Last weekend, I published this post about why we stop reading books. Many of you submitted insightful comments, and as I read through them I realized something: many of our “reading pet peeves” can be boiled down to the author doing one of two things.
Not bad, huh? Just avoid doing two things and you’re good to go.
I know. If only it were that easy.
Yes, these two things have “sub-things,” but it’s easier to remember two things than however many sub-things there are.
Side note before we dig in: Today is Read Across America day, so in a nod to Dr. Seuss I’m including a relevant quote by him and borrowing a couple of character names.
Thing One: Showing off
This is basically any instance of the author demonstrating what an amazing word slinger he is. No words are too flowery or complex, no descriptions too long, no filters unnecessary. When editors suggest changes or readers stop reading and complain, it’s because they didn’t understand the author’s brilliance.
Which is fine, if the author wants to remain brilliantly unread.
But sometimes, it looks like the author is showing off when that’s really not the case (I know this happens from working with many, many writers in the critique group). We get protective and sometimes defensive about our work. It’s easier to get hurt feelings than to make changes when an editor says pages of description or a scene isn’t needed or when a critique partner says your word choice is too complex. When Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill all your darlings,” this is the kind of thing he was talking about.
Listen to editors and critique partners (especially if two or more make the same suggestion). Cut the fat. Aim for your words going straight to the readers’ brains without complication. Realize that just because you wrote something doesn’t necessarily mean it gets to stay.
Elmore Leonard said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” The primary goal of writing fiction is to tell a story. If the writing itself gets in the way of the reader enjoying the story, they’ll stop reading.
Thing Two: Being lazy
This is the opposite of Thing One (sort of). Whereas the showoff works hard (and perhaps for a long time) to produce something he thinks is brilliant, the lazy writer doesn’t do all the necessary steps to produce a readable book. He just wants to have written a book. This can mean not researching, not bothering to edit or work with critique partners, or being sloppy with formatting.
The showoff and the lazy writer are alike in that they think their work doesn’t need to be changed (hence the sort of). The difference is the showoff will likely offer pages of background on a topic they’ve researched while the lazy writer will include inaccurate details, which is completely inexcusable in the age of Google. Even if Lazy thinks he’s right, critique partners and editors will likely catch the error or at least suggest researching further – if he works with CPs and editors.
Grammar rules are well-established, and no one catches their own typos. There are tutorials about how to format or people for hire to do it. As Hemingway said, the first draft of anything is shit. If you’re like me, the second and third drafts are pretty shitty as well. It takes a lot more than a quick once-over for a book to be ready for publication.
I feel like I’m preaching to the choir a bit, as no one who reads this blog is a showoff or is lazy (obviously). So carry on, writers, and share this with the ones who really need it. 😉