Much about writing is uncomfortable, the biggest being, “Am I good enough?” But in that quest to figuring out whether your writing sings from the heavens or scrapes along the sidewalk depends on asking questions. Lots of them.
In the many writing boards I frequent and conferences I attend, I’ve begun to notice an interesting pattern regarding the questions. Well, not the questions, but the reactions to the answers. A writing, editing, or publishing question will be asked and the opinions start flying in like space monkeys. Now, to my way of thinking – and not just because I’m an editor – is that the smart money is on the answers coming from those who have the most experience in the industry.
But it’s really quite amusing to see how many authors – usually the noobs – collect all the advice and thank only the person whose opinions most closely match their own, whether it’s good advice or not. “Oh thank you, Betty Lou, for telling me that I don’t need to learn how to use commas.” or “Thanks so much, Frankie, for verifying that I don’t need to worry about what genre my book is.”
Ouch. Very ouch. Sure, I can sit on my delicate throne, where the beagle fans me with fresh palm fronds, and chortle at their blunder. But I don’t. Instead I feel a sense of frustration because we’re all about helping. Educating. And just like a visionary, I can see this author writing off into the sunset with his saddle unhitched and a hole in his water bags.
I know, I know, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink. I got that. But when one sees as many struggling writers as I do, I begin to wonder about the ratio of those who follow advice of those who closely resemble their own, and thus shoot their own foot.
My feeling is don’t ask the question unless you’re prepared for an honest answer that may make you uncomfortable.
How do you feel about adverbs?
- Editor: Just like Twinkies, they’re better in small quantities.
- Friend: Rules? We don’t need no steenkin’ rules that stifle our writing! Adverbs are colorful and enhance. The more, the merrier.
Can I have a ton of ellipses/em, en dashes / semi-colons?
- Editor: Not if you have an aversion to a ton of rejection letters. Just because J.K. Rowling uses them to ad nauseum doesn’t mean you can. Or should. It can interrupt flow and pacing.
- Friend: It’s a part of writing and perfectly correct.
Do I have to worry about spelling and comma usage?
- Editor: Abso-freaking-lutely.
- Friend: Don’t let this concern you. That’s for the copy editors to work out. Your job is to just write.
These easy answers allow you to make all sorts of blunders that will more than likely yield a lot of heartache downstream. Your friends may be well-meaning and even published authors. But their reality may only work for them due to their particular editor, writing style, or genre. Since you prefer their answer, you end up fooling no one but yourself.
I know that it’s hard to hear that your five POV switches in one scene isn’t acceptable because this will force you to do some major rewrites. Same goes for those with an unnatural affection for ellipses, en/em dashes, exclamation points. What you thought was great, isn’t. What you hoped would work, didn’t. And this forces you to either make a change to your writing, or collect lots of rejection letters.
The purpose of asking a question isn’t to find someone who will agree with you, but to obtain knowledgeable answers from insiders who are in the best position to guide you along a successful path. And yah, that can be downright uncomfortable. But that’s what makes us better, right?