Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
We all know the tale of the emperor’s new clothes, how unscrupulous con men defraud the emperor and his subjects by pretending to be weavers who know how to weave cloth that’s not only beautiful but can be used to reveal how stupid or unfit for his or her position a person might be: the person unfit for his position is unable to see the material and the clothing made from it.
The faux weavers swindle the king and his courtiers by taking gold and materials and yet failing to make any new garments. They pretend to weave all night, but because no one wants to point out that they see nothing, everyone who supposedly sees the garments being woven lies and reports how beautiful they are.
Even the king pretends to see the garments. Consequently, he parades through the streets of the kingdom naked, afraid to admit that he’s unfit for his position.
In fact, until a child points out that the emperor isn’t wearing anything, all the people pretend that they see the emperor’s new clothes.
I want to use this tendency to avoid pointing out the obvious—for whatever reasons—as a message for writers.
If you’re a member of a writing or critique group or you’re a critique partner with a writer, don’t let anything, least of all embarrassment, keep you from telling another writer that a particular work isn’t ready to be published or submitted to agent or publisher. Don’t be afraid to point out flaws or plot problems or clunky constructions. Don’t be afraid to admit that you found yourself lost by—and not in—the writer’s words.
Don’t try to be so nice about not hurting a fellow writer’s feelings that you allow him or her to walk around like a naked emperor.
If you have connections with writers, tell them when there are problems with their stories. No, you don’t have to be cruel. And, no, you don’t have to point out a missed comma here or extra spacing between sentences there—not unless that’s what you’ve agreed to help with.
But do tell writers when their stories don’t go anywhere. Tell them when their characters are boring. Tell writers when dialogue doesn’t work, when scenes are less scene than summary, when the pace runs so slowly that the characters seem to be moving in reverse.
Share the same kind of information—if you’re in the position to do so—that you’d like shared with you.
Many new writers don’t know what they don’t know—why not help them out when you can?
My sister and I developed signals for those times when we got spinach or something gross stuck in our teeth but weren’t in a position to say that the spinach was there. We used simple gestures to point toward a tooth. When the problem was even more delicate—something caught in the nose—we’d tap one nostril or the other, with no one being the wiser.
Don’t you want to be told you have something in your teeth or your nose before you get your picture taken or before you’re introduced to someone important? I know I don’t want something hanging out that shouldn’t be. And I trust my sister to let me know about potential problems.
I trust editors or critique partners or members of a writing group to do the same for my writing projects.
Writers who publish before a novel is ready are on my mind this week because I spent some time checking out new novels at Amazon.
One of the Facebook groups I belong to allows authors to promote their books. After reading a few pages from about a dozen books chosen at random, I couldn’t help but feel discouraged at the state of self-published books and bummed out on behalf of most of the writers whose books I’d checked out.
Almost all of the first dozen or so books I checked out weren’t ready for an audience. And I’m not being picky because I’m an editor; I can overlook errors and typos and evaluate as a reader. It’s that the books, almost without exception, were bad (not a word I throw around carelessly). And I was reading the opening pages, which are often the ones given the most attention by the writer.
Six or seven of the books started the same way, with a first-person narrator telling all about him- or herself before introducing a flashback—no sense of the current setting or current events. The books were so similar in tone and style and wording that I wondered if I’d clicked on the same link multiple times.
A story opening that sounds like the opening of half a dozen other stories checked at random isn’t necessarily a problem of grand proportions. But when I find different writers writing in different genres starting their stories the same way in such a small sample of books, I wonder why the writers aren’t being more creative. A story’s first page is an invitation to what should be a unique adventure—why make it sound like every other book being released?
Several books featured the use of every verb except said as a dialogue tag in the early pages. I read the full excerpt for one book just searching for the dialogue tags. Almost every one was different.
While it’s true that some genres allow for a greater variety of dialogue tags than other genres encourage (we’ve looked at dialogue tags many times here at The Editor’s Blog), the variety and choices for those tags told me that the writer probably didn’t understand the purpose for dialogue tags.
In one book the author augmented each dialogue tag with an explanation of what the character was doing while he or she spoke—she said as she ran to the door, he said as he opened the mail, he asked as he rubbed his scar. The repetition—the repeated repetition of as he or as she—should have been quickly noticed and corrected.
A couple of stories used a dialogue tag with every line of dialogue. Every single one. He or she says can get old quite quickly.
A few of the stories repeated names in dialogue well beyond what would be necessary. One or two began with explanations about a character’s background, but with little to interest a reader new to the story world and characters. A few were too straightforward with dialogue, with questions asked and answered fully, with no artistry.
I wasn’t looking for problems when I started checking out the books. It’s just that out of a dozen or more self-published books, only one seemed to be clear of obvious and repeated mistakes or problems or weaknesses.
Couldn’t someone have pointed out these problem areas before the books were released to the public?
If you’re part of a writing group or are an accountability partner for another writer, don’t be shy about speaking up. Writers may be counting on you to point out glaring problems. If you don’t speak up, they might assume that their own worries are out of place. That is, they might have wanted to mention a problem but if you didn’t see the same problem, they might have thought they were mistaken. And no one wants to look foolish in front of others.
But better to ask questions of other writers than put out books with big honking errors and weaknesses. (I’m not talking about typos here.)
Now, you may be sticking your own neck out to offer a critique or suggestions, but I’m suggesting that you speak up if you’re in a position to do so, not as a stranger ragging on another writer just to annoy him. And I’m definitely not suggesting that you shame a writer by writing a nasty review to try to teach him something in a public venue. I am suggesting that you offer your observations before a book goes to print.
The situation is different if you don’t have a relationship of trust with other writers, if you’re a stranger simply trying to help out a fellow writer. But even such situations can be finessed.
And no, I’m not saying that you have to play edit policeman for every other writer. But you know when someone trusts you, when a writer could use your help. Learn how to share observations in a constructive way with those writers. Don’t let the emperors in your life walk around naked.
When You’re the Emperor
Part two of my message has to do with the writer doing his or her own homework regarding writing in general and the elements of fiction in particular.
You can’t rely only on others—you’ve got to learn what makes good writing good.
Learn how to write dialogue, how to develop characters, how to plot.
Learn how to hook readers with a story’s opening and with chapter endings.
Learn multiple ways of achieving effects and using the different fiction elements.
Don’t allow yourself to be the emperor fooled by others (I’m thinking particularly of reviewers here) who tell you the story looks great when there are holes all over the place.
Your friends and family may tell you your book is fantastic, but they may be telling you that to spare your feelings.
They may not know how to tell you what’s wrong and therefore feel they shouldn’t say anything. They simply may want to support you.
But that doesn’t mean you should trust their evaluations.
Some of those same books I checked out had thirty or forty or even fifty five-star reviews. For almost every one of those books, such a rating would be beyond exaggeration.
If you’re the emperor, the writer, make sure that you don’t necessarily believe all the praise that others heap upon your books, especially a first book. If you’ve never written any fiction before, never studied the craft, and never bothered to get any insight or help from editors or other writers and you whipped out a novel in a month and put it up for sale, it’s likely that those five-star reviews from friends and family are simply support ratings. They might make you feel good, but they don’t represent reality. You know this to be true when other reviewers point out the weaknesses in your books.
Sure, you may be a fiction savant, able to write a novel quickly and without flaw, without practice or training, but that’s unlikely.
However, if you’ve put in time to learn and practice the craft, those five-star ratings may be completely apropos. If that’s the case, I applaud you.
But if you’re a new writer and/or a writer who knows little about how to construct a piece of long fiction, be skeptical about exaggerated praise.
Don’t rush to publish. Study both the rules of writing and the fiction elements. Give yourself an education or take classes. At least read up on the craft.
Don’t let your books—and by extension, yourself—be caught naked or only partially dressed. Learn what makes good fiction so that you can identify it, and its absence, in your own work.
Find yourself a critique group or partner, other writers who will hold you accountable for your work. Let writers and mentors speak into your writing life. Allow yourself to be a student, to be in a position to learn. And when you’re ready, allow yourself to develop into a teacher or mentor for others.
This doesn’t mean that you won’t still need a critique partner. It just means that at some point, you won’t only be accepting help, you’ll be giving it.
If you know a beginning writer or one who needs help, suggest resources. Websites, books, and writing programs (local and online) are great resources for writers. Share links and info for those you found useful.
If you’re that beginning writer or you need help with specific writing areas, start looking for the knowledge you need. It is available. If you don’t know where to start, try writing or fiction classes for beginners at a local college. Try books on craft. Join an online critique group.
I’m sure many of you already encourage other writers; that’s one reason why I wonder how so many can fall through the cracks, how they can publish without knowing even the basics about fiction or even grammar.
Almost all writers share their knowledge or experiences with other writers—so why do some writers still not see that there’s more to writing a piece of long fiction than plopping words on a page? I’m writing this because it was disheartening to see the same kinds of mistakes made again and again. Disheartening too to see others ignore major story weaknesses as if they didn’t exist, telling the author that a book is worthy of five stars when it still needs major work.
I love that writers can self-publish; the industry is so different for writers trying to get their books into the marketplace today. But publishing doesn’t magically confer a badge of worthiness or merit on a story. A reviewer declaring a book to be a great one doesn’t mean that it is great. When such praise is unearned, that’s like telling the naked emperor how beautiful his clothes are.
Information is available on every side. If you’re in a position to share your knowledge, I hope you share it. If you’re still looking for knowledge, I can assure you that it’s out there. Keep looking.
When circumstances allow for it, I hope you help the naked emperor find some worthy clothes.