I gave a brief, impromptu lecture this past weekend on avoiding the “nots” when discussing your writing. This took place at a Read & Critique. For those who may not be familiar, a Read & Critique is an on-the-spot evaluation of the opening of a novel or nonfiction work. The critiquers—three of us this time—do a blind read of a half page synopsis and 2-page opening of a work. The writers in the session listen while the critiquers offer their gut responses to these openings.
A Read & Critique is valuable in that the authors get to hear a review that is unfiltered because it is live. There is no time to weigh and measure for the critiquers, so we share our thoughts on what pops out of the opening.
In one submission, what popped out to me was the author’s repetition of what the book was not. It did this, but it didn’t do that. It would examine this, but it would not examine that. It was similar to this, but it was not like that. Rather than clarify exactly what this book would do, the “nots” jumbled my vision of the author’s goal. Why tell me what a project won’t do, when you can focus on what it will achieve?
This was not my first encounter with writers focusing on the “nots” of their writing rather than the opposite. Perhaps that’s why it jumped out at me.
What do I mean by the “nots” of your writing? Here are a few examples:
In a query, “my story is a light romance meant to entertain, not make the reader think.”
In a synopsis, “Detective Pierce solves the case that’s haunted him for 10 years through persistence and solid police work, not luck or coincidence.”
In a bio, “Rita the Writer is a proud graduate of her local community college, not some hoity-toity Ivy League school.”
Each of the above examples (changed to protect the sender) comes from a letter I received from an editing query.
What’s wrong with the “nots” up there?
Is the romance writer actually opposed to making readers think? I doubt that, but that’s the impression I get. I like to be entertained, but I also like to think. In real life, romance requires reams of thought—or should—and there are just as many books that handle the subjects of love and courtship with weightiness as those that strive for a lighter approach. This particular manuscript takes that lighter approach. That’s cool. But mentioning the “not” gave me pause, because there is a subtle implication that thinking readers are a bad thing. If I think of myself as a thoughtful reader, I might avoid this book because of the author’s comment. Why give a reader such an easy out?
In the synopsis, which was for a mystery, noting the persistence and solid police work gave me information about the character and story. I expected a studied and logical approach by Detective Pierce to solving this crime. I wondered what it was about this case that’s haunted him, and been unsolvable, for 10 years. All good stuff. But….luck? Coincidence? These are no-nos in the crime writing genre anyway, so the writer is telling me what I already know. The mention made me wonder if other officers have solved crimes through luck and coincidence, and Detective Pierce’s work habits are exceptional. If that is inaccurate, the description is misleading.
Regarding Rita the Writer, I was pleased for her that she’s proud of her educational path. I attended a big state university that was as much focused on football and keggers as it was on academics, but hey, that was my choice. I earned my degree and look back fondly on those years. If someone else attended a more prestigious, or different school, what is that to me? Mentioning it makes Rita sound defensive. There is no need to be defensive of a good choice, is there?
Cut out the Negatives
In the above examples, if you cut out the “not” phrases, does anything change? The romance writer still entertains, the detective still solves the case, Rita is still proud of her school. Right?
Writing with efficiency and clarity produces a cleaner final product. Describing what is included in a project keeps the vision of it more clear. Mixing in what’s not there serves what purpose? None.
You’ve heard of kill your darlings? While you’re at it, clear out those “nots” as well. Focus on what your work achieves, and you’ll be treating the reader to a more fair and accurate presentation.
Does anyone out there suffer from a “not” habit?