Do As We Say, Not As We Do
Attending the Las Vegas Writer’s Conference this past April made the Do As We Say, Not As We Do of the modern publishing industry very evident. Right now you’re scratching your head, wondering, What’s he talking about?
I’ll explain after I say this. Yes I am a writer and the first version of my novel was, at best, horrible and rejected numerous times. My current publisher took on the story, but required a complete rewrite. My editor beat me over the head with the rules you’ll find in the next few paragraphs. I will be expected to adhere to these standards in every book I write, going forward. No, this is not a ‘hit piece’ in retaliation for past rejections. We all get them, it’s part of the process. This blog comes in response to what is presented as the Publishing Standard versus what we see in print from established authors.
Throughout time writing styles and requirements have changed. How an author presents a story to his or her readers is determined by the publishing industry and varies from publishing house to publishing house. In the late seventies publishers required their authors to stop Telling their story, and let the reader live it through the characters’ eyes. Show, Don’t Tell, is what all authors are expected to adhere to today.
At every writer’s conference you’ll attend, the people presenting the classes are, for the most part, agents, editors, or an acquisitions editor. They will stand in front of a group of eager writers and present material searching for the best road to publication.
Of the many tips offered these stood out to me: 1.Write in Active Voice 2. Have a Fixed POV (Point Of View) 3. No Author Intrusion (Stay out of your story) 4. Show, Don’t Tell 5. Limited Use of Adverbs. (Limited to use in dialogue not in exposition.) Some of these concepts are foreign to new writers. They take copious notes, read anything they can find on the subjects. At home they are determined to write their story or rewrite their existing novel to the accepted standards.
Later, after a lot of hard work, a writer will submit their work to a publishers. Five or six months later they receive a curt rejection note with no explanation. They then start over submitting their novel to another publisher or agent, only to wait another five or six months to get rejected. An added note, many of the manuscripts submitted in any given year are terrible at best and warrant a rejection. Some, however, are never really given a fair shake. Legally Blonde is a good example. Turned down by most publishers as too frivolous, it became a self-published novel. The author, through perseverance, brought it to the attention of Hollywood, and became a film with a sequel.
So where does publishers Do As We Say, Not As We Do, come in? Go to any book store and pick up a book written by an established author with a following, with a copyright/first print date after 2001 up to the present. Once you understand the concept of Write in Active Voice, Have a Fixed POV, No Author Intrusion, Show, Don’t Tell, and Limited Use of Adverbs, you will see how the rules fall away for the publishers’ money makers.
Take for example the novel Frozen Heat, by Richard Castle, ghost written by an unknown author.
I too am a huge Castle TV show fan, but I have to disagree with many of the reviewers. I looked forward to reading any of the Niki Heat novels. I picked up Frozen Heat, read the first chapter and a half, and close the book. Whoever the writer is, may be sticking to the show’s formula, but the complete overuse of adverbs kept throwing me out of the story.
“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Stephen King.
While I can read and enjoy novels written before publishers made a big deal of the “Show, Don’t Tell.” standard, and limited use of adverbs. This book falls way short of either of those standards. Publishers reject a new writer’s manuscript if it contains lot of tell and uses too many adverbs, yet in the first 13 pages the 15 adverbs used, are unnecessary. (I’m not counting the ones used in dialogue. Those are fine.) For example, on page 4 line 8, the ride in the elevator. “-. . . is back against the wall then SUDDENLY hers.” The use of the word ‘suddenly’ is ambiguous.
Anton Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
How did Niki’s back wind up against the elevator wall? Did she pulled Rook in front of her, or did Rook twist her into that position for more control? Those actions would have painted a much better picture of the scene. On the same page, line 16. “He appeared at the door COMPLETLY naked.” Use of the word ‘completely’ is redundant. If you’re naked, you’re without any cloths. Your nakedness is complete. This continues throughout the book. For me what was an anticipated read turned into a big disappointment.
One more noteworthy misuse of adverbs. On page 12, 2nd paragraph 5th line. “SLOWLY, METHODICALLY she ran the beam of her flashlight from right to left along the bottom edge of the case.” Starting a sentence with an adverb is bad enough. Two in a row, please! Whoever the writer is, go take a creative writing class and reread the quotes above by Stephen King and Anton Chekhov. I gave this book one star because I had to give it something.
This is what Twain had to say about adverbs.
“I am dead to adverbs; they cannot excite me. To misplace an adverb is a thing which I am able to do with frozen indifference; it can never give me a pang. … There are subtleties which I cannot master at all–they confuse me, they mean absolutely nothing to me–and this adverb plague is one of them. … Yes, there are things which we cannot learn, and there is no use in fretting about it. I cannot learn adverbs; and what is more I won’t.”
Pick up any established writer, say Patterson for example, and you will find violation of many, if not all, of the above standards. Why? Once an author is established, he or she becomes lazy. Their publishers require them to crank out a number of novels per year. Publishers want to get another book out for cash flow and profits, so the editors let a lot go, if they edit at all. Because the author has an audience, their fans are going to buy and read a new book simply because it’s their favorite author.
When a book falls short of a publishers own self-proclaimed standards, fans and the so-called major reviewers should complain. By offering bad reviews, we tell publishers their established authors should have to conform to the same rules publishers expect new writes to follow. We of the reading public would be treated to stories with more depth and impact, instead of publishers’ hypocrisy along with author and editor laziness. If publishers will live up to their own standards, the bottom line will follow.