A living, breathing book

by Alex

Please just hit me if I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but one of the most amazing aspects of this new author gig is how much teaching is suddenly required of us. Well, not required, exactly, but requested. And I think those reading along are getting the picture of how much we all enjoy, and more, are fascinated by the teaching side of this profession.

So instead of writing more about Romantic Times (except just to say that no matter how much I think I’m immune by now to these obviously staged displays, I still nearly fainted at the waves of testosterone wafting off the collective cover models when I walked into the conference last weekend…) I’m going to talk about something else that has been… um.. bothering me.

Given the gigantic slush piles and the sheer numbers of aspiring authors out there competing for publishing deals, what IS it about a book that makes – agents, publishers, readers – say yes? And exactly how do we describe that something to an aspiring author?

What is it that makes a book ALIVE?

I just recently got a slew of first-five-page submissions for a workshop I’m going to be teaching and OH MY GOD, what an interesting experience it’s being.

This is not my first rodeo, mind you. Before I sold my first script and broke into screenwriting as a living, I worked as a reader (story analyst) for several Hollywood production companies, so I have all kinds of experience with sorting through mountains of submissions and having to cull the likely ones from the pile.

That may sound hard, but believe me, there’s nothing easier. A script is either THERE, or it’s not. Same with novels. It’s either a book, or it isn’t. The more of them you read at once, the more obvious that becomes. Now, beyond that, a book needs to fit someone’s particular taste – you have to find an agent who loves it and an editor who loves it and a house who loves it, and THAT is more intangible.

But before all of that it simply has to be an actual, living, breathing book.

And if you get, for example, twelve submissions at once, and read them all in one night, there is nothing in the world easier than picking out which of them, if any, is a real book – or not.

There are all kinds of ways to write a book. Plotting, pantsing, obsessive outlining, index cards, collage books, writing in layers, writing beginning to end, writing one chapter at a time until it’s perfect, writing reams of back stories….

And certainly by now we all know that authors often go through holy hell trying to get a book to LIVE – that we throw manuscripts against walls and go on drinking binges and tell everyone we meet that our careers are over and throw out hundreds of pages at a time and tear our entire structures apart and start over when it’s not working.

But all this drama means only one thing, really. We all know… that there’s a certain point that we have to get to in which the book takes on a life of its own. No book is ever going to engage every reader – there’s too much individual taste involved to hope for that. But we all have to get every book we write to a state in which a decent percentage of readers will pick the book up and say YES to it – that they will somehow, someway, find themselves so caught up in the world that they forget that they’re holding a book and reading, and instead are just LIVING it.

But what the hell IS that? How can you possibly TEACH that?

You can teach all the building blocks to writing but how do you teach someone how to make that conglomeration of parts LIVE, to the point that it’s a fully-dimensional, breathing, seamless experience?

Well, first, art is imitative. Just like children learning to be adults, we as authors imitate our author idols – in characterization, structure, rhythm, pacing, dialogue. We have to have finely developed ears for all of those things. We have to learn to speak novelese, so fluently that when we speak we are indistinguishable from natives.

We also have to have enough detachment to pull back from the writing process and read our work simply as readers, and see where the book is engaging us and flowing, and where it stumbles, where we are engaged and where we couldn’t care less.

Maybe what we really have to do is create a world, or a stage, that’s detailed enough that we can coax real live characters (wherever the hell they come from) out onto it, who will do the work for us.

Or maybe it’s all just a Jedi mind trick. Look, I’m not kidding. Maybe it’s actually magic. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Morgan Le Fay-style magic.

But CAN that be taught? Or if you don’t have it from the beginning, can you get there?

If an aspiring author isn’t trying hard enough, if the book is just lying there like a dead mackerel, what might get them motivated to DO what it takes to get to the next level, a living, breathing level?

I honestly don’t know if that is something that can be specifically taught. I think it might be more of a Dumbo’s feather kind of thing. You, as a teacher or a mentor or an advisor, are not going to know what it is for any particular student that gets her or him to that magic place. Sometimes you may click with a student and say the right thing – but probably, most of the time, not.

That’s kind of scary, considering the fact that while you may sometimes do great good, you could also do great harm.

For example. I have to admit that personally, coming from a dance background, I am highly responsive to someone with a cane following me across a dance floor screaming in my face – TURN! TURN! Get up on top of that leg! MOVE!

Dance teachers, like football coaches and Army Sergeants, don’t pull any punches. And you know what? It works. The adrenaline of terror will push you to a certain level of competency that you were not aware you could achieve. (This, I feel, is part of the psychology of deadlines….)

There’s a certain magic to dance, after all – there are so many things that you have to do perfectly all at once to do just a simple triple pirouette that if you were only thinking about the component parts you would never, ever get there. What you need is the level of sheer adrenaline that makes a mother not think about what is possible or not possible but allows her to lift a three-ton truck off her trapped child. You need a level of WILL that transcends your physical and mental capabilities, right? That’s what writing is all about, because if you really think about what we’re doing, let’s face it, it’s completely impossible.

Going back to the Jedi analogy, maybe for some students what it takes is a teacher that you worship, who is your ideal of what you want to be and where you want to go, screaming at you – JUST FUCKING DO IT!

And somehow the combined rage and worship and terror flips you into an altered state in which you can levitate the Death Star, or do a triple pirouette, or set your book on fire.

Now, I’m not willing to apply those take-no-prisoners dance teacher techniques to my writing students. At least, I have not been – so far. I have also not, so far, been willing to say to aspiring author friends – “You know what? You’re not trying hard enough. Stop whining, get your head out of your ass and work on ONE book until it’s right, until it’s ALIVE.”

But I’m beginning to wonder – am I doing these people a disservice? Am I letting them down by not being as hard on them as I am on myself? Are great teachers hard on students precisely because they know they need to instill that sense of rigor and perfectionism in their students, if those students are ever to have any hope of being professionals?

Or is tough love a terrible gamble that could break a talented student if applied at the wrong time in that student’s life?

On one hand, I think any student has to be responsible enough to pursue the teachers who teach in a style that is compatible with the student, and drop flat the teachers who they sense could harm their development.

But maybe… maybe… as teachers we have to be responsible enough to look a promising student in the face and say – “Do better or get out.”

Just exactly as we say to ourselves, every day.

Maybe the point is – the BOOK has to be the most important thing, always. It has to be more important than your agent or getting an agent, it has to be more important than your editor or publishing house, it has to be more important than anything. Until you get to the point that the book lives, no matter what that takes, then nothing else matters.

So my questions are – what worked for YOU? Do you remember the point at which you first wrote something that you knew, unequivocally, was alive? Did a teacher or teachers help you get there, or is that something each of us has to figure out on our own? Is there a teaching style that works best for you, as a teacher or as a student?

15 thoughts on “A living, breathing book

  1. Kathy Sweeney

    Great blog, Alex!

    I’m not an author, but I have been – and will be again – a teacher.

    My most recent class was Business Law at a local university. The class was open only to juniors and seniors. The stunning part was just how little they knew. I don’t mean about business law – I mean about writing.

    We are starting to see the generational products of the Internet and No Child Left Behind, and it is very, very scary.

    Add to that all the ways to self publish (good cautionary tale here yesterday on that) and there are books out there that are just awful. Never mind the plot – I’m just talk about mechanics.

    So – I have no advice on making a book come alive, but if your students don’t come in with some basic communications skills, I’d send them back to Freshman English.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Hey Kathy – now YOU are just the kind of teacher I love because you’re always straight up. I’m sure you’re plenty able to sugarcoat things when you absolutely have to (!) but it’s your upfront honesty that works on me.

    You’re right, the eroding of basic skills is terrifying. I really wish we had a mandatory high school class that was just one straight hour of writing, every day. Writing on anything, it doesn’t matter, just writing, and having the students (not the poor teachers!) have to go through each other’s papers for errors. Writing is its own language, and students need to practice like that to be able to think onto the page.

  3. Stacey Cochran

    In the past 2 years, I’ve led close to 100 panel discussions, workshops, and TV interviews on what it takes to publish a book.

    The answers I’ve arrived at are 1) the book has to speak to the values of an agent, editor, and publishing house; 2) agents sometimes accept a book solely on the quality of the writing, but it is extremely rare; 3) there is usually some combination of a) an outstanding book; b) the first-time author had someone better established help introduce them to the right people to get his/her book published; 3) or sheer luck.

    As most of you know, my goal to help aspiring writers by asking “how to publish a book” has become something of a fulltime job for me:


  4. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Yeah, Louise, there’s a lot of power in someone who really means it (and I think that’s key) saying to you – “You’re a real writer.” I had a professor in college say that to me after my first one act play was produced (which was the first time I saw my work live and breathe). That’s really all he said, but it was very inspiring.

    You’re such a fabulous writer it’s hard to imagine any time in your writing life or point in your writing process that the book is just a dead collection of pages. But I also know how hard you work to make it REAL and how excruciatingly hard on yourself you are. I’m just fascinated with that point at which a piece of art assumes actual life. What gets anyone there? I just don’t know.

  5. JT Ellison

    I have also not, so far, been willing to say to aspiring author friends – “You know what? You’re not trying hard enough. Stop whining, get your head out of your ass and work on ONE book until it’s right, until it’s ALIVE.”

    I think we are doing a disservice to the writers who aren’t busting every ounce of their balls to get themselves better. I don’t have the guts to say this either, but there are times…

    We all wanted it badly enough that we sacrificed whatever needed to be sacrificed to make it happen, to polish our manuscript until they were salable. Some people aren’t willing to do that. There are no shortcuts to a good book.

  6. Alexandra Sokoloff

    I’m not so sure it’s all about having the guts to say it. I’d be happy to take the hard line if I had a good sense that the writer I was talking to would actually benefit from it – and I highly suspect that you would too, JT – but some people are clearly not willing to hear it.

    And even more than that, I think we all have “First Do No Harm” foremost in mind.

    Also, if someone says to me – “I’m not going to rewrite this one any more because I’m just tired of it -” well, why should I even bother being honest about what they need to do? It’s not worth the breath it takes to say it.

  7. JT Ellison

    No, you’re right. First do no harm does have a tendency to overshadow get off your butt and do it ; )

    And I don’t want to be the one like my professor who told me I’d never make it.

  8. Clair Dickson

    You can’t make someone care about something they don’t. Such as the kids who don’t know how to write complete or coherent sentences. I teach alternative high school, and most of them just don’t care about writing– don’t see it as necessary in their lives. (Sad, but true.)

    The same is true for novice writers. They either want to make their work better or don’t. I don’t believe there is a single writer who couldn’t improve their writing some how. I’ve met some who just like writing and don’t care about how to improve themselves.

    If they’re willing to listen, then I’d say, tell them all you can. Give them all the tips, pointers, guidance, and advice they’ll absorb. But only if they’re ready to listen with their thick skin on.

  9. Alexandra Sokoloff

    JT, that professor was wrong in every way, obviously! I don’t think a teacher EVER has the right to say something as sweeping as – “You’ll never make it.”

    “THIS isn’t good enough” is a vastly different thing than “YOU’RE not good enough.”

    Clair, I like that a lot: “If they’re ready to listen with their thick skin on.”

  10. billie

    Chiming in late due to a busy day… but I did want to add that one thing I think helps “teach” students of the creative arts how to bring their work to life is simply to model and reflect recognizing the synchronous and the archetypal and the unconscious blips that begin to happen during the creative process.

    I don’t for a moment believe it isn’t happening for all of us – but learning to recognize these things and incorporate them and/or the energy they bring into our creative endeavors is sometimes a vital missing piece.

  11. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Billie, you are so profoundly right, as usual!

    There’s nothing that breathes life a book like letting every synchronistic thing around you write the book with you.

    Thank you for that reminder – I needed it this week.

  12. Catherine


    I think there are aspects of this post that relate to JT’s post yesterday. They are both about relaying advice appropriately. It’s heartening to see you both consider people’s feelings and the overall effectiveness of the advice you give.

    I think there is a finer line than most of us would hope though, between where someone is outlining a problem they may have with their writing, or they are sucking the air out of the room with their neediness for reassurance…aka emotional vampires.

    I’ve found myself that there is a point where talking and or analysing takes the energy out of an idea, and impedes acting. I’ve found that I need to be responsible for when researching, seeking guidance, or problem solving becomes a delaying tactic to just getting on with it, sucking it up, and getting ruthlessly honest about the amount of work I may need to do to get the ‘job’ done.

    My motivational motto of the week, mostly self directed, is the rather crude but succinct…Shit or get off the pot.

  13. Allison Brennan

    Very thought-provoking post, Alex. I played around with writing for years before I got serious about it. I don’t know if I could have or would have been able to focus on my stories if someone had pushed me hard or coddled me. When I made the commitment to myself to write, it was 100% an internal switch I pulled to take my writing from hobby to career. I wanted it badly enough that I was willing to make sacrifices.

    I absolutely remember the moment I knew I would sell. I was working on my fifth manuscript–the first four had been soundly rejected, though each one garnered more interest than the previous. But I was halfway done writing THE PREY and I felt that this was it. I would sell this book, and I would work on making the story shine because I felt it had *it*. I couldn’t define *it* before reading your post; now I can. The book came alive.

    Since every writer is different, I don’t know whether having a teacher or not helps. I’m sure for some it does, and others it doesn’t. For me, it was internal. There was nothing anyone could say to me that would have changed my direction–I had to overcome my fears myself. Now, I can weed through advice, find nuggets that help me, discard the rest. I learn by example–don’t tell me how to do something, show me something that was done right (or wrong) and I can see why it worked or didn’t.

  14. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Catherine, you’re so right that seeking advice (or worse, reassurance) can be a delaying tactic, and yeah, it’s a painful thing to get brutally honest with yourself about how much work may need to be done. I’m there right now and it sucks. But that’s the job. Our first allegiance is to the book.

    Allison, actually, I think “it” works just fine to describe what a book has to have. I know exactly what you mean by “it”. And that’s a defining moment in any writer’s life when s/he feels that excitement of knowing, just knowing, that the book finally has “it”.

    Being able to recognize “it” in your own writing is the hallmark of a professional.


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