I was discussing with an editor friend of mine the other day some of the infuriating comments I had received from publishers about a rejected manuscript. I have had a couple in a row now saying more or less the same thing—great story, great writing and we’d love to take it if only you could change a few things. The few things being essentially take out all the imagery, introduce snappy smart-ass dialogue instead of description, cut the number of important characters who the reader will get to know down to two, and get rid of all the passive voice. In other words, rewrite in such a way that my story resembles, in everything but irrelevant details, a hundred other stories that have made money for their publishers.
Keep the language and the concepts simple, they advise, because no reader likes having to think about the meaning of an image. Don’t describe because it’s boring, instead have the characters chatter incessantly about the snow, the rain, the scenery, the car crash etc. Get rid of all adverbs and all dialogue tags except for ‘said’.
Not only is this the tyranny of the mediocre, it’s also plain ignorant. Adverbs are perfectly good parts of speech. Like everything, they can be over-used. But they are not intrinsically evil. If I want to indicate that a character whispered a comment, I will say, “she whispered.” I will not say, “she said.” Or “she said in a whisper.” There is a perfectly good verb that condenses ‘to say in a whisper’ into one word: whisper.
Banning the passive voice is another directive that gets on my nerves as it is often through a misunderstanding of what the passive voice is. I was told, as an example, to change “George was reading the book” (passive) to “George read the book” (active). George was reading is past continuous not passive. It is no less active than any straight past tense and it doesn’t mean the same thing. The passive would be “The book was read by George.”
Take “George was reading the book when the doorbell rang.” Compare it with “George read the book when the doorbell rang.” Doesn’t make sense.
These blanket instructions are not intended to help make a particular manuscript better, just to turn all manuscripts into the same, homogenised product. The same is true of dialogue. It has to be clever, smart, snappy. Regardless of the situation. I’ve just been reading a novel that typifies what editors insist upon. It starts with a guy getting knocked down by a van. Because an opening has to be action-packed, right? Instead of the guy’s unspoken impressions as the van hits him, the reader is given an internal monologue of ‘humorous’ quips and observations. To my mind this is misplaced and unrealistic, and it’s not even funny. It’s life reduced to clichés, situations reduced to tropes, and characters flattened to cardboard cut-outs.
I am coming more and more round to the opinion that publishers, editors, agents are looking for a product not a book, a brand not an author. I try to step back from what I write, try to use the advice I’ve been given to make the story better. I can always see how to make it different, it’s the ‘better’ that is so subjective. Does ‘better’ have to mean easier to read, as in taking what was written for 16-18 year olds with an adult reading age and making it suitable for ten year olds who have to be cajoled away from their comic books with promises of similar action and wise cracks? If that’s making it better, then I’m afraid I don’t share the same fundamental ideas about what makes writing good. In fact, to me it looks suspiciously like an encouragement to dumb it down.