This is part of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group blog-hop, designed to help encourage authors and foster discussions about writing topics across the internet and the world. This month’s question is, “What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?”
This is something I constantly have to watch out for, as an editor and book coach. It’s easy to point to certain commas or spellings and say, “This needs to be changed,” but when it comes to the book’s characters, plot, and artistic goals, I have to be more careful.
I have to remember that my words have great power—for some reason; maybe because, unlike some of my authors, I’ve been in the industry for years? maybe because I’m “an editor,” or maybe just because, as we who are also authors know all too well, we all tend to be insecure about what we’ve written and sometimes can be easily persuadable into changing things.
As an editor, I want to challenge my authors to write the best book possible, to make informed decisions about what they write and why, but the last thing I want to do is strong-arm an author into changing things just because I don’t like it. Ultimately, the book belongs to the author and needs to reflect his or her artistic vision, preferences, and decisions, not mine.
In such moments, I’m reminded of Jo March’s challenges in writing from Little Women, when she tried to edit and write to suit other people’s tastes.
“[W]ith Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her first-born on her table, and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre. In the hope of pleasing everyone, she took everyone’s advice, and like the old man and his donkey in the fable suited nobody.
Her father liked the metaphysical streak which had unconsciously got into it, so that was allowed to remain though she had her doubts about it. Her mother thought that there was a trifle too much description. Out, therefore it came, and with it many necessary links in the story. Meg admired the tragedy, so Jo piled up the agony to suit her, while Amy objected to the fun, and, with the best intentions in life, Jo quenched the spritly scenes which relieved the somber character of the story. Then, to complicate the ruin, she cut it down one third, and confidingly sent the poor little romance, like a picked robin, out into the big, busy world to try its fate.
Well, it was printed, and she got three hundred dollars for it, likewise plenty of praise and blame, both so much greater than she expected that she was thrown into a state of bewilderment from which it took her some time to recover.
“You said, Mother, that criticism would help me. But how can it, when it’s so contradictory that I don’t know whether I’ve written a promising book or broken all the ten commandments?” cried poor Jo, turning over a heap of notices, the perusal of which filled her with pride and joy one minute, wrath and dismay the next. “This man says, ‘An exquisite book, full of truth, beauty, and earnestness.’ ‘All is sweet, pure, and healthy.'” continued the perplexed authoress. “The next, ‘The theory of the book is bad, full of morbid fancies, spiritualistic ideas, and unnatural characters.’ Now, as I had no theory of any kind, don’t believe in Spiritualism, and copied my characters from life, I don’t see how this critic can be right. Another says, ‘It’s one of the best American novels which has appeared for years.’ (I know better than that), and the next asserts that ‘Though it is original, and written with great force and feeling, it is a dangerous book.’ ‘Tisn’t! Some make fun of it, some overpraise, and nearly all insist that I had a deep theory to expound, when I only wrote it for the pleasure and the money. I wish I’d printed the whole or not at all, for I do hate to be so misjudged.”
Her family and friends administered comfort and commendation liberally. Yet it was a hard time for sensitive, high-spirited Jo, who meant so well and had apparently done so ill. But it did her good, for those whose opinion had real value gave her the criticism which is an author’s best education, and when the first soreness was over, she could laugh at her poor little book, yet believe in it still, and feel herself the wiser and stronger for the buffeting she had received.
“Not being a genius, like Keats, it won’t kill me,” she said stoutly, “and I’ve got the joke on my side, after all, for the parts that were taken straight out of real life are denounced as impossible and absurd, and the scenes that I made up out of my own silly head are pronounced ‘charmingly natural, tender, and true’. So I’ll comfort myself with that, and when I’m ready, I’ll up again and take another.”
In the end, I do my best to remind my clients that my opinion is just that—my opinion, seasoned by years of reading, editing, and working in the writing field, yes, but, in the end, hardly the “end all” of writing opinions—and I encourage them to seek other readers’ opinions, via beta readers, trusted friends, and their own fans.
Ultimately, I urge them to trust their own writing vision and do whatever it takes to make the book what they want it to be…whether anyone else agrees with their decision or not. Because the words you write have to speak to you and make you happy, first and foremost.
Copyright 2019 Andrea Lundgren
5 thoughts on “The Power in Our Words”
I am an amateur blogger, thanks for sharing your insights 😊👍🏼
Great advice as usual.
As a writer, it helps me to remember that no book is for every reader. Even Shakespeare and Agatha Christie who are estimated to be the best-selling authors of all time have their critics.
Now, I read a lot of advice from book marketing gurus advising authors to “write to the market” which is fine if your primary goal is to make more money. But if your chief aim is to write a story that satisfies YOUR own soul, then I think it is best to write the sort of book that you wish to read.
If you’re like me, that may mean breaking the conventions and blending multiple genres in ways that put off some readers and confuses others. That’s OK with me. If I write the exact same kind of book that every other Christian/historical/adventure/mystery author is writing, what’s the point?
I personally do believe in “writing to the market,” but that doesn’t mean ditching what your believe you should write. If you’re just putting out words and stories because you think others will like them, and you yourself don’t like what you’ve written, chances are, the readers will now. It’ll come across in a certain flatness, a certain lack of flavor. I think you do have to pay attention to your market, because if you’re just writing to please yourself, there’s no point in getting published—it’s a balance between writing what you really like and tailoring what you like to be as easy to follow and as well presented to your market as possible. It doesn’t mean you have to “give up anything,” but it does mean you have to signal to readers clearly what it is you’re offering them so they can make an informed decision if it’s something they like…which can require becoming a better writer in the process. 🙂
I loved reading about Jo, I hadn’t seen that before. Wonderful!
What you say reminds me a lot of my critique group. We’re a mix of experienced and inexperienced (even have a professional editor in my group too), but we do our best to help each other with the full knowledge that our feedback might be disregarded since it is the other person’s story.
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