In perusing the interwebs, I have come across numerous takes on The 7 Deadly Sins, so I don’t want to take credit for the idea to riff on that in this entry. Look around the Internet for five minutes, and you’ll find everything from The 7 Deadly Sins of Editing, The 7 Deadly Sins of Cooking, The 7 Deadly Sins of Bipolar Birdhouse Construction, and the 7 Deadly Sins of Atheism, which seems like quite the paradox in my opinion. So there’s nothing original in my borrowing the theme for the purposes of novel advice, although I do with to point out that there are few things fatal in writing except for the very real possibility of starvation, which is why I tutor and teach on the side. So, here are my 7 Not-So-Deadly But Still Very Annoying & Quite Avoidable Sins of Novel Writing. Enjoy!
1. Watching Movies Instead of Reading Books: Guilty. As. Charged. I enjoy reading, but I don’t do nearly enough of it, mainly because books are expensive and I’m on a fixed income. I want to read, but I can’t because of the clusterf*** that is being a 26-year-old college graduate in this economy and job market. It’s the ultimate Catch-22 (speaking of which, I ordered that and it still hasn’t arrived). So, there are times when I find myself pondering all the books I wish to read, when suddenly I’ll find that the movie adaptation is about to premier on HBO. Hmm…Which one would YOU choose? I think movies can be an invaluable resource for writers in the sense that they help teach writers how to frame a scene, how to develop story narrative, how to depict characters, and how to hit the right cues in action and dialogue. In that sense, I embrace film as a writer. However, movies and books are not interchangeable and one medium can do things the other simply can’t. As a writer and film geek, this is a give and take, and right now my circumstances have forced me to rely far too heavily upon cinema and not enough on the rich literary world that, though intimidatingly vast, needs to be more heavily explored. I’m working on it now, I really am, because I have finally seen the light, but I’ve a long way to go. If you an aspiring writer like myself and if you suffer from the same cultural and generational flaws that have pushed you towards popular media at the sacrifice of books, do yourself a favor now and climb aboard the literary train. I’ll be there dressed like a hobo and sleeping in one of the hay carts.
2. Being Afraid of Criticism: I have harped on this mercilessly on this blog, so I want to go ahead and dispense with this point relatively quickly. If you have chosen to venture down the road of professional writing, prepare for criticism. You simply cannot make other people happy and, news flash, some people will give you scathing reviews simply out of jealousy or because they disagree with your viewpoints. If you think every review you will receive will give your work fair consideration and approach it from the proper respectful standpoint, you have another thing coming. Some people will have rational and useful criticisms of your work that you need to take to heart in order to improve your craft. Others will hurl venomous insults at something you wrote for no other reason than vanity or ignorance. The task falls on you to develop thicker skin.
We’re talking Thing from The Fantastic Four. That’s how thick your skin needs to be.
3. Being Lazy: If you’re like me, being called “lazy” is about the most offensive insult that anyone could sling at you. I loathe the term. I would never wish to imply that you are lazy, for instance. I’ve been in situations where I’m sitting on the couch thinking about my book, perhaps agonizing over some insignificant detail or some interaction between two characters, when someone will ask me whether or not I’m going to work on my book today, insinuating that since I’m not writing, I’m being lazy. Let’s face it: There are days when the words simply will not come. There are days when I sit down at my computer and stare relatively blankly at the screen waiting for anything useful to come to mind and the magic never happens. However, there are ways to make the most out of those temporary bouts of writer’s block. Outline a bit. Contemplate a future scene and try to map it out so that you won’t run into any hurdles when you get there. Also, try reading a book—preferably a good one. A day spent reading is never a day wasted and since reading often helps us write, you’re really not wasting a second.
4. Fearing the Outcome: Another aspect of the process that can be scary for young writers or even those who are just starting out later in life is the fear of the outcome. What if I don’t get published? What if people don’t like what I’ve written? In short, what if I fail? There are no easy answers for this but, in short, if you have no confidence in your abilities whatsoever, then this probably isn’t the path for you anyway. I’d like to believe that if you’re taking this journey, you have a reason for it. Either writing is your passion or you have a story that you think simply needs to be shared. Those two concepts are your fuel, not the possibility of praise or awards. Don’t write just for the theoretical admiration, in other words, because simple vanity rarely triumphs in this industry. That’s for Hollywood.
If you do fear the outcome, however, there are things you can do to bolster your confidence. Let friends and family read what you’ve written and encourage their honest feedback. You may have to go back to the drawing board and take another swing at it. You very well likely may have to start over from scratch. I had to. I’m about to start rewriting my fantasy series for the third time. That’s right, I wrote a whole novel, chucked it, started over again, chucked THAT, and now I’m starting a THIRD time. It is what it is. You can’t fear the outcome; you can only try to do the best with the story you want to tell and hone that sword until it’s as sharp as it can be.
5. Leaving Edits to Someone Else: Your temptation might also be pen the final period in that novel and then just ship it off to your editors or friends or friends who are editors to let THEM handle all the edits. My advice here is that the first person to edit a manuscript should be YOU. I usually start editing my novels one week after the day they were finished, allowing me one week to read a good book or two and remind myself what good writing really looks like. That way, I go into the editing process with a less biased opinion of my own writing and a mind for how a great book should read. Ultimately, I’m harsher to my work, which makes it better and also helps ready it for a more professional editor down the road.
6. Rushing/Stalling: Your instinct might also be to try to rush the process along. As much as I like to avoid unloading useless clichés on people, here’s a good one: The book is ready when it’s ready. Okay, that’s all well and good, but how do I know when the book is ready? Well, it’s not ready the first time you finish it, I can tell you that. A first draft is not publisher-ready. It’s not even ready the first time you edit it, nor probably after the second. Your book is ready when you can read it critically and objectively and find no flaws with it. It is ready when your editor says it is ready. It is ready when your mother starts weeping at the brilliant masterpiece you have written. And even then, well, it’s only ready enough. I’ll always remember Barbara Kingsolver confessing to us in Lexington that, were it up to her, her books would never be ready. She would just keep editing and editing and editing. Publishing a book is like dropping your child off at his or her first day of college. You may not want to let go and you shouldn’t let go until you’re sure the time is right and then you just hope the world accepts and loves what you have devoted so much time to creating.
7. Having Too Much Integrity: Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think integrity is an awful thing to have. It just hasn’t been what I hoped it would be. What do I mean by integrity? Well, it depends on the type of book you’re writing. When I was writing The Notice, a historical fiction novel based around the war in Bosnia & Herzegovina, I felt obligated to present an even-handed and well-researched approach to the war. This meant that my book occasionally included lengthy historical passages meant to inform the reader and given him or her a deeper understanding of the unique social and cultural factors interplaying in Bosnia during that war. The downside? It made parts of my book a little slower than I might have liked. I might have been able to omit some of them and improve the “readability” of my book, but I considered it a slight to the Bosnian people for me to cash in on their tragedy without educating my readers as much as possible about their plight. I had the integrity to be respectful to them, at the cost of making the most marketable book possible. Perhaps your idea of integrity is not resorting to cheap gimmicks like pointlessly non-linear narratives or overly grotesque and gory first chapter murders. That’s still integrity, but it may not sell your book. Integrity is a broad brush, but it’s not always necessarily the one that paints the best portrait.
I don’t know. I can’t help but feel like my thoughts on this point are not yet fully developed. I have more profound ideas swirling around in my head but I can’t lasso them at the moment. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, readers. What do you think about integrity in the publishing industry? Is it something that we aspiring authors can afford? Sound off below: