The 12 Days of Liz: Day Nine: The Words and Me
I know some of you don’t read the comments so you missed me mugging an Argh Person. Then the comments after my mugging post seemed to imply that you were leery of commenting on the scene in the PDF pages. Can’t IMAGINE why. So this is to clarify, and if you’ve read the comments, it’s repetitive, so sorry about that. Also, I very much want to emphasize THIS IS NOT DIRECTED AT ANY ONE PERSON. It’s my thoughts on something that’s very, very common in both the writing community and in publishing, and I have very strong feelings about it, but I’m not mad at anybody. Actually, I’m grateful to the person who wrote the original comment because I think this is a good discussion. Also I’m swamped today and if it wasn’t for this post, I’d have scanned in the second scene. One look at a marked up manuscript may be interesting, but two is just depressing as hell. Most important: nobody should feel bad or guilty or anything else about this post. It’s not about you. It’s about me. Which is the way it should be (g).
So first of all, you can say anything you want about anything I put up here. I may argue, but you’re not stepping over a line. If I put it up here, it’s fair game for comments. It’s nice if you can tell me why you don’t like something, if you can zero in on the problem and describe it, but even if all you say is, “I don’t think that works,” it tells me what to look at again.
However, don’t rewrite. Think of it as taking the paintbrush from the hand of a painter and fixing her painting for her, or spanking the child of somebody you see in a store to fix the kid’s tantrum for her. It’s tempting, but you just don’t do it. It’s the same thing with writing. A lot of writers are obsessive about words because the right word is crucial, the right rhythm in a phrase is crucial, the right break in a paragraph is crucial, and only that writer can tell how those choices should be made. Mark Twain said, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,” but what he didn’t add was that the only person who knows the right word is the original author.
If you have a critique partner who rewrites your stuff, tell her to knock it off now. If she wants to write a book, she can write her own. That’s what I told the editor who put seventeen adverbs into a book of mine once. I was so furious that when the senior editor at that publishing house e-mailed me and said, “We weren’t happy with what you said to X,” I said, “I’m not happy with what X did to my book and you’re not publishing it that way. Tell me how much I owe you because I’m buying it back.” I had a new editor within the hour. Do not let editors fuck with your work just because they think they know your story better than you do. (And no it wasn’t because I had a lot of power. It was my third book, nobody knew who I was, and I was still learning the business.)
That sanctity of words is also the reason I left my first publisher; the company rewrote their contracts to say that they could change anything in the books they bought. I said no. My editor had four proposals in front of her that she’d approved but that hadn’t gone to contract–the sequels to Manhunting, Getting Rid of Bradley, Anyone But You, and What the Lady Wants (Cake Love, can’t remember the title of the second one, Jane Errs, and Newton, the Rat with Women)–and I couldn’t sign them because they wouldn’t take that clause out. She was wonderful, she really fought for me, but when the legal department was adamant, she said, “Look, I can promise I’ll never change your story.” i don’t think she ever understood that stories are the easy part. You can give two writers the same story and they’ll come up with vastly different books. Shakespeare stole every story he ever wrote; he wasn’t great because of his stories, he was great because of his words, which is why “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet” has lived for hundreds of years, while “I don’t care who your daddy is” probably wouldn’t have lasted the weekend.
I’m not Shakespeare. Most days I’m not even Jennifer Crusie as you can see by the marked up pages I posted earlier. It takes a helluva lot of rewriting to get to bad Crusie, let alone good Crusie. But the principle is the same: it’s the words, honey, and the way they go together. I should have said this a long time ago, it’s an important thing to reinforce because when the words are violated, the writer is injured, and too often we don’t fight for our books and just take the wounds. (Not me, I’m impervious, so NO GUILT ANYWHERE). I know two excellent, excellent writers whose editors rewrote their books to such an extent that they quit writing; their hearts were just broken by the books that were published. One of them finally came back and is working with an editor who respects her prose (which is excellent) and she’s back on track again. The other one, one of the most brilliant writers I’ve ever known, hasn’t written since and I don’t think she’s ever going to again. She hasn’t published for years and people still ask about her, she was that good. You can argue that she should have been tougher than that, but I’d argue that with a good editor who respected her writing, she wouldn’t have had to be tough, she could just have been an excellent writer who gave pleasure to everyone who read her work. This is one reason why I will write for Jennifer Enderlin until the day I die.
One of my best friends in the business has a mantra: Protect the work. I think too often we’re too uncertain about our work, and especially in the beginning when it seems like we’re powerless, just trying to learn, we let other people mess with our words. That’s not the same as letting other people comment on our stories, that’s critiquing. But if we let other people change our words, we’re letting them into the story, and they don’t belong there. More than that, we’re failing to protect the story. The only protection your story has from the outside world is you. You have a responsibility to it. Even if that means mugging the innocent.
I do want to reiterate, nobody injured me. Nothing bad happened except I think I hurt somebody’s feelings and she’s a good, good person, so I hate that. I’m doing fine here; this happens to me a lot and believe me, in this kind of situation, I’m never the one in pain (really sorry about that blog post thing, Alastair). But the “rewriting somebody’s story for her is helpful” idea is rife in both writing and publishing circles, and I felt the need to explain that it’s up to you to make clear to your critique partners and editors that your words are yours and yours alone so hands off. I usually rip off a limb and beat the rewriter about the head and shoulders with it, but a firm “no” will probably do the trick.
Having said that, feel free to have at anything I put up here. Although I think not accepting “glove department” shows a lack of imagination on your parts. Jeez.