Who do you write for?

Marlene Lee

A guest post from the delightful Marlene Lee, where she discusses the difference between writing for yourself and writing for publication…

I find that writing for publication is different than writing for self-expression, or a writers’ group, or a class assignment; writing for an editor is so much better.

My editor can be critical, yes.  He has high standards, certainly.  But he shows respect for my work.  I’ve heard this is not always the case. Likewise, stories I’ve heard about publishing houses that treat writers like cogs in a machine do not apply to my publisher.

I’ve written for a good many years without accomplishing the one thing I always wanted: to have my novels published.  What kept me writing?  Love of words.  Needy emotions.  Desire for attention I couldn’t or wouldn’t ask for directly.  Fascination with people’s lives and the worlds they inhabit.

Why was it so hard for me to be published?  Partly, luck.  I just didn’t run into the right agent or publisher.  I also wrote a lousy cover letter.  Self-promotion makes me uncomfortable.  “I know you don’t want to read my work or hear what I have to say, but if you don’t mind…”  Looking back, I think I began with apologies.

In a sense, I think apologies showed in my work, too, but I didn’t realize it until my editor started striking sentences left and right.  In fact, when he first read what I’d submitted, he told me I over-explained.  And I did, and do.

Over-explaining is a sort of apology.  I might as well be saying, “I’m hard to understand and my characters are hard to understand and so I’m going to tell you a lot of gratuitous stuff about them and myself and interpret their conversations for you because, you see, the characters are aspects of myself and you’ll never believe how sad, full, and ironic our lives are and how inadequate my writing is to make all that clear and also I have a good vocabulary and verbal style which you might not notice if I don’t flash it about…”

When my heroine says, “Please don’t tell my husband,” and I, the author, add, “she said, her lips curving in a teary smile that was part grimace, part irony,” I may as well be saying to the reader, “This character is too fascinating and complex for my ability to bring her to life, so you’ll need three options to empathize with her, and I’ll give you those options: tears, a grimace, or irony.  Or all three.  And if you can’t choose one, keep reading and I’ll choose for you.”

My editor strikes everything after, “Please don’t tell my husband.”

He doesn’t go on and on about it, embarrassing me the way writers’ groups and classes often do.  He doesn’t write his own wordy explanation to fulfil a teaching impulse, like teachers often do.

He’s busy.  He assumes I’ll understand.

Since his publishing house has already accepted the book for publication, I’m willing to be criticized.  And I will be paid.  Someone there likes my book well enough to spend money on editing, on cover art, and eventually, on me.  Money can facilitate growth.  For money, I’ll keep an open mind.  For the prestige of publication, I’ll pay attention to criticism.  For respect, I’ll do almost anything.

And to be read.

Although I think I originally wrote my novels to be praised, I now want them to be read.


About Marlene

Marlene Lee’s first novel, The Absent Woman, will be published by Holland House Books in April 2013. Marlene graduated from the Brooklyn College MFA program in 2010 and, for many years, subsidised her writing by working as a teacher and court reporter.  Her stories, poems, and essays have appeared in numerous publications. When she’s not writing, she tutors at the University of Missouri Writing Center and attends local readings, performances, and meetings of the Jane Austen Society.  Most of the year she lives in Columbia, Missouri, but she also spends time in her New York City apartment. Her blog can be found at www.marleneLee.wordpress.com.

Click to read Marlene’s short story The Long Black Cadillac