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Your Story, Your Integrity

A few books that took a loooong time to get published.

A few books that took a loooong time to get published.

You want to be a writer. If you’ve written (and finished) anything, you are a writer. Here’s the hard part. What do you do with what you’ve written?

If you’re like most writers, you try to get people to read it. You hand it to your friends, your relatives and your postman looking for something – shock, awe, kudos – whatever. If you get it, you start thinking bigger. Or, you start hearing that you should think bigger.

“This is really good. You should publish it.”

OK. You join writer’s groups. You research publishing houses. You meet people, and finally, you submit your story/query letter/application.

If you’ve made it this far, you’ve learned a few things. Some people are mean. Some are nice. Some people are way worse writers than you. Some are better. Doesn’t matter. You have to work with both kinds if you plan to “get anywhere” in the writing world. You’ve learned you do certain things well and certain things poorly. If your ego can handle all these new insights, you keep going.

Oh, wait. You learn one other thing. Not everyone likes your story.

That’s a hard fact to swallow. If your friends are too nice to bring it up, you’ll get smacked with this in a writer’s group. Likely, it will come from a person you don’t really like anyway, so you’ll be able to ignore it for a while as “mean-spiritedness” or “jealousy” or “not understanding.” Until you hear it from someone else. When you get it from someone you do like/respect, it can crush you.

Don’t let it.

The fact is, not everyone is going to like your story. No matter how well you’ve written it, no matter how perfect your grammar is, or poetic (or clean) your language is, the story won’t sit well with them.

You have two choices. Change your story so they do like it, or live with the reality that they don’t (you actually have more than two choices, but those are the only two I want to deal with).

I’m not talking about editing. “Maybe that scene should go there.” “Maybe that character is a bit much.” “Maybe I don’t need 400 words to describe how she crossed the room.” That’s rearranging deck chairs, and we all learn to do that if we stick with writing long enough.

I’m saying as you get the hang of the craft, and you learn to write what you mean to say, you’ll come to realize that even if “they” don’t like it, that’s exactly what you mean to say. That’s when you have to decide do I change my intent or do I tell the story I meant to tell?

I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer. I do think your purpose in writing will decide which choice you make. If you want to get published, gain acceptance, garner praise from certain sources, you might choose to change the story. You might choose to leave it alone for the same reasons.

I suspect every NAF alum has faced this choice. Right, Lioness? Vaulter? Iguana? Hacker? Well, maybe not Hacker. Pilgrim, certainly, since he took about 14 years to find a home for Alpha Redemption.

I say to you, change is fine – until the thought of making that change turns your stomach, drains the flavor from your food, keeps you awake into the wee hours. That’s when your integrity is on the line, and that’s when the choice really matters. It might mean losing a contract. It might feel like the stupidest thing in the world to balk on. Doesn’t matter. If it costs you your integrity, it’s not worth it. Write another book instead. Give the world a little time to come ’round to your way of thinking. Most stories find a home eventually, and those that don’t…

Well, at least you can sleep at night. For an insomniac like me, that’s huge.

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About Robynn Tolbert

Born in Kansas and born again at age six, Robynn wrote stories for her own amusement for the next thirty years. When a job as a foster care caseworker became too stressful and a career with a floral trade magazine became too comfortable, her thoughts turned to writing an actual book. Success led to success, and she completed a second novel and started her third. Robynn, aka Ranunculus Turtle, lives in Kansas with a clowder of cats, a patient dog and a garden.

14 comments on “Your Story, Your Integrity

  1. LOL! Yes, Hacker has faced that choice. But, um, I think you know what her decision is/was every time :P. She might listen to the sage advice of a Turtle or Vaulter or Space Kiwi about which deck chairs to move, which to make bigger (and more descriptive), which to throw off the deck, but when it comes to the story–it is what it is.

    And I agree with what a certain wise Turtle said to me recently: “I love it when my author friends get stubborn. :)”

    • I’m shocked people don’t love your stories automatically.

      • Really? You’re either being kind or there is much sarcasm dripping from that statement ;). I’ve been told to change the age of my character (Angel) and to add romance (because teen girls like that). I had one editor say a short story of mine was nothing more than a build-up to a punch line (he did not get my intent *at all*), and I had another tell me to change the *theme* of a story (O.o).

        I have, however, also gotten very wise advice, which I’ve chosen to listen to. The most memorable was when an editor told me the pacing of one short story was all wrong, and I realized it was because I had an action scene that served no real purpose, so I cut it (and that story went on to get accepted elsewhere and win Editor’s Choice–so yes, sometimes ya gotta buck up and listen). Yes, and a certain Turtle has truly helped with her insistence that “cheese” is needed, and MORE DESCRIPTION. :D

  2. Fantastic article! Reblogging.

  3. Here’s the kicker. My next novel is supposed to take place in Tibet, but when I do a keyword search on “Tibet” on Amazon, it seems that no one is interested in Tibet or searching for books on Tibet. What do you do then?

    • Depends on your purpose. Does setting the story in Tibet further your purpose or distance you from it? Are you trying to catch the next wave or create it? Are there other keywords people are searching that might grab your story, too, thus making the Tibet issue a non-issue?

      There’s nothing wrong with setting your story in Tibet *if* Tibet is where that story makes the most sense *and* it doesn’t prevent you from achieving your ultimate writing purpose.

      Setting is as much a character in my novels as the characters are. If a story happens in one specific place, that’s the only place that story’s likely to happen. Not every story is like that.

      My point is editing decisions have consequences. Regret comes after all sorts of choices. Only you know which regrets you want to have.

      • Thanks Robynn,
        My novel will be based on a true story of explorers who went to Tibet. But it’s just disheartening that the word “Tibet” is not searched very often on Amazon. But that doesn’t change my decision to write this story! Thanks for your well- thought-out comments and advice!

        • I have to say I’ve always been interested in Tibet and it’s on my top places to visit (much to my husband’s surprise). For what it’s worth–there’s probably more interest, especially from those who will probably never get to visit Tibet anytime soon.

  4. Well said. When I’m being edited I try not to hold onto anything too tightly; sometimes there’s an aspect that doesn’t help the story, and I have to let it go. It comes down to the question, will this change make my work better? Sure, better is subjective, but I don’t want some kind of sentimental attachment to make me reluctant to improve.

    • Howdy, Grace! I’ll preface by saying at no time did I think or feel you asked me to sell my integrity to publish with Splashdown. What you and I did was mostly rearrange deck chairs, and I thought long and hard about what I would be willing to “cut” from Star of Justice if asked before I ever sent you the manuscript.

      Rearranging deck chairs, though, is different from changing the message of the story. “Better” *is* subjective, and if the “better” I’m asked to reach for causes me to change my message in a way I disagree with or delete it entirely, then it’s not “better.” Oh, it might sell more books, and be read and raved over by more people, but if my purpose is compromised, that “better” may as well be “nothing.”

      TT: I am in no way intentionally encouraging authors to argue with their publishers over stupid stuff. Nobody likes to work with a prima dona. However, selling my soul to make the deal is too high a price for this Turtle. I’m not after fame and fortune (although it would be nice if they stopped by for dinner). I want to tell my story. I want to tell it in a way people enjoy, so I listen to advice and consider my position carefully. But, I know where I won’t compromise, and I’m willing to accept those consequences if my partner doesn’t agree.

  5. Thanks for sharing! I posted a link to this from Facebook and Twitter.

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