Precious Cargo

Refreshingly Bitter And Twisted Observations On Life's Passing Parade.

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Friday, December 14, 2007

How Writers Delude Themselves About Failure

In my opinion, about two-thirds of conventionally published books are poor to mediocre writing; self-published books are a bit larger poor-to-mediocre fraction, but not much. I've worked in publishing (scientific primarily at Plenum):that most self-published books are poorly edited or aren't edited at all is the primary quality difference between self-published works and conventionally published. In my opinion and experience, publishers routinely accept crap sometimes rife-with-errors work. With self-published books, readers are seeing what some conventionally published books probably looked like before they were accepted, before they were edited...

Tmain difference betwen traditionally published ans self-published books has very little to do with suprficial problems with spelling, punctuation, etc.; although, since these are the easiest things to fix, a manuscript replete with them sigals danger ahad to a readr. Most self-published books are unreadably bad, which is why agents rejected them. SP books come from the 98% of manuscripts submittd to agents and editors that fail to meet minimum standards. They are worse than the average traditionally published book, otherwise some of them would also be on bookstore shelves. The selection process is not purely arbitrary, as so many rejected writers believe to comfort themselves. In fiction, SP books lack a compelling plot, pleasing style, good characterization, etc. In nnfiction, some books may be competntly written but rejected fr what I call extra-literary causes: the authior has no publicity platform, the market for the bok s too small, the subject’s been done to death and the new bok offers nothing truly significant. Other self-published nonfiction is comprised of horribly written, interminable rants about someone’s nutball obsession, some contrrian, self-taught crank’s exegesis on his theory of cosmology, etc.

I could take the first chapter from one of Raymond Chandler’s novels and run it through some program that introduces random errors in spelling, punctuation and even drop a few words, and it would still be a good read. The brain filters out minor textual errors. As a demonstration, I’m posting his as I wrote it, before running my spell checker to clean up typos. Its riddled with errors, but still comprehensible.

Rejected writers delude themselves abut why they can’t get a deal. They blame their failure on everything except their writing.

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Blogger Margot said...

I find Fran's comment revealing because she keeps saying self-published books are frequently as good as conventionally published books, but she doesn't give any examples. In fact, she herself doesn't seem to read self-published books. What is she basing her judgement on? I think it's the usual Fran "This argument is invalid because if it were true it would say something about my writing."

Having read plenty of excerpts of self-published books and the occasional whole book, I agree with you that editing isn't the only difference between the average published book and the average self-published book. Storytelling is a rare skill. Most people--even most people who have tried for years and years to acquire it--don't have it. The reason so many conventionally published books don't have it is because it's hard to find even for people who have access to the best of the best; they wind up publishing the best of the mediocre because publishing slots are perishable and have to be filled. (And mediocre books do well because the reading skill necessary to tell a mediocre book from a good one is uncommon, and mediocre books are easier to read. 'S true. Ask Dan Brown.)

Both the slush pile and self-published books look a lot like the writing section at Goodreads once you factor out the conventionally published authors. There's a small percentage of wackjobs and functional illiterates, a huge mass of writing that's literate but ill-written, well-written but pointless and drab, okay with an okay story and okay characters but no reason to read on unless you're stuck at an Antarctic station and the rest of the Internet is broken, or otherwise too mediocre to bother with, and a tiny percentage that with some editing could be a great read.

And by "editing" I don't mean spell-checking. Fran should know what goes into an edit job. Books are more heavily, not less heavily, edited in fields like science and tech where authors aren't expected to know how to write; some books are essentially rewritten. It's believed to be worth it because the information, not the style, is the important thing, and having a book originally written by expert X (then rewritten almost from scratch by editor Y and copyeditor Z) is considered valuable. (How do I know? I was copyeditor Z.) In novel-writing, edits tend to be lighter because if the author doesn't have a good style, no one can graft one onto the book, but that doesn't mean the book is edited lightly. Just lighter than a total rewrite. It's still enough to make authors groan.

So basically, if your writing has been rejected over and over, there are hundreds of possible reasons. Among them are "I'm too advanced for my time" and "People like reading crap too much; I'm too damn good for the market." But Occam's Razor suggests that 99% of the failures are attributable to two reasons:

1. You didn't submit it correctly (send it to the right house or agent, write a stellar query letter, etc.).

2. Your writing is bad.

Both are fixable, but sitting around moaning about how self-publishers are given the short end of the stick isn't going to help.

And neither is deciding you're in that 1%. You're not.

No, really.

You're not.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Peter L. Winkler said...

"Among them are 'I'm too advanced for my time'..."

Nobody's too advanced for their time. If they were, their unpublished masterpiece would be lost to history. Beethoven, Stravinsky, Einstein, etc. were all paradigm breakers and were call recognized in their lifetimes.

I have it on the good authority of writers such as Harlan Ellison and Norman Spinrad that there is virtually no editing in commercial fiction at the major trade houses and their imprints. Val Holley, author of two impressive biographies told me much the same thing.

Editors trust agents to filter, use lawyers to vet for libel and freelance copy editors for the rest.

7:50 PM  
Blogger Margot said...

According to the authors' blogs I read, editing usually comes in the form of a critique by the agent or editor, and the author makes the deep changes. When the final editor is satisfied, the manuscript goes to a copyeditor. How much feedback the author gets depends on the agent and editor, so I wouldn't be surprised if many editors have stopped going into as much depth as before.

They've also reduced the amount of massaging they're willing to do on a new author's manuscript. If a story has something but it would take a lot of work to bring it out, the editor is likely to pass on it. Getting the manuscript in shape is now the agent's job, and even then an overworked agent might pass on a manuscript that needs too much work.

The key is to produce your best writing while you're an unknown, then become a name brand and relaaaaaax. Hundreds of established writers have done it. You can too!

6:49 AM  

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