Why I still read Ms. Snark

Yes, I know Ms. Snark’s blog is dark. It has been for over two years now. If you’re a writer and never discovered her, you should take a look. The archives are full of amazing and helpful information.

But that’s not the main reason why I go.

There are things in writing that are easy to master, if you put your mind to it. We begin to learn the first layer in grade school: spelling, punctuation, grammar, paragraph structure, beginnings, middles, and ends.

The next level most people don’t truly conquer, because they stop writing as soon as they are no longer in the presence of an evil-minded teacher who forces them to. It’s about the story telling: characters, setting, theme, and plot. People who love reading and writing in high school and college begin to see these elements in stories even when not writing a two-paged essay on them. They become eager to apply these concepts to their own work, layering them into their stories with equal attention.

Many literary-minded college courses and even professional workshops stop at this point, although some will move on to smaller pieces of the puzzle: scene structure, dialogue, transitions, pacing, and more poetic word-smithing techniques such as alliteration, consonance, and rhyme–all good pursuits.

I was stuck at this level for decades. I kept taking classes, joined critique groups, and read books. But one additional layer needed attention. And it wasn’t one you could easily come by, because it was large, unwieldy, subjective, and ever changing: writing to the audience.

I think one reason that this is ignored in the literary world is that it sounds like selling out, burnt on the edges in the fire of commercialism.

But when you’ve poured your energy, time, and hope into novels, all written on spec, with the optimism that it will one day be traditionally published, it can be a cold hard dash of reality when the letter come back, often as a quarter-page form, saying your story isn’t competitive in today’s market.

What? How can that be? YOU are part of the market, and you LOVE this. And second, it’s a form letter. It means nothing.

Actually, it’s a form letter because it’s so common. Many of us have great ideas, many of us can string words together that communicate what we want to say. But very few of us can make that message resonate with the readers we are trying to reach.

I see it every day in critique groups or in writers who post their query letters online for review. I’m no expert, and I can still see that they don’t have a handle on their story. Their summaries wander. They can’t write a one-sentence premise about the plot. They know very much what they WANT to do. And this is often worded in their letters in phrases like, “This book reminds us that…” or “Readers of this story will remember what it is like…”

We write sentences like that because we are frustrated  by our own stories, our inability to show the lives of characters who will communicate a message without preachiness or head-smacking. And that last layer of the novel, which is part of every word on the page, is what ultimately causes the novel to fail, either at the query level, because the agent can see the writer isn’t communicating this part, so it’s doubtful the book will be any better, or at the novel level, when an agent has requested the work and stops reading around page 50 because the book just isn’t rising as it should.

Ms. Snark, in her query bashing and crushing responses to reader questions, cut through the literary high-brow and got straight into the issue of does this book work for the reader it was intended to impact? She did this with humor, with biting candor, and intelligent analysis. She made us able to look at our own work more critically, to slip on her stilettos and step back from our emotional attachment to what we’d written and see it from a difficult-to-please point of view.

It’s a debilitating blow to realize you’ve spent a year, or several years, on a novel that doesn’t work. But only when we fail can we figure out what we don’t know. Until you’re querying, putting your tender babies into the world, it’s not easy to know what you’ve done wrong.

But Ms. Snark can educate you ahead of time, before you burn through the agent list, without dealing with the hard reality of rejection in your inbox. Go, and read, and learn from her, not just once, but every year or two. We can’t absorb everything until we’ve moved to the next layer, when all the things we’ve fixed about our work reveals the next set of weaknesses.

It’s not an easy process and there aren’t any short cuts. But reading Ms. Snark can cut a lot of time out of the write-revise-rejection period of your authorly rise to success. And you can laugh along the way with Killer Yapp and hearing that once again, Ms. Snark has read something that makes her want to set her hair on fire.

So, what are you waiting for? Discover her again. I’ll see you there.

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