Editing Workshop, 5: Lead Paragraphs

Every work, long or short, fiction or nonfiction, has to start somewhere, but lead paragraphs are a major cause of writerly angst and even writer’s block. No surprise there: every how-to-get-published book out there is telling you that if your lead paragraph doesn’t hook the agent or publisher of your dreams, your manuscript will wind up in the slush pile.

Perfectionista — the inner editor who insists that only perfection is good enough — thrives on situations like this: Your entire future is riding on your lead paragraph and you can’t even get the first sentence right.

Take a deep breath and keep going. It’s often not till you’re well into a second or third draft that you know where the story starts and what that lead paragraph has to do. Perfectionista isn’t doing you any favors by insisting you get the first paragraph right before you go on to the second.

Sooner or later you’ll have a lead paragraph that does want you want it to do: lead the reader into the story. That’s the time to refine it and then run it by your writers’ group, writer/reader friends, or other guinea pigs.

This is where Arvilla of the Alphabet Story blog is with her novel in progress. “Below is the first paragraph of my WIP,” she writes. “While I know not to start with the weather, it sets up the scene in which she has problems driving, including a stalled car. She does get rescued.”

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club. What a night, forced to drive her dad’s car. His cherished Nash, temperamental even in good weather, gave her problems. Taught to drive behind its steering wheel, she knew its intricacies. Her dad had patiently explained the techniques of driving and went on to teach how to change a tire and replace spark plugs. Bought used in 1944, it was still running after ten years, because of her dad’s constant tinkering. That it had complications did not lessen its value in his eyes. As much as he loved the car, she disliked it, though she had to admit a bit of admiration for the way her dad handled the Nash.

A lead paragraph’s #1 job is to whet the reader’s appetite for more, and this one whetted mine. I’ve just met Maggie, but already she’s got an immediate goal — getting to Bertie’s book and supper club on time — and two adversaries blocking her way: the weather and a cranky car. I’ve got a strong hunch that Maggie’s ambivalent relationship with the old Nash mirrors her relationship with her dad, and that this will be an important theme in the novel.

This lead also fixes the story in time: 1944 + 10 years = 1954. This sets me to speculating: Maggie’s dad taught his daughter basic car maintenance, but she didn’t inherit his passion for tinkering. Does she live alone? Who’s Bertie, and what role does the book and supper club play in Maggie’s life?

And yes, conventional wisdom warns against leading with descriptions of weather, or landscape for that matter, but when weather or landscape is an active participant in the scene, I say “Go for it!” I would suggest tweaking the lead sentence, however:

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night.

It’s not April’s total accumulated rainfall that’s blocking Maggie’s way: it’s the weather that particular evening. Show it to me, what it looks like, how it sounds, then keep it front and center as the scene unfolds. How would she get to Bertie’s if it weren’t raining? How far does she have to go? Give me some hints about the location.

Try distilling the rest of the paragraph to its essence. What does the reader need to know right now? That the old Nash is cranky, that Maggie’s father was devoted to it, and that Maggie, though competent behind the wheel, drives it only when she has to. I’d like to see her in the car and turning the key by end of the paragraph, maybe watching rain pour down the windows and windshield. Work the rest in once she’s en route.

Here’s a suggestion:

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night. What a night, forced to drive Her dad’s car. His cherished old Nash was temperamental even in good weather., gave her problems. Taught She had learned to drive in it, evenbehind its steering wheel, she knew its intricacies. Her dad had patiently explained the techniques of driving and went on to teach how to changed its a tires and replaced its spark plugs the way her dad had taught her, but she had never learned to love it the way he did. He’d bought it used in 1944, andit was still running after ten years, because of her dad’s his constant tinkering had kept it going for ten years. [MENTION HOW LONG IT’S BEEN SINCE DAD DIED OR STOPPED TINKERING.] But on a night like this, walking to Bertie’s was out of the question. It was either drive or miss it altogether. [WHY IS THIS UNTHINKABLE?] That it had complications did not lessen its value in his eyes. As much as he loved the car, she disliked it, though she had to admit a bit of admiration for the way her dad handled the Nash.

With the mess cleaned up, it looks like this:

The heaviest rainfall ever recorded for April almost prevented Maggie from attending Bertie’s book and supper club that night. Her dad’s cherished old Nash was temperamental even in good weather. She had learned to drive in it, even changed its tires and replaced its spark plugs the way her dad had taught her, but she had never learned to love it the way he did. He’d bought it used in 1944, and his constant tinkering had kept it going for ten years. [MENTION HOW LONG IT’S BEEN SINCE DAD DIED OR STOPPED TINKERING.] But on a night like this, walking to Bertie’s was out of the question. It was either drive or miss it altogether. [WHY IS THIS UNTHINKABLE?]

Now you can have at it — tinker away! Often a reader’s suggestions will shake something loose and you’ll come up with a better alternative. Thanks so much for sharing your lead paragraph. Good luck with the novel. 🙂

Dear Write Through It readers: Do you have a question, a comment, a sentence that needs unsnarling? Send it along and we’ll see what we can come up with.

 

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R Is for Readers

Writers may write in solitude, but there’s nearly always at least one other person in the room. Maybe we see them. Maybe we don’t. Maybe we see them but try to ignore their existence. Maybe they’re in our own head.

Readers.

Editors are test readers of writing that hasn’t gone out into the world yet. Our job is to help prepare the writing for its debut. We’re hired because we’re adept in the ways of spelling, punctuation, grammar, usage, structure, and so on, but on the other hand we’re supposed to be professionally stupid: if the writing isn’t clear enough, if gaps and inconsistencies exist in the sentences and paragraphs we’re reading, we aren’t supposed to fill them in from what we already know. The writing is supposed to do the work.

This is fine as far as it goes, but sometimes editors forget that despite our expertise and the fact that we’re getting paid, we can’t speak for all readers. If an editor tells you that “readers won’t like it if you . . .” listen carefully but keep the salt handy: you may need it. Editors should be able to explain our reservations about a word or a plot twist or a character’s motivation without hiding behind an anonymous, unverifiable mass of readers.

readers at outdoor café

One of the big highs of my writing life was when my Mud of the Place was featured by the several Books Afoot groups who traveled to Martha’s Vineyard in 2013 and 2014.

Readers can and often do take very different things away from the same passage, the same poem, the same essay, the same story. At my very first writers’ workshop (the 1984 Feminist Women’s Writing Workshop, Aurora, New York), day after day I listened as 18 of us disagreed, often passionately, about whether a line “worked” and whether a character’s action made sense or not and whether a particular description was effective or not. It was thrilling to see readers so engaged with each other’s work, but also a little unsettling: no matter how capable and careful we writers are with our writing, we can’t control how “readers” are going to read it.

This is a big reason I advise writers to find or create themselves a writers’ group — and to develop the skill and courage to give other writers their honest readings of a work in progress. This may be the greatest gift one writer can give another.

I just came to “Teasing Myself Out of Thought” in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Words Are My Matter: Writings About Life and Books, 2000–2016 (Easthampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2016), and what do you know, it articulates eloquently and clearly some of what I’m feeling my way toward here.

“Most writing is indeed a means to an end,” she writes — but not all of it. Not her own stories and poems. They’re not trying to get a point across: “What the story or the poem means to you — its ‘message’ to you — may be entirely different from what it means to me.”

She compares “a well-made piece of writing” to “a well-made clay pot”: the pot is put to different uses and filled with different things by people who didn’t make it. What she’s suggesting, I think (maybe because I agree with her), is that readers participate actively in the creation of what the story or poem means. Readers are “free to use the work in ways the author never intended. Think of how we read Sophocles or Euripides.”  What readers and playgoers have discovered in the Greek tragedies has evolved considerably over the last 3,000 years, and it’s a good guess that Sophocles and Euripides didn’t embed all those things in their works.

“A story or poem,” writes Le Guin, “may reveal truths to me as I write it. I don’t put them there. I find them in the story as I work.”

If this reminds you of “J Is for Journey,” it does me too. And notice where that particular blog post started.

And finally this: “What my reader gets out of my pot is what she needs, and she knows her needs better than I do.”

That’s a pretty amazing and generous statement, and one editors might consider occasionally, especially when we’re editing works that aren’t simply means to an end.

N Is for Narrative

Like many other word people, the cataclysmic 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign and its ongoing aftermath got me wondering whether my particular skills as a writer and editor could be useful and, if so, how. Clarity and accuracy seemed way down low on the country’s priority list.

Then in late January, I found Theodora Goss’s blog post “The Politics of Narrative Patterns.” It began like this:

There are all sorts of reasons the American election went the way it did, but I think one of them, and perhaps quite an important one, was the way in which our thinking is determined by narrative patterns. What do I mean by narrative patterns? I mean that in narratives, in stories, there are underlying patterns we are familiar with. They recur from story to story: stories are often variations on these patterns. When we encounter these patterns, we feel fulfilled, comfortable — we recognize them, we like to read about them. We like variation, but only a certain amount of variation. Too much variation makes us feel unsatisfied, as though somehow the story is written “wrong.”

After discussing some narrative patterns popular in our culture, Goss notes that male characters have more archetypal options than female characters. Right, thought I, thinking of the path-breaking work writers of f/sf (fantasy and science fiction, hands-down my #1 go-to choice for fiction) have been doing since the 1970s and earlier to expand the possibilities for female characters.

Then Goss ties this to presidential elections, past and present. “People did not get so excited by Barack Obama, when he first ran, because of his policies,” she writes. “No, he was the young hero who had overcome adversity and triumphed.”

And Donald Trump? “He fit another narrative pattern: the stranger who rides into town and imposes order, bringing justice to the frontier. . . . It did not hurt him that he was not morally pure, because we do not expect the gunslinger to be morally pure — no, that’s reserved for heroes.”

Immediately it dawned on me that the wise old man in the race, the Gandalf, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and maybe Walter Cronkite character, was clearly Bernie Sanders. Wise old(er) men have loomed large in my fantasy life since I was a kid, but I never “felt the Bern.” The more I researched his record, the less impressed I was. But I had such a hard time conveying my reservations to my many, many Sanders-supporting friends that I finally stopped trying.

When a narrative pattern takes hold, facts take a back seat. This applies to writing as well as politics: novels that capture the public imagination and become runaway best-sellers seldom do it on their literary merits alone. Don’t tell me the gatekeepers of the publishing world, the agents, editors, publishers, reviewers, et al., are impervious to the power of narrative patterns!

What about women? asks Theodora Goss. Plucky girls are OK, but what happens when they grow up? “We only have two patterns for older women who want political power. One is the Virgin Queen, like Elizabeth I: a woman is fit to wield power if she is willing to give up other aspects of being a woman, such as marital relationships or children.”

Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t  fit this pattern. “What was left?” Goss asks. “The Wicked Queen. We know what she does — she seizes power (illegitimately) for her own gain, to satisfy her own ambition. She kills people or has them killed (this too was a criticism lodged against Clinton). And the Wicked Queen cannot be allowed to gain power — she must be defeated. All of our stories have told us that, from childhood on.”

Walk around that for a while. It resonates.

It also brings me round to the question of what can we word people do in this world where it seems our skills are only valued if we put them in the service of spin, obfuscation, manipulation, and outright lying.

It brought Theodora Goss around to a similar place. At first she thought (feared?) that writing had no use and maybe she should have gone into another line of work. “But now I think that one of our most important tasks is telling stories, and I am a storyteller. I am a perpetuator and creator of narrative patterns. That means I have an obligation to be aware of the patterns, to wield them in ways that are good, and true, and useful. And I can create new patterns.”

That’s the key: the old patterns won’t lose their power with the wave of a pen, but they can be undermined and transformed, and new patterns can be created. I saw it happening in f/sf, where women went from being add-ons and sidekicks to having their own adventures.

Well into the 1960s, lesbian characters in pulp fiction had basically two options: go straight or die. Cracks began to appear in the pattern before the end of the ’50s, and over the following decades, thanks in large part to lesbian and feminist writers, presses, and readers, new patterns were created. In many quarters these days “go straight or die” is an anachronism.

Note my inclusion of “readers” here. The culture’s narrative patterns are very strong, and the gatekeepers, often citing “market forces,” have a vested interest in perpetuating them. Books that break or undermine the dominant patterns are unsettling, and plenty of people don’t like being unsettled. It wasn’t a commercial press that broke the back of the “go straight or die” lesbian stereotype: it was Daughters., Inc., the small lesbian press that in 1973 published Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle. The novel’s “underground” popularity caught the attention of mainstream publishers, and Rubyfruit Jungle went on to become a mass-market best-seller — and a cultural icon for a lot of us.

Narrative patterns are deeply rooted in all our heads. They’re our default settings when we read, when we write, when we choose among political candidates. They’re powerful for sure, but they aren’t invincible. Words, our words, can change them, one story at a time.

 

L Is for Literary

At first glance “literary” looks straightforward. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary starts off with this: “of, relating to, or having the characteristics of humane learning or literature”.

Move on to “literature,” however, and fault lines begin to emerge:

a (1) :  writings in prose or verse; especially :  writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest

The American Heritage Dictionary definition of “literary” progresses from 1., “Of, relating to, or dealing with literature: literary criticism,” to 4a, “Appropriate to literature rather than everyday speech or writing,” and finally 4b, “Bookish; pedantic.”

For “literature” AHD moves briskly from the inclusive — “1. The body of written works of a language, period, or culture” — to something less generous: “2. Imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value.”

In other words, value judgments lurk not far below the surface of both “literary” and “literature,” and it’s not hard to see how they stir up uneasiness and outright opposition.  In some quarters “literary” suggests not only bookish and pedantic, but pretentious, snobbish, affected, esoteric, incomprehensible . . .

As a longtime reader of fantasy and science fiction, I’m particularly intrigued by the way “literary” is used to characterize anything that doesn’t fit into a genre. This leads to grand generalizations, judgments, and arguments that generate plenty of heat but not much light. What it misses is that genres are primarily marketing categories developed by publishers in order to treat books as products. Categorize a novel and it’s easier to promote and sell. Writers aren’t stupid: if they want to sell, they’ll write what the publishers are buying.

Genres have been around long enough at this point that they’re embedded in readers’ heads. Audiences have developed for particular genres, subgenres, and sub-subgenres, and self-publishers who want to sell ignore this at their financial peril.

Writers who want to sell will often write to the specs of a particular genre, at least until (if they’re lucky) they develop enough of a following that their byline becomes the brand. Unfortunately, the byline brand can become as restrictive as a genre category, which is why some well-known writers who want to strike off in a different direction do so under a pseudonym.

Without market pressures, though, writing often doesn’t fit neatly into categories. A while back, in “Genres and Dump Dogs,” I wrote this:

Literary genres are like breeds — of relatively recent development, especially the notion that there are clear lines between them and everything has to fit into one category. “Literature” is more like those village dogs of indeterminate breed: it adapts to the climate and food sources available, and maybe it looks a little like this, a little like that, but you can’t say for sure that it’s a beagle or a foxhound (or a mystery or a romance). When you’re trying to tell a story, you scavenge and steal from whatever’s in the vicinity and if it works you keep it.

If “literary” came to mean “willing to scavenge and steal from whatever’s in the vicinity, all in the interest of the work,” that would be OK with me. The sky, or maybe the ocean, is the limit.

Dog at edge of ocean

Travvy confronts the infinite.

Talking About Money

In “Why More Writers Should Talk About Money” Joseph Frankel of The Atlantic interviews Manjula Martin, editor of Scratch:  Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, just published by Simon & Schuster. I was so intrigued that I immediately bought the book.

monopoly-500

The interview seems to assume that being a writer means at least aspiring to make a living at it. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve probably guessed that I’m not that kind of writer. As I blogged a couple of years ago in “Write for a Living?” there are tradeoffs to be considered. I’m curious to read what the Scratch contributors have to say about this.

monopoly-100The interview does touch on the unbelievable whiteness of U.S. publishing. This means, among other things, that the gatekeepers — those who choose what gets published and how it gets published — are generally white or well trained in white ways of thinking.

I’ll almost certainly be blogging more about this book when I’ve had a chance to read it. Meanwhile, check out the Atlantic interview. A quick internet search turns up several reviews and other articles about the book. This is important stuff.

Mean Comments: When Your Self-Esteem Is at Stake

Wise counsel about dealing with criticism of the sort that only wants to tear you down, not improve your work. Writers are less likely than singers to be face to face with our attackers, but this still applies.

SongSmith

mean-commentsThe Drive of Being Heard

Art and music usually intend of making an impression or a statement.  Other people are inclined to voice their opinion when they’ve seen a play or heard a musical number that has moved them, whether the response is negative or positive. This drive for being heard and voicing our impressions has created an entire career; critics are paid to write or voice their reviews of various forms of art, whether it is food, movies, music, or visual.

Constructive criticism can be a great thing because it allows the artist to receive feedback that could very well improve its project. Even negative feedback can allow a creator to learn from its shortcomings and create even better work.

The Internet has become a helpful resource for artists in term of exposure, especially musicians and songwriters, as they are able to expose their work to a much larger…

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Dead Air

I seem to have taken up semi-permanent residence in Revisionland. Not only am I working on draft 3 of Wolfie, my own novel in progress, my recent jobs have included two critiques of first novels and a line edit whose structure needs a little tweaking. Editor that I am, with a fair amount of reviewing experience under my belt, I love revising and rewriting and recommending what other writers might do to improve their current drafts.

Most mornings I begin my writing session by lighting a candle or two, then picking The Writer’s Chapbook* from the table on my right, opening it at random, and reading the first quote that catches my eye. This morning the book opened to the “On Films” section, and my eye fell on a lengthy quote by novelist and screenwriter Thomas McGuane. After noting that in the novels of William Faulkner (“who frequently had his shit detector dialed down to zero”) “wonderful streaks” often alternate with “muddy bogs” that need to be slogged through, he continues:

Everyone agrees that Faulkner produced the greatest streaks in American literature from 1929 to 1935 but, depending on how you feel about this, you either admit that there’s a lot of dead air in his works or you don’t. After you’ve written screenplays for a while, you’re not as willing to leave these warm-ups in there, those pencil sharpenings and refillings of the whiskey glasses and those sorts of trivialities. You’re more conscious of dead time. Playwrights are even tougher on themselves in this regard. Twenty mediocre pages hardly hurt even a short novel but ten dead minutes will insure that a play won’t get out of New Haven.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

Me (right) in rehearsal, spring 1994, Vineyard Playhouse.

From the mid-1980s till the end of the 1990s, I was very involved in community theater, mostly as a stage manager, actor, or reviewer. (No, I did not review plays I was involved in. However, I often reviewed plays directed or acted in by people I knew. This taught me tact. Whole other subject. I’ve written about reviewing before — see “Reviewing Isn’t Easy” — and surely will again.) No surprise, then, that when I’m writing fiction, I often feel like I’m blocking scenes or directing them and that my characters are doing improv up on stage.

Both of the first-novel manuscripts I critiqued recently hold plenty of promise, but both are currently weighed down with loaded with dead air. In both cases, much of the dead air is dialogue. To both authors I suggested: “Imagine you’re watching these scenes on a stage. Read them out loud. How long before you start to doze off, fidget, or throw tomatoes?”

A novel might survive “twenty mediocre pages,” as McGuane suggests, but five pages of dead air might well be fatal, especially if they come near the beginning, and especially if you’re a first-novelist trying to get past one of the gatekeepers: agent, publisher, reviewer, or even readers willing to give unknown writers a chance.

Put your talking, puttering-about characters up on stage or on a movie screen. How long would you sit still?

* * * * *

*The Writer’s Chapbook: A Compendium of Fact, Opinion, Wit, and Advice from the 20th Century’s Preeminent Writers, ed. George Plimpton (New York: Penguin, 1989). I’ve got the revised, expanded version of the first edition. A completely overhauled edition was published in 1999, including some of the original excerpts but also more quotes from more recent and more diverse writers. Both editions are out of print but used copies can be found. That’s how I got mine. Highly recommended.

Sturgis’s Law #8

Some while back I started an occasional series devoted to Sturgis’s Laws. “Sturgis” is me. The “Laws” aren’t Rules That Must Be Obeyed. Gods forbid, we writers and editors have enough of those circling in our heads and ready to pounce at any moment. These laws are more like hypotheses based on my observations over the years. They’re mostly about writing and editing. None of them can be proven, but they do come in handy from time to time. As I blog about them, I add them to Sturgis’s Laws on the drop-down from the menu bar.

A funny thing happened when I set out to blog about Sturgis’s Law #8. I kept putting it off. It’s been months since I blogged about #7. A couple of days ago I sat myself down and said, “You can do this. Do it.”

But I couldn’t.

Out walking yesterday morning, turning Law #8 over and over in my mind, I realized that I didn’t like the way it was worded: “People tend to define problems in a way that makes them part of the solution.” It overlapped too much with Sturgis’s Law #18, “Everyone’s the hero of their own story.” (Don’t worry, I promise we’ll get there before the end of the millennium.) What Sturgis’s Law #8 should say is this:

People tend to define problems in a way that lets themselves off the hook.

It’s OK for me to do that, right? I’m Sturgis, after all, and these laws really are hypotheses based on my observations. Which is to say they’re subject to revision. (I really do have revision on the brain these days . . .)

This is what I was getting at. Think of how tempting it is for white women to assume that sexism is a bigger problem than racism, and for black men to think the opposite. Women of color get stuck with putting us all back on the hook, where we belong.

Wade into almost any discussion about the problems confronting the town, the nation, the world, and you’ll hear plenty of people insisting that the problems could be solved if only they would shape up. The they  changes according to the issue, the time, and the place, but the gist is usually that if it weren’t for them life would be hunky-dory.

brochure cover cropWhat does this have to do with writing and editing? I’m so glad you asked. As an editor, I sometimes hear editors complaining about writers who snark about their edits. As a writer, I sometimes hear writers complaining about the editors who butchered their manuscript and messed with their voice. Just about all of us have had occasion to bitch about agents, editors, and publishers who were too obtuse, lazy, illiterate, racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-genre, anti-literary, and/or obsessed with the bottom line to give our work a fair shake.

And sometimes we’re at least 90 percent right. But even then it’s worth considering the possibility that maybe as editors we were a little heavy-handed, or as writers we might be a little too touchy, or that our work isn’t as ready for prime time as we thought.

The paradoxical thing about this approach is that it’s empowering. It means we can do better and get better results. If the problem is all someone else’s fault, there’s not much we can do about it except bitch.

A Rule Worth Giving Up On | Arrant Pedantry

Jonathon Owen doesn’t post all that often, but his blog, Arrant Pedantry, is always worth reading. He brings clarity and good sense to style, usage, and grammar questions that hang a lot of editors and writers up. Here he takes on that hoary bugaboo “Never end a sentence with a preposition.” Click on the link to read the whole thing.

— sjs

A Rule Worth Giving Up On

A few weeks ago, the official Twitter account for the forthcoming movie Deadpool tweeted, “A love for which is worth killing.” Name developer Nancy Friedman commented, “There are …

Source: A Rule Worth Giving Up On | Arrant Pedantry

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.