Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Chip MacGregor's Tips For Writers

Today concludes Gina's terrific three-part interview of Hachette Group's Associate Publisher Chip MacGregor. Find it at Novel Journey. This is a guy who doesn't mince words and who has sass to spare, but he knows his job and you would do well to listen.

Here are his tips (from part two) for writers who want to take their work from ewwww or blaahhh to oooooh:

1. Improve your vocabulary. (It’s okay to find your readers occasionally have to get up and go get their dictionary while reading your book. Growth is a good thing.)

2. Find your voice. (This is my favorite writing topic, of course. Most writers seem to be pretending they are still writing an English paper. Kill the teacher in your head. You’re writing your life. You’re writing to a friend. You are NOT writing for a grade. You are NOT writing to show off. You are revealing yourself via verbs and nouns.)

3. Get organized. (Every book requires research and planning. EVERY book.)

4. Know your topic. (If you don’t, you’re wasting your time. And if you send it to me, you’re wasting MY time. I won’t waste it on you again.)

5. Learn to set the mood. (Your emotional tone should shine through your writing.)

6. Develop a sense of rhythm. (Short sentences speed up your pace.)

7. Refine your ability to use imagery. (Your images should be…as clear as a Siamese cat wearing a red coat and dancing the Highland Fling. Or something.)

8. Be clear.

9. Don’t belabor the obvious.

10. Learn to create strong leads and stronger closings. (Grab me. Then send me off to ponder.)

11. Meet great characters and reveal them on the page. (If you don’t know these people, if you don’t know their setting, you’re about to write a crummy book.)

12. Read your dialogue out loud to yourself. (Your ear will catch anything dishonest.)
13. Make sure you have a story to tell. (And remember that every story has conflict.)

14. Write in scenes, and let every scene raise the stakes. (Every story has beats to it. Learn to think in paragraphs.)

15. Show us the journey. (I want to be moved. I want to read your story and be changed.)

16. Write with verbs and nouns. (Stolen from ELEMENTS OF STYLE. Still the best writing advice I know.)

17. Work as hard on every sentence as you do on your lead. (Don’t get lazy.)

18. Shut up and listen to your editor.

19. Write every day. (Nothing will move your career forward faster.)

20. Read widely. (And read something different from your own stuff.)

21. Go back and rewrite. (Don’t assume it was perfect the first time.)

22. Depth is found when multidimensional characters that I can relate to face timeless questions in complex circumstances, then make decisions that are open to interpretation…so they may not be right. (THAT’S what causes me to learn, what helps me to understand myself, what leaves me thinking about your book. And this can’t be faked – so don’t write with an agenda. Nothing is more boring than to read a polemic. We’re tired of both Rush Limbaugh’s outrage and Al Franken’s posturing. They’re going to spend hell together, arguing their points.)


Anonymous said...


I did a quick search and could only find two titles with MacGregor's name, one as editor and one as co-author, and neither fiction.

So I'm thinking what you have here is a good example of telling, but sadly, no showing to go with it anywhere.



"Shut up and listen to your editor." Yes, your editor could write much better novels than you if he weren't so busy editing. Are you listening Mr. Wallace?

Mirtika said...

I actually have no problem with the showing-not-doing. I've had great writers who were lousy teachers, and great teachers who were so-so writers. Noticing what needs to be done or what works when its done is not always the same as being able to do. :)

He's an editor/publisher, and he's giving his perspective of what has worked from his years in the business. I figure that's valuable.


Anonymous said...

Totally Mir,

Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach. I bet you're a lousy teacher.

I just find his tone a little... I don't know... burned out maybe. To me, the job of the editor is to filter out the bad, find punctuation and grammatical errors, and maybe glaring plot holes and whatnot in the good. But it seems like they want to get much more involved in the "writing" and in making submitted material max marketable. I rarely read "popular" fiction any longer because 1) it seems like the same handful of writers writng the same crap over and over, and 2) it's like it's all being passed through the same homogonizing editor on top of this. I like "original" art, "flaws" and all.

E.g. I stopped sending op ed pieces because the editors kept mangling them into a voice and even viewpoint that suited their own perceived readership. In my very limited (to non) experience, the best editors take it or leave it, but don't screw around with it.


PS. Wasn't criticizing your posting. Glad you did.

Mirtika said...

Chris, I actually am a fabulous teacher. I've gotten failing folks up to a B, and I taught Sunday School and youth Bible Study for years (before I got all sickly and stuff.)

I have the teaching gift. :)

Which is probably why I don't write as well or prolifically as I might wish. Ah, well.

So, you a lousy or good teacher?

BTW, yes, Chip sounds angry. And that may be good, if it means he goes after higher quality and lets writers have some anger and chutzpah, too. Christian fiction could do with a bit more edgy and angry and outraged and hyperkinetic writing. It's been too sweet for too long.

Besides, after years of reading Ellison, I'm semi-immune to it. And after two years of creative writing vivisections, um, I mean workshops, in college, I can take rough comments pretty well. :)


Anonymous said...

I'm a terrible teacher. Of course, nowhere does it say that those who can't teach can do.

Or, in your case, that those who can teach can't do.

I'm a little unclear, after reading your story and in The Sword, what "Christian" fiction is. To me, good fiction is good fiction and tends to be kind of nondenominational and universal(not necessarily the characters of course). Maybe it's just fiction written by Christians? That'd be okay. And then I guess you'd have to consider gay fiction, solipsist fiction, depressed fiction, fat fiction, etc. too. Personally, I'm kind of loath to judge work by the author, more the other way around.