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Monday, February 19, 2007


But bad stuff gets published...

A comment on an earlier post from a new visitor to this site (hello and welcome) got me thinking. The comment was to this effect: the rule of thumb that says 'The best way to get published is to write a good book' is untrue, because a) some good stuff doesn't get published and b) some bad stuff does. I've heard this argument before, and while I can see why it's common, it's also not an attitude I'd recommend.

Let me explain.

It's hard to comment on the good stuff that doesn't get published, because obviously it's not freely available to the public. But I can think of a personal example, a friend of mine who's extremely talented, wrote an excellent book, and is having trouble selling it, because editors tend to like it and marketing departments tend to veto it. This is most unfortunate, because it's a really fine piece of writing that deserves to see print.

This is a situation every writer dreads. But what are you going to do? Write worse? All she can really do is keep hoping for the best and meanwhile write something else, making it as good as she can. The worst thing she can do at this point is abandon the principle that you should write well if you want to be published. Maybe her next attempt will be the one that hits the jackpot. But whether or not it is, it would be a crying shame if she didn't work on the 'write well' rule, because that would damage the quality of her work. It would be just as big a shame if she gave up on the publishing industry; I'm still hoping for the day when her work finally sells and can be read and enjoyed by lots of people, and that won't happen if she stops working for publication. Either way, what a waste of talent.

The one that's easier to address is 'but bad stuff gets published'. You hear this one a lot. And it's understandable: I'm sure everyone has put down some published books, muttering 'I can't believe anybody would publish this rubbish!'

But if the book is bad and successful, then saying it trumps the 'write a good book' rule is missing a crucial point. Because books don't succeed without having something good about them. Maybe the author is a bad stylist but does a gripping plot. Maybe the characters are two-dimensional, but right on the button when it comes to archetypes. Maybe the execution is crude, but the basic idea expresses something deep within the human psyche. Nobody recommends a book they didn't get something out of, and word of mouth is the biggest promotional device in the world. Your latest airport bestseller is probably not going to rival Shakespeare in its use of language, but it will be good at holding readers' attention - or at least, the attention of a certain kind of reader, the kind it's trying to entertain.

And it's important, as a writer, to respect as wide a variety of talent as possible - because after all, don't we all want to be good at every possible kind of talent that's going?

When I was an undergraduate, I was reading English Literature at Cambridge. The syllabus, as you'd expect, was heavy on the classics, and the workload was just plain heavy. The time I read Crime and Punishment in a single day was probably my record - either that or the day I read all of Jazz, The Lonely Londoners and The Great Gatsby, including taking notes - but anyway, I was up to my earlobes in Great Books. But I didn't want to be an academic, I wanted to be a writer. And I knew that the syllabus didn't cover every kind of writing. So, more out of instinct than out of some systematic plan, I made a habit of haunting the city library as well as the university one. One shelf in my room carried Johnson and Austen and Milton, and the other was filled with Goosebumps novels and whodunnits. Virginia Andrews kept me intrigued, because whatever you say about the writing style and odd sexuality, you have to hand it to anyone who can keep you turning pages, even though you know that what's on the next page is probably not going to be any more realistic than what's on this one. Stephen King calls it the 'gotta', as in 'I should be working but I gotta see how this turns out', and thousands of books trade on it, rough use of language or not. And that's just one example. There were all kinds of books that were technically 'bad', judged by the standards of my syllabus, but that didn't make them bad books - in storytelling terms, they were bloody good ones.

There are, in short, all sorts of different kinds of good. And if a book becomes successful, it's pretty certain that it's good at something. It might not be good at the kind of thing you're interested in reading, in which case it may be difficult to see what's good about it from where you're standing - but it had something about it that caught an agent's eye, then an editor's, then a lot of readers'. Declaring it 'bad' and saying that this proves that being good doesn't get you published is simply missing the point. You're better off trying to broaden your understanding so you can figure out what it was that made the book a success. Who knows? You might learn something you can use to improve your own writing.

So what's to be done about this if you're trying to get published? There are two things. One, read as widely as possible, keeping as open a mind as possible. Any book that's liked by anybody has something to teach you. Two, don't worry about anybody's work but your own. Competitiveness, odious comparisons and anxiety are all bad for writing. Forget about who's getting published and who isn't; just get on with writing your own book.

The best way to get published is to write something people enjoy. It's what one might call a functional fact: it works well to act as if it were true. Believing in it has a number of good effects:

1. It encourages you to work hard on making your writing as good as possible. And this is important. However little it feels that way sometimes, publishing is more about good writing than good luck; luck is a factor, but only over a certain level of quality. Play a game of skill as if it were a game of chance, and you will lose.

2. It discourages you from making unwise attempts to get an agent or publisher's attention. Agents and publishers do not like approaches that are manipulative, gimmicky or aggressive, and frequently conclude from them that an author is silly, and probably a bad writer. If you want to see examples, look at Miss Snark's website; it's full of people trying all sorts of ill-advised tactics to get agents to look at their work, plus the responses of a genuine agent. Look at what she says: attempts to attract her with anything other than good writing tend to put her off.

3. It helps you take rejection well. If you believe that publishing is all about luck, then you feel helpless in the face of mighty forces beyond your control. If, on the other hand, you feel that your best chance is to write something good, then when you're rejected (and we've all been rejected), you can do something about it: you can write something better, you can improve and improve, until finally you break through. Your life is in your own hands. It's an attitude that makes you stronger.

4. It helps you take feedback well, both from friends and, if you're fortunate, from professionals. Many a writer gets angry if an agent or publisher writes back saying 'I don't want this book, because of this, this and that', feeling it's a series of insults, when actually it's helpful comments that you can use to improve your work. If your aim is not to get lucky in the publishing sweepstakes but to write as good a book as you can and trust in its virtues, then you become cooperative, grateful and gracious when people make suggestions. Such a writer is both happier in themselves and easier to get along with.

5. It protects you from envy, as much as anything can. If you think publishing is all about luck, you're liable to resent the published for having what you lack, but if you think it's about writing good work, then you can give them credit for their success rather than letting it fester, and turn your attention back to your own work, where it belongs.

So maybe a book got published that you think is bad. What are you going to do? Resent it? Get slack about your own writing because obviously quality has nothing to do with success? Turn sour on the publishing trade? None of these things will help you. It's difficult and painful some of the time, and it can be desperately frustrating when a work that you're sure is good gets a rejection slip. (I say this from personal experience; I've had plenty of moments when I had to find a quiet corner to cry in.) But theorising about the industry that sent it to you will not help you. The only thing that will help is to commit yourself, once again, for the thousandth time, to writing the best work you possibly can. Dry your eyes, find your resolution again, read, write, learn, and keep on going.

I think some writers notice that the publishing industry is not a perfect meritocracy and jump to the erroneous conclusion that it must therefore be the opposite.

Both assumptions entail gross over-simplifications.

Writing is Art. Publishing is Business. One shouldn't expect the relationship between the two to be easy, harmonious, rational, or fair.
Well, one can hope for it, of course. And when you approach agents or publishers, a rational, harmonious presentation will serve you very well, because it'll make you easier to work with. Easy relationships are two-sided, and you can always work on ensuring that you're doing your bit to keep things pleasant.

But the point of intersection is always the books themselves, and those, as writers, are the only things we have any control over. You can't control luck, but you can control your own work and behaviour so that if luck comes along, you've created an environment in which they can thrive. And as that's the only bit you can affect, it's the bit you should spend your energy on.

Nothing's perfect, but we all do our best. And that goes for publishers as well as writers.
I feel that you have misinterpreted what I wrote in my comment, but this may be because either I didn't explain myself clearly (probable) or because it aided your argument to focus on certain parts of what I said.

So I'll give it another go:

Bad writing and good writing are completely misleading terms, everyone has very different tastes, there is always someone who thinks what I think is good is bad and what I think is bad is good.

I am a big believer in writing being (whether through design or not) something that people enjoy. I hate writers and critics and others who harp on and on about literary this and high culture that. I am very much against the idea that in order to appreciate a book you need to have studied books for ages.

There is a vastness in the variety of peoples tastes in reading. Publishers/editors don't always seem to understand this. Perhaps none of us do really.

Yes I think that there is a massive amount of luck in terms of getting published. This is really obvious. There are lots of "good" books that are published and lots that are not, there are lots of "bad" books that are published and lots that are not. Of those "good" and "bad" books only some of them are actually successful (in terms of providing their authors with the ability to make a living from them).

To jump from this factual reality to the idea that I or anyone would advocate writing a book without trying to make it good is ridiculous. That lots of bad books get written shouldn't mean that writers try to write bad books. But it does mean that when books that they feel are good don't get published they shouldn't give up.

Even getting the bloody manuscripts read is almost impossible due to this stupid, equity card like paradox of needing an agent to approach a publisher and needing to be published in order to get an agent!!

And lots of these so called "good" books get rejected by loads of people before eventually getting published.

The aim of every writer should be to write well. But there are millions of different definitions of well.

publishers do not like approaches that are manipulative, gimmicky or aggressive, and frequently conclude from them that an author is silly, and probably a bad writer.

This strikes me as the publishers loss as frequently through history good writers/artists/etc have been aggressive and manipulative.

Also I suspect that it is only when people are not successfully manipulative/gimmicky that publishers don't like them. If they get it right then they may get somewhere.

It helps you take rejection well.

I think its much easier to take rejection if you don't credit the person who rejects you and you accept that you are not flawed, but just unlucky. Of course many of us who think this way may be self-deluders but at least we are happy in our ignorance rather than tortured by insecurity.

I am not saying anyone shouldn't keep trying to write better and take on board any feedback you can get, but to believe your life is purely in your own hands is to open yourself up to crushing self loathing.

The marks I got at school/university didn't mean anything to me because I didn't respect the concept of apportioning worth in such an arbitrary and unrepresentative way. I got good marks ironically but the most intelligent and interesting people I know did not.

I have the same attitude to publication. It is surely enough t know you have written something good, frustrating if that worth is not seen by others perhaps, but much more satisfying than not getting your work to the stage where you know it to be good.

Many a writer gets angry if an agent or publisher writes back saying 'I don't want this book...

Anger is a reasonable reaction to judgment, a sensible writer lets that anger subside and then looks a the comments as objectively as possible and takes what they agree with on board. The non-sensible writer makes every change without thinking and then sends the work of to another publisher who then gives them criticism that contradicts their first lot.

It protects you from envy, as much as anything can.

Again I envy luck much less than I envy skill, because skill/talent, one is arbitrary and the other is about someone being better than you are!!

I see no reason to resent "bad" books being published. But I see many reasons why it helps to be realistic about the unfairness of life.

Maybe I am deluding myself and getting published isn't vastly effected by luck and not always about skill (I think that luck + skill = definite publication and I think you increase your luck by working as hard as you can both on your work and the promotion of it)

But if I am deluded then it is that delusion which I consider the functional fact. It is what keeps me both (occasionally happy) and (relatively) sane.
You don't need to be published to get an agent. Whoever told you that?

(And yes, I was only addressing part of your point, because that was a part that I've heard from quite a lot of other writers as well. I was trying to make a universal point rather than get into a detailed argument with one person.)
Thanks for looking at this topic Kit. I don’t think about it much, but it is a difficult one when it slaps you in the face. It brings out the frustration of being unpublished/unpublishable and having stories written that you want so much to be read.

For me one of the big difficulties when you are working to be published is trying to understand whether you can be good enough. Trying to judge your product and why it is failing. To decide where you are on the graph of possibly publishable, what you need to do and what’s realistic, because hopes and dreams have to be managed ;).

We wannabe writers are lucky, published writers are so lovely and open. They give wonderful, friendly help and advice. But once you are published, whatever writing demons you subsequently face, the crucial question “am I good enough or am I fooling myself” has been answered.

For the unpublished, despite years of work and involvement in all the available critical processes, it is impossible to judge where you are in the publishable stakes, until a publisher or agent says yes. But honestly, for most of us, that isn’t going to happen. Now you can accept that because a) you love writing and b) you see a lot of stuff out there that is way better than you’ll ever dream of being. But then you pick up a truly weak, hackneyed book that publishers have chosen to publish/support in a genre you read and understand, and you think WHY? (I don’t mean successful books, because they have answered the question). It’s hard to understand from the outside but I guess it comes down to a multitude of things. The slush pile is the only way in and it is scary (Miss Snark’s last COM was a chilling example of how scary). But hopes and dreams can be difficult to manage at the best of times, never mind when your road to achieving them has such a poor map!
Yes, it's always frustrating. I struggled quite a long time to find a publisher, so I know from gruesome experience what a rough road it is. The only thing I found that helped was to try and be as professional as possible, so that whether or not my writing would ever sell, I could at least take pride in myself for being a brave little toaster about how difficult it was. It was a bit of a cold comfort - 'I may not be a published little toaster, but at least I'm a brave little unpublished toaster rather than a bitter little unpublished toaster' - but it did help.

When it comes to the books you really think are bad, and the general reading public agrees with you, I guess the only explanation is that nobody's perfect, and editors sometimes make mistakes. Still, I feel sorry for those writers too; it's horribly disappointing when your book doesn't sell the way you hoped. Publishing is a business, but it's all made up of people.

There's a lot of sad outcomes, really. The only thing to do is try to be as happy as you can in general, and hope for the best with specifics. There are lots of things in life to enjoy, and joy in living helps both your writing and your life. Good luck, anyway.

And when I get down, I find the phrase 'brave little toaster' always helps. You didn't notice?
All the agents who won't accept unsolicited manuscripts told me that.

Some of them do of course, and some publishers will read you before you have an agent.

I spend a lot of my time and money sending of my manuscripts, I'm not a defeatist.

But I definitely find it helps to believe that my novel is good whatever the editors think. Certainly I've read and enjoyed many novels as good/bad/whatever as mine.

Obviously you need to be professional when you send stuff off, and obviously you can always improve work and improve on the last bit of work and you should look at any feedback (though assuming feedback to be universally right is a bad idea, different publishers definitely can give you contradictory feedback.

But doing all that doesn't mean that every time you get that MS back in the post with the customary short and ambiguous letter you need to think of yourself as not publishable.

Of course many of us delude ourselves (not me obviously) but I think delusion in this case may make for better mental health.

And of course there is always the Self publishing route to go down when you finally get fed up of rejection.

I am interested to see what place publishers may have in the future anyway. As the internet breaks down the barriers between artist and audience and gives people the opportunity to connect with others without having to go through the middle people. I look forward very much to reading the Lilly Allen or Arctic Monkeys of the writing world.

There are some very interesting things going on now. Not to mention the new art form that is hyperliterature.

Of course I will continue to try and get published the conventional way. Hey I need the money and I'm still pretty young. But I think its a good idea for all us unpublished (and published) writers to keep an eye on the way the world and its consumption of art is going.

Oh and Kit, I didn't object to having part of my point addressed, I objected to (or more accurate felt the need to point out) that it had been misinterpreted. But I didn't seek to engage you in argument that was personal. Us unpublished writers also have pretensions towards universals and seek to address them to others.

I enjoy your blog a lot, bu I think it is certainly a blog that needs, and invites, discussion and disagreement.

What else is writing about? (apart from all the other things its about of course!)
Sounds like you were talking to the wrong agents. I've met a lot of agents, and they'd all be starving if they didn't accept unpublished writers. The whole point is to find writers who aren't published yet and get them published; that's what the business is about. So don't let the fact that you're not published yet deter you from approaching agents; just keep truckin.

I'd be careful of self-publishing. From what I've heard, Lulu is at least reputable, but there are some downsides. Have you read Tess Gerritsen's blog on the subject? Have a look at
http://tessgerritsen.com/blog/2006/11/25/writers-and-desperation/ (I really don't have time to debate this one, I'm just pointing them out for your interest and in case you find it useful. You may or may not agree, but she makes some points worth considering.)

You're welcome to come and disagree as much as you wish, as long as you don't start fighting with people, which it doesn't look as if you're planning to do, fortunately. Everyone polite is welcome (though I'm prepared to jump on anyone who's being unpleasant). But I hope you'll excuse me; I don't think I misinterpreted you so much as used your argument as a jumping-off point for a general discussion of something I'd been thinking about for a while. Which was bowing to the laws of practical timekeeping.

This blog is an open maw, and it needs continual feeding with subjects; that's time consuming, and writing fiction is time consuming as well, with added crispy deadline. I have to keep posting things, and I think it would be dull for other readers if it turned into a discussion between me and one or two posters, so I'll sometimes go off at a tangent to what people have said in order to keep it open to all-comers while vaguely addressing what someone may have said without succumbing to the temptation to chat online all day when I should be writing. I'm saying this so you hopefully understand I don't intend rudeness if, in the future, I don't answer some of your points or only refer to them tangentially; it's a time thing. I need to keep talking to everyone, and blogging takes time, so I may sometimes turn aside from a specific discussion to address everyone. It's a balancing act rather than an intended slight.
Thats cool. I understand time constraints well, what with a full time job + writing + making music + promoting and sending out things + blogging myself.

I didn't and don't expect you to reply to my every point.

I don't think you are rude, far from it. But when you use someone as a starting point its nice if you start at that point, I guess, rather than refer to them but talk about completely different stuff.

Thanks for the links. I'm wary of self publishing myself (but I'm more wary of publishers). Lulu is different though, its print on demand rather than rip you off.
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