This week I spent some time and energy—of the intellectual and emotional variety—in the final stages of editing our first book, Tattoos and Tans. And the process brought out some very real lessons for me as a writer that I’d like to pass on. These will be especially useful for anyone who occupies the unique position I have at New Bayou Books, as both a writer and the head of the publishing company.
In fact, let’s start there, just for the sake of context. When you strip away the admittedly somewhat corporate language on our website and in our promotional materials, what you’ll discover is that I, Jason Reed, am the author of the first two books, and I’m also the founder and of the company. It’s like that old Hair Club for Men commercial. I’m not only the president of the company, but I’m a member too.
Or, to put it another way—and this is not how I like to phrase it—but I am essentially self publishing my own books through my own company. Now, I don’t like the phrase “self-publishing” because it always tends to be used in a kind of pejorative way, but it’s basically correct. The important addition to this fact is that I started New Bayou Books not as a vehicle for my own work, but rather as a banner, a flag, through which I plan to rally all kinds of native authors to spark a revolution in Louisiana literature. I’m dead serious about that part of it.
But the fact remains I am responsible for both the writing and the marketing of at least the first two titles New Bayou Books will produce. So this puts me in a unique and inherently tense predicament . . . it’s a predicament that came into the stark, unfiltered light of binary choice earlier this week.
The predicament is, when it comes to those editorial choices on the page—do you back the writer, or do you back the marketer? And it’s binary because you can’t have it both ways. Or, actually, you can . . . but, if there’s one thing I am sure of, it’s that splitting the difference on this issue is a sure way to create a bland piece of writing that will satisfy neither the writer or the sales team. So let’s just say that “compromise” in this context is really just an intellectually dishonest way of avoiding the hard choices you must make if you are responsible for both writing and selling your book.
Before I get to the crux of the matter and offer my advice for others in my shoes, let me just say, as a quick aside, that this might be one of those places where it’s actually easier if you’re not “self-publishing”. If you decided to go with one of the gatekeepers of traditional publishing, you probably relinquished at least some degree of editorial veto power anyway, and so maybe you won’t have to deal with this kind of thing. But let’s assume I’m addressing those of us writers who decided not to ask for permission to publish our work.
Okay, enough preamble. Let me break down the specific example, which illustrates the issue perfectly (and which I’ve dealt with in probably two dozen times variations over the course of a one hundred thousand word manuscript). In Tattoos and Tans, one of the main characters, a dude by the name of Curtis Laroux, travels from New Orleans to Eunice, Louisiana, in a seven hundred dollar hoopty of dubious origin that he got from a junk man named Moe. He’s traveling on I-10, and as he crests the Mississippi River Bridge in Baton Rouge, he sees the capital city stretched out before him.
We see the scene through Curt’s eyes and, as he descends the bridge we get a glimpse of how he views Baton Rouge. He has a sense of awe as he views the city below him, and he notes that it’s grown a good bit since Hurricane Katrina. Then he thinks about how he never really liked Baton Rouge. In fact, he thinks, he’s never known Baton Rouge to have a soul.
I can’t remember the exact line off hand, but if you want to dig it up, the entire manuscript (in its imperfect, draft form) is posted to NewBayouBooks.com. But the poetic merit of the line is besides the point, for now. The point is, here’s a character who has an unflattering opinion of Baton Rouge, which is, unfortunately, a big, important city for a publishing company that wants to sell Louisiana-centric books to Louisiana readers.
Now, you don’t have to be in sales to know that it’s a terrible idea to go bad-mouthing the place where your customers live. It’s really that simple. When you think about it from the sales position, at least.
In the end I chose to think about it from the writer’s position. And I used two specific litmus tests that I want to offer here, for other writers (or salespeople, for that matter), who find themselves in a similar position. I think of these tests as questions. The answers to the questions guide you to the right answer on the page.
The beauty of the first question is it doesn’t require that you choose between the writing and the marketing side. Well, you choose a side . . . but it’s the character’s side you take. Here’s the question: Does the language credibility reflect who the character is? To say it a bit more plainly: is the language consistent with the character?
If the answer is yes, I say let the text stand. Every character, like every human being, is imperfect. They have biases, blind spots, flaws. At least they better have them.
The second question is for the writer. It is: If you changed the text, do you think you’ll regret it when you read this book in five or twenty years? If the answer is yes, I say let the text stand.
The lesson I learned this week is that the voice of the writer has to stand proud. As a mere “self published” author—in fact, I’m not even that yet . . . so let me rephrase. As a fiction writer, starting fresh at forty something with nothing to lose and nothing to prove, my thinking is finally crystal clear on this matter. When it comes to the language in your book, let it belong to you and to your characters. Because in the final analysis, those two very real entities are the only two you should be writing to please.
And if that sounded too highfalutin for you, let me rephrase the same sentiment the way my good friend and badass visual artist, Toby always says it. When it comes down to whether you should make an edit to satisfy the sales team, Toby says “Fuck ‘em and feed ‘em fish heads.”