A Cautionary Tale for New Writers

This is directed at those of you who are, or who are about to be, in the process of publishing your first novel, especially if it’s with a major publisher.  I’m going to tell you about something I screwed up with the idea that maybe you won’t, all right?

My first novel, Jar-head, or whatever it’s called, has this big, ugly blotch in it that makes me cringe every time I think about it.  It’s the line (quoting from memory because looking it up would be painful), “All of our Houses are named after one of our native animals.”  It doesn’t belong there, it sticks out, it is terrible exposition.

It wasn’t in the novel as I submitted it, I added it to editorial specification.  Except, and here’s the thing, when my editor (the amazing Terri Windling) suggested it, she specifically stated, or rephrase in your own words.

I was a newbie writer, dying with the excitement that I was actually having a book published, utterly lacking in anything that could be considered self-confidence, and the very idea of disagreeing with an editor was, well, how could I do that?  Who could do that?  I couldn’t do that.

Now, let’s be clear: this is on me, not on her.  She wanted a bit more exposition, which was not unreasonable.  I could have disagreed with the need for it, saying, “Hey, you figured it out, let’s assume the reader will too,” or I could have agreed and done what she told me to—found an elegant way to get that information across.  She would have been perfectly comfortable with either of those.  But I was new, intimidated, nervous, so I just copied what she said, even though I kinda knew at the time it wasn’t right.

So, okay, here’s my point: It’s your first book, and maybe you’re as intimidated as I was, but it is still your book, and your editor knows that.  We don’t  go into the editorial process with an Attitude, with a feeling of, “Don’t you dare touch my sacred prose!” but it is also wrong to be so subservient as to not even question anything.  You don’t want that, the reader doesn’t want that, and the editor doesn’t want that.

Here endeth the lesson.


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23 thoughts on “A Cautionary Tale for New Writers”

  1. fwiw, I’ve never tripped over this. The rest of the book is so spectacular that I didn’t mind a little expositional help understanding the rich and unique world you developed.

  2. In this case, I probably would argue (in hindsight) that the line just isn’t really necessary. By the time you get the reader along to Chapter 9 and Aliera drops the info-bomb on Vlad about Imperial History, the point is well made there just as a natural part of the dialogue.

    If you’re worried about the reader getting puzzled and so frustrated earlier on that they don’t make it that far into the novel–well, let’s just say I think you gave the reader enough to sink their teeth into to ensure that’s not likely to happen. At least, not unless they were already going to bail out for other reasons, anyway.

  3. Okay, I’ll bite. If you could go back in time and rephrase the sentence in your own words prior to publication, as the present day skzb, (more, uh, experienced) what would you write?

  4. I happened to think of this the other day, and thought, “Damn, I bet that still bugs him.”

    “One of the problems with being a writer is that all of your idiocies are still in print somewhere. I strongly support paper recycling.” — P.J. O’ROURKE

  5. That line didn’t bother me when I read it, or if it did I’ve forgotten it some time over the last ~30 years. The “Jenoine messed with our DNA so most of the Houses really were part that-animal” annoyed me a bit, but not enough to distract from the rest of a really strong book.

  6. Did that inadvertently lead to the introduction of Vlad relaying his tales to “the box” or the other nameless story receiver that we briefly meet (directly or indirectly) a few times throughout the series? Did you mine that “mistake” and turn it into the extremely satisfying narrative mechanism that we got that kinda sorta maybe explains that Vlad is telling his stories to someone who is either foreign to the land or at least someone that Vlad thinks is foreign to the land? Because if so, it’s an amazing way to retcon something you were unhappy with without contradicting anything else you’d written. That could be another lesson for new writers.

  7. Nice question, Kragar. I’m not sure. My first reaction, I think, would be to politely ask if she’s were sure we really needed it. If she said yes, I’d probably look to drop a couple of little things along the way that mention an animal and a House and the similarities.

    Nice idea, Jason, but no. That came out of a discussion (I can’t remember exactly when) with Will Shetterly about what’s called “conceit,” which has to do with why, in the author’s head, the story is being told. I chewed that concept over and decided it would be fun to play with in the text. I can’t tell you where in the process that happened–it might have been before I wrote Jhereg, or maybe several books in.

  8. Very cool info. I noticed a few things in your earlier works that “jarred” a bit, Jhereg and Yendi both, and maybe one particular scene in Teckla, but really, until that little snafu in Dzur, I didn’t notice anything that stabbed at me from Taltos on out. Orca fixed, in my opinion, some of the minor complaints I had about Yendi, (not plot-wise, but writing-wise) and I thought about that while I was reading Orca, and it made me happy to see how much you’d improved in that time period. There were things that surprised me and things that I thought you could improve, don’t get me wrong, but your plots have always been exceptionally tight and well-thought out from my perspective, they have to be given the limited chapter-count you give yourself. I also started with Phoenix and To Reign in Hell, which remain two my of my favorite works by you, and I was pretty young (11-12) when I read them, so my critical thinking hadn’t really developed at that point. And now, of course, when I do my new book re-reads with every new publication of yours, it is hard not to just get lost in the nostalgia and read any of your older works from a critical viewpoint ;-)~

  9. Alexx, completely off topic, but I saw your response before I noticed your name and thought “I should check Alexx Kay’s timeline to confirm that.”

  10. Alexx, I’m 99.9% sure you’re correct and the first mention of the box happens in “Dragon,” however, the first indications of Vlad breaking the fourth wall, as it were, and letting us know he is narrating to an audience, I believe happen in “Yendi”…at least once. I’ll try to confirm sometime soon.

  11. Jason: :-)

    Derek: Depending on how strictly you define “narrating to an audience”, you could easily put it as early as _Jhereg_. Certainly well before _Dragon_.

  12. Alexx, yeah, sure, but I’m talking about a specific quote or two that leave no room for ambiguity, at least in my mind. Here is the first quote from Yendi that I was specifically referring to – “odd as it may seem to you who have listened to me so patiently and so well…” To me, no matter how strictly you define “narrating to an audience,” that particular passage, in light of Dragon’s metal box, implies Vlad is conscious and aware that he is relating his experiences to a specific audience.

    That, at least, is how I choose to interpret that passage. On a brief skim through Jhereg I didn’t find anything that so blatantly illustrated Vlad’s awareness that he was addressing an audience. But again, that is solely my interpretation and recollection, and I’m extremely willing to be proven wrong ;)

  13. Sounds like the metal box was there, conceptually or explicitly, from VERY early on.

    That raises another question for skzb: how often do you read your own books? I mean, after all is said and done and they have been published and all the rest. Do you ever read them again?

  14. I generally skim a few when ready to start a new one. I recently read the whole thing and made notes in preparation for writing The Last Contract (or leaving it for someone else to write if I kick off first), and I expect to do that again as I start to bring it into focus.

  15. I have a question, skzb, regarding Jhereg (which I’m rereading right now as I’m getting over the flu – intellectual comfort food). My question regards names.

    I get that many of the names of your characters are drawn from your ethnic background, but I’m wondering specifically about the “Lavode” part of Sethra Lavode.

    This is going to get kind of round about. A friend of mine posted on social media about laundry. He lives in an apartment building with shared laundry facilities; he had washed a load of clothes and they had come out with some stains. So he re-washed the load and it came out clean, but it prompted him to ponder the question, “Who washes the washers?”

    I did my best to translate this into the original latin (although my knowledge of latin is rudimentary). The latin for “wash” is “lava”, and so the best I could come up with was to mimic the structure of “Quis custodiat ipsos custodes” by writing “Quis lavodiat ipsos lavodes?”

    Which brought me up short. Is Sethra (and her family) the “cleaners” for house Dragon?


  16. Sethra Lavode came from the original gaming session, the name created by the late Lee Pelton. Can’t say where he got it.

  17. Ah, okay. Well, it was a thought. Thanks for answering.

    Just read that part of the novel. I always thought of it as Aliera being snooty and talking down to Vlad as an ignorant Jhereg as well as an ignorant Easterner. Basically she was yanking his chain, but he was so focussed on Mellar that when she hijacked his attention he didn’t pick up on it.

  18. Thank you for this. It’s easy for a new writer to get neurotic, between the assumption that the editor must know best, and the desperate desire not to be labeled as “hard to work with”. And there’s very little guidance out there for the novice as to where those lines are.

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