Mark Terry

Friday, January 08, 2010

Getting What You Deserve

January 8, 2010
Maybe I'm cranky because I've got to head off to the doctor for some tests this morning or because we got a bunch of snow, or maybe it's a sign of my now being closer to 50 than 40, but I was reading a blog post by John Gilstrap in which he got a letter from somebody saying how pissed off and frustrated he was because his perfectly spelled and punctuated query letters weren't getting the attention they deserved. John writes about hubris. I went off and had a rant, which I'm going to post here as well. Then I'm going to get ready to go to the doctor.

A fairly well known literary agent (whose name eludes me at the moment) in an interview said something that struck me fairly hard with its truth. He said, and I'm paraphrasing, "No one 'deserves' to be a published novelist."

No, granted, in my paraphrasing you can interpret that a lot of ways. But what he was saying was that publishing is a business and a business with a finite market and finite resources. When I was starting out writing novels unsuccessfully I figured "if I just get to be a good enough writer" I'll get published and have it made.

Well, although I think that statement is basically true for freelance writing (which I do for a living), I'm no longer at all convinced that's true for novels. (Sorry, newbies, this might seem very depressing).

There are many, many, MANY factors that go into getting a novel published, and even more that go into it being successful in the marketplace. Timing and luck are only two of them, but they're significant factors. Good, as many of us are finding out, isn't really good enough. Your manuscript needs to be somewhere between VERY GOOD and GREAT just to get published and even then, if you're unknown, the publisher's taking a chance on you.

Perfect spelling, grammar, format--that's a given. That's such a given I don't even think it's part of the low bar threshold. Start thinking hook, freshness, marketability, largeness of concept, excellent story telling...

And if you get all that in place, will you still get published?

Probably, although... no guarantees. That's just life. Great novels, great songs, great works of art... some just get missed and languish in a closet due to variables out of your control--a bad economy, a shift in the industry paradigm, bad timing, and lack of persistence. As they say about baseball, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose ... and sometimes it rains.

And once it gets published, does all that guarantee commercial success? Are you kidding? All you have to do is look at the number of great novels/films/etc that weren't recognized (if at all) until after the artist's death. If Shakespeare's friends hadn't collected his plays in folios, we'd probably never have heard of him; if Mozart's wife hadn't gotten a strong business-sense after his death, maybe we'd be thinking how great Salieri was.

Okay, my rant's almost over, but: nobody deserves to get published.


Update: here are two blog posts by editors showing statistics about why they rejected books last year. Totally, totally illuminating.

#1 here

#2 here


Blogger Michele Emrath said...

Too true, and a fair warning to us "newbies." I like to think I am fairly open-minded about how hard it will be once I am courting publication. But I also know the disappointments will hit hard.

Thank you for this Truth.

And I hope your appointment goes well.


5:45 AM  
Blogger Eric said...

Yes, very true. So many would-be authors think they are entitled to be published. They seem to think of writing/publishing as an extension of school, where if they learn their lessons they will receive an A, which is to say publication. If only....

9:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Exactly, Eric. I remember reading an interview with an author who said, basically, deciding you're going to be a novelist isn't like deciding you're going to be a lawyer or doctor or accountant. In those fields, generally speaking, you work hard, you apply, you eventually graduate and get a job. With an author, you can work hard, submit, seemingly do all the right things, and still not break through.

I ignored it when I read it and I suppose if it's something people really want they'll ignore it here, too.

I'd also add that one of the unfortunate fallacies I've discovered is that once you're a published novelist, publishers will automatically want to publish any other books you write. Oy, did I get that one wrong. I'd say they're MORE interested than if you weren't previously published, but that's about it.

With nonfiction, though, editors and publishers are definitely much, much more likely to view you as a pro, but that's because content is king in nonfiction.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

I've had to deliver this rant (with my own spin, of course) more times than I care to count. In one or two cases, I felt like I wanted to bang my head against a wall because there were friends firmly holding onto this idea, and they refused to "see." Yes, the bar is such that who gives a crap if you can turn in something clean?

I wrote a non-fiction book years ago that was my largest advance . . . the editor, over lunch in Manhattan, said the greatest piece of advice he is giving his own children is once you graduate from college, no one gives a shit but your parents what your woes are so learn to deal. I thought he was a bit harsh, but when I thought about it . . . well, crap, in some ways he was right.

9:17 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'm sure your spin was much nicer than mine, Erica.

The cytogenetics lab I worked in was rather notorious (within itself, I guess) that during training, especially with photomicroscopy, ie., shooting photographs of the chromosomes through the microscope, they gave you basic instructions and let you go. But with photomicroscopy, it's sometimes an extremely difficult thing to do and there were a lot of factors that can make it crappy, including vibration, older microscope, poor quality material, whatever. And their way to get people past this (and I was one of the worst, but not the last, by any means) was to just apply pressure to you and make your life miserable.

At one point one of my new friends there was going through the exactly same problem and they were hammering on her and I told her she needed to fix the problem and she freaked out and started giving one excuse and another until I finally snapped, "I agree with you, but that's not the point. They don't give a shit. They want you to fix the fucking problem. So fix the fucking problem."

And she did. But that's been sort of my lesson about the grown-up world. Mostly the world just wants the problem fixed, they don't want to know why you didn't fix it. They're more than willing to point the blame at you and you can try to point the blame somewhere else, but mostly it all comes down to: you didn't fix the problem you were supposed to fix.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Oh, and I should point out that technology primarily solved the photomicroscopy issue. Cytogenetics labs, at least in the US, use expensive imaging systems with digital cameras that capture the image on a large screen and provide relatively automatic focus, and besides, when you're not snapping on film and waiting for a darkroom to turnaround the product, it's easy enough to just keep shooting until you have a good clean image.

9:37 AM  
Blogger Natasha Fondren said...

I've been thinking about this post all day. I agree with you, completely. One hundred percent. I think you're right, particularly in this case. And yet, all the mantras I've been repeating to myself lately have started with, "I deserve..."

But mostly that's because I've been moping around like Eeyore lately, and I keep catching myself thinking that I don't deserve X or Y.

We all have our battles, I guess. :-)

1:11 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think the reason his original statement struck me and stayed with me was because, like most writers, I've bought into the dogma that if you just persist, persist, persist you'll get published and have a writing career. Although, ultimately, I think the difference between being unpublished and published really is about being persistent and learning your craft and constantly submitting, I've gotten all too aware of the inherent nature of the publishing business, that publishing slots are finite, that publishing dollars are finite, that readers are finite, that it's a business and just because you're good enough to be published doesn't mean there aren't a hundred other books vying for the editor's time and money that are of similar quality. It's a tough love message to be sure, but I guess if it was easy everybody would do it.

6:19 AM  

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