I am working on a new handout for talks, one about mistaken ideas that come out of workshops. And I thought I’d ask you all for help creating it. But first, a disclaimer: I have spent a lot of time in writing workshops—as a student and, later, as a teacher—and I have learned a ton from them. Good, useful things that improved my craft and gave a professional sheen to my work that would have taken years and criminal acts to achieve otherwise. I love workshops and think most every writer should have one, so don’t get me wrong when I warn you that sometimes …
Workshop members have no idea what they are talking about. You know the person I am talking about: Full of advice, self-important, hellbent on hearing herself speak, convinced she has the solution to every problem, has sussed every issue, has gamed every system, knows the ins-and-outs of everything about anything. Which means, of course, that she’s talking out of her hat. Often the misinformation comes from good intentions, or is simply outdated, but it is misinformation nonetheless, and it should be taken down with extreme prejudice. Hence the need for a handout.
To start us off, I thought I’d gather a couple I labored under years ago, when I was a teen and just pecking out stories on my family’s old Selectric II.
- All manuscripts must be submitted in Courier 10
“Courier 10” here does not mean a ten-point font, but rather, a type size that corresponded to a certain size and kind of type on typewriters (for me, it was a certain IBM Selectric II typeball—God, how I loved those things!). The reasoning for this was sound: In the days before we could reformat type easily, editors and copy editors wanted the type to be large and generously spaced on the page, so that the text was easy to edit and mark up and rewrite while still be clear for the typographer. But that was before designers simply reformatted text files and output pages. So, while you definitely want your manuscript to have big, easy-to-read type, it doesn’t have to be Courier. A nice, large Garamond or Times will do just fine. (Bruce Coville will argue otherwise, but he’s set in his old-fashioned ways.)
- You MUST have a copyright notice on your manuscript to protect your intellectual property
A close partner to this one is the person who advises having the copyright line appear on every page, as though an editor will seize a page and say, “Ah ha! This page doesn’t have a copyright symbol, so we can steal EVERYTHING with impunity!” (Being editors, and pretentious, they will, of course, use words like “impunity” to add dignity to their low-down thieving.)
While the theft of intellectual property does happen, no examples come to mind of it happening on a corporate level. Yes, authors steal from other authors—plenty of examples of dishonor among writers comes to mind. But editors? Publishers? It is much easier for them to just buy the book rather than steal an idea. And, really, ideas are cheap; execution is what it’s all about. (Stephenie Meyer did not invent the vampire romance. J.K. Rowling did not invent the wizardry school story. George Lucas did not invent space opera—though that did not stop the makers of Flash Gordon from filing a spurious lawsuit against Star Wars in the seventies, but they hadn’t invented space opera, either, which is why that lawsuit went nowhere.)
Truth is, your work is copyrighted once you’ve fixed it in some medium. To file a lawsuit, you must file copyright, but your copyright exists from the moment you put the work down on paper, and every editor knows that. So that “Copyright (c) 2009 by Enid Blythe” reveals only that you’re a bit of a naif.
- There are strict word limits for middle-grade novels, teen novels, and adult novels. In fact, that’s how they are categorized.
Um, no. Not at all. Just yesterday I had coffee with an author who asked me if her word count was too short for a teen novel, and I shrugged and asked, “Does the book feel thin? Underdeveloped? Below the reading level of the target audience? Then it may be too short. Otherwise, who knows? A book is as long as it needs to be.” Angela Johnson’s The First Part Last is a short, short, short book. No one would mistake it as being a book for middle graders. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is longer than life itself (and nearly as good). And obviously a high middle-grade read. Your story will determine its length. Whether you’ve satisfied your target audience in terms of tone and complexity and so on—well, those are questions of craft, not of word count.
Those are just a few misconceptions that I carried around with me in my early days as a writer, but there are tons more out there, I’m sure. What other bits of misinformation come to mind for you? Which lies did you labor under until you were gently told otherwise?