The Things You Must Not Do (Or: You Can’t Please Everyone, So You Got to Please Yourself)

I generally don’t mind editing. In fact I often quite like the challenge of it, but there are times when revisions can make me a little panicky. And it gets worse if, in the process of scrolling through Tumblr and Twitter, it suddenly feels like I’m seeing an inundation of posts and articles titled things like, “10 Things a Writer Should Never Ever Do” or “How to Write a Marketable Book” or “Common Mistakes That Will Torpedo Your Chances”. They seem to crop up so much more when I’m revising than the rest of the time, as though the gods of the dashboard know when I’m most vulnerable to their whisperings.SomersetMaugham

It’s the don’ts, more than the musts, that tend to burrow into my head and make themselves parasitic little nests there — perhaps because it seems so hard to guarantee success, yet tremendously simple to guarantee failure. So when I read these things, I can find myself in a horrible, self-loathing twist.

Because I did the thing. I used an adverb. Or a thought-verb. Or I used said too many times. Or I used an emotive synonym instead of said. I glossed over some point of backstory rather than showing a character feeling it viscerally. I used too many words. I didn’t use enough words. (Just kidding, that last one is almost never my problem). And if I did the thing, doesn’t it mean I’m not good enough? That I still have too much left to learn, and not enough time in which to learn it? That my manuscript is too deeply flawed for any publisher to consider?

And then I remember:

Every good writer, every writer I admire, has Done The Thing at some point in time. Whatever the Thing is that they Must Not Do, they’ve done it. Maybe it got caught and expunged in editing. Maybe it didn’t. Certainly there are plenty of books in print, bestsellers, even, that contain at least a few instances of Things You Must Not Do. Sometimes done well and to a pointed purpose, but sometimes just… there.

All writers have tics, too. Everyone’s got something they ought to CTRL+F for — favorite vocabulary words, an over-reliance on prepositional phrases or helping verbs, descriptive habits. Some of my worst ones are harder to catch because they tend to be rhetorical, not vocabulary-based. But if you’re aware of it, you can hunt it down, and hopefully you’ve also got a good support team to help you when you’ve missed them. Whatever the flaws my writing might have, they are neither unique nor unforgivable, and I have an agent who believes in my manuscript and that I have the skills it’ll take for success.

And — writers get better throughout their careers. I can look at all of my favorite authors and know that that’s true. Pratchett, Gaiman, Rowling, Quinn, Carriger, Lackey, Valente, P&C — I can compare early work to late and see how they change. Hell, there are ways in which Stone of Your Choice and Deathly Hallows barely feel like they were written by the same author, Rowling grew so much over those years. I think there’s a scary mindset these days that, if you’re not perfect out of the gate, you’re absolutely screwed. The industry sort of encourages that sort of thinking, because, while publishing has long been a commercial and thus competitive enterprise, it seems to have intensified in that regard in the past decade or so. Be 100% captivating, amazing, and flawless, or you will never get a second chance.

It isn’t about following every rule — not least because a number of them contradict. Like the Pirate Code, they’re more like guidelines. Be aware of them. Follow them when you can. Break them when you must. My job isn’t to please everyone on the internet, nor to adhere to every arbitrary rule they set down. My job is to tell the best story I can in the best way I can.

That is what I have to remember.

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