In honor of having given up sleep last week (apparently after fifty years you’ve had all the sleep you need), I’m going to introduce you today to my grandmother, to whom I was very close and who gave me most of the instructions that now guide my life. She didn’t actually say any of these in reference to writing, but even Grandma can use an editor.
If you can’t say something interesting, don’t say anything at all.
This, of course, is not what she really said, but it is the cardinal rule of fiction.
Sit down quietly and share with your sister.
This one she said all the time.
Because it’s not about me. It’s not even about you. It’s about sharing this amazing, complicated, poignant world with the reader, and if we can’t share nicely they’re not going to follow us around begging.
If you don’t learn to make your bed, no one will marry you.
This one she also said, and I’m not going to use up space here recording my many witty adolescent replies. Suffice it to say that she was mistaken, and nobody in my house now is any good with hospital corners.
However, she was correct that if we don’t learn how to shape and tidy our manuscripts no one will ever read them. They’re incredibly lumpy, uneven, and full of missing socks in their early drafts. Readers find them extremely uncomfortable and cannot relax.
This is a bad thing.
Don’t be a smart-aleck.
This is also a bad thing.
We’re all very clever and amusing people, I know, in the privacy of our own heads and usually a number of hours after it doesn’t matter anymore. I infused my own early novels with a whole plethora of snarky asides and snappy comebacks.
Turns out Grandma was right on the money with this one too, though.
Readers don’t want untutored attempts at snark. They want either real, one-of-a-kind, death-defying humor that makes them spontaneously laugh out loud or no smartypants nonsense at all.
Stop kicking the table leg.
No kidding, people. I know we all get intensely frustrated at the state of the publishing industry these days. It is indeed an intensely frustrating state, in which unknown writers become less and less likely to see publication every single time someone buys a best seller at Walmart.
But the truth is we were already complaining about the state of the industry decades ago, when it seems in retrospect that we actually had it fairly good.
We need to just stop annoying people and buckle down to the hard work.
Wipe your feet before you walk on clean floors.
Leo Buscaglia tells the story of meeting a famous Buddhist lama and walking in the garden with this gentle little man, yammering on and on and on about himself and his big, brilliant ideas and how important they all were, until the gentle little man turned suddenly and slapped him right in the face.
“Stop walking in my head with your dirty feet!” the lama exclaimed.
This is excellent advice for all of us—but especially for writers.
Keep your sticky fingers off the wallpaper.
Again, the reader has their own big, brilliant ideas, which they love far more than they are ever going to love ours. It is our job to show them their own lovely wallpaper, not muck it up getting our fingerprints all over it.
Don’t make me tell Grandpa.
You know who Grandpa is? That’s right. The reader. And Grandpa always gets the last word.
Actually, it was my great-grandmother who said this, the German granddaughter of pioneers, a woman who lived to be 93 and, at the end of her life, began seeing the ghost of her husband in her room at night.
Make it good.
If you’re going to be haunted, you know, it had better be worth your while.
You can cry on me.
Grandma also said this, for which I will always love her.
There’s a lot of grief in first struggling for years to get our beautiful dreams down in words and then finding someone who wants to read them. I don’t care how brilliant or talented or experienced we are, our kindness to each other is truly the most important thing we have to give.
Come back and see us again soon, honey.
Because when you get right down to it, it’s all about dedication and long-term commitment—commitment and good-heartedness and being in this world with others. We’re able to share our wonderful fictional adventures with the reader only if they add significantly to the reader’s life.
And if we can’t develop the habit of producing great stories—not just one, but one after another, for as long as we expect others to pay attention—we must content ourselves with being readers.
After all, everyone loves them.
MILLLICENT G. DILLON, the world's expert on authors Jane and Paul Bowles, has won five O. Henry Awards and been nominated for the PEN/Faulkner. I worked with Dillon on her memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, in which she describes in luminous prose her private meeting with Albert Einstein to discuss the ethics of the atomic bomb.
BHAICHAND PATEL, retired after an illustrious career with the United Nations, is now a journalist based out of New Dehli and Bombay, an expert on Bollywood, and author of three non-fiction books published by Penguin. I edited Patel’s debut novel, Mothers, Lovers, and Other Strangers, published by PanMacmillan.
LUCIA ORTH is the author of the debut novel, Baby Jesus Pawn Shop, which received critical acclaim from Publisher’s Weekly, NPR, Booklist, Library Journal and Small Press Reviews. I have edited a number of essays and articles for Orth.
SCOTT WARRENDER is a professional musician and Annie Award-nominated lyricist specializing in musical theater. I work with Warrender regularly on his short stories and debut novel, Putaway.
STUART WAKEFIELD is the #1 Kindle Best Selling author of Body of Water, the first novel in his Orcadian Trilogy. Body of Water was 1 of 10 books long-listed for the Polari First Book Prize. I edited his second novel, Memory of Water and look forward to editing the final novel of his Orcadian Trilogy, Spirit of Water.
ANIA VESENNY is a recipient of the Evelyn Sullivan Gilbertson Award for Emerging Artist in Literature and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. I edited Vesenny's debut novel, Swearing in Russian at the Northern Lights.
TERISA GREEN is widely considered the foremost American authority on tattooing through her tattoo books published by Simon & Schuster, which have sold over 45,000 copies. Under the name M. TERRY GREEN, she writes her techno-shaman sci-fi/fantasy series. I am working with her to develop a new speculative fiction series.
CHRIS RYAN drew acclaim from the New Yorker for the hook to his novel Heliophobia. He is the author of poetry collection The Bible of Animal Feet from Farfalla Press. I edited Ryan’s debut novel The Ishmael Blade and worked with him to develop Heliophobia and his work-in-progress Pogue.
JUDY LEE DUNN is an award-winning marketing blogger. I am working with her to develop and edit her memoir of reconciling her liberal activism with her emotional difficulty accepting the lesbianism of her beloved daughter, Tonight Show comedienne Kellye Rowland.
In addition, I work with dozens of aspiring writers in their apprenticeship to this literary art and craft.