Recently I was trying to talk to a friend who was one of the beta readers on a novel, along with a dozen other people.
My friend was the only one who returned the book with “needs to be completely rewritten. This is not a novel.” It appears everyone else returned it with “not my thing, but it is very well written.”
Of course, under the Sarah rule of thumb, if only one person complains you ignore him/her and my friend was in near hysterics because this person, who is a mutual friend, will now think she’s being evil or has it in for the writer, or something.
The catch there is that my friend is the only writer in the bunch of beta readers.
I was reminded of this yesterday as someone dropped by my blog to chide me for a typo (would you believe, a green grocers apostrophe? Yep, it’s one of my pet peeves, too, but the fingers have a mind of their own.) He said he normally wouldn’t have mentioned anything, but the author is an author, and a well-regarded one (that last was news to me, but okay.)
It brought home to me again that writers talking about writing, and lay people talking about writing mean completely different things.
First, typos happen. I have a friend who used to work for a scientific publisher, as the head of a team of copy editors. Because he’s very exact, he had each of his team initial each paragraph after they proofed it. And yet, there would still be typos when it got to him. This is because humans don’t have it in them to be exact, and because typing is largely muscle memory. In my case, I’ve determined I type by taking dictation from my head. If I’m tired, I started exchanging words that sound alike to me (because accent) like leave and live. If I’m exhausted my fingers invent their own language. For instance, the only f sound in the alphabet is ph. So I phall phatally phorward. I don’t know why, but my older son has the same issue (can this kind of typo be genetic.) If I’m TRULY out of it, like at the end of a three-day novel, I type entire sentences in reverse, something I couldn’t do if I TRIED. My fingers are weird. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
It is a mark of the amateur novelist that there will be no typos at all in the manuscript. This is because the manuscript has been gone over a hundred times. It is also the mark of the amateur novelist that there will be no life in the manuscript. This is because the manuscript has been gone over a hundred times.
However, when you have first readers who aren’t writers, you need to be alert to “what they think we do” (like those posters with, you know, what my mom thinks I do, what I really do, etc.) The general public thinks the first qualification of a professional writer is to be sort of a super spelling and grammar person. We are extremely good with written language. We never make a mistake!
(At that you should be grateful, because now we have computers, and before that typewriters. My grandfather, otherwise an intelligent man, once told me that I’d never be a writer, because my handwriting was impossible to decipher. Apparently, in the times before typewriters — in Portugal, at least — we were also supposed to be expert calligraphers.)
In fact there is a not inconsequential overlap between writing fiction and dyslexia. No one is absolutely sure why, but there is. As in, more of us are dyslexic than of the general public. Also, in matters of grammar and punctuation, we are much like the rest of the public. We’re often uncertain where commas should be, and each of us has a theory of how to apply them. Except me, of course, I missed punctuation day in all seven languages, so I punctuate by guess and golly.
Because I’m a writer, and writers have fledgelings while they’re still fledgelings themselves, as we all trudge around looking for someone with just a little bit more of a clue to show us an inch more of the way towards craft mastery, I’ve read manuscripts at all levels of professsionalism, from raw beginner to best sellers (yeah, I have bestselling friends. Yeah, sometimes they too want to know if a scene or a chapter, or a plot works before mailing it in.) Typos, grammar mistakes, dropped words and haphazard commaing (totally a word) happen at all levels.
However, when readers-who-aren’t-writers tell you “it’s very well written” or “it’s beautifully written” what they mean in fact, is that they found no typos or grammar mistakes.
If you let yourself be lulled into a sense of false security by this, and slap your manuscript up on Amazon, you’ll be riding for a fall. You could have written how to boil cabbage for 400 pages, but provided all your letters are in the right place, and your punctuation works, amateurs or lay people will tell you “it’s beautifully written.” In fact your manuscript could BE boiled cabbage. They’ll still tell you it’s beautifully written provided it accords with the rules of the English language. And, by the way, in passing, yeah, that can be a problem too. If you’re writing dialogue, or first person, or whatever, sometimes you have to break the grammatical rules for it to sound “alive.” People do talk in sentence fragments and run on sentences ALL THE TIME.
But the part you should pay attention to is “it wasn’t my type of thing.” If a group of readers who have enjoyed your work in the past are all telling you that, no matter how grammatical your work is, you’ve misfired.
Your job is not to make sure every comma is in place, there are no spurious apostrophes, and no letter got misstyped. Your job is to take the reader on a journey of the mind. Your job is to make sure people live through the story, ideally as vividly as if it happened to them.
To mind the commas and the periods, the articles and the conjunctions is your copy editor’s job.
Your job is to start with a gripping sentence, then introduce details of your world as the story unrolls, and do it so sneakily, so stealthily, so exactly right, that people are captured in the story and would rather continue reading than eat, sleep or make love.
Your job is to be gripping. Leave the copy-editors to take care of the typos. You are the writer, and only you can weave the spell that will make readers live in your world for a little while and care about non-existent people as though they were their dearest friends.
THAT is a “beautifully written” novel.
Now go do that.