“Your Writing Should Be So Clean You Can Eat Off It”: An Interview With Holly Smith

by Tara Laskowski See all Guest Readers

Tell me the best parts of being a book reviewer, and the worst parts. Do you ever stop reading a book you don’t like, or do you feel an obligation to finish what you start?

The best parts are just the sheer pleasure of being exposed to so many interesting books and authors, and having the privilege of telling readers about them. I’m a serious book nerd, so I never get tired of it. On the flip side, the worst parts include not being able to trumpet all the good books and authors out there — there are just too many of them, and too few hours in the day to cover them all. It’s also hard to balance the desire to be nice to an author with the responsibility to be honest in the review. If a book genuinely falls apart, reviewers have an obligation to say so. The trick is to do it professionally and thoughtfully. Gratuitous bashing is never okay.

As for finishing books, life’s too short to suffer needlessly. My general rule-of-thumb is to give any book at least 100 pages. If it’s still “meh” by then, there’s no point in continuing. Having said that, I’ve recently abandoned my own rule and ditched a couple books after 50 pages, even though these particular books earned raves elsewhere. (I’m not naming names.) I also broke my own rule once and labored through every tedious, hellacious page of On the Road. That’s three days I’m not getting back.

What makes a good story for you? What would a writer want to make sure he or she does to keep you interested, especially in flash, where words are limited?

It sounds clichéd, but a good story is the kind I can fall into, either because of its tone, its language, or its plot. The subject matter isn’t even important; it’s how the author works his or her magic with that subject. A great example of this is Gabriel García Márquez. Every time I read one of his books, I think, “I have no idea what he just did or how he did it, but I’m blown away.”

In flash fiction, the author’s task is daunting because she has to hook the reader immediately. There’s no time for a slow buildup, so it’s essential *not* to bury the lead. If Mrs. Bates’ body is in the basement, you need to spit it out.

You’ve been an editor for a long time, and so what are some common mistakes that writers make? What are your pet peeves when editing?

I’m a writer first and foremost, so I empathize with how hard writing is. It’s like if you’ve ever been a waiter (which I have), you’re especially forgiving of fellow waiters — and are a great tipper — because you know how hard the job is and how so many things are out of their control. (The risotto may be crappy, but it’s not the waiter’s fault.)

On the flip side, though, you also know what *is* in the waiter’s control. It’s the same with being an editor. I understand how hard writing is, but I also know which parts are firmly in the writer’s hands, including seemingly simple things like spelling, neatness, and basic due diligence (e.g., taking five seconds to find out an editor’s name vs. sending a pitch to “Dear Editor”). Any time a writer sends a query, it should be spotless. (As I tell my university students, “Your writing should be so clean you could eat off it.”)

Keeping with the sloppiness theme (I’ve gotten queries where the word “query” is misspelled, I kid you not), a *huge* pet peeve is getting work from writers — many of them longtime, successful pros — that’s FULL of errors. It happens more often than you’d think. It’s almost like certain writers have the mindset that “I’m so good at what I do that I don’t need to bother proofing my work. Someone else will fix it.” It drives me INSANE.

Another issue is writers not adhering to the guidelines. For example, when I was a magazine editor, I’d assign, say, an 800-word piece. The writer would then turn in 2,000 words, along with a note to the effect that the piece was so good, it simply *couldn’t* be shortened. (An aside: EVERYTHING can be shortened.) The result was more work for me, the editor, because we had a set-in-stone amount of space in the magazine for the particular piece, and so it had to be trimmed way down or else abandoned completely. It’s more than an annoyance; it’s unprofessional. And it’s why editors drink. I assume.

What do you think are some exciting trends in publishing that you see happening now that we might look out for in 2016 and beyond?

Along with the ever-widening acceptance of (and respect for) self-published and indie-published books, I think one of the coolest things is that books by international authors and/or writers of color are starting to get the attention they deserve. We’re a completely interconnected world now, so there’s no excuse for us *not* to be reading across cultures and backgrounds. It’s something we take very seriously at the Independent, and we’re making a concerted effort to bring more international writers to our readers’ attention this year. Stay tuned!


About the Reader:

Holly Smith is managing editor of the Washington Independent Review of Books, as well as a college lecturer, longtime freelance writer, and co-author of Seafood Lover's Chesapeake Bay. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, CNBC.comUSA Today Travel’s 10BestMore Mirth of a Nation, Salon, Washington Flyer, Brain, Child, and other publications. She earned a master’s degree in creative nonfiction from Johns Hopkins, something the university doesn’t exactly brag about. She has four children and spends her free time hiding from them.

About the Interviewer:

Tara Laskowski has been editor at SmokeLong Quarterly since 2010. Her short story collection Bystanders was hailed by Jennifer Egan as "a bold, riveting mash-up of Hitchcockian suspense and campfire-tale chills." She is also the author of Modern Manners For Your Inner Demons, tales of dark etiquette. Her fiction has been published in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Mid-American Review, and numerous other journals, magazines, and anthologies. Tara lives and works in a suburb of Washington, D.C.