It’s Time For Writers to Take Charge Of Their Writing

By on August 14, 2015

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The Cabinetmaker

John Doe, a cabinetmaker, was wandering through the stacks in the farthest, darkest corner of his local hardwood dealer’s lot one fine spring day, when he came upon a very old piece of old-growth cherry wood that had been lying there air-drying in that very yard for thirty years. It was four inches thick, two feet wide, and nearly six feet long. The two long sides were the uneven, natural sides of the tree trunk, and the two short sides were chainsaw cuts. There was a crack running most of the length of the piece, off center by several inches, ranging from a tightly closed hairline at one end of the slab to a gap a full two inches wide at the far end.

He bought the piece, took it home, and stared at it until he saw the tabletop that was hiding inside it. He trimmed one end, a cut as smooth as a baby’s skin, perfectly square to the centerline of the slab. He cut the other end, just as smoothly, just as perfectly, exactly four feet from the first cut and square to it. He ground and honed the blades in his planer until the surfaces they left were as fine as satin, and then he planed the slab down to exactly three inches, both the top and the bottom so smooth he didn’t even sand them. He drilled through the whole width of the slab four times, one-inch holes running clear from one edge to the other, and he buried one-inch stainless steel dowels in the holes, spanning the gap. If the break is there, he decided, then use it. If the edges are the uneven natural shape of the trunk of the tree, then use that.

You have every right in the world to say “Oh my stars and garters, that’s an ugly table! I wouldn’t put that in my house for all the tea in Peru.” You have the right to say “I would have done it differently. I never would have left that gap in there. I would have trimmed those edges.” But if you’re a furniture manufacturer, and if Mr Doe comes to you and says “Tell you what – you make a thousand copies of this cool table I made, and we’ll split the profits,” then your choices are limited. You can say “Yes, we’ll reproduce that table,” or you can say “No, not on your life!” You don’t have the right to say “We will reproduce your table, but there are some errors we need to correct first. You probably didn’t notice that there’s a big gap running most of the length of the surface, or that you forgot to trim the edges. Also, you used cherry, and tables should be made of oak. So we’ll fix those errors for you. And don’t feel bad about this — it’s nothing personal. It’s just that no one expects cabinet makers to understand the ramifications of material choice, or how things like gaps in the wood can effect the aesthetics of the table.”

The Photographer

Jane Q. Public is a photographer. One fall day in Maine, she took a picture of a huge old oak tree, its leaves every color of red and orange and brown that you could possibly ever dream of. She loaded the photograph into her computer, where she spent half an hour experimenting with various crops until she found exactly the framing she wanted. She created four separate versions of the tree, one showing only red, one showing only blue, one showing only yellow, and one in black and white. She matted and mounted these in a row in a single frame, and took it to the local art gallery to see about getting some posters made.

The owner of the gallery told Jane “This is a very nice photograph, all in all. Of course, there are some issues that need to be corrected. I don’t think you realize this, but you have created four distinct color separations of what should be just one image, and the tree trunk should be exactly one third of the way from left to right. We’ll have to correct those little things, of course, but yes, it’s a fine picture, and we’ll be delighted to sell prints of it. Don’t take this personally — we just want your picture to be the very best picture it can be. No one expects photographers to know about things like color balance and the rule of thirds.”

The Sculptor

Quincy Q. Everyman has created a sculpture, an androgynous figure with a bow, down on one knee and aiming high into the sky. Quincy never talks about his work, but he thinks, privately, that this piece is a metaphor for futility, a figure that could be any one of us, forced already to one knee and yet still firing skyward at the forces of fate that have bowed us down. To emphasize the brokenness of his figure, he’s crafted it from grape-sized pieces of wax, worked in his hands until they’re soft enough to mash together, forming a cohesive whole and yet still rough and lumpy, holding his own thumb prints and the marks of his nails. After this wax armature has spent a year in his studio, where he makes minute changes to it on an almost daily basis, he finally decides it is as perfect as he is ever going to make it, and he casts it in bronze.

He takes the finished piece to a company that makes cast resin figurines of sculpture. “Very nice,” the owner says, after examining the piece. “Except… We’re going to have to make it more obviously a man, or perhaps a woman, but you certainly couldn’t have meant for it to be this either/or hermaphrodite thing you’ve got going on here. And he has to be standing up. That down-on-one-knee thing is entirely too depressing. And the surface is going to have to be smoothed up a lot, to get the satin shine that all fine sculpture should have. Also, the bow has to go. Perhaps a sword. Yes, lots of sculptures have swords, so that will be fine. A standing man with a sword. We’ll fix these things up for you, and then we’ll make a million copies of it. Nothing personal, you understand — we just want your sculpture to be the very best sculpture it can be, and no one expects sculptors to understand things like the marks left by certain processes, or the effects of certain poses.”

The Editor

In what world would these not be profoundly insulting reactions? You’ve got every right in the world to say that you don’t like a certain piece. You even have the right to say exactly what it is that you don’t like, exactly what makes you want to turn away. You can say “I don’t like tables with natural edges. I don’t like the four-different-treatments-of-an-identical-photograph effect. I don’t like sculptures that make me feel threatened.” What you cannot rightfully do is assume that the artist actually intended to make the piece you think should have been made, that the changes you would make are improvements, that every table, every photograph, every sculpture, needs to be reworked by a “professional.” You do not have the right to assume that these are mistakes, and that the artist does not understand the tools that were used.

I’m not saying the table wasn’t level, or the framing of the photograph was crooked. I’m not saying the sculpture was spindly and malformed. I’m saying that the only reason any of these pieces even exist is as a manifestation of the artist’s art. That each of them is a product of aesthetic choices made by its creator. That the inclusion of the gap was not an error, that the color separations were deliberate, that the sculpture’s posture was very deliberately chosen for the effect it would have.

Nor am I saying that these reactions would happen. If there are people in these positions who would have these reactions, they are in the minority. Most furniture manufacturers, art gallery owners, or figurine company owners would say yes or no based on the piece they had been offered. They might even say “No, because I don’t like tables with gaps in them.” I don’t think you would find too many of them who assumed the gap was there because the cabinetmaker hadn’t noticed it, or because the cabinetmaker could not be expected to understand the intimate arcana of his craft.

No, only writers get subjected to this level of indignity on a daily basis. You’ve used too many adverbs — we’ll have to correct that in the editing process. You’ve used the wrong tense. The wrong viewpoint. Too much head-hopping. Too many prepositions. Serial comma. Weak verb. Stream of consciousness. You probably never realized that you fell into passive voice in this paragraph, and again in that one. We’ll fix all of this for you, and then we’ll publish your book. Don’t get defensive — we just want your book to be the very best it can be, and we know what that is, and you don’t. We understand the tools, and you don’t. Nothing personal. No one expects a writer to understand the ins and outs of syntax and grammar and rhetoric and metaphor. Don’t get huffy.

I say it’s time to get huffy. I say if it’s an insult to tell a cabinetmaker that he made his table “wrong,” then it is an insult to tell a writer that he wrote his novel “wrong.” I’m not talking about actual mistakes, which we all make. I’m not talking about the misspelled wurds, or the the extra words, or the missing. We all do that, and none of us are as good at catching them as we should be. I’m not even talking about the places where Miriam says something, but it really looks like Chase said it, or people go out through a door twice in a row, or the teddy bear moves from the crib to the rocker without human help, or the same teacher is teaching two different classes, in two different classrooms, at the same time. (No… Totally random list. Why do you ask? *whistles nonchalantly*)

I’m talking about the stylistic, aesthetic, artistic choices we make every day, in every line of every paragraph of every page. I’m talking about the insult of thinking we cannot be expected to know anything about the tools of our craft, and the assumption that when we make choices someone else would not have made, we have made errors, based on our ignorance. I’m talking about the sheer, deep, profound, basal, chromosome-level insult of assuming that if we were real writers, if we just understood the tools and choices, if only we could be expected to actually learn, we would write exactly as the editors think we should have, and that until then, “every novel has to be professionally edited, because the author is too close to the work to make the choices that need to be made.”

I don’t want my novel to be “the best novel it can be.”

Not if that means shaping it to someone else’s will, not if that means making aesthetic changes based on someone else’s aesthetic sensibilities. I’ll fix anything that doesn’t say what I want it to say, for whatever reason there may be, but I will not make a single change based on someone else’s notion of what “can” or “cannot” or “should” or “should not” be done in a novel.

I want my novel to be the very best novel I can make it. I want my novel to be my novel.

This is why I self-publish. To retain control of all the artistic aspects of my art. The only reason my novels exist at all is as expressions of my art. If I turn my back on my art, I have turned my back on the reason I write.

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The publishers of the future will know this. As publishing becomes easier and easier (and it really can’t get much easier than it is now), as the stigma of self-publishing continues to slough off like a lizard’s skin, the publishers who emerge bright and shiny from that shedding will be the ones who read the book that exists and say yes or no based on the book you have written, not on the book they wish you had written.

It’s time to move beyond the sad little argument that writers who reject the stylistic changes of other people are writers who “cannot handle criticism,” or who “don’t know how to accept advice,” or who need to “get over themselves.” There is good art and bad art, there is successful art and unsuccessful art (which is pretty much the same thing as good art and bad art), but there is no wrong art or right art. Art is neither right nor wrong, and the stylistic choices made in producing any particular work of art are just that — choices. Passive voice, adverbs, present tense, prepositions, infinitives, “state-of-being” verbs, sentence fragments, run-on sentences, warping of the timeline of a story, warping of the points of view, “stream-of-consciousness” writing, and all of the thousand and one other things you’ve heard denigrated for no valid reason your entire life are simply tools. Tools to be used or not used, to be picked up or laid aside, as dictated by the aesthetic sensibilities of the author. All of these tools have been used, and used extensively, by well-educated, well-respected writers of English prose since the dawn of English, and it is ludicrous that any writer should ever have to defend the continued use of them.

It’s time for writers to write the book they have, not the book someone else wants them to have. It’s time for writers to take charge of their art. It’s time for writers to stand up.

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This post by Levi Montgomery was published with the title The Cabinetmaker, The Photographer, The Sculptor and the Editor at

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