Taking Advice

I saw this list of quotes from Stephen King today, and immediately thought “YES!” when I read the first one: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

As you know, I give writing advice a lot. I speak from a Bachelors and a Masters in creative writing and (more importantly) as a professional in the publishing industry. I’d like to think I’m pretty qualified to give writing advice, as are many other publishing professionals who offer advice on a regular basis. All we can do is sit back and hope people listen. (Mostly so we don’t have to repeat ourselves.)

That said, I understand why some writers don’t take our advice.

With so much subjectivity in the field, how does one differentiate between personal taste and unarguable truth? The thing is, there are always going to be exceptions to rules, so nothing is ever set in stone. But! For the most part, especially for a debut author who’s way less likely to be able to break any rules, there are some things you’ll just need to take an editor’s word on.

Bringing me back to adverbs. Poor, poor adverbs. The thing is, they can be used in moderation, but no one ever uses them sparingly enough, so they get ruined for everybody. Adverbs are words that seem to be universally hated by writing professionals, and yet writers continue to use (and abuse) them. It makes me wonder who is listening to writing advice out there.

So I ask you, fair writers:
How often do you listen to writing advice from professionals, either via blogs, conferences, or Twitter?
How many second opinions do you require before you’re able to think of suggestions as “rules?”
When something is as frowned upon as adverbs, are you still able to write it off as “personal preference?”

Thanks, friends 🙂

What’s In a Name?

To answer my own question – a lot.

I’m a big fan of titles. A clever or evocative title is what makes a reader – myself included – pick up a book off the shelves. In fact, its title first drew me to The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the rest, as they say, was history.

Titles, like books themselves, can have trends, which I’ve spoken about before. Right now, for example, one-word titles or thought-provoking “The [something] of the [something]” seem to be the hot new things in marketing. These things change, but what never changes is the importance of a title that will grab a reader’s attention.

It’s very hard to come up with a good title. I’ve heard writers say they don’t bother coming up with anything too creative because “the publisher is going to change it anyway.” Honestly, this is sort of true. Depending on the way the market is going by the time your book comes out, or what hip new trends are popular, the publisher will input their expertise based on what will make your book more eye-catching to a buyer. No one is out to stifle your creativity or make you think it’s unappreciated. But sometimes that’s just the way it is. It’s about selling your book.

Publishers don’t always change your title on you though. And what’s more, from an agent’s point of view, seeing an unimaginative title, or one that doesn’t capture the spirit of the book, makes me think you’re not trying hard enough. If you slap a lame title on your book, who’s to say your writing isn’t unimaginative too? Is that a fair statement? No. Is a good or bad title a deal breaker? Absolutely not! But I’d be lying if I said it didn’t run through my head, even if just momentarily.

So, what do I mean by “bad” title?

– Ambiguous verbs that can be the title of any book
– Titles that evoke no emotion, image, or intrigue
– Titles that have been done before. (It’s true, titles are not protected by copyright law, but use your best judgment. You can’t name your book after a bestseller or popular film. Song titles are also a bit cringe-worthy, but there’s more wiggle room there.)
– Unnecessarily long or hard to say out loud. (See “Rural Juror” episode of 30 Rock – it’s very important to read things aloud before committing to any kind of phrasing or word choice)

Conversely, a “good” title is one that grabs a reader’s attention without giving too much away. It should encapsulate the book in a way the reader doesn’t understand yet.

Sure, your story is what matters most, but those little things can add up in your favor too. Titles are hard, but don’t shy away from them because you think they’re not important or will get changed. You know what else is hard? Writing. And we all know that gets changed in the editing process all the time.

Personal Politics

If you’ve been in the blogosphere and Twittersphere today, you may have heard about this article, which told the story of two authors who were told by an agent to “straighten” their gay characters. The authors, Rachel Manija Brown and Sherwood Smith, weren’t sure if the agent in question had a personal stance on LGBT people, or if the decision was about LGBT characters who, in his or her opinion, might have been marketing liabilities. After you read the article, and this blog post, please check out the #YesGayYA hashtag on Twitter. Agents, editors, and authors who write and accept LGBT characters have been saying some very reassuring things over there. (While I have yet to contribute to the hashtag, let me just say that I am one of the agents who seek out LGBT characters!)

This introduction is my way of talking about a larger issue. It’s one that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Like the authors of the article, let me just repeat that I do not know, or even assume, that the agent’s political or religious beliefs affected their decision. I choose to believe that the agent thought straight characters would gain a larger audience, which is a little sad and misguided, but it’s not sinister or even homophobic. Still, I think it warrants the question, should someone’s personal politics affect their business choices?

Like I said, I’ve thought about this before today, and to me the answer is no. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assume, based on things I say in real life and online, that writers are aware I’m a liberal. It’s part of my personal belief system, and while I try to keep it at bay in a professional setting, things do slip out. I don’t ever want to get into a political discussion on my blog because that’s not what it is for, so allow me to explain why I bring this up.

Sometimes I get queries that have agendas. And sometimes writers will query me with them because they think I share their desire to spread that agenda. I don’t. I never will. It’s true that I wouldn’t feel comfortable representing a book whose purpose is to promote a belief I don’t share – particularly if it’s one I feel strongly about. However, there are other queries that clearly have an anti-Republican stance, and the fact these writers think I’d want to spread that stance is insulting. On the other side of it, some projects might even have a story about a specific “liberal” cause I personally believe in, but I have absolutely no interest in perpetuating something so overt. These types of books are sometimes called “issue books,” and plenty of agents represent them. They even seek them out. But those books make me uncomfortable most of the time because it’s hard to talk about a specific issue without choosing a side. Good fiction, in my opinion, should come without political motive. When a story is good, the reader will interpret their own meaning from it. One person’s cautionary tale is another person’s happy ending.

There have been books I love – even projects I represent – who have characters who think in a way I do not, or have underlying themes that aren’t always in keeping with my personal philosophy. It’s an important part of this business to know what will offend vs. what might be disagreeable. If the hero of your story happens to be a religious man who thinks marriage is between a man and a woman, then he can still be a hero to me even if I disagree with him. However, if your story is about a religious man who tries to stop a gay marriage law from being passed in his home state, then to me he is no longer a hero. It’s a fine line, but it’s there.

If you’re ever in a situation – and hopefully you’re not – in which an agent or editor tells you to change a character in a way that fundamentally alters that character’s livelihood, then don’t be afraid to ask why. If they claim a marketing standpoint, then go do market research to try to prove them wrong. Or look for other agents and editors who might think differently. (Note: I mean look to see if they exist. Don’t leave your agent on the spot.) If it seems unanimous that the agent might have a point (or mostly unanimous since nothing in this business ever is), then try to consider their suggestion.

But if you think the agent or editor is imposing personal politics on you, then you have every right to reject them. If they aren’t willing to compromise their morals, then you shouldn’t be the one who has to.

The article I linked to is sad, but it doesn’t speak for all of us. I think most agents and editors do put aside personal politics for the greater good. Stories are what matter. Writers are what matter. Readers are what matter. If your work speaks to readers, we will find a way to work with you.