Monday, 21 September 2009

Why Good Writing Gets Rejected

I have a reasonable amount of experience of the publishing world: I worked as a non-fiction editor for a book-packaging company which gave me direct experience of editing for some of the best publishing houses in the world. In the process, I learned a little about the publishing business; the differences between good and publishable; and the horrible truth about the slush pile.

I've had a reasonable amount of non-fiction published and so have seen that it is possible for complete unknowns to get themselves good publishing deals with a little bit of luck and a lot of hard work.

I've also had all of the novels I've written so far rejected. I've won all sorts of prizes for my fiction and have received only positive comments from agents and editors, so I know I'm competent: but what went wrong?

While I'll agree that my second novel is overlong and far too quiet, I still consider my first to be good-to-excellent—but, having worked in publishing for so many years, I can understand why it hasn't been published, despite a few very near misses: it would have been very difficult for the sales reps to sell it into bookshops.

Without my editorial experience I would be far less able to understand why that's so important; and without my non-fiction publications I might have gone on to conclude that it's impossible for a newcomer to get published. I'm lucky: I can see this from all sides and while I would dearly love to see my novels in print, I can understand why they are not.

I can only imagine how painful it must be for good writers without similar industry experience to understand why their excellent work has been rejected.

46 comments:

Nicola Slade said...

It is, very painful! I was always told that my books were cross-genre and thus difficult to place and one editor told me despairingly:'You're such a good writer, all you need is a breakthrough novel - but this isn't it.' (It was though, but not with her.)

isabeljoelyblack said...

What an excellent post.

I find myself constantly trying to explain how publishing works to people who read my work and can't understand why it hasn't been published. I grew up with a parent who had worked in the industry, and my teachers were authors, so I realised that it wasn't just a matter of being good.

A lot of people actually believe that all you do is hand the manuscript to a publisher and they simply publish it. The concept of querying, of having an agent and the many rejections as the process is unknown to many people who come into the industry. It's a shock when they discover it's different.

Thank you so much for that insight though, it's really helpful to have a reminder that work can be good, but unless there is proof of saleability, publishers won't say yes. This is why it's so important to have a good platform to start with, at the very least to prove an audience exists for what you do. I do hope you're able to find a publisher for your fiction!

Jane Smith said...

I disagree that it's important for an aspiring novellist to have a platform before they can get published, Isabel: just look at Nicola Slade up there above you; she's sold several novels now (after having had her first few rejected), and doesn't blog, has a minimal internet presence, and isn't in the tabloid press (at least, if she has been, I've not found her there).

Good writing gets published. But part of being good is being marketable and while my writing wins prizes (she said modestly) it's not been picked up by the big boys yet. Give me time.

Joel Willans said...

It never fails to amaze me how many writers forget that a novel is a product and that publishing is a business.

In my opinion, the first question any budding author should ask themselves, before spending a year plus of their lives creating their masterpiece, is how easy it will be to sell their work to publishers and for publishers to sell it to the reading public.

Nicola Slade said...

If a writing CV constitutes a platform though, Jane, I did have a kind of one. Years of short fiction published in national magazines did at least prove that I could produce saleable work. I think that's a very important part of a writer's apprenticeship ie learning to write to guidelines, which also gives an editor a hint that you can co-operate and take advice.
But you're right, I know several excellent writers whose work just hasn't hit the spot, and it's marketability that is the key.

Nicola Morgan said...

Very important post, Jane, and something I plan to blog about soon.

I completely agree that a good platform to start with is not essential at all. Of course, beginning to build one if you have the chance is going to do no harm, but if you write a book that publishers think they can sell and want to sell, you can be a complete unknown. When I got my first novel contract I had no "platform" - the internet didn't exist and I'd had nothing relevant published and certainly no contacts or relevant work. My only track record was in dogged perseverence. It was the book that was sold, not me. Very simple: agent liked it enough to pitch it to publisher, publisher liked it enough to take it on.

Jane, not only do you have a great platform (may I please not use that word again??), but you also know you write well enough to get a novel published: all you need now, as you know, is the right novel. And I have every confidence that you will do it!

The fact that you know all the reasons is what stops you being bitter, and you and I know that one of the most negative and unattractive aspects of some unpublished writers is bitterness, because it stops them focusing on the things they could actually change.

Jarred said...

I have to disagree with Joel. My biggest joy is wasting a year plus on writing without any mercenary thoughts of "can I make money on this". It was only when I started the process of finding an agent/editor did writing become miserable. I suppose it's where you find your joy. I recommend finding self-worth in the process rather than whether the fickle publishing world will love you or not.

Write for love; publish for vanity.

Kate said...

Really interesting post. I work on the other side of publishing so I will be marketing and promoting various products so it is fascinating to hear how everything gets to us although some products are just bad quality and impossible to promote well!

Kate x

Tamara Hart Heiner said...

That still didn't explain what it is that makes an excellent book difficult to sell in a bookstore. I don't understand it.

Anonymous said...

Echoing Tamara ...

"... It would have been very difficult for the sales reps to sell it into bookshops."

Why? I'd bet even money that, unless it's a pretty bizarre subject (in 'F/32' territory, though that was published) the book itself is just not quite good enough yet.

JR

And F/32: http://www.amazon.com/review/R18GSH7O4AX3DN/ref=cm_cr_rdp_perm

Anonymous said...

Er, that is, not good enough yet *or* not submitted enough yet. You tried houses that are like the Angry Robot and Two Dollar Radio of your genre?

JR

Lydia Sharp said...

It would have been very difficult for the sales reps to sell it into bookshops.

I'm with the two who commented above me. I was expecting you to go into what constitutes a difficult sale and what doesn't, since you have so much inside experience. That statement by itself doesn't explain anything. Just curious.

behlerblog said...

It would have been very difficult for the sales reps to sell it into bookshops.

For me, this statement means that the writing was wonderful, the characters fully developed, the pacing and voice are off the page. But the story/plot simply isn't marketable.

For instance, I let a story about a farmer in the 1800s go because I didn't believe I could get enough readers interested in a quasi Western. They enjoy a small, but loyal readership, but not large enough to take the financial risk.

That was my opinion. It may be another publisher will find it absolutely perfect and buy the rights.

What I mean by "isn't right" is that the subject matter may be too elusive or obscure to capture a large enough audience. I've had to let more than one literary fiction go because I knew I couldn't sell it; it was too cerebral, or as Jane says, "quiet."

Those books probably would have sold, but not in large enough quantities to cover our investment. These things make our accountant quite cranky.

It can be a timing issue. Let's say "Twilight" was pitched ten years ago. Stephenie Meyer would have undoubtedly heard crickets. Maybe a few would have sold, but a blockbuster? Her publisher would have laughed himself silly back then.

So when you hear the comment, "I love your story, but I can't sell it," this is more than likely what they mean.

behlerblog said...

Ok, I'm being a total comment hog this morning, but I wanted to say something about platform.

Here in the US, platform is very important in the course of selling books to the bookstores. They always ask our sales folks, "what is the author doing to promote?"

When considering offering an author a contract, I always look at their platform. If they have a direct tie to their subject matter, this makes it easier to get booksellers excited about how the author will show their pretty face.

If they don't, then I still must feel comfortable that they have good ideas on how best to promote their book. This means understanding their readership and knowing how to find them.

When I fall in love with a book, my brain is already kicked into high gear as to how I plan on promoting their book. I need to be sure the author is on board with me and is ready, willing, and able, AND has a tie-in with their book.

We have to cover a wide amount of real estate in the US, and the bigger splash an author can make with author events, the easier it is to excite a bookseller. They want to know if the book will sit on the shelf gathering dust or will fly out the door.

I've had friends who were pubbed by very large presses and felt they didn't need to do one bit of promotion. Their books died, regardless of the fabulous distribution. Likewise, I've had friends pubbed by smaller presses who rolled up their sleeves and promoted like crazy, and sold very well - even though their publisher's distribution arm was nearly as huge as Random House.

Just because it's on the shelf doesn't mean it'll stay there. It takes a concerted promotional effort by both parties to make sure the books go home with a happy reader.

Jane Smith said...

Lynn has dealt very nicely with the platform thing: it's not quite the same in the UK, where there's less emphasis on it for now, but I bet that this will change over the next few years.

Nicola Slade wrote, "If a writing CV constitutes a platform though, Jane, I did have a kind of one. Years of short fiction published in national magazines did at least prove that I could produce saleable work." I'd look at that as a reference from your previous employers, not as a platform from which you could sell your book: it's very much in your favour, though.

As for what made my first novel such a hopeless failure (!): I've not yet transferred everything from my old computer to my new one, but when I do I'll see if I still have the emails that I was sent about it and if I do, I'll post extracts here: but this is roughly what happened.

My agent sent it out at the beginning of the week and by Wednesday had had such strong comments about it that he confidently told me to expect an auction for it. Then nothing happened. Big names liked it; one even told me it was the best submission she'd had all year. That was lovely to hear. In the end, it didn't sell because it was considered too bleak a story, and its very dark ending didn't help one bit.

I was assured that it will be published, but not as a first novel: perhaps as a third or fourth, when I have a bit of a following. Two of the editors who wanted it are still in contact with me now, which is very nice. What was interesting about the whole process is that every single editor who wanted to bid for it (there were four or five, I think, all at big houses), and my agent at the time, told me that I mustn't lose heart, and that I was going to be published, and published well; but that this book wasn't the one to get me started. I've never heard such encouraging rejections in my life!

I've found publishing to be a brutally honest world. But editors and agents do go out of their way to help when they find a writer they think has promise, and will continue to offer their support for months, or even years, to come when they feel it's helping. Even that Behler woman, who sometimes scares the pants off me, has been known to be nice on the odd occasion. Amazing!

DanielB said...

I'm another one who was published with no "platform" to speak of. I still don't think I have one!

I also think I am useless at "networking", for what it's worth, although my wife tells me I do it, and I just don't realise it and/or don't call it that.

isabel said "A lot of people actually believe that all you do is hand the manuscript to a publisher and they simply publish it. The concept of querying, of having an agent and the many rejections as the process is unknown to many people who come into the industry. It's a shock when they discover it's different."

So very true. So many of my non-writer friends just don't get it that I have given up trying to explain to them. I also have students who think this way. Often they are people who have worked in industries where they are used to getting a "no" as a first response, and believe all you have to do is keep trying the same people again until you get a "yes"...

Nik said...

Even if you get published, your book is one among thousands. I write to be read - I'm probably not going to get rich - but it's getting those readers to pick up your book. Virtually every reader of my books - all 5 so far (2 more due out soon) have said they enjoyed them and I've had very good reviews in press and on Amazon, but they don't translate into big sales, lots of readers. The battle goes on.
Nik Morton/Ross Morton

emma darwin said...

" all you need now, as you know, is the right novel. "

I think this is often the case with an excellent writer who's tearing their hair out trying to get up the last step or two on the ladder to a deal. You may just not yet have lit upon the perfect combination of plot and ideas to suit your prose and your inherent writerly nature. Or you may (or, TBH, I may) always be trying to do something which technically you are (I am) not quite capable of pulling off. Instead of the usual way round, of being caught by a terrific idea/situation, and then bringing your writing talents to bear on it, it may involve asking your core talents what they'd most like to work on.

Which is why it can be a mistake to spend years and years polishing repolishing and re-working and repolishing a good novel in the hope of selling it. There's only so much you can do with any given set of plot and ideas. If in doubt, send it out into the world, forget about it, and write a new one (or a new six, in my case...)

And I certainly didn't have a platform before I was published, (though I do a bit now): I just wrote novels till I got it right. If it comes naturally, then why not - can be a lot of fun - but it seems madness to kill yourself doing if it doesn't come naturally, specially if that means less time spent on the writing.

I know about platform in the US - what my US editor calls the non-fiction hook - but it can't be completely essential or no UK writer would ever get a deal there. And though I'm absolutely willing to get out there and do what I'm asked to do - even make some suggestions of who might like my work - any real publisher knows far more than I do about how to promote and sell my work. That's why they're publishers, and I'm not.

Nicole_Hadaway said...

Great post! I was published by a UK publisher (I'm a US writer), and I always thought that I wasn't having success with US agents because my book was difficult to place. It features vampires as its main characters, but it's not a young adult novel; it's got a love story in it but it's not romance or erotica, it's set during WWII, but because of the vampires, it's not straight historical fiction.... The closest I can come is a 'supernatural historical thriller', which is a very narrow market.

After reading Stephenie Meyer's story about how she wrote a book without even intending to do so, and got it published within like, 6 months, with a Writers' House agent representing her, I thought, "Piece of cake -- I can do that too!" Not quite! It is a very subjective, 'luck of the draw' business, but I'm glad to have found my publisher and to be writing, anyway.

wealhtheow said...

So very, very true. (Although I'm not at all sure that my own first novel is actually particularly good ...)

I feel that my dozen-plus years in the publishing industry give me a tremendous advantage over many of my fellow writers-aspiring-to-publication, not in terms of actually getting published but in terms of understanding something about how the business works. My work is in scholarly/academic publishing, which of course is not at all the same thing as commercial genre fiction; but many things do carry over. For instance:

From my experience running the administrative end of peer review for learned journals I learned, inter alia, that when someone rejects your MS, they are rejecting the MS, not you. They don't even know who you are.

From my experience as a copy editor of learned journals I have learned, inter alia, that editors and copy editors mostly want to help authors not look like buffoons (that is, they are not primarily in the business of Stifling the Author's Creativity or of Making the Author's Life a Misery); that good editing takes time; and that while editors and suchlike people have excellent memories and rarely forget when an author has been horrible to them for no reason, they hardly ever blacklist or sabotage such authors as a result.

From just generally working in publishing for more than a decade I have learned, inter alia, that the majority of publishing professionals are astonishingly overeducated and underpaid; that whatever publishing is or may be, it is not a good way for publishers to make truckloads of money; that while good chocolate cannot solve all problems, it's a jolly good start; and that even quite famous authors are generally, once you get to know them, perfectly nice ordinary people who have the ordinary sort of difficulties with things like using FTP servers and making Microsloth Weird do what they want it to do.

I finished a book MS a couple of years ago and haven't managed to sell it yet, despite getting some relatively positive feedback from several agents. Knowing what I know about How Publishing Works has been enormously useful in understanding some of the reasons this is so -- which include (a) I haven't sent it to enough agents yet, (b) it's got some problems that I can see now but couldn't see when I was writing even the third draft, and (c) it's a bit tricky to categorize, but which do not include (d) it's the worst book ever written and I should just quit right now because I am doomed to fail, (e) no one likes me, (f) no one will buy a book with big words in it, (g) all those agents are just rejecting everything they get without reading any of it, or (h) it's too groundbreaking and unusual for agents to recognize its awesomeness.

The tricky thing is explaining to people who have no clue how commercial publishing operates (rellies of various sorts, frex) why I am not published yet ...

rodgriff said...

I guess the other side of the coin is why does bad writing get published? I don't mind battling away to try and improve my novels, but I find a lot of the sanctimonious rubbish from some in the publishing world a bit hard to take when they publish stuff that is badly written with cardboard characters. Far too much is marketed off the back of so called celebrity. Couldn't they at least give some of these people a decent editor.

Donna Hosie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Derek said...

According to Dr. Johnson, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

L.A. DeVaul said...

I agree and disagree with many of these comments. Writing for many, is a joy and a compulsion, and while getting paid for it would be wonderful, they continue to write simply because they want to.

As for "quiet" books not being publishable, I often wonder if the timeless classics that we still enjoy today would be publishable.

I cannot tell you how many times I have walked into B&N looking for a new book, picking up several setting them down, sighing, and walking home with another Jane Austen under my arm.

How sad that many publishers won't take chances on a market that is not "proven".

Thus we are left with the same authors writing formulaic bestsellers that no one will want in five years.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

'Too quiet' seems to be the rejection of choice at the moment. Can hardly count how many (previously well published) friends have suddenly found their work rejected as being 'too quiet'. Personally, I love quiet books. And yes, I'm another one who walks round a bookshop with a sinking heart and sometimes comes home with another Jane Austen or Barbara Pym, a William Trevor, or a McCall Smith. The older and more experienced I grow, the more I realise that (as Jarred says) many of us are happiest when writing for love, for exploration, for compulsion. The late Pat Kavanagh used to offer the advice that you should 'only write something if you simply can't NOT write it.'
But of course, we all write for a multitude of other reasons as well: because we've been commissioned, because we think something might sell, because we need a platform, because we need the money. All the same, when I look back, I can see that the work which has given me most satisfaction, and which - oddly enough - has been most successful (and I've spent a lot of my writing life on plays as well as prose) has been where I felt both inspired and compelled in some way. I was writing for me, I was writing to find something out -I was writing for the love of exploration, but almost never, in those instances, primarily for an audience/ agent/publisher. As soon as they entered the equation too prominently, the work started to go to hell in a handcart.
Now - while still trying to be realistic about production and publishing possibilities and wise to the market - I've also taken a conscious decision to spend plenty of my working life following my own creative impulses.
One thing saddens me though - at a time when, for instance, sections of the music industry appreciate just how easy and profitable it can be to service a 'long tail' of niche markets - publishing seems to be increasingly prescriptive and unadventurous - with, of course, a few notable exceptions!

Dan Holloway said...

Interesting post, Jane. I want to say surely it doesn't take industry experience to understand why good writing fails. I will say instead, it SHOULDN'T take that kind of experience. If we're writing to be published, surely we should be doing our market research, and the most basic of that will tell you that some types of book, no matter how good, aren't commercial propositions for a publisher.

There are two real issues though here. The first is, how a writer knows if their work is good but uncommercial as opposed to just rubbish, and second, what they do about it. I've had agents say lovely encouraging things about my work, that they wished they could represent me but in the current climate there's no place for a book like mine by a first author - how do I know if they're being nice or if that's a sop?

Assuming the former (not because of a huge ego but because I'm fighting my general tendency to assume everything I do is worthless), the real question is what to do about it.

The problem is, advice differs greatly. An editor at Random House told me to stick to writing what I'm happy with writing regardless (nice, thoughtful, but not commercially very helpful). On the other hand, we should approach ourt writing like a business, and that means compulsively researching and writing for the meerkat.

My answer was to set up a collective to try and target the rump of readers who did want high class literary fiction by new writers, and get their attention by giving away free e-books. Others will keep submitting uncommercial but brilliant work out o integrity (and no doubt some of those will enter the literary canon long after their death). Others will "sell out".

I agree that self-awareness is important (and it amazes me how little of it there is amongst writers) but it's very much only a first step.

Dan Holloway said...

@Nicola bitterness - yes, it's almost worn as a badge of pride by unublished authors. It serves no useful purpose other than to keep relationship counsellors in business. I know that, beard notwithstanding, "Pollyanna" is a term that has been used about me more than once, but I do wish that those unpublished writers who won't bend to the meerkat would simply do what those in the music industry do and wear their "indie" credentials with pride, rather than using them as proof the woorld is unfair. What's wrong with saying "I'm doing something different. I don't know if I'll succeed, but I'm having a great time trying". Who knows, perhaps then their enthusiasm rather than their cynicism will rub off on those they meet.

@Emma - "it can be a mistake to spend years and years polishing repolishing" YES. Thsi is the other thing unpublished writers get wrong. They think having written a book will make them a paid author. So they rework and rework and rework that book. The fact is that beyond the top 0.however many 0s 1% of authors, annyone who's going to make a living needs to write at a rate of a book a year - 18 months if they're REALLY successful. There's nothing better than to get into the habit of keeping on writing new material at the very start of your attempted career. Plus you have the added bonus that you can look around to fnd your voice, you get to practice your craft rather than just your editing skills, and you get to learn how to generate and sustain ideas. AND, heaven forfend, you get picked up, you can also tell your new agent about the twenty previous efforts you have waiting.

emma darwin said...

Dan, one of the most golden, excellent pieces of advice I ever came across in my early writing days was that you should stuff your submissions in the pillarbox, and then go home and write "Chapter One". By the time the last of the rejections come home to roost, eight months later, you've got most of a new novel, and

a) you know that those rejections don't spell the end of the writing life

b) you've learnt so much from the new novel - you learn on novels, not between them - that you can see some of the reasons why the rejections are, indeed, coming flopping back through your door.

So you crack on with the new novel with more energy, not less.

Though there's no denying that it can be a mistake, when you get a deal, to dig out and dust off those previous efforts. One reason for that Second Novel seeming weaker than the first which was published with such trumpetings is that, actually it WAS the first novel...

Nik said...

Dusting off those earlier novels... Yes, but you don't simply offer it - you self-edit, based on your experience since the early novel was written, and you end up with a damned fine second novel. I've done it, so I'm grateful for the gap in time between the novel being written, gathering dust (a publisher said it was better than many novels published but the basic premise didn't work for him), and my first sale encouraging me to rework the earlier books. But I also agree, move on and write new material as soon as the last one is in the post.
Nik Morton/Ross Morton

SleepyJohn said...

I think we writers need to keep in mind that a publishing house is a business that exists to earn money for its owners. Much as individuals within it may want to publish 'good writing' the simple fact is that if a book, however 'well written', will not make enough profit to justify the time and effort it will demand, then a publisher will not publish it. Shops sell what the public will buy, and so do publishers. If they don't, they go out of business.

I have come across a few comments and blog posts lately noting that J K Rowling is 'not a good writer', complete with some compelling reasons why. Yet she has sold hundreds of millions of books all over the world. This may be galling for those who think they 'are good writers', but it behoves us to try and understand why she sells so many; especially when it is quite clear that those hundreds of millions of readers are not all illiterate morons.

I don't actually believe that many readers give a toss how many adverbs there are in a book if it gives them a 'good story'; one that will take them out of their mundane lives into a daydream of a more interesting world. And Harry Potter's world is interesting. It is a heady juxtaposition of the magic they dream of and the mundane they live in, and it is not hard to see why it is popular, despite the criticisms of the author's writing style.

Whatever the 'quality' of the writing, if a novel charms readers with its story most will buy it. If it does not, most will not. And unless the projected minority who will is large enough for a publisher to make a profit, he will not publish it.

So we move into an interesting situation for self-publishing, when a market too small to be viable for the publisher may well be large enough to be viable for the writer, if he 'cuts out the middleman' and publishes himself. Yes, there are pitfalls, but so there are in commercial publishing. In fact, life is full of pitfalls, and the more boldly we go the more likely we are to encounter them. But the rewards can be great. Better a well-written self-published novel than a well-written unpublished novel?

Nik said...

'Shops sell what the public will buy'... I'd amend that: shops stock what they think the public will buy. A case in point is westerns; many bookshops don't stock them in UK. Asked why, they say, 'They don't sell.' Reply with, 'They don't sell because you don't stock them...' Same goes for all the mid-list authors and first authors - rarely promoted in bookstores. Word-of-mouth sells, but only if enough copies of the book are out there in the shops in the first place, and that's the problem - too many new books, not enough shelf-space.
Nik Morton/Ross Morton

DOT said...

Serendipity rules - having had exactly this conversation within the last 30 minutes with a friend, who stayed overnight en route from France to parents.

I said, I believe my first book is well written, but may not be marketable.

He poo-pooed me.

I poo-pooed him back.

He listed a number of books that were off-beat in their time and went on to become classics.

I said in their time is not my time now. The market is not static and, in times of economic stagnation, becomes deeply and depressingly conservative when, in fact, it should become even more dynamic; however, my book will not be the one to persuade publishers of my better understanding of how to ride out a recession.

He poo-pooed me.

'I've had just about as much of your poo I can take,' I replied.

DOT said...

Correction. Should read:

'The market is NOW static…'

SleepyJohn said...

Nik - amendment accepted, with the caveat that it is the job of the retailer to assess accurately what the public will buy or he will go out of business. Same for a publisher. Both are businesses, investing huge sums of money in stocking their products. When times are hard both will be cautious.

BuffySquirrel said...

Bookshops around here rarely stock the books I want to buy. I suppose because there's only one of me.

behlerblog said...

L.A.DeVaul said:
How sad that many publishers won't take chances on a market that is not "proven".

Oh, how I lament right along with you. I love "quiet" books. When we opened our company years ago, I bought several "quiet" books and experienced very mild sales compared to the ones with more meat and potatoes. I despaired. To this day, I love those books and refused to remainder them because I hope there will be a comeback of this type of book.

But, alas, our strings are pulled by a fickle marketplace, and that marketplace wants YA vampire romance. I refuse to go down that route, but I still have to publish wonderful, marketable books that will keep my secretary, an unreliable beagle, in designer chewie toys.

VK said...

Hm. I don't think it's all that hard to work out why good writing gets rejected.

It's about the story. You can be a brilliant writer, but if you can't construct a good, original, interesting story with fascinating characters, you're not going to sell. On the other hand, if you can manage that, you will be able to sell, regardless of the quality of your writing.

Because.... it isn't about the writing. It's about the story.

In other words, it isn't the system, it's you. Your storytelling, to be exact. It is obviously not good enough yet. Writing be damned. You can be a great writer and never get published if your stories aren't interesting.

To repeat my theme... it isn't about the writing. It's about the story.

Think for a moment about all the ordinary yet bestselling writers out there. (Hello Dan Brown, Stephanie Myer, Christopher Paolini...) They're all ordinary to awful writers on a technical level. But they're great storytellers.

Sometimes their writing skills make me gnash my teeth... but they can construct a good story.

You might write like Tolkien but you just don't have a saleable story yet.

The Kid In The Front Row said...

You seem to mention that you are privvy to some knowledge on how books do and don't get published, but you haven't shared it. I think you should.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

There's a book by William Goldman called Adventures in the Screen Trade (recommended reading for anyone who wants to get into that industry) - he has a maxim that would apply equally well to publishing 'nobody knows anything'. He does know rather a lot though, having written screenplays for Butch and Sundance among many other wildly successful movies. He says filmmakers are always looking for the 'next big thing' but they invariably predicate it on the 'last big thing'. This means that the real 'next big thing' ALWAYS comes out of nowhere and takes them by surprise. It is, I reckon, exactly the same with publishing. Harry Potter was a case in point. Great stories, for sure, but all those publishers who rejected it certainly couldn't see that. The Lord of the Rings was out there for years and years, almost unnoticed, before it became a cult. Nobody in the industry predicted the worldwide success of the Number One Ladies' Detective Agency. (Beautiful writing, little story to speak of!) We can't second guess this sort of thing, there's no magic formula although it would comfort us to think that there might be! - so the only way to save your sanity is to hone your craft -and write what you want to write!

Jane Smith said...

VK wrote, "It's about the story. You can be a brilliant writer, but if you can't construct a good, original, interesting story with fascinating characters, you're not going to sell. On the other hand, if you can manage that, you will be able to sell, regardless of the quality of your writing."

I disagree. You need to have a good story AND write it well if you want to get published. How you define "writing well" is important: you have to write appropriately for the genre in which you're writing, as what's good in one genre is going to be seen as bad writing in another. But the idea that you can get published if your writing stinks? Nope. Definitely not.

Jane Smith said...

The Kid wrote, "You seem to mention that you are privvy to some knowledge on how books do and don't get published, but you haven't shared it. I think you should."

Read all the other posts on my blog, Mr Kid, and then come back and tell me what I've missed out!

Jane Smith said...

Catherine, you have a point: when writers try to write what the market's after they're doomed, because by the time their book is finished the market has usually moved on. But there's a lot to be gained by bearing in mind the general needs of the market, which will help you get published if you're clever about it.

Sally Zigmond said...

I meant to say something earlier but I seem to have got trampled in the rush of other comments.

What gets published is not an exact science. There is no formula.

And I've read Jane's manuscript. (We're talking about the Welsh one?) I loved it. It IS bleak and quiet but no bleaker or quieter than many other published novels I've read.

Jane Smith said...

Sally, yes, the first one was the Welsh one and thank you very much for your kind words--coming from you they mean a lot to me (and yes, Sally is a very dear friend of mine but yes, she has also shredded some of my work in the past and no, I don't pay her to say these things, I just bribe her with Starbucks).

You're right, there's no exact science to what gets published and what doesn't, so it's impossible to say that something about blue cats, for example, will never be published while something about red cats will. But the one thing that IS likely is that if your book is poorly written, and has no real plot, then it's going to remain on your hard drive. Simple.

Borah said...

On the other hand, it would be just as painful, if not more, if a good novel gets published and fails completely, don't you think?

I don't think it's such a bad think publishers only publish those books they think they can sell.

Nik said...

Yes, Borah, I have two good novels published - reviews say so without any arm-twisting - but the sales aren't there. It isn't failing, but it's finding it difficult to fight its way into the public consciousness. It's about a nun who used to be a cop (in UK); one reader is starting it for the third time - and she's an ex-nun, so I must be doing something right, but marketing and readership pickup isn't happening. So, yes, get published, but don't think that you've arrived; that's simply the beginning. Best of luck anyone who sends off their first MS.
Nik Morton