The Best Piece of Writing Advice I’ve Ever Received
I’m going to tell you about a verdict given to me by a reader. At the time, it infuriated and frustrated me, because it revealed to me how far I was from creating literature that someone else would want to read. Don’t worry, this was a long time ago, and in this blog post, I will talk a bit about why it turned out to be the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever received.
To make any non-Swedish readers understand why this meant so much, I need to explain a bit how the Swedish publishing industry works. You see, lowly Swedish writers in spe have both an easier and a harder time to get their work published the traditional way than writers in many other countries, especially in the English-speaking world. While many of you have to first attract an agent to shove your manuscript up the publishers’ orifices, we simply send our stacks of paper (well, not anymore, but when I started out, that’s what we did, and I do like to romanticize it a little bit) straight to the publisher.
The Eye of the Needle
While this sounds stupendously comfy, it is in fact mind-bogglingly difficult to squeeze through the eye of the needle that is a Swedish publishing house. Swedish, you see, is a very small language. Some 12-13 million people speak it, and that’s not a very big market. If you’re a crime writer, or suddenly drop the greatest thriller known to man in their laps, they’ll set you up with an agent who then sells your work to other markets before you’re even published in Swedish – but that is pretty rare. That’s about the only way a writer writing in Swedish can make it big. The publishers – surprise – are very aware of the kind of quality it takes to be read out there.
Anyway, back to the process. If they like your manuscript at a first glance, they send your work out readers under their employ (usually freelance) who read the whole thing and send back a recommendation to the publisher, who then relay their decision to you. Sometimes those recommendations come attached to a report of a few pages. Sometimes the people at the publisher also read your manuscript before they make a decision. I have sent four manuscripts to publishers, the first when I was 16 (and thank f*ck they didn’t publish that horrendous piece of writing), and every time, I’ve been lucky enough to have my novels read by a reader – and they’ve even sent me the report, every time (yes, including the one when I was 16, which I suspect was mostly out of charity in a "let's not discourage this little pervert, he might be something someday" kind of way.)
These reports can contain some of the best writing advice available anywhere on the planet. And it did for me. The third novel I submitted to a few of the major publishers (The Truth Committee, basically 300 pages of conspiracy thriller slash info dump because, well, I’m kind of fascinated by conspiracy theories and the tin foil hat movement) was sent back to me with a two-page report with this criticism included:
“It’s not literature. It’s more like a picture of literature.”
That, dear reader, is the best advice anyone has ever given me. I think you can see why, but that doesn’t make the headline above clickbait. At the time, I was disappointed, as anyone would be, and I thought it was ridiculous. It’s writing, you idiot! I didn’t take a picture of it and send that in. (I promise I wasn’t dumb enough to think that’s what they meant, but you know…)
When Style Puts the Story in the Back Seat
I maintain that it is a good story, and I have toyed with the idea of rewriting it now, many years later, because it still speaks to me; but I failed to convey it properly then, and the reader (probably a very seasoned one) correctly identified the problem: I was so wrapped up in the style and subject matter that I forgot to tell a good story. I let my obsession with the things I wanted to say and my writing style put the story in the back seat.
It didn’t take very long for the true meaning of it to sink in, and it goes beyond the old “show, don’t tell” and other advice that every writer has tattooed on their forehead. I needed to dig deeper to find momentum. I needed to find the people I was writing about and make them agents for change in their own lives.
I needed to stop thinking of the meaning and start working on the story. The meaning actually comes later.
(Also, I needed to kill some darlings. No, seriously. This is another piece of advice we writers have had lasered into our skin at birth. But this one, I truly believe in. Writing is like giving a cardboard box to a cat: if the cat fits, it sits. And most of the time, the cat (being technically liquid) fits inside the box. If not, it will try anyway and look really silly. Same thing with writing. And imagine this – I managed to write an entire novel full of darlings!
Have you ever read or written anything that feels more like a picture of writing than actual writing?