Readers Won’t Like It If . . .

“Readers won’t stand for it.”

“It’ll trip readers up.”

“Readers expect mysteries to start off with a bang.”

Hang around editors for any length of time and you’ll hear umpteen variations on the theme: readers demand this and they won’t put up with that. You may even hear it from the editor you’ve engaged to work on your manuscript.

Here’s why you should take generalizations about “readers” with about a half ton of salt.

When editors, agents, teachers, and other gatekeepers claim to speak for “readers,” they’re hiding behind an authority that doesn’t exist. Readers are not homogeneous. They do not constitute a godlike authority that must be obeyed and can’t be contradicted or even verified.

Good editors don’t need to hide. We’ll say things like “I stumbled over this bit” or “Given the conventions of [insert genre here], you might consider picking up the pace in chapter one.” Take your editor’s observations and suggestions seriously, but remember that the choice is yours —

Unless, of course, a desirable contract hangs in the balance. When dubious advice is backed up by threat, it’s often best to take it. It’s still your call. Most experienced writers have gone along with editorial decisions that we didn’t agree with. The work survived, and so did we. And sometimes in hindsight the decision looks better than it did at the time.

When an editor tells you that readers won’t stand for something, don’t be afraid to talk back and stand your ground.

My mystery-writing friend Cynthia Riggs was told by her editor that readers would balk at a character’s using the word “bastard” in Bloodroot, the forthcoming title in her Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series. Not one to take this lying down, Cynthia created a table of the “naughty words” used in the (so far) 12-book series. “Bastard” has appeared 41 times in the series, and 14 of them were in one particular book.

naughty words

True,  Cynthia did once receive an email from a fan who wrote that she didn’t “enjoy the language used by the police.” This reader also noted that she had already read four books in the series and had started on her fifth, so the use of strong language doesn’t seem to have been a deal-breaker for her.

For sure it may be a deal-breaker for some. All of us have likes, dislikes, and expectations that will prompt us to put a book down or never pick it up in the first place. Editors can’t predict how “readers” will respond to a particular scene or character or word because “readers” as a generic category doesn’t exist.

Neither can writers. When we attempt to please all of the readers all of the time — or even all of the readers in a particular sub-subgenre — our writing tends to become formulaic and predictable. Fortunately, and whether we know it or not, many of us have a more specific reader in mind. That’s who we’re writing for. Often this reader looks at least somewhat like us.

Left to our own devices, writers are hard to pigeonhole. So are readers. So are books. Unfortunately, we aren’t left to our own devices. Books can be unique, unpredictable, hard to describe in 25 words or less. This makes them hard to market.  Widgets, in contrast, are easy to sell because, being mass-produced, they’re consistent and predictable.  Aha! thought the commercial publishers. We’ll treat books like widgets!

And for several decades they’ve been doing exactly that: sorting books into genres, subgenres, and sub-subgenres so that customers can — so the thinking goes — buy books the way they buy toilet paper. (For more about this, see “Genres and Dump Dogs.”)

In my bookselling days, I found this endlessly frustrating. Where to shelve books that fit into two, three, or more categories? Shelving a book in one place would make it easier for some readers to find, but what about the readers who wouldn’t think to look there? What about the readers who were convinced that no book in that section could possibly interest them?

The marketing departments have trained us well. Many readers make a beeline for [insert subgenre here] and won’t stray from it. Writers whose top priority is selling, maybe even writing for a living, ignore this at their financial peril — but if they heed it, what happens to their writing? Often it becomes predictable — like a good widget. If they want to do something different, they’ll often do it under a pseudonym, to avoid disappointing their widget-hunting readers.

So when an editor or an agent or a writer you admire tells you that “readers won’t stand for it,” they may mean well, or think they do. It’s still your call. Readers aren’t homogeneous. Write for the ones who are willing to take chances. Write for yourself.

Chicago Style

My library’s annual monster book sale was last weekend. Of course I went. Of course I came home with a stack of books, and all for $10.

The book sale takes place in the elementary school gym. All the sorting and shelving is done by volunteers.

The book sale takes place in the elementary school gym. All the sorting and shelving is done by volunteers.

The book sale is a browser’s heaven: tables and tables of books sorted, and occasionally mis-sorted, into general categories, and many with more books in the boxes underneath. I rarely go with a particular book in mind. I always find books I didn’t know I was looking for.

Or they find me.

Browsers cheerfully recommend books to total strangers, and sometimes get into spirited conversations about books they liked or books they thought were overrated. I was poring over one of the history-related tables, head cocked sideways so I could read the spines, when the fellow to my right handed a book to the fellow on my left. The book passing in front of me was The Chicago Manual of Style.

“Are you interested in this?” asked the fellow on the right, who I guessed (correctly) was the father of the fellow on the left.

My constant editorial companions. Clockwise from top: The Chicago Manual of Style, Words into Type, Amy Einsohn's Copyeditor's Handbook, and Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary.

My constant editorial companions. Clockwise from top: The Chicago Manual of Style, Words into Type, Amy Einsohn’s Copyeditor’s Handbook, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

I’ve been on first-name terms with Chicago since 1979, when it was still called A Manual of Style. Could I remain silent while my old buddy and sometime nemesis changed hands right before my eyes? I could not. “That’s the current edition,” I said. “I’ve got it at home. I’m an editor by trade.”

Dad let on that Son was an aspiring writer. Son seemed a little uneasy with the description. “If you have any interest in mainstream publishing,” I said, “that’s a very  good book to have.”

I don’t know whether they bought it or not, or what they paid for it. It was half-price day at the book sale, so probably not more than a buck or two. But if you have any interest in mainstream publishing, especially in the U.S., it is a very good book to have. Or you can subscribe to the online edition for $35 a year.

In U.S. trade and academic publishing, The Chicago Manual of Style is something of a bible. It contains almost everything writers and editors need to know about book publishing, along with extensive recommendations for further reading in various areas. It includes chapters on grammar, usage, and punctuation. At least half of its 1,026 pages are devoted — as its title might suggest — to style. 

What is “style”? Think of all the myriad choices you make when you’re writing and especially when you’re editing your own work, about capitalization and hyphenation, about the use of quotation marks, boldface, and italics. How to treat titles of movies or titles of songs, and words from other languages, and the English translations of those words. And on and on and on. Style comprises all the decisions made about how to handle these things. “Chicago style” is a collection of particular recommendations. If you italicize book titles and put song titles in quotes, you’re following Chicago style, maybe without knowing it.

Much of the nit-pickery that goes into copyediting is about style. Confronted with the plethora of details that go into Chicago style, or Associated Press (AP) style (widely used by newspapers and periodicals), or American Psychological Association (APA) style (widely used in academic writing, especially the social sciences), the novice writer or editor may find it hard to believe that applying a particular style makes things easier — but it does. Every time I embark on editing a long bibliography, I am profoundly grateful to Chicago for its documentation style and to the authors who apply it consistently. I would hate to have to learn or invent a new documentation style for every bibliography I work on.

That goes for other aspects of style too. Following a style guide in effect automates the minute details and frees your mind to deal with the more interesting stuff like word choice and sentence structure and transitions between paragraphs.

The Chicago Manual of Style came into existence early in the 20th century as the style guide for the University of Chicago Press. Then as now, the press specialized in scholarly works, and the early editions of its style guide reflected that. Now it’s widely used by trade publishers, independent publishers, and self-publishers as well as academic presses.

What this means in practice is that not all of its recommendations are well suited to every type of book, and the further one gets from scholarly nonfiction — say, into the realms of fiction and memoir — the more cause one is likely to have for ignoring some recommendations and improvising on others. This is fine with Chicago‘s compilers but not so fine with some copyeditors, who treat the book’s style recommendations as Rules That Must Be Obeyed.

I think of them as Conventions That Should Be Respected, and Generally Followed in the Absence of a Sensible Alternative. I also advise serious writers to introduce themselves to Chicago style and even get to know it. Automate the petty details and you can focus your attention on the big stuff. You’re also more likely to win an argument with a stubborn copyeditor.

Selling Books at the Artisans’ Fair

Sorry for long silence — I’ve had deadline-itis in a bad way.

This past Thursday’s deadline wasn’t a surprise. It wasn’t a rush — not until I turned it into one by spending 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. last Friday and Saturday at the Thanksgiving Artisans’ Fair. Along with three other local writers, I was part of “Writers’ Row.” (I blogged about the fair in From the Seasonally Occupied Territories: “A Saner Way to Shop.”)

So I was selling my novel, The Mud of the Place, and my colleagues were selling their books, and it dawned on me that, hey, not only had I written my book, I’d edited at least one of each of theirs.

This made me happy. These books were all good before I got hold of them, but I was proud to have had a hand in making each one a little bit better than it would have been otherwise. Editors are even more invisible than writers. Usually we finish a job, wave bye-bye, and never see the book or paper or story again. It was downright satisfying to see the finished books on display and hear people talk about them.

Not to mention — I know those books inside and out, love them all, and have no qualms about encouraging people to buy them.

vineyard cats smLynn Christoffers is a wonderful photographer. Cats are her favorite subject, so Cats of Martha’s Vineyard was a natural. But she did more than photograph a hundred cats. She interviewed their people and turned those interviews into a book. I’m a chronic dog person, but I still think it’s cool.

cover scan smShirley Mayhew moved to Martha’s Vineyard as a young bride in 1947 and has been here ever since. Her personal essays, collected in Looking Back, not only chronicle a quietly remarkable life; they provide a window into the last six-going-on-seven decades in this particular place — a place that’s often seen from the outside but rarely from within.

Cynthia RiggsMURDER ON C-DOCK cover sm took up mystery writing at age 70, after a career that included writing for the National Geographic Society and the Smithsonian, running a ferryboat company on the Chesapeake Bay, rigging boats on Martha’s Vineyard, and raising five children. The 11th book in her Martha’s Vineyard Mystery Series is due out from St. Martin’s Press in the spring. The previous ten were all for sale on Writers’ Row, but pride of place went to Murder on C-Dock, which is hot off the press (official pub date isn’t till next month) and which I copyedited. It begins a new series, drawing on the author’s 12 years living on a houseboat on the Washington, D.C., waterfront. It’s got such a stupendous cover that I’m determined to hire the artist, Elizabeth R. Whelan, to do the cover of my novel in progress.

Cynthia, by the way, contributed “On Being Edited” to this blog back in October. Her account of an Edit from Hell has been viewed more times and received more comments than any other Write Through It post. Good! I’m here to report that to my mind Cynthia is an ideal client: she writes well, takes her writing seriously, and appreciates careful editing. She also hosts the writers’ group that both Shirley and I belong to.

Writers usually work in isolation, so face-to-face contact with readers and prospective readers is exhilarating. It can also be exhausting: The Artisans’ Fair was busy from the time the doors opened at 10 till they closed at 4, which meant we were “on” for six consecutive hours. This is why I didn’t come straight home, go for a walk with the dog, then buckle down to editing. My brain needed a break.

At odd moments I wondered if we writers really belonged among the weavers, jewelers, leatherworkers, printmakers, and other crafters who work wonders with media more tangible than words. For sure no one objected to our presence, and all of us had a great time. My life is pretty much devoted to words: writing them, editing them, reading them, reviewing what others have written. It’s a little disorienting to be reminded that words aren’t everything, that creativity comes in myriad forms, and that there are plenty of things that words just can’t do.