AN ADVICE COLUMN ON WRITING, FROM THE EDITOR IN ME TO THE AUTHOR IN YOU: K.I.S.S.

This is a writing advice column. If you don’t want my unsolicited writing advice, do not, I implore you, read on. Fair warning. 😉

I belong to one or two Facebook groups, and recently, in one that is writing focused, someone asked whether a character’s thoughts always had to be in italics.

“Yes,” I responded, “that is standard.”

And then another member jumped up my butt to tell me how all kinds of “world-building” is happening now and people can do whatever they want!

Both are true.

But, listen, Author, even as you create new, far-out worlds, and that is so much fun for you, you have to judge a few things: Is it fun for your editor, your publisher, your agent, and your (hopefully) eventual readers? One piece of advice I might give you is that you have to tread a line between what you want from your book, and what your reader will want.

“I’ll publish myself!” you might yell back.

And yes, you could, and that is what is absolutely happening: lots and lots of people are publishing whatever they want with no feedback from anyone else, and publishing it anywhere they want, and I (me, personally) can just go scratch.

True, until nobody buys your book, or people buy it in a Kindle (or other) online format and you see by their page views that they don’t finish it, or it gets bought in paperback and never read, or they buy it, read at least some of it, and leave you a crap review.

I can promise you, the number of books that will be written that change all conventional rules (or just the ones that particular author doesn’t like or understand) and do well out of it will be small.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.

You have to be especially educated about the rules to break them and do it well, in an effective way. And you need some of them anyway, because your reader (if you self-publish and don’t care about the editors and etc.) will need some rock to put his/her/their feet on, or they have no place to stand with the book. Yes, you could drug me, and wake me up in a foreign country with zero information, language, or money, and, depending very much on which country, I might make it out alive with an interesting experience that I enjoy discussing with friends, but few of us would choose that experience, and choose it multiple times.

Can I be annoyingly prescriptive here for a moment? I want to tell you that you have one job: to tell a good story.

All that other stuff that may seem super important to you is fluff to your audience, and could stop them from loving your story.

Another fair warning, this paragraph is about me, exclusively, my qualifications and my ability to be prescriptive in this way, and you can skip this if you don’t give a hoot:
I was lucky that I read every freaking thing I could get my hands on when I was a kid. If you read an earlier post about my Kindle Vella I mentioned that I read The Godfather, by Mario Puzo, when I was under ten years old, by which I mean nine, because we were in our old house. I was not a genius, but I was a precocious reader. I also read my way through The Bible quite a few times while I was bored in church. I preferred the Old Testament. I read The Stranger (Camus) in sixth grade, and it was very upsetting, and I became really overwhelmed by existential dread until I got a new Encyclopedia Brown. I also tried to write a book report on The Stranger, and my teacher admonished me and said my parents should be monitoring what I read. My parents did not monitor what I read, and my middle school had annual used book sale where kids collected books from their neighbors and gave them to the school for the high used book sale, and I bought a book of S&M pornography there in seventh grade because my parents did not monitor what I read, and the school did not monitor what I bought, and, to this day, I think both were the best thing, the not being monitored, not the porn book, which was a parody of A Tale of Two Citiesand about Marie Antoinette, I remember. I also remember buying complete collections of comic strips like Battle Bailey and The Lockhorns, and novels like M*A*S*H, and The Wide Sargasso Sea. For $20 bucks, which my parents would give me, I could get around 20 books, and I was done them in a few weeks. When I got to high school I was in advanced English, where we really took apart the books we read, and in college I majored in English literature, where we did so much more of that, and then, when I went to my MA writing program, my two teachers, Luann Smith for fiction and Chris Buckley for poetry, taught us how to write by making us read and analyze the writing of other well-respected really good authors like T.C. Boyle, Tim O’Brien, Philip Levin, Czesław Miłosz, Diane Wakowski, and Amy Hemple, among many others. I am long-time trained, by my educational experience and my own varied and precocious reading habits, to be very good at spotting what makes work work, and what makes it flop. This is one of the things that concerns me when I see a person on FB say, “Hey folks, I’ve decided to be an editor. I’ll do your book cheap because I’m just getting started!” And people hire them, because they’re cheap. Okay. You get what you pay for, but you may never know what you’re not getting. This is just to say that I am well-prepared, and probably have advice that is not fluff or uninformed. And “This Is Just to Say,” interestingly enough, is one of my all-time favorite poems.

You’re the author. Do whatever you want. And publishing it yourself is always an option.

And my best advice is to also think about the life your story will have without you, when someone is reading your book, and you are not in the room with that person to answer a question or explain. Will the life your book has, without you in that new home, be a good and celebrated one, or a sad and relegated one, or somewhere on the spectrum in between? I would truly like to see us all reach our writing dreams, and, therefore, my advice is because I care, and not because I am competitive with you or want to stop you, or fence you in. And I have to again give you the same piece of advice: you have to tread a line between what you want from your book, and what your reader will want.

Your story should be good, and, if it suits the story and the genre, maybe it should be complex. The mechanics, the things the reader has to do to reach that story, to get that ride or message or what-have-you, should not be the things that cause or add to the complexity.

K.I.S.S. It’s advice that serves me well, all the time, in all situations.

5 Replies to “AN ADVICE COLUMN ON WRITING, FROM THE EDITOR IN ME TO THE AUTHOR IN YOU: K.I.S.S.”

    1. Very well said. Long. Clear. Understandable. Most of a repeat from Women’s Group almost from the first day I joined. You care. That comes across. Yes, many don’t care about the importance of subject matter. Just to get a book published answers their frivolous desire. Not me! Thank You! Ada Cotten

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  1. I love this and agree completely! But I am a rule-follower myself (as my teenagers roll their eyes and buy me gifts about being the grammar police or some such thing), so you may be preaching to the choir with me! Really enjoyed the read!

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