You only need to be in an MFA program for about two minutes before you’re thwaped over the head with Elmore Leonard’s  Ten Rules of Writing, the last and most famous being: try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip. Good advice. Learning what those parts are and recognizing them in your own writing is the hard part.

It’s been about six months since my agent suggested that my novel manuscript would be improved by rounding out some of the minor characters. After a lot of deliberation I decided to change from first person (I) to third person (he/she) in order to gain distance from the main character and allow the others to step forward into the spotlight a bit. This was not a quick fix. It required going through the manuscript with a fine tooth comb word by word, sometimes deleting entire scenes or writing new ones, but it enabled me to see places where I’d missed opportunities  – to give the other characters a greater presence, to stop forcing a “voice” on the main character, to delete every “suddenly” and “felt” (thanks again, Elmore).

It used to frustrate me when I edited manuscripts for clients who had basically threw up on the page and never bothered to clean it up. (This is also a big problem with the world of self-publishing, but that’s another post.) Oh, they would lament, I just can’t look at these pages one more minute. How many times have you reread the manuscript, I would ask. None, but I’ve been working on this for, like, three months now. I am done! (I just broke two of Elmore’s rules right there.) No one is disputing the need for another set of eyes, but how can you be a good writer if you don’t want to be a good reader? (That reminds me of a student I once had who never read anything but People magazine, yet she wanted to be a novelist.)

I wonder if creative writing can be taught. (I spent quite a bit of money and time to get a degree in creative writing. Those of you with the same affliction will be smirking about now.) Raw talent can be guided, but there is no subsitute for learning by doing. Isn’t that what MFA programs really are? Years of forced deadlines for practice. Can you imagine Hemingway enrolled at Iowa? Or Kafka? (Um, I think the scenes about the bug just are not believable. What is the bug’s motivation?) Francine Prose wonders if one can teach creativity. (Her conclusion is no.)

For now the question is, is my manuscript as good as it can possibly be? Short answer, yes. Long answer, I will probably always want to tweak it. I know writers who will not read their novels after they’ve been published because it bothers them that they can’t make any changes.  In fact I watched my friend Ken read from his new book  (blog post to come on that), making notes and scribbles in the margins. So I accept I’ll never be done completely.

This is the story I wanted to tell all along (a 1940’s journey narrative), but it took a while to get here. “I hope that someday soon you’ll find it on the shelves or in your e-reader!” she asserverated effusively (Sorry, Elmore.)



  1. Elmore on writers’ workshops:

    Elmore says: “I’m so glad that I chose Westerns…”

    ”…I’m so glad that I chose Westerns at that time rather than some writers’ workshop where you’re just writing something experimental or you’re writing something that’s contemporary about your life and you come out with just a pointless short story.”


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