Saturday, July 24, 2010

It's not enough to write well

I was reading this interview with several editors and they were talking about how they pick books for their list. We’ve all heard the “I just don’t feel like I would be the best editor for this book” and “I just wasn’t excited enough to take this one” etc. etc… But what the he#* does that mean? Basically it means that, for whatever reason, the editor can’t see himself or herself married to this book for a year or more. The commitment is huge. They have to be able to read the book a dozen times without pulling out their hair, and they have to be able to convince others in the house to agree it’s a good buy and they have to be so excited about it that they’ll stay excited for over the year it will take to publish. They have to, in short, love the book.

Almost all the editors said most of the manuscripts submitted to them were fairly well written. Editors, unlike agents, have, in most cases, someone between them and the writers who submit to them. Agents. (Only a few houses will take submissions directly from writers). So I guess it makes sense that most of what editors read is mostly well written. But it got me thinking; it’s not enough just to write well.

I know there are other factors besides the writing. There’s the fashion of publishing—what’s hot, what’s not, for example. Luck. Connections. Also simply the personal taste of the editor, and also whether they had to wait too long in line that morning for their Double Soy Latte, are having bad hair day, had their foot stomped on in the subway, but I think it’s worth noting that a lot of people WRITE WELL.

I’m talking, as I think these editors were, not only about being able to use language well, but also understanding the basics of fiction: characterization, plot, setting etc…How to move characters around and tell a story. I think these editors were saying most of the manuscripts they read could do these things. (That’s quite an accomplishment in and of itself. That puts a writer in the top few percentile maybe. Let me give you some totally unreliable numbers. I’ve heard two agents say they get around 4000-5000 queries in a year. One agent who said this said he took on two clients out of that 4000-5000. It makes sense that agents have to be picky. How many clients can they represent? But those numbers amazed me. Jennifer Jackson, an agent that blogs, gives a tally of queries she receives and each week and how many partial or whole manuscripts she asks to read. OF COURSE THIS DOES NOT MEAN SHE AGREES TO REPRESENT THE WRITERS, but they make it to level two where she’ll read the full manuscript. Here’s the last two weeks:
92 read queries, 0 requests for manuscripts
153 read queries, 1 request for manuscript.
My point is that with all this rejection going on it does make sense that what editors see will be more polished than most writers are able to do. )

So what does it take then to get a novel published? Love. An editor can’t just think to themselves, “This person writes a pretty sentence” or “Interesting characters in this chapter” or “I love the description of the world these characters are in. Not bad at all on the characters either. Not bad. ” EVERYTHING has to work in such a way that an editor can’t stop themselves from loving it.

For me, a unique way of looking at the world and a unique voice (and just about every editor mentioned the need for a unique voice to attract their attention) will go a long way toward my buying and loving a book.

It may not be enough to write well, but you have to do that first. It’s just that you have to do everything else well too. Writing and reading will certainly help you get there. But consider your weaknesses in writing when you’re doing all this writing. Just writing a lot of words will improve your writing but if you keep making the same mistakes over and over again the improvement will be slow. I know some of my weaknesses in writing and I struggle to make them stronger every time I write. You should, too. And find your voice and your particular way of looking at the world and don't let yourself be persuaded to make your writing more like what's popular or more mainstream. What's most unique about your writing is what's most unique about you: the way you look at the world.

Or so I think today.


E. Arroyo said...

Well said. I agree. And sometimes we do need to be reminded.

Thanks for the post.

Elisabeth Black said...

Great post. I think so too.

I'm confident I can learn to write well. I HOPE I can find an agent who will love my book, an editor who will love my book, a publisher who thinks my book is a good chance to take. I HOPE readers will find my book. I HOPE they'll like it too. Love it. I HOPE they'll tell their friends about it, etc. etc. etc.

It's such a crapshoot. I don't let myself think about it too much. I just keep doing my best. What more can I do?

Brian Yansky said...

Thanks E. Arroyo and Elisabeth. I hope all those things for you, too, Elizabeth. There is definitely an element of the crapshoot to the whole process. All you can really control is what you do, I guess.

Carol Silvis said...

Reading your statistics makes it even more imperative for a writer to be persistent if he or she wants to be published. Researching the right agent for the manuscript is also a must.
Thanks for the interesting post.

Brian Yansky said...

So true, Carol. Yep, finding the right agent, the one who gets your work and one you can work well with, is so important.

Victoria Dixon said...

Yeah, that editor has to love your book as much as you ever did and it's well worth saying. Thanks, Brian!

Brian Yansky said...

Thanks, Victoria.