A few days ago this thread was started on the Authonomy message-board. It eventually degenerated into a sodden late-night exchange, but the post which kicked it all off reinforces much of what I've written here and says it all far more clearly than I could manage: so here is that post in its entirety. I've bolded one line, but that's the only change I've made.
It's late at night, I have a job I'm procrastinating on and the wine is open, so I feel a fit of pomposity coming on. Read no further if you are offended by reminiscing and lecturing.
But here it comes.
An central idee fixee among emerging writers is: 'What do editors want?' Much thought is given to this question, particularly in gathering places like Authonomy. Eventually, when the discussion has built up a head of steam, some all-knowing, squelching person will come along and say "editors are looking for excuses to reject your book. Just one comma out of place and – bam! – book rejected". The conversation is thereby killed and the insecure author feels even more dejected.
This is all wrong. At least, it was in my case and still is false as far as editors I know go.
What editors want, more than ANYTHING else in the world, is for someone to delight them.
Most manuscripts that land on an editor's desk – even, believe it or not, the ones that comes through recommendations, agents, personal friends and authors with track records – range from the unfinished-need-lots-of-work to the outright boring. And that's only speaking of work that has been through the filter. Some of these will be picked up, just because the sausage factory has to keep churning stuff out, but they won't fill the editor with excitement about coming to work in the morning.
Publishing doesn't have many pluses. It's poorly paid, the glamorous lunches are few and far between, and the overseas trips heavily contested. The free books pall after a while (a) because you've soon read them all and (b) because they're probably not your genre anyway.
What makes it all worthwhile are the times when a luminous book pops through the post. A book that from the first masterful sentence transports the reader.
Such books are incredibly rare. But they're fun to work on, they're fun to publish, and they add lustre to an editor's career if they win an award or become a bestseller.
How do you know if you've written a masterpiece?
If you're asking the question, then you probably haven't. The more experienced and expert you are at anything – tennis, swimming, painting, computer programming – the more you instinctively know what works and what doesn't. And you certainly know when you have done something outstanding in your field, even if you don't know HOW outstanding it is. If you're still floundering, hoping for approval for your book, go back to the drawing board.
Because the sort of books that enthrall first the publisher and then the public are books written with verve and confidence, and that's something that comes from talent plus a finely honed craft.
And all that came from a bottle of Californian Zinfandel. Whew, that 16% alcohol is a killer.
My thanks to editor, writer and Authonomy member Osiander, for giving me permission to quote him at such length.