sure about her motivations" I say to myself--argh. I know. Me either.

    So I don't let them read it.

    Maybe I'm just not good at taking constructive criticism--early on at least.

    Later? I love it. Got good ideas or thoughts? Bring 'em on. But early in the process, it's still all mine. Over on Writers' Group today, Lynne mentions the lunches and beach trips she's missed to be in her book world. And haven't we all done that? With great joy?

    There's a time to be alone, and a time to share. And both can be wonderful.

  6. I like to share along the way, mostly because it helps me catch things sooner rather than later. I have a very flaky, i.e. horrid memory, and will often forget things that happened earlier in the story that get changed or forgotten about later on, or hell, sometimes I get something just plain wrong. Also I generally like the little kudos I get along the way for something that works particularly well. It helps to keep me motivated to keep on writing the story.