Saturday, August 9, 2008

Busted! -- Five Writing Myths

This seems to be a summer for reconnecting with old friends. I recently ran into someone I hadn't seen in years, and the questions about writing flew thick and fast. This is not an uncommon occurrence, and after a few minutes my heart sank as I wondered, "Will these few fun, precious moments be eaten up by nothing but the same-old, same-old?" Fortunately, we did get to move on to other topics, but I knew the questions, assumptions and misconceptions would live to raise their heads another day. Here are five of the most common myths:

** Publishers are basically printing presses. No, quality publishers are in the business of bookselling. They have their own mission statements, areas of interest, and business plans. They don't publish "anything good" that just happens to land in their mailroom. If you send the next Harry Potter to a house that publishes only plays and nonfiction on theater arts, you're wasting everybody's time. Publishers need writers, but they don't exist for our sake. Writers work long and hard to find their editorial match.

** Editors will fix my work. Actually, when we speak of "editors" at publishing houses we mainly mean acquiring editors, whose job it is to find and purchase top-notch book manuscripts for their employers. If you want a crack at rising above the competition, your book has to be as perfect as you can make it before you try a submission. Many rejections happen because the work simply isn't ready, and grammar and punctuation do count. Editors will work with you on that "perfect" ms. once they buy it. Books do go through copyediting to catch errors before publication. But if you submit work that you know or even suspect can be improved, it'll probably bounce right back to you.

** I need to find an illustrator for my picture book. Alternatively, I (my child) can draw pretty well, so I (she) will do the art. No to both. Publishers hire the illustrator, and that is in your best interest. That way, you'll have a pro (and if you're new, often a fairly big-name artist!), and the publisher (instead of you) will be paying him or her the big bucks. Illustrating is intensive work, art supplies cost a lot, and you probably don't have the resources to hire the quality you want and need. If you are a professional illustrator you can illustrate your own book; publishers often like to sign author/illustrators. Simply being a pretty good hand at drawing, though, isn't enough. Those seriously interested in illustration need to research and qualify themselves in that field just as they do in writing.

** I'd be good at writing for children, since I (have children, am a teacher). Having or teaching children will plunge us back into a kid's world in a hurry, it's true. But viewing those cool little people from an adult's perspective doesn't mean you can get inside the skin of a child and think age-level thoughts and feel age-level emotions. We need to be sure we can step beyond "fond mama" stories, "teach them a lesson," stories, and our own nostalgia for the childhood stories we remember -- or perhaps idealize. More important than having, teaching, or being around children is the ability to tap into the thoughts, emotions, frustrations and dreams of your own childhood.

** Children's writing is easier than adult writing. No way. It's all hard. (Don't judge by celebrity books; the hype and big names will guarantee sales, unfortunately often in spite of weak writing.) Beyond that, writers for adults don't usually have to ask themselves how to connect with adults. They don't (usually) have to tell a complete story in 200-500 words and still make it flow, or write a novel in as few as 25-40,000. They don't have to watch vocabulary and sentence structure, age-appropriate cultural or historical references, age-appropriate pyschology, or be up-to-date on contemporary children's lives. They don't have to work years and years on a ms. that when published looks incredibly easy -- because of all the work! It's all hard.

And, based on the amount of conversation it generates, incredibly interesting. :)


Angela said...

love ur blog

Tabitha said...

Great post! I've had conversations similar to this with non-writers, and I frequently hear the "it's easier to write children's books than adult books." That drives me up a wall. :) It makes me want to sit them down and have them show me just how easy it is. But, of course, I never do. I just nod and move the conversation along. :)

Marcia said...

Angela, thanks! And thanks for coming.

Tabitha, I usually feel compelled to dissent, with the utmost diplomacy, of course. :) Just a few words about one or two specific differences so their eyes don't glaze over. :)

PJ Hoover said...

I love the list! And especially the part about something being as good as possible before going to an editor. So true!

Marcia said...

Thanks, PJ. Also, some people seem to feel that if you have a great idea, the writing will be no sweat -- or someone else (the editor) will whip it into shape. A great book, of course, needs a great idea AND great writing.