Wednesday, December 2, 2015

You Don't Get To Be A Special Snowflake, Just Because You're A Writer

So, a while ago I posted an entry titled 3 Tips For Formatting Your Manuscript (So Editors Won't Want to Stab You). I wrote this post because, though I'm primarily an author, I've been an editor, and I saw the terrible things that flourished in the slush piles. The goal was to let writers know that if they were going to submit their manuscripts to a publisher, they needed to conform to the standards the men and women holding the red pens expected to see.

Jesus, Jeff, this one didn't even type the thing up...
Overall, the responses were positive. Lots of editors and editor/authors shouted thanks that someone was talking about three of the big manuscript problems they've had to deal with. Authors who intended on submitting their work to publishers were equally grateful for the heads up, since they wanted to make sure their manuscript looks as polished as possible before submission.

There were a few voices, however, raised in protest. Shrill voices that shouted I had no authority over them and their works, and that they were going their own way. While I certainly have no power over my fellow writers, I would like to take this week's update to address those who are under the mistaken impression that authors are truly free to do whatever they want.

On The Subject of Special Snowflakes

It doesn't take a lot to be a writer. Anyone who has a story to tell, and who's willing to put in the time and effort to get it on the page or the screen can claim the title. Writers can do it for fun, in their spare time, as a hobby, or just because they like putting their creativity through its paces. Authors, according to my personal vernacular, are writers who want to go pro.

And bring home that filthy lucre.
There's more that goes into making the jump from a writer to an author than just putting your stories up for sale, though. There are expectations you have to meet, lines you have to color inside of, and rules you simply have to follow. The three I mentioned in my previous post are, quite literally, the least of the rules you'll be expected to labor under as an author.

And some folks just don't get that.

I have a hypothesis regarding this. Put simply, it's that most writers are told they have the freedom to do whatever they want, because it's their story. They can kill their leads, use whatever language they want, and take whatever crazy twists and turns they feel like. They can write their stories in blogs, jot them down in notebooks, type them up as word documents, or even click them out letter by letter on their phones. Writers have complete and total freedom to do whatever they want.

Authors don't. While it's true that authors provide the books publishers need, or can become one-person publishers in their own rights, authors still have to conform to certain rules. There are word count rules, formatting rules, spelling and grammar rules, all of which were just guidelines back when you were a writer. If you expect to get cash in hand, then you'd better learn to deliver on expectations.

Aren't Self-Publishers Immune to This?

No, they aren't. While some may claim otherwise, self-publishers are held to the same standards as any other author in terms of the finished product. And, perhaps unfairly, self-publishers are put under even more intense scrutiny than traditional publishers.

Oh who cares about the formatting, a house is a house, right?
Readers judge books in a lot of different ways, and only one of those ways is the actual content. Everything from the look of the cover to the word spacing you choose is being checked mentally against what readers expect to see. So if you, for example, chose to double-space your book in order to make it look bigger, readers are going to see that. Some might look past it, but others will see a book with too much open space, shut the cover, and walk away.

Your audience expects your book to deliver certain things. One of those things is for it to look professional, which in this case means that it looks like any other novel they would pluck off the shelf. New chapters start on a new page, sentences have one space after the period, and indentations are set at .5, no more, no less.

Can you do something different with your book's layout? Of course you can. However, like stories which contain unpopular subject matter, those books will be a harder sell to publishers, and they may be outright banned by many self-publishing services. Why? Because self-publishing sites still have guidelines that authors who use them have to abide by. So even when you're doing it yourself, you still have to conform to the guidelines.

Take Your Ego Out of Your Work

Authors should enjoy their work. They should take pride in their work. However, if your head starts swelling, and you start thinking that your stories are so special that you get to ignore the rules, then you need to remember something important. There are hundreds of thousands of authors and aspiring authors out there, which means there are always other people that publishers and readers can turn to.

And every one of them is special, too.
Does this mean you have to be conformist in your work? Of course not. If you want to write stories with edgy subject matter, or which cause controversy, then you won't be the first to tap that market. You can write in any genre you want, any style you want. If an editor wants you to make a change, and you feel strongly against that change, then you should sit down and hash it out to see if you can't come to an agreement.

If you balk at changing something in order to meet an industry standard, though, you might want to step back and reconsider your career choice. Because chances are good you're not an auteur genius, and if you were, you'd be way too busy counting your money and answering fan mail to complain about what a trench typist like me has to say about anything.

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  1. I think a lot of writers go through that "i'm special" stage. The faster you can get through it the better.

  2. That special snowflake attitude has caused no small measure of grief in writing groups. When I edit or offer feedback on a piece it isn't personal. My goal is to help that person improve as a writer and I expect the same from my peers. Unfortunately, eight times out of ten you get "writers" who crank out absolute shite onto a page and fly into a rage when you point out that 1) their writing does not conform to the rules of grammar or formatting, 2) it is difficult to follow or understand because of the poor formatting, 3) their characters and/or settings need further development, and 4) they need to proofread their work before putting it out there. Next thing I know I am getting the special snowflake rant, and frankly what I tell them is what you wrote in this essay - if you want to get published you need to constantly work at your writing. It is a skill and a craft and an author - which is what I want to be since I am a writer going pro - doesn't just "happen". It takes work and a willingness to accept honest feedback and constructive criticism. If you can't do any of these things you're not going to get published. Plain and simple. Unfortunately, people like E.L. James have made it that much harder for that truth to sink in because apparently aspiring writers can't figure out that the only reason why that dreck she calls Fifty Shades of Gray went anywhere was because of the porn. You don't need quality writing or even a decent plot when every five pages you have someone shagging.