The following short-short story was written October 10, 1995, in a journal I kept beside the bed in order to record thoughts and ideas, even dreams. I still keep a journal by the bed.
This little tale came just as I was falling asleep, and I haven’t done anything to it since, except for transcribing it to the computer. It came to mind this Thanksgiving as I considered all the things for which I’m grateful, and how sometimes blessings come in disguise.
One day, the young boy’s tutor tried one last time to show him the unimportance of physical beauty. The boy, handsome and groomed and well-deported, was nonetheless reluctant to follow his tutor’s request to enter the small, out-of-the-way room.
“Very well, then,” said the tutor, calmly closing the door and dropping the heavy key into his pocket. “We shall leave these treasures for another time, and immerse ourselves in a sea of mathematics.”
The handsome boy shook his curls and thrust out his chin. “No! Show me this room!”
The tutor’s brows arched. “Oh! I’m so sorry, Master. I thought you were not interested in this room.”
“I’d rather see this room than study more numbers!”
“Then mathematics, it is.” The tutor tucked a large volume securely under his arm and proceeded toward the library at a quick and deliberate pace. Reluctantly, the boy followed, scowling and far slower than his teacher.
Later, while laboring through a particularly intricate piece of poetry, he looked up suddenly and demanded, “What is in the room?”
The tutor shrugged and twirled his pen. “Oh, nothing much. Then, again,” he leaned across the desk, “it could be something very much indeed.”
He held up a mirror that lay beside a lamp. “Look into this.”
The boy did so, and smiled. It was a pleasing sight, he thought, adjusting his collar and smoothing back his curls.
“Is it you?” asked the tutor.
“Of course, it is!” replied the boy, astonished yet sneering. “What would you expect?”
The tutor smiled. “Oh, no! This is merely an image, a reflection of the real person.” He brought the key from his pocket. “Are you ready for the room?”
The boy kept himself in check by squeezing his hands together behind his back. The tutor seemed to take an eternity just to unlock the door. It finally opened quietly, falling back to reveal shelves full of old money caskets. Some were plain, some were carved; some were of wood, and some of gold or silver. All were covered with dust.
“Now,” said the tutor triumphantly, “choose the casket with the treasure.”
The boy’s eyes brightened, and he walked toward the shelves slowly, almost reverently. He reached out to open a beautifully embossed casket.
“No, young sir, do not touch. You must go by appearance alone.”
The boy moved down the row. Suddenly, from the corner of his eye, he saw the glitter of a jewel-encrusted lid. Eagerly, he reached for the casket, blew off the dust, and turned to his tutor.
“This is the one!” he crowed.
The tutor just smiled. “Open it.”
The boy threw back the lid, then exclaimed in disgust, “Why, there’s nothing here!”
“Of course not, dear boy,” said the tutor, unruffled. “Try again.”
This time, the boy chose a gold box. Nothing. He picked a silver casket. Nothing. Soon, all the most beautiful caskets were piled on the floor, open and empty. The boy turned to his tutor, eyes flashing.
“What kind of silly game are you playing?” he asked, his face flushed and teeth clenched. “There is no treasure here.”
“Oh, but you haven’t looked yet!”
“What?!” The boy gestured at the pile. “What is all this, then?”
The tutor smiled. “Do you recall a Scripture passage about a treasure hidden in earthen vessels? You would never expect water to come from a wine bottle, nor wine from a common pitcher, would you? I thought you liked a good battle of wits, lad. Try again.”
The boy looked around the shelves one more time. In a spirit of vengefulness, he grabbed the plainest, most scarred casket and flung it open. Inside were lumps of hard black wax.
“Here’s your treasure!” he mocked, thrusting the box at his teacher.
“Why, so it is!”
“You can’t be serious!”
“But I am!” The tutor reached for one of the black wax objects and broke off a piece. Suddenly, an emerald and a patch of gold glittered through.
“What does all this mean?” asked the bewildered boy, gesturing at the caskets surrounding his feet, and indicating the beautiful ring that now lay in the tutor’s palm.
“All that’s gold does not glitter,” the tutor broke open another wax ball to reveal a pearl and diamond brooch, “just as beauty does not indicate goodness.”
He looked the boy straight in the eyes. “So, tell me, did you see yourself, or merely an image, in the mirror?”
[The above story was written just now, for the first time, so it is quite rough. However, I had to write it down before it was forgotten.]
The writing is a bit pretentious and awkward — hey, it was scribbled down in a rush! — but I may clean it up someday, maybe compile an anthology of my short writing (essays, poems, stories). It’d be nice, too, if my photography skills had advanced enough that I could enhance the text with photos. Someday. Right now, I’m working on a novel-length manuscript, and then there’ll be another two novels (at least): one incomplete, one not yet begun. I’m not sure which is more difficult: a sprawling novel that allows me room to explore the characters and the setting, or a short story that forces me to keep the narrative pointed and contained. But that’s fodder for another blog post.
Today’s post is a mix of my thoughts on “point of view”, as well as a re-post of an entry from July 2008, revised slightly by its author, a writer and editor whose greatest peeve is laziness in the writing process. He lays out the basics of POV in a way that almost anyone can understand.
When I was younger, I used to write in the vein of the books I grew up reading, many of them being older works with third-person omniscient points of view. I didn’t know the technical term, nor did I even consider such a concept as POV, but once a junior high English teacher pointed it out to me, I realized that the right point of view can make a story come alive.
At first, however, I resisted. After all, third-person limited was so, well, limited. In the years since, however, it has become my default POV when composing a story. However, I have wandered into first-person on occasion, and have even played with tenses. Most books are written using past tense, but I’ve come to appreciate and enjoy the immediacy of present tense.
Now, without further ado, I present a soap box and a lecture.
Remember that cliche about opinions: Everyone has one?
Here’s another old saying: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
After reading the opening pages of a novel that I freelance edited—twice—I’m wondering where my advice went. Down some literary drain, I guess.
POV (point of view) is one of the simplest things to get right, yet one of the most difficult concepts to communicate.
Definition: The story or scene is told from the point of view of one character in the scene—and ONLY from that person’s perspective—or it is told from the point of view of an omniscient narrator (an objective imaginary individual who sees all and knows all, and communicates that to the reader).
Third-person limited POV: All that fancy term third-person limited means is this: The reader is not jerked from character to character in a mind-hopping exercise, jumping first into one character’s perspective and then into another character’s thoughts, but is led through the scene (or the entire story) by one character, knowing, sensing, and experiencing only what that character does, and only as that character encounters it.
There is no telegraphing—”If only Johnny knew that his greatest enemy lurked in the shadows”—and there is no “Meanwhile, back at the ranch.” The reader knows only what his guide (the character) knows.
I do not have eyes in the back of my head. Therefore, I cannot describe to you any actions occurring behind me, unless I can see them reflected in a mirror, a window, etcetera, or hear the noises or smell the odors associated with those actions.
Makes sense, right?
Then why do writers insist on sloppy craft, and have a character describe the expression on his own face? He can tell you that he’s frowning, but unless he can see himself in a reflective surface, he cannot describe his own facial contortions.
He can’t tell you what he looks like from the back or the side–or, to tell the truth, from the front. He lives in his own skin; he needs an outside source, a mirror or another person, to help him visualize that skin from more angles than he can see with a tilt of his head.
Anyway, I’m reading this published novel, and there are POV switches all over the place in a single scene. After several pages of being in the hero’s perspective, we leap from his POV to his friends’, back to his, and then into the sight of his enemy, way up in an apartment window, an enemy the hero doesn’t even know is around, let alone watching.
Yes, I have a soapbox about POV. I’m a writer and an anal-retentive editor. POV switching is the mark of a lazy writer or an immature writer. Even the so-called greats wander into POV hell on occasion.
It didn’t use to be a problem for me as a reader; nowdays, though, if the writer hasn’t done the hard work and fixed the POV problem, I won’t finish the book. Yep, it’s that big a deal.
Written for a contest several years ago, this story was also partly the result of a dare among fellow writers: who could write the best romance? According the strangers and friends alike, my name sounds like that of a romance writer.
Unfortunately, I write more in the fantasy / adventure vein, and romance among characters is difficult for me to write well. This time, however, was one of those rare instances when the story wrote itself.
Enjoy! And if you don’t, well, an honest critique is always welcome. It’s how I learn and improve.
By Honor Bound
She does not kneel. She does not bow her head. She does not utter frightened allegiance. She does not beg. She could be one of the Northwomen, strong, proud.
Bearskin cloak broadening his shoulders, the chieftain strides forward.
She does not flinch.
He strikes her with the back of his hand.
Her head snaps sideways. She almost stumbles but she stands, chin up, eyes defiant. Touching the red trickle running from her mouth, she licks the blood from her fingertip.
Watching from a short distance, Soren feels a surge of lust.
He smiles at his father’s frustration. The chieftain towers over her, his fists clasping and unclasping as if clutching for stolen power; in silence, she robs Asgard of control.
Long waves of honey-brown hair hang down her back and over her shoulders, falling past her hips. Despite the bruise blackening her cheek and jaw, her skin glows golden. She is accustomed to the sun. Through the tight-fitting sleeves of her silken kirtle, her arms show the sculpting of one to whom physical labor is not unknown. She is not the usual prize.
At her feet lays the pierced, bloody body of her betrothed, a fine-clad stripling with more heart than skill. Soren feels little pity for him. Better to die in glory, sword in hand, than to die slowly in the shadow of a woman stronger than he.
The chieftain growls an order, and men bind her hands behind her. “Put her on a horse!”
“On whose horse, Asgard?” one warrior asks. “We lost no men this day.”
A wicked eyebrow cocked, the chieftain grins. “Choose.”
Fighting, immediate and brutal, breaks out around her. She will belong to the man with whom she rides, as his slave or his wife.
“Soren? Have you no desire for her?” Asgard asks. “A woman in need of breaking?”
Soren considers her calm face and uncowed posture. “Not broken. Won.”
Asgard grunts. “Then win her. And bring the blood.”
Soren dismounts his sturdy north-bred horse and strides through the fray. Fools! To fight but leave the prize unguarded.
He hoists her over his shoulder like a sack of grain, and takes her to the only building still standing in the ruined village—a hut clinging to the hillside like a goat clinging to a mountain.
The fighting fades. A hush follows. He knows the men watch.
Kicking shut the door, he stands her on her feet, cuts her bonds then crosses his arms, studying her in the dim light sifting through cracks in the hovel walls.
Hands at her sides, she again defies the expected, not rubbing her wrists where the rope chafed them, and breathes in quiet evenness beneath the fitted silk of the kirtle. Gray-green eyes, the color of the sea under a stormy sky, gaze at him with unnerving steadiness. A plain leather belt girds her hips, the tongue of it falling between her thighs, a suggestive circumstance that stirs him once more.
Won. Not forced.
“I am Soren.” He is irritated at the unsettled feeling in his stomach. “Asgard, my father, gives you to me.”
“My betrothed is dead”—her voice as detached from emotion as the sun from the earth— “I belong to no one, nor do I give myself to any man.”
“Pride will not save you.” Soren uncrosses his arms and steps forward. Her posture makes her appear taller than she is; the top of her head does not even meet his chin.
He fumbles to find his argument. “Those men will take what you will not give, and your pride will diminish with each taking until the woman you are now will not know the woman you will become.”
Her smile, small though it is, curves full lips into rosy sarcasm. “The barbarian speaks with gilded tongue. If more of your kind wielded such skill with words, your wives would come more willingly to bed.”
He speaks more mockery than truth. “We take them fierce, and breed strong sons.”
“Who yields the strength?” Sea eyes glitter with battle. “The forceful fathers, or the long-suffering mothers? The wind howls against the mountain, but gentle rain carves the stones.”
He reaches for her. She spits in his face.
Dragging a finger through the warm spittle running into his beard, he places it into his mouth with deliberate mockery.
Her lip curls.
“Highness,” he wipes his face with a battle-stained sleeve, “there is only one way out of this hut. Only one way my honor remains unchallenged. Only one way your pride remains untouched.”
Fear crosses her face for the first time since the body of her beloved was tossed at her feet. As if to calm her fluttering heart, she raises a hand to the low neck of her kirtle—and draws a knife.
He flings up his forearm, hears the blade drag across the leather vambrace then twists the knife from her grasp. Hand to her throat, he pushes her back against the center post of the hut.
Her nostrils flare, her eyes narrow. Her pulse is warm beneath his palm.
“Clever, highness, but now what will you use? Teeth? Claws? Kicks? Those have never prevented me before.”
The shadow of sorrow behind the contempt in her eyes, and the slenderness of her throat beneath his broad hand, checks his anger. He nods toward a stool in the center of the floor and releases her.
Back as straight as a ship’s mast, she sits, smoothing the kirtle over her knees, turning the tongue of the girdle so that it drapes at her side.
Tapping the knife against his leg, he leans against the crude stone chimney. “The coastal kings are known for their prim ways. Oh, they have their secret lovers, but they have their public queens. And great price is placed on the purity of those queens.”
He pauses, searching her face for understanding. There is only hatred.
“You are pure, else no marriage contract would have been sealed between your father and that of your beloved.”
“Beck is not—was not—my beloved.” Her hands clench on her lap. “He was more brother than lover. He was kind. Brave.” Grief does not overcome her. Lifting her chin, she looks up at him, devoid of tears. “No matter what you do to me, Beck will be avenged.”
The man who wins her will never truly be the conqueror. Yet desire flames in him. He must have her.
“My father requires proof your defenses are breached, highness. Either you give yourself willingly, and I present the blood to Asgard, or I take you by force, and still present the blood to Asgard.”
She seems not to hear, her eyes thoughtful where once they were angry. “How is it you speak so well? You could almost be a noble in my father’s court.”
“Osric and his court are dead.”
“I am aware of my loss.”
How can she sit there, so calm and controlled, while everyone she knew or loved lays dead in the ruined streets?
A wild horse, anger gallops through him. He reins it in, slowing and deepening each breath. Whether angry at her stillness or at what was stolen from her, he refuses to surmise. Such thoughts are not for warriors.
“My mother was, like you, the daughter of a coastal king. It is her speech you recognize.“
“Did your father love your mother?”
“He named her wife.” The tendons in his neck tighten. “You seek to turn the point, highness, but—“
“Why did he give you me?”
“Perhaps you remind him of her.”
“Then why not take me himself?”
“He has women enough.”
“Will you strike me as he did?”
Soren shoves the knife into his belt and yanks her up from the stool. “You are mine.” He bends until their faces are a breath apart. “If you shame me today, I will shame you every day hereafter.”
“Gone is the silver speech,” she murmurs. “Without it, bedding will be an empty thing. For us both.”
“If words are what you want, I’ve words aplenty.”
She tugs at his belt. His body responds, hot and urgent. He reaches for her other arm to draw her to him.
Steel taps his chin. She holds the knife to his throat.
Slowly, he releases her and steps backward.
“I care not for your honor or your shame.” She retreats, placing only a wall of air between them, for he stands before the door.
Fury wars with lust. He says through clenched teeth, “You will regret those words, highness, after my father’s men have had you. Many times.” He forces a smile. “Drop the blade. Take pleasure in the inevitable.”
“It is you who will regret.” Her knife does not waver. “If I do this thing, none of the coastal kings will ransom me.”
“No ransom will be asked.”
The knife tips in her slackening fingers.
“Even if Asgard sought treasure through ransom,” he draws his war-sword from its battered leather sheath, “what is your knife to this?”
He burns, wanting her to come willingly to him, but his persuasions are at an end.
“You are a harsh suitor, Soren Asgardson.” She turns the blade toward her breast.
A chill stabs him. No warrior contemplates self-murder, for the soul is then doomed to wander forever, a dark haunt without hope of peace.
He leaps forward, sword thudding to the floor as he reaches both hands for the knife. Its tip scrapes her skin before he wrests it from her. He flings it to the floor. It lands with a clatter, crosswise to the sword.
She stares at him in unspoken combat. Soren gives way first, unable to batter against the despair in the sea-colored eyes.
“This takes too much time.” His words are sharp. “My father’s men expect to hear your cries by now. Or see me return with you across my shoulder, tamed into submission. They already question my honor.”
“If I do what you ask, do you swear to be kind to me from this day onward?”
He stares at her. Kind?
“Will you protect me from all others, and treat me as you might one of your own women? With the dignity accorded their strength?”
He sees again the black bruise left by Asgard’s hand, feels emotion he cannot name.
“Will you call me by name?”
“You swear to all of it?”
Voice hoarse, he replies, “Yes, high—“
Her name on his lips both disturbs and pleases him. Some captives fight, some go limp. The latter he does not want, and the former are often too much trouble. But this one grants him a gift that is already his by right, and gives it so humbly he is undone.
His body clamors for satisfaction; his self craves her esteem. To have the admiration of a strong woman only adds to the honor of a man, for her strength girds his.
Kneeling, he grabs the knife and draws the blade across his upper arm, where his sleeve hides the wound, and lets blood drip onto a dirty blanket crumpled on the broken-down bed.
“This will be Asgard’s proof.” He keeps his gaze on the blanket.
Rowena kneels, taking the knife from him, the touch of her fingers sending lightning bolts along his skin. Slicing off a piece of her kirtle, she binds the cut and pulls down his sleeve to cover the bandage. Only then does he look at her.
Her eyes watching his, she slides the knife back into her bodice.
He can scarce draw breath.
Leaning forward, enveloping him in her honey-colored hair, she takes his face in her hands and kisses him.
The kiss soft, her lips softer, when she withdraws, he is lost.
After a long gaze-locked moment, she takes the bloodstained blanket. “Honor what you swore, Soren Asgardson”—she hands him the war-sword as if she is already a wife preparing her husband for battle—“and your bed will never be cold.”
I wrote this essay a few years ago for a contest. The entry didn’t win, but it still expresses my thoughts:
I believe many things, but what I am seeing clearer each year is this: life is too short to be blunted by the notion that what is difficult should not be done; that only what is easy should be attempted; that even noble ends, if they cannot be achieved instantly or with minimal discomfort, must be set aside and replaced by what requires little sweat, little patience, little sacrifice of any kind.
I am a writer. My publishing accomplishments are few: essays, articles, short stories, poems. However, I want to be a novelist, and to that end I put one word at a time on paper until I have a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter, a manuscript. Some of my fellow writers tell me I am creating stories no one wants to read. I am doing what cannot be done.
But how does anyone know what the end will be? I am still climbing the mountain, and have not yet seen the view from the top. If others cannot see the mountain, is the mountain no longer there? Because others are weary, must I be content to sit beside them? If they seek another way, must I go with them? Must I convince myself—as some have—that half a journey is the entire trip?
Life so rarely happens as we would wish it. My teachers and friends were convinced that I would publish my first novel by age sixteen. That might have made me a novelty—no pun intended—but it might also have made a shallow book.
Now more than twice sixteen, I still have moments of doubt, of youthful uncertainty that anything I write is worth reading. Greater than my insecurity, however, is the knowledge that what makes me a writer is not measured by how I compare to others or how much money I make or how many people know my name, but by the fiery words that blister my brain and boil my dreams until the only way to cool my burning fingertips is to write. I am a writer because not writing is not an option.
Artists draw simulations of life. Photographers capture time. Sculptors push clay into action. Writers create movies for the mind.
The characters that people my thoughts are alive and very real, but they will remain in my imagination—unseen, unheard, unread—until I do the hard work and mold imagination into words on a page.
So the journey will pass—one word at a time, one page at a time—until the day I stand on top of the mountain and see that it is made of paper: reams and reams of it covered with words; wads of it tossed in to wastebaskets; some of it retrieved and smoothed out again and found to be not so bad after all.
This I believe: my greatest challenge is my greatest joy, and I would not have it otherwise.
Deep in the maelstrom of NaNoWriMo, there pulses a light — many lights — the arcing neurons of my brain as they create utter nonsense that will, perhaps, be crafted into something sensical after November ends.
I’m already one day behind in the daily word count, but that dragon shall be slain as soon as I can figure out how to shoot this ray gun.
Oops! Mixing genres. Ah, well. That’s the hazard and the joy of NaNo.
For those readers who enjoy science fiction, specifically the sub-genre “space opera”, there’s a serial being posted every Saturday over at Adventures in Fiction blog. Keanan Brand’s series was being published in Ray Gun Revival; however, the magazine is on hiatus, so he went back to the beginning, and is posting the original episodes while writing new material to finish the series.
If someone was a reader of the series over at RGR, and now wonders at the unexpected titles or short lengths of the episodes, that’s because he’s breaking down the originals into smaller, more blog-friendly pieces.
Obtain a current list of episodes by clicking here. Reading is free, so go over and enjoy!
As I see it, an editor’s job is not only to encourage writers, but to challenge them, to draw from them better and better work. It it isn’t to be so “nice” that they don’t feel the sting of failure, or that they never confront reality: “You’re good, kid, but you’re not there yet. Do it over.”
The cost of “too nice” is lazy, naive, or ill-equipped writers, as well as disappointed, annoyed readers whose online and word-of-mouth reviews will cost book sales. More importantly, readers will have little or no respect for authors who produce below-the-bar work.
And what of the publisher’s reputation? Or the editor’s?
Agree or disagree? Have a rant of your own? Post it here, or over at Keanan’s blog, and let the conversation commence!
Happens all the time: I expect one thing but get another.
I like simple things. Direct things. Pretty’s all right, too, but that’s subjective and can be a trap.
The fireplace pictured here is, in reality, simple: a mass of bricks laid out in a plain pattern intended for functionality rather than form. But even functionality is questionable, because the heat from the fire doesn’t translate into the room. The friendly flames lead me to expect warmth, but, in the end, deliver only cheery light.
After the fireplace was built, ornate overlays were added, drawing the eye away from the original stolid, mundane appearance. It’s trying to be more than it is.
An aside: The circular decoration conjures the image of a pipe-smoking hobbit with his feet propped near the fire.
Ever read a book that’s trying to be more than it is? As if the author thinks he can distract us with the pretty-pretty lights so we’ll be too dazzled to realize how shallow it is?
I’ve watched movies like that — many in the superhero vein, but many based on bestselling or classic literature, as well — and left the theater with a sense of disappointment that I might not even be able to articulate in that moment. Hope had been deflated by something I could not quite name until later, when the dazzle had dimmed and reality could shine a sharper light.
Under a pseudonym, I write sprawling fantasy with deep history and mysterious characters. One thing that’s helped me create the world is to simplify the language in which it’s presented. The original version is heavy with complicated sentences and old-time wording. Now, drafts and drafts later, and with the second book almost complete, some of that remains, but more as flavor than as the whole meal. Readers of the early drafts had difficulty wading through all the verbiage to get to the story. They expected a compelling tale but encountered a murky mess.
I was so enamored of the trappings that I forgot to tell a story readers could understand. I forgot to make it simple.
There are books known for their parts: evocative settings, witty dialogue, realistic characters, exquisite detail, elegant turns of phrase. Some are known for their provocative subject matter, grand themes, epic scenes.
Done well, such books can envelope readers in a rich world of imagination, one which those readers are reluctant to leave.
But is there a quiet, simple book that speaks more than its gaudier neighbors on the shelf? Why?
What do we do when our work is denigrated in some way?
Do we believe enough in our own skill, in our own stories, to keep writing despite our detractors?
Recently, someone asked an editor I know to review his book which is slated for publication by the end of this year. Here’s their e-mail exchange, edited for brevity and to keep the conversation on-point:
Editor: “Gotta be honest: I’m having a hard time coming up with diplomatic feedback at this point, so I’m just going to be straight-up. As much as I was intrigued by the premise of the book, I don’t believe the novel itself is living up to its potential…Sorry to be so negative. I really want to like this book, but I can’t finish it. The reader side of me is disappointed, but the editor side is in agony.”
Author: “I apreciate your honesty. That is what I wanted…You are the first to give a completely negative or even mostly negative review. I asked for brutal honesty and that is what I am getting…I believe what you have said, yet it does not surprise me that Im still getting positive reviews. There are plenty of best selling authors who speaking from a literary point of view should not have passed 10th grade English. If my novel sells well I will likely fall into that category…
“The script writer for the TV show Grimm is one of the 12 reviewing the novel…I sent the novel off to alot of people before the publisher ever saw it including the guy who wrote all of the dialogue for the games: Middle Earth1, Middle Earth 2, and Shadows of Mordor. He loved it and so did the other people. I would not have let it get this far if I had been told anything like this by any of the dozens of people who have already read it. I am sorry that you did not enjoy it.”
Editor: “I have no illusions about you being happy with my response…and I understand that it’s late in the process for any revisions to be made. I’m glad that you’ve received so many positive reviews. That’s always encouraging…
“Like you, I have no formal training. All mine is the result of simply being a writer for over thirty years. Despite other reviewers’ doctorates, television experience, video game expertise, etcetera, I have nearly two decades as an editor in this field, and can only speak as I find.
“I wish you well in your endeavors.”
What would you do if you were the author in this situation? Would you harbor resentment to the editor? Blow him off and listen only to the positive reviews? Or would you halt the presses and look once more at the manuscript?
Until last year, I belonged for several years to a small, productive writers group. We met more regularly than some of us wrote, but we were all pretty prolific, considering life intrusions and such.
A fellow writer almost physically flinched whenever it was my turn for the group to read/critique my pages. While praising me afterward, or outside of the critique session, this person squirmed in her chair, sighed loudly, and repeatedly declared, “But I don’t understand.”
It’s as if a mental roadblock was instantly constructed, and nothing I wrote would ever be clear enough for this particular reader.
Of course, in the interest of clarity and of doing my job as a storyteller, I would go back and check my sentence structure, setting, character details, dialogue, etcetera.
Turns out, it wasn’t the writing, but the genre, to which she objected.
Nothing fantasy or science fiction-y would ever penetrate her roadblock. This person was not interested and therefore refused to open the mind wide enough to allow for a story set anywhere but in the solid present. No other worlds. Just this one.
I could not trust that writer with my work. It would not receive proper criticism.
A friend has very nicely told me on a few occasions that many of my ideas have already been done. That’s almost more deflating than all the “I don’t understand” writer’s wincing and fidgeting! After all, when one’s imagination seems no more creative or original than coming up with stuff that’s already been done, what is left to the writer but the underlying, unspoken understanding that perhaps it’s best if he just stops writing, especially if he can’t contribute something new.
Another writer once told me this:
“I read somewhere that there only like 32 stories in the world and that all stories are simply the individual author’s spin on those 32 stories…I also read that Shakespeare never wrote an original story, that all his plays were based on pre-existing tales.
Truth is, it’s all been done. But the way you do it will be different than anyone else. And better than most.”
What would you do? Would you keep writing?
Would you loudly defend your work? Or would you quietly close your notebook and put away your pen, and look around for some other outlet for your creativity?
My newest endeavors have yet to be seen by eyes other than mine; I learned long ago that a story shown too soon may succumb to exposure and die before being truly born. I may talk about it a little, but it will not be trotted out before the world until the story is able to stand on its own feet and face the critics with me.
Early in 2011, while in my old truck and heading home from work, I was listening to David Jeremiah on the radio. He was conducting a study series on the Song of Solomon, and listed four things husbands need from wives:
4) a confidante
I’m not married now, nor have I ever been, but knowing what I do of men (my dad, brother, colleagues, friends), that struck me as a logical list, not just for understanding relationships but also for writing believable characters.
Can’t tell you how many times I’ve read “male” characters who behaved and spoke almost identically as their female counterparts. Almost all those men were written by women.
Note to my gender mates who also happen to write fiction: Men ain’t the same as women.
They don’t think the same, emote the same, behave the same, communicate the same. They may have the same
emotions, desires, and ideas, but may express them differently, or may take different paths to arrive at similar conclusions.
When in doubt, ask male friends or family members to read your work and allow them to give honest feedback. (My brother is one of my beta readers, and he tells the unvarnished truth.)
By considering your characters’ differences, you’ll make them more believable. You’ll know their goals or their logic, which will in turn lead to interesting tension, conflict, unexpected story events. Characters will start surprising you. As a result, your writing will improve, and your readers will thank you.
Go to any writers conference or seminar, and you’ll likely hear someone rhapsodize or rant about the relationship between an author and his editor: it’s a team, a marriage, a buddy film; it’s tug-of-war, dysfunctional, hell.
Once upon a time, I was part of the head-in-the-clouds, creative masses who float along on a fog of self-important naivete, thinking their words are sacred and immutable. Editing would somehow besmirch the purity of imagination and kill the muse.
So what if a writer had difficulty spelling, remembering the rules of grammar, or constructing cohesive paragraphs? As long as he could tell a compelling story, what was the problem? A good editor could fix all the small stuff.
But then, after resisting advice — those other writers just didn’t “get” me or my work, or those editors were trying to make over my manuscripts into soulless wastes of paper — I lost a series of contests, experienced unexpected rejections.
And then, as a reader, I was assaulted with a succession of poorly-proofed or poorly-edited novels — the literary version of a 2×4 upside the head — and I realized the value of craft over “pure creativity”.
In other words, I entered the real world.
Many books with stellar jacket copy don’t deliver the goods. I’ve been sucked into the vortex too many times to buy a volume without first reading several pages. After many years as an editor, any residual trust is gone. Used to be, if a book was published, the reader could expect that the text be error-free, at least, even if the plot was full of holes. Now, with the many desktop publishing programs available, and myriad electronic and self-published books flooding the market, the amount of error-filled and poorly-written material has greatly increased. (To find well-reviewed, recently self-published books, read this list.)
I am saying that, in addition to telling great stories, writers need to study their craft and polish their editing skills. And, if editing is not a strength, hire an independent editor. Please. Hire an editor.
Or, if your manuscript is under contract with a publisher, don’t fight the editor assigned to you. Yes, there are times when a writer must defend his work against those who would mangle and deform it, but those instances are rare. Most editors want your work to succeed. Consider what they say. Look at your work objectively. Realize that the manuscript is malleable. It can be changed, often for the better.
Realize, too, that significant re-writing is in store. An editor may request additional scenes, additional research, stronger passages. However, the effort and polish conducted on the front end of the publishing process will not only yield better sales but a better reputation for you, the author.
Note from an avid reader (my mother) who would like writers to know the following:
I’m amazed by the number of college graduates and twenty-somethings that still don’t understand common language. Someone recently asked me what agony meant, and someone else didn’t recognize iniquity. As writers, know your verbiage and know your audience.
Don’t dumb it down to where we’ll say, “Duh! Of course! Anyone with common sense would know that!” or use such specific jargon that only those in high academia would know what you’re talking about. Just use everyday language, if that’s what the material warrants.
There is one author I will never read because she demeans her characters and thereby demeans her audience. Respect your characters. Another author I won’t read inserts page after page of inconsequential garbage — characters’ soliloquies — that does not move the story along. I would not read them, nor recommend them to others.
Word of mouth is still the best marketing tool there is. Respect your readers by producing quality work, and you’ll never lack an audience.