Some time ago I posted a letter from a reader in which she implied that there were certain people visiting writers forums who had “no business writing.” This comment, more than anything else in the letter, caused quite a stir. Many criticized the author for being a snob and not giving a break to newbies.
I have no idea where this statement came from, whether it was based on seeing writing samples or just on the questions people ask. What it got me thinking about though was the entire writing v. publishing discussion. I disagree that there’s anyone out there who has no business writing. In fact, writing can be a wonderful form of communication, therapy, or just plain fun and anyone who wants to write should grab pen and paper or keyboard and computer and get to it. Part of the joy of writing this blog is that I get a chance to write, something I don’t typically get to do.
What I wonder about this reader’s question though is not whether she meant people have no business writing, but whether she meant that there are people out there who have no business seeking publication, and for that I wonder if she might be right. We talk frequently about how busy and inundated agents are and the huge influx of queries we are all seeing. What we rarely talk about however is how many of those should really be seeking publication. Despite what many writers seem to think, not every word you write is brilliant and not every book should be seen by the world. In fact, I spoke recently to a writer at a conference who wanted to write and share the family stories told to her as a child. She was getting older and thought the stories would be lovely to share with family and friends. She wanted to know from me if I thought it was worth getting an agent for. I suggested that in this case she might consider self-publishing. She didn’t want to fictionalize it and really wanted it for the purpose of a family legacy. It seems like a great idea, but not likely something that would sell thousands of copies in a bookstore or appeal to a mass audience.
I think one of the problems the Internet has created for publishing is that everyone thinks every book written deserves to be published, and let’s face it, that’s just not true. I’m not saying that the people the reader was talking about have no business being published ever, but I do imagine there are a lot of books written that aren’t ready to be queried and may never be ready to be queried. The problem often is that there is no way to know that until you actually try.
Most of what gets published isn't worth committing to print, much less the reams of material not published. Stacks housing entire genres could be carted out of book stores everywhere and justice will have been served. For the moment, the merit of a work is ultimately determined by a plurality of tastes and opinions, but my day will come. I am patient. I have my own matches.
I think this is true in all of the arts. Being a singer/songwriter/musician, I can speak for the music side. Not every group of people who put a band together and write a few songs are ready for the "big time," although most think they are. The test of time and of improving your craft are key. Those who are truly serious and have the special ingredient: talent, will eventually rise to the attention of someone who can make a difference for them - providing they keep at it and are doing it because they can NOT not doing it (sorry about the double neg). I agree with you on this one, Jessica.;-)
Central Content Publisher:
On behalf of my clients, my love for my job and the many others who read and post here, published and unpublished, I have to respectfully (although with grudging respect) disagree. I will tell you right now that there are so many wonderful books out there and to decide that entire genres aren't worth being published is nothing but elitism and snobbery. I think true success in this world, in publishing and everywhere, means having respect for those around you and knowing that you are good at what you do, but not perfect.
I have no patience for disrespect.
I agree with DebraLSchubert. I am a writer, but I work in the design field, and I can vouch for the truth of this idea in the art/design world too.
Sure, there are lots of people I run across on critique sties and forums who shouldn't try to publish until their prose is much better than it is now. But...uh...I'm not one of 'em. Bet there's a lot of people out there thinking the same thing. ;)
I agree that not every writer should be seeking publication at any given time, but my only question would be, how does anyone know based on a blog comment?
I don't remember the subject from when it was originally brought up, so maybe someone can help me. What was the poster's rationale for coming to that conclusion?
Thanks for the post, and an interesting topic. As a picture book writer I do find the advice/standard we read about and are striving for is not always reflected in published books though. I read that every word should justify its existence, and that many books should not be queried let alone published, and then read some very flabby texts out there... Please don't misunderstand me. I'm not aiming for the bottom line, but for the top! And I think there's world enough for all the books, even if the market wouldn't bear it. But some of them just don't meet the standards the publishing industry say they uphold. Just sayin'.
I think you worded it perfectly. Everybody has the option to write whatever they want, for whatever reasons they choose. Whether they should seek publication is a completely different matter.
Thanks for the great post!
Everyone has a right to write or draw or paint or play the piano. Not all will make it before the bigger audience, though. Always enjoy the discussions here.
I think this speaks of the importance of agents. Because writing is so subjective--and measuring one's own ability nearly impossible--the industry needs gatekeepers.
In defense of early writers, including my early work, I think we just don't know how bad we are. I mean, really, I can read my first couple novels and see the seeds of the professional writer I eventually became, but it's not anything I would consider publishable now although I thought it was at the time. The advantage of working over time, getting rejected repeatedly and writing, writing, writing, is you (hopefully) gain some ability to evaluate your own work objectively.
It does remind me, though, of those folks who audition for American Idol and you know some of them suck, know they suck, and just want to get on TV. Others, though, suck, don't know they suck, and seem terribly shocked when they're told how bad they suck. I doubt most early aspiring writers would compare themselves to those people, but in fact, they have a lot in common.
I do think that some people who write and expect to be published never will achieve that goal. Their writing just isn't good enough. Even though I can color a stellar picture with my five-year-old, if I were to put a paintbrush to canvas, no art gallery would ever dream of displaying it. I just don't have that talent. But I think everyone who is inspired to write should do so. Especially those who want to pass a story down to their family members. I wish my grandparents had shared theirs.
Sometime after my wife handed me The Book Thief and tearfully mumbled, "Must read," I began to change my perspective on who should write for publication. Obviously, I'm excepting those with grammar and spelling that's so poor you need a Fujita Scale just to describe it. Ten pages in to Zuzak's book, and I was wondering how it got published. Had I been an agent and not known of the brilliance of style and story that continued on from those 10 pages, I would have tossed it. But I pressed forward and was rewarded with a wonderful read based on what I'd heard.
Which is why I think the submission process does work, if the author submits broadly enough. Who knows how agents' and editors' time Zuzak, Rowling, L'Engle, etc., "wasted" before someone recognized their value.
No business seeking publication?
Maybe no business seeking publication...YET.
I think anyone seriously pursuing a writing career is in a constant state of growth. Learning with each book you write published or unpublished. So maybe this book is crap but the next one or the one after that could be the one where you've learned enough write a winner.
I completely agree with Central Content Publisher, with all due respect, Jessica.
Teen vampire books and 19th century classics turned zombie farces truly have no business being published, and the only reason people buy them is for novelty sake and because that is all they see and hear from the media.
Pet rocks and cabbage patch kids were once "in" fads, but everyone knows how ludicrous those were. Someday people will look back on some of these books and say "What were they thinking in 2009!"
"Teen vampire books and 19th century classics turned zombie farces truly have no business being published, and the only reason people buy them is for novelty sake and because that is all they see and hear from the media."
Um. Have you read them? A friend convinced me to read Twilight, and I thought it was clear that the writing was from a beginner... but it was FUN storytelling! Great art? Of course not, but I don't regret a moment of reading that book. Similarly, I don't like John Grisham's writing at all, but I do understand the power of the tales that got him published.
Don't insult thousands of readers by saying we buy books because of "novelty" or because we're pressured to do so my "the media" (which media, exactly?). If you write, that's your potential audience, unless you're too good for them, in which case feel free to put your novels in a drawer after they're written and never try to seek publication at all.
Separate from these broad generalizations, there are certainly some would-be writers who should give up seeking a career in the field... they are the equivalent of those shockingly untalented people who audition over and over again for So You Think You Can Dance or American Idol, and who are clearly DELUSIONAL about their abilities.
But, they're delusional, so I doubt anyone will ever convince them. So, we all keep on keeping on, the terrible side-by-side with the mediocre and the great.
Whoa, John. I loved the Twilight books. Not because of their novelty, but because I could relate to the characters. And I loved my cabbage patch doll as a kid. You cannot speak for everyone's tastes. That is why there are genres, and bad reviews. It's a thing called opinion. Books are published because multiple people loved and believed in them - the author, possibly an agent, and multiple people at the publishing house.
I agree. I think that some things are better left privately. Agents have less time as it is, let alone looking at things which clearly will never be published.
If anyone's interested, I have an interview with Jessica up on my blog today:
Just copy and paste it into another Internet window, and enjoy!
"Teen vampire books and 19th century classics turned zombie farces truly have no business being published, and the only reason people buy them is for novelty sake and because that is all they see and hear from the media."
*hides stack of Twilight books*
Excuse me? I read Twilight because all my friends had. I read the next three because I liked Twilight. I've continued to read them because I LIKE them.
I disagree on the count that some people have no business attempting to get their work published. Not all books are for everyone! Just because you don't like crime mysteries doesn't mean that everyone else in the world shouldn't either.
And how do you know if your work is worth "wasting" agent's time? If Rowling or King or Dr. Seuss had decided not to get their work published, where would we be now?
The only people I agree have no business attempting to get their work published are people that are unwilling to listen and follow the rules. The people that don't even bother to read the agent guidelines before they hit send and put their unrequested full manuscript in an agent's inbox. The ones that send hate mail whenever they're rejected or send twenty unchanged queries to an agent in the hope that if they try hard enough, eventually the agent will just give in.
And, if they're willing to straighten up, they shouldn't be denied the chance to publish their work either.
This is a country where anyone can submit their work for publication. So who are you to say that such and such a person shouldn't be allowed to publish?
I really have mixed feelings on this topic. I can see both sides of the coin.
I worked as a newspaper reporter for more than a decade and wrote thousands of by-lined published stories. Obviously, from the point I started at to where I finished up were very different in terms of the quality of the writing and reporting.
In reading my local paper or even larger papers, I often get frustrated at the lack of quality writing and/or reporting. When I step back for a moment, I realize those young reporters are exactly where I was 20 years ago.
The point is, I think the system we currently have works just fine. As someone mentioned earlier, your and other folks job in the industry is to be the gatekeeper, to weed out all of the stuff that shouldn't be published.
I don't think you or anyone else should discourage someone for trying, however. Except for a very gifted few, the first few manuscripts you submit are going to be sub-standard. It's the writer's job to keep learning and practicing the craft to become proficient. Most will never make it to that proficient level, but that's okay.
Whether some of the snobs like to believe it or not, the literary world is better for EVERYONE giving it a shot.
It's not just talent and level of skill that makes a professional writer, it's a certain type of personality and attitude, for lack of better terms.
I hang out on a lot of writing lists, and I can spot some folks who simply don't have the right attitude to be professional writers, whatever their skill level.
I created a quiz to test that attitude. If anyone's interested in taking it, it's here
I'd like to peek in here for a second...
Say what you will about those "teen vampire books", but we're seeing a huge resurgence in the YA market due largely to their popularity. Teenagers are reading again and that can only be a GOOD thing.
I agree that just because you can put words on paper doesn't mean you're a writer. You meet lots of wannabe's at conferences and lectures--people who like the idea or image of being writers, but who don't actually write.
But I think variety is the spice of bookstores and it's nice to have something for all tastes, not just what's "hot" now.
One of my most treasured books is a gift from my daughter-in-law, a self published cookbook filled with old family recipes and photos. Should it be available to the public? Absolutely not, but it's a book I will definitely keep to pass on. I think the "what deserves to be published and what doesn't" question is ultimately answered by what sells and what doesn't on the open market. And for those writers who can't sell to a publisher and yet self-publish, more power to them. If that's the only way how they can finally fulfill a life long dream, well...
Jessica - I really enjoyed this topic and reading your opinion, although it appears this has spawned another debate within the comments. *grin*
Thank you, as always, for the thought provoking posts you leave.
As for Central Content Publisher's comments, I've seen those kinds of arguments applied over various types of art and thought. I completely disagree.
Go back a few hundred years and Alexander Hamilton made the same kinds of arguments against Democracy. The "common" people were not educated enough, he said,to effectively rule themselves. Hamilton was wrong. Democracy has worked just fine.
Central Content is making the same argument. The mass of people shouldn't be given a voice, shouldn't even try to be heard or published.
Let the market decide what's acceptable and what's not. Yes, you may get more schlock. But you will also get some work that's really good.
Because publishing is a business by and large, what should be on the shelves is what people like and want to read. Teens happen to like and enjoy vampire stories. Lots of adults do to for that matter. Saying stuff like that shouldn't be published is basically saying that you should be telling people what to read. Publishing is not about the literary education of the public, though I do know because of the great love for literature that exists within publishing, that they do want and desire to place great literature out on the shelves. They also like great storytelling as much as the next reader, and want people to have fun reading as much as they do.
You can't really say any particular kind of book has no business being published. You can say a particular title is crap, which of course is an opinion everyone is entitled to. But you can't claim to dictate what the public should be reading. That's the quickest way to get people not to read.
Man, these folks need to get off their high horses. Anyway, as for the topic at hand. I certainly agree that many many many books shouldn't see publication. They just aren't that good, aren't ready, etc. I don't think that many of the people who try writing understand just how difficult it is to do it well.
I have to wonder how many writers that should be seeking publication, don't because of negativity like that. Some people should probably realize they publication is wrong for them, but there are some that are borderline, and will improve with trial and error. Discouraging those people will only hurt the publishing industry.
Of course what we don't know won't hurt us, right? I mean the next bestseller out there that doesn't get published because of self doubt only helps the rest of us seeking representation. And I think people who discourage others to get ahead... well shame on them!
Ah, the tired genre discussion again. As a teacher, I agree with Kim (aka K-Lion). Anything that gets kids reading is more than fine with me. This year in my ninth grade English classes I secretly enjoyed watching my kids "sneak read" Twilight under their desks, and regretted having to tell them to put it away. There's not an English teacher in the nation who doesn't revere JK Rowling for bringing pleasure reading back. (And with all due respect Central Content, the mention of "matches" in the same breath as "books" is just a little too Fahrenheit 451 for me. . .)
John & CCP,
Any book that encourages someone to read is worth publication. Those kids are your future readers. They may not read the crap we print out now, but eventually the role of crap to them may change to your POV. If someone wants to read it, then print it, one way or another! Your future depends on it, because young readers grow up to be adult readers.
"... not every book" this is so true ... I have an agent, a very good one, & though I spent most of last summer & fall rewriting a novel that I sent in Nov., I never heard a word back. Then again, none of my regulars (readers) responded either. It's over 300 pages.
I produced another piece (that wasn't a novel, in Nov. immediately following the first novel which I had to flush out of my system: that said, I will return to it AGAIN and, eventually get it right).
Even though I've been at this a long, long time, it's taken really, up until reading this post to realize or articulate for myself that, sometimes, work is research. I wouldn't have been able to toss off piece #2 (which EVERYONE has responded to, overwhelminginly so) w/out piece #1.
What has been more challenging is learning how to post comments on blogs!
At this, I am somewhat of a newbie and learning ... though I seemed to have found my own sweet spot
which involves reading an entire post before dashing off a response. And, if someone flames back, not getting into. My comment should be (or, I should have enough confidence in myself) able to stand on its own. This is one reason I post anonymously: I can say whatever I like and so long as it's not spam/pornography, who's to disagree?
I write about comments & writing because I think, like markets and economies (there's an interesting letter-to-the-editor in this week's New York Magazine which references this notion: I didn't grasp it in a way which I can explain but, on some level it made sense and seems to relate to what I'm posting, here) they are entirely different animals.
I read Jessica's blog every morning, Nathan's and am folding others into my line-up as I go. Sometimes I respond, sometimes I read a bit, or just the comments and then move on. Maybe I return at the end of the day.
But a blog is not a primary purpose. Nor is blogging. And I would daresay, if you're a writer who's THAT into blogging and getting your panties all up in a bunch over comments, put the novel aside and just blog.
It was a HE, not a she, that asked the question. Hold on...let me make sure...
Yep, he. :)
And yes, it was about seeking publication, not writing for one's own amusement.
How can I tell from forum posts? If a writer has to ask "how do I make my characters interesting" or "how do I create tension", then that person has no business seeking publication.
I never said "ever". Sure, maybe these people are learning and will one day be great writers. But they are not great writers now, not if they don't know who to pace their story or make their characters interesting or any of many other things a writer needs to be able to do.
To publish, one should be a master of the craft, so if you're "Learning to Write with Uncle Jim" (an ongoing topic on a forum), you have no business seeking publication. You should be at least as good as Uncle Jim (a midlist sci-fi author), otherwise you’re just reducing the time agents have to look at serious queries.
I don’t mean to discourage anyone…by all means learn, improve, etc. Just don’t query until you don’t need Uncle Jim to tell you how to write anymore.
Great...now I will be told *I* have no business writing because of the typos I can't edit out of the above comment.
Oh well, such is life. :)
"The "common" people were not educated enough, he said,to effectively rule themselves. Hamilton was wrong. Democracy has worked just fine."
I'm thinking that the common people now are too lazy to inform themselves on the true issues...and this extends to writing too.
You have to be focused and determined and you have to realize there is a possibility that all the work you put into a manuscript may not come to fruition.
That's not to say people shouldn't try, but they really need to be realistic and willing to learn.
Unfortunately this extends to other parts of our "fast food" culture, where we want things done now without putting forth the time and effort to inform ourselves.
I say if you have a desire to write, write. If you have a goal to publish, start learning how to craft a good book. Join writers groups, very easy to do on the internet and its free. No excuses not to. Send your work out to be critiqued. If a bunch of people say your work isn't ready...IT ISN'T READY. Sorry, but that is a fact. It's not because those people suck or don't know what they are talking about...it's because IT ISN'T READY. Learn from others. And every author can learn.
As for those teen vampire books...they are what is keeping this publishing industry afloat. Without those sales there would be a lot of publishers in trouble. Romance and YA sell more than any other genre. While every other genre is down in sales, they are making money.
Unfortunately not everyone is self-aware or objective enough to know if their work is "ready." It's a mistake to say they shouldn't try, though. Failure is one of the most effective teaching tools there is. Lots of bestselling authors tell stories about writing six or seven books and getting rejected for years before finally getting published. Their work would never have gotten to that point if they hadn't submitted the first novel.
I graduated from high school with Harper Lee's neice. Ms. Lee was kind enough to come talk to our class in eighth grade and at the time I had no idea how huge that was. She didn't write her famous book to be famous. In fact, she hated being famous. But for whatever reason she pursued publication. Her humility and self-effacing attitude could well have prevented her from doing so today with all the professionals out there saying unpublished, inexperienced, newbie writers need to keep their work under the bed.
Great art is rare but it can come from anyone. It would be a shame to miss it just because of a thin resume.
I agree, Dara, that people must be willing to accept that their work may never be published no matter how hard they try or the amount of time they invest.
One of the clearest indicators to me of writers who aren't ready for prime time is that they think every word they put on paper deserves to see the light of day. Every story, poem, writing exercise, journal entry, etc. Such beginners often don't realize that it's okay to write a practice novel (and stow it under the bed!), or to do writing exercises just for oneself (there's no such thing as "wasted words" -- it's all part of the learning process). And if you can't differentiate between good pieces and not-so-good pieces, you probably won't be able to figure out what is and isn't working in any one novel/story.
I completely agree with your post.
When I finished my first "book" (which really was more "story" than "book"), I was convinced it was time to pursue publishing.
May the world never see that.
Then I finished my first ACTUAL book... and still not ready.
But if I didn't believe in my own talent, I would have given up long ago. And I think I needed to go through the motions to learn as much as I've learned.
Still, it makes me wonder how many "first novels" some published authors wish would disappear from the public consciousness.
Well, I certainly think that there are books and writers, neither of which should be published. But I don't think that means they have no business writing. Writing can be a great deal of fun, and heaven knows they spend enough time rapping our knuckles trying to teach us how in our youth.
But Central Content Publisher; what an elitist crock of sh*t. (To quote John Irving.) The merit of a work is based on the amount of pleasure it brings and on the affection it generates in the reader and nothing more and nothing less. Claiming it lies anywhere else is self-justification promoted by Literature Professors who can't write and wish to continue a job indoors with no heavy lifting.
I personally don't care for romance novels, but was gobsmacked by Galbadon's first work when someone unknowingly gifted it to me and I became bored enough to read it. It was rich and skillful. I will probably never read another one, but it was well done and highly deserving of publication. I even read Twilight, and found it neither as engaging or awful as I was lead to believe, but I wouldn't presume to deny that pleasure to others. I personally love comic fantasy. Yes - it's junk food, but it gives me great pleasure.
Yes there is a lot of rubbish being published, but writers who waste their bitter moments crying about the percentage of the population who love Suzi-Qs will find that time better spent on constructing their sacher-tortes and would be a great lot happier if they'd just accept the fact that not everyone can tell the difference or even needs to.
I'm another one of those who was put off by the idea of people "having no business writing". I'm slightly less so regarding the idea of those same people having no business seeking publication--but only slightly. Both reek of pretense and snobbery to me when put that way.
I do wholeheartedly agree, however, that many of those seeking publication should wait and work on their craft until their writing actually stands a reasonable chance. That's one way writing forums and agent/editor blogs can be immensely useful. Unfortunately, as mentioned in other discussions, the people who most need the help probably won't seek it.
It seems that when people make these sorts of statements, they're voicing their fear that a less "worthy" writer will take their space, so to speak. What they need to realize is 1) there aren't a set number of spaces, and once they're gone, you're out of luck, and 2) it's not just one person who decides to publish a book. There are committees and different levels of approval each book has to go through, which means multiple people have to deem it marketable and "worthy". And whether they suit your taste or not, that includes teen vampire novels and 19th-century zombie farces.
Shakier Anthem wrote...
Such beginners often don't realize that it's okay to write a practice novel (and stow it under the bed!), or to do writing exercises just for oneself (there's no such thing as "wasted words" -- it's all part of the learning process).
I think I'm learning exactly this at the moment. I'm currently editing one novel, but I've written another one more recently. While I haven't reread #2 since finishing the first draft, my sense of it is that it's far more original and nuanced than #1. I think, once they are both edited, #1 will be decent, but #2 will be excellent (I hope). Unless #1 turns out better than I expect it to, I won't be querying it. But learning how to edit it has been an invaluable (if gruelling) process.
Of course, it's possible that I'm simply still in the honeymoon stage with #2, and once I've struggled with editing it as I have with #1, I won't have such a glowing opinion of it. Guess I'll find out...
(And no, #1 is not my first novel.)
See, this is my problem with the query process opening the floodgates to SO many people trying to publish. In this age of Oprah and JK Rowling (those things are not bad for readers; it's great that people are reading), as well as guide books and websites on how to write, there's a sense that anyone can be a writer, anyone has a story not only to tell, but to publish. I know a carpenter, who after 12 years, still doesn't call himself a carpenter; he thinks he has too much still to learn. But writers call themselves writers the minute they put pen to page.
I wouldn't tell any one individual not to write, but I will say that most writers I have known, even ones who have published, write things I wouldn't ever read if I didn't know them. The problem for the serious writer, one who has mastered their craft, isn't competition, its numbers. We have to stand out in a hoard of drivel using a form that's much easier to master than the product it describes (ie query for a novel).
Jessica: I understand your concerns in your post but have to echo some of the posters. As a beginner, it's difficult to judge your work. I know the first attempt I ever made at a novel I thought was brilliant at first. Now I look back and cringe but at the time I was just starting to learn and hadn't developed a good quality filter
I read unsolicited children's picture manuscripts for 3 years, and 99% of the mss I read were of the type Jessica describes. People think it's easy to write a children's book, but it isn't...
Now that I'm on the other side of the "transom," I find it so hard not be delusional about my manuscript. But if we were all too realistic, we would put our mss in a drawer and call it a day.
I guess I agree with the posters above who say that the important thing is to keep learning and improving our writing, so that each ms is better than the last.
Interesting post and discussion. I like the respect you showed the lady in giving wise advice about family stories. Someone mentioned the Book Thief. I'd love to know how that got published; it's such an amazing, wonderful, different book. I really loved it!
I’m not saying that the people the reader was talking about have no business being published ever, but I do imagine there are a lot of books written that aren’t ready to be queried and may never be ready to be queried. The problem often is that there is no way to know that until you actually try.
That's it exactly. Looking back at my first novel--no, it wasn't good--but it was the best I could do at the time. After four years of writing and polishing, I felt ready to query. I contacted about a dozen agents total, and had several requests for partials and a full. I received some great personalized feedback that suggested the book had some flaws. So I stopped querying and moved on to a new project, which did lead to representation.
I can't presume to know Jessica's thoughts, but what I took from this post is that everyone with the desire to write should write, but only those who are serious about writing as a career should be seeking publication. I mean, I know there are a lot of people out there who think writing a book is a piece of cake. I know that a lot of the queries agents get are from people who aren't studying the market, aren't studying craft, etc. And yet these people are still "applying for a job" as a writer. I mean, imagine someone who had never been to law school, studied law, or passed the bar exam applying to be a lawyer at a law firm. Who on earth would hire them? Now, writers who understand the work it takes to become published and have studied craft and practiced craft, yet whose work is still not up to publishing level--they may not yet be able to tell that they're not ready for publication. And that's fine. I would never, ever tell someone like that not to submit. You have to submit. That's how you learn that you've still got improvements to make. But when Jessica says that some people have no business seeking publication, I think it's like saying that someone who hasn't studied law has no business becoming a lawyer. Writing can be fun and theraputic and a hundred other things. But writing for hobby and writing professionally are different.
And regarding the elitist snobbery about entire genres being carted out of bookstores, what a bunch of nonsense. Some people like coffee, some people like tea; some people like literary fiction, some people like fantasy. Just because you don't care for something doesn't mean it's crap.
Have determined that writers are desperate to form themselves into a hierarchy between "brand new" and "published", and will stack up any crumb of evidence until they can.
I find writing very, very theraputic
Well said, SuperWench83!
Being rejected is the first step in the learning process. I am not sure how many people send a query letter out and never recieve a rejection, but I suspect that it is pretty close to zero. When you recieve those rejections, suddenly you realize you need to work a little harder, and you build your knowledge. How many of us have not queried before we should? Again I suspect the answer is pretty close to zero. We all have to start somewhere, and usually it is at the beginning. Some of us learn, some don't. It is a natural process.
I agree with you in principle. If someone is seriously looking to get published she should at the very least do her homework and avoid as many of the novice mistakes as possible and there is plenty of information out there on what detracts from the overall quality of a manuscript.
Some of my all time favorite books, however, were first novels written by "non-writers" who had no idea about the business in general. Of course these people are exceptions but I also think one of the reasons their stories were so enjoyable is that they just didn't know any better. They weren't scared of a cliche as long as it worked and they weren't hung up on style and polish that much of the reading public wouldn't pick up on anyway. The sheer enthusiasm came through in the stories...it hadn't been scrubbed away.
As I said, I know these kinds of stories are the exception but they do happen. I'm glad people like that are too naive or untrained to recognize the absurdity of submitting their mss. I'm sure a few of them have learned along the way and wish they could finesse that first magic book a little more but the story still got out there.
The one thing they all have in common is a group of friends or beta readers who all loved their book and offered advise that they followed on how it could be better. That's minimum due diligence, but with a large enough group of lab rats you should have a pretty good idea if your baby is too ugly to publish. Ignoring negative feedback and submitting anyway is a totally different prospect.
Everyone should probably write but not every one will. Some who don't write might be great writers, even worthy of publication. Conversely, people who write should try to get their writing published if they wish. It's a ridiculous notion to suggest that some writers shouldn't seek publishing of their work. Frankly, I'm surprised to hear an agent ponder the question at all.
Regarding Central Content Publisher's comment, there are four basic classes of book writing. There is literary fiction, commercial fiction, genre fiction, and non-fiction. At the moment, genre fiction sells. I don't write nor read genre fiction, and while I agree that it certainly takes up precious shelf space that could be filled by more literary works, you seem to have lost sight of the fact that publishing is, always has been, and always will be a business.
Right now people want to read about vampires and wizards. This is what sells. The reality behind the business aspect of publishing shouldn't make you bitter.
I certainly disagree that any work that encourages people to read should be published. Readers want to read, and will find something to read from what is available. If the teen vampire books and Jane Austen zombie re-dos weren't taking up shelf space, readers would select something else to read.
It's like television--people watch these ridiculous Survivor reality shows because they're on the air (and TV producers put them on the air because they're so much cheaper to make than a scripted show). But when quality TV shows were aired and we didn't have this reality-fest, people watched those quality shows.
Unfortunately, people will only buy (or watch, or eat) what is available in the marketplace. Selling books, or garnering Nielsen ratings, or selling McDonalds hamburgers, is not an accurate measure of what people want and certainly does not equate to quality.
If there weren't these inane books, reality TV shows, and fast food restaurants, people wouldn't suddenly stop reading, cease watching television, and go hungry. We'd buy the other books on the shelves, watch the other shows on the tube, and eat the other food on the corner.
I am posting to air my opinion that if we put good quality out there, people will accept, embrace and appreciate that quality. But when publishing houses, TV studios, food conglomerates, etc. go for the cheap, quick, easy sale, we do not have good quality and the masses consume, for lack of a more artful term, "crap."
I only Inwardly Eye Roll at people who think it will be SO easy to sit down and knock off a Harlequin or a Dragonlance book with no appreciation for the fact that it takes years to hone ANY craft. Those are the only people who shouldn't bother thinking about publication; but most of them probably don't even finish their manuscripts, and so the fantasy ends before an agent has to deal with it.
If you spend MORE time dreaming about which nom de plume you'll use, what your web site will look like, and how you'll answer interview questions than you do honing your craft... that's probably a bad sign.
(Though the same can't be said for the world of children's publishing, where an inordinate amount of unreadable books must get sent to agents and editors, simply because it takes less time to write 10 terrible pages than it does to write 200 terrible pages. Shiver.)
Sorry John, but if I couldn't prop my feet up, watch "Real Housewives of New York" and eat a Big Mac now and then, I'd really feel like I'm missing out on something. The beauty is that I get to choose these things for myself. The decision isn't made for me by someone who thinks he knows what I need and what I want. Your "crap" may very well be my treasure.
Simply put, you're wrong. My daughter never touched a book until Twilight. Now I can't keep her supplied fast enough. She is picky about what she reads, she does not read every teen-aged zombie book by her choice. My daughter's have also read the classics, and are in advanced LA classes.I read what makes me happy, and someone else’s drivel trying to prove how much more intelligent they are, could never satisfy me. If I don't like it, I won't waste my precious time reading it, and I have never met anyone that does. Have you read everyting available?
Yes. If we were all going to be honest, we've probably all submitted stuff we had no business sending or know of someone who has. It's also no stretch to theorize that a large enough portion of the mss sitting in any slushpile has no business being there yet. Sturgeon's Law. But what I wonder about is those who query to be published versus those looking for a career.
I've been querying, and doing okay. I also had a small publisher offer. And I've been getting a lot of advice to find an agent and go for the big pubs, not to sign with the small publisher unagented. Which I was doing. But then I realized that maybe that was unfair of me. Did I want a career? And all that entailed? Or did I just want to be published and an agent was a means to that end? Huge difference. And I wonder how many writers, when they query, don't think that through. I'm not sure I even quite grasped it.
I remember being in a writing class a few years ago and one woman came to this realization- "I think I'm addicted to going to things about and for writing. I think I need to drop this class and just go write."
I've met a lot of people like her. The internet has made submitting work and queries easier and I wonder if we all still had to snail mail everything how many of those folks would be weeded out.
Great discussion topic. I wish I had something insightful to say on it, but I don't know what the answer is. As long as accessibility is there, agents will have to kiss a lot of frogs before they get to a princess.
Miss Mabel, I am consistently surprised these days that so many people are willing to put romance and fantasy novels next to great literary novels and call them even.
Do you really think that Rowling compares to Vonnegut?
CCP and John aren't so incorrect about their opinions and observations, they are simply frustrated and it comes off poorly in their comments. If you believe that literary fiction writers should cease to write or seek publication, then you are a bigger part of the problem than they are.
As I said before, it is a business, and I understand that. But there is no way that you're going to convince me, or anyone else that understands writing not to be a "craft" that one "hones", but rather it is a process that one endures.
I criticize them because it is incorrect to propose that genre books are trash that is only sold because they are offered. I give readers more credit than that. But I do agree with the premise that great writing is often ignored because it can't be pigeonholed into a genre.
Ok, this obviously didn't come across as the satire I intended.
"I have my own matches"? Really?
Would someone who could even say "plurality of tastes and opinions" really be railing against it?
Let's pretend I left the following stage instruction at the end:
[to be read with a lisp and a hunched back]
Claiming it lies anywhere else is self-justification promoted by Literature Professors who can't write and wish to continue a job indoors with no heavy lifting.
Uh, sorry to disappoint you, Faun, but most lit professors ARE published authors (or we'd be out of jobs). And prepping three to four courses and grading hundreds of papers/exams per semester, as well as serving on committees and advising students, as many lit profs do, is *certainly* heavy lifting by any standard. Don't assume we're all snobs, either. Plenty of us teach contemporary fiction and popular culture (although Twilight probably won't make it onto many syllabi, it's true).
So--presumably as publishers acquire fewer books, the number of people who "have business seeking publication" will shrink. Right? Or is there some nebulous-yet-rigid threshold of narrative talent where people start having business seeking publication, independent of market conditions?
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Congratulations on EVERYONE (Save Andrews' last comment) missing the point.
IF (and it's one of the big ones: the ones that loom on hilltops in the early morning sun, casting "FI" in mile long shadows across fields) you took your finished MSS to an old man, hunched and wrinkled, in a loft in an Oxford Library, who placed a hand on the stack of printed sheets (regardless of formatting, mind you) and at once he told you whether or not this would EVER be published. He then handed you a list of things to revise, read, and do to improve, which you study as you descending the winding staircase, throttled with the queue of supplicants cradling MSS's parentally to their chests. This man will see one thousand and one MSS's in one day and all shall leave sated.
IF that's the case, then everyone writes, everyone attempts publication: there are no omissions, no preconceptions, no gripes and moans about quality or quantity. The market shall decide, the people and the all encompassing power of currancy will reign.
However, this is not the case. The problem with Querying a low quality, unready Novel is not about it's right to existence, it's about TIME!!!!
THAT is where the distinction is. Everyone who has posted on here at length has made a qualitive judgement. There is NO qualitive case to answer (unless you desire to be the sole arbitor, a litterary Charon, if you will, ferrying MSS's into existence only if you accept their meagre offerings - I don't want that job, the pay sucks)
The more queries and agent recieves the higher the bar of quality, therefore quality is relative. If something is relative to something else, we should be looking at that which it is dependant upon.
Sooooooo, to wrap up this rambling affair, before a further glut of 'Oh so interesting' anecdotes shambles - hunched, deformedand and mumbling incoherent grunts between sips from a brown paper bag - further across this comments sheet, remember this. What YOU think about quality doesn't matter, because it changes. What the AGENT (Jessica in particular) thinks about quality is all, because THEY set the bar through means of submission guidelines and by telling us what they will not accept (queries written in crayon for example)
You want to vent an opinion? Do so on the right topic.
There is an old saying: in the world of the blind the one eyed man is King (which in itself is flawed, because if his one eye can see, it's not the land of the blind, is it?). This analogy works with an infinite time theory for an agent. Amidst the crud queries, those with skill will shine out!
The truth, however is more like the old Pete and Dud sketch: In the land of the two-legged man, if you have only one leg - do not audition for the role of Tarzan! It gets in the way of those of us who want the part.
Word verification: Mending - how boring.
Central Content Publisher said "I have my own matches." Wouldn't a shredder be a lot safer?
"...but whether she meant that there are people out there who have no business seeking publication, and for that I wonder if she might be right."
Here's the big problem I see with the above statement: People improve (on almost anything) with practice. Say there's a guy out there who's written a horrible novel, gets 100 rejections, reads a post that says something like the above, and then never writes again. What if that guy could've improved as a writer? What if he attended workshops, read more diversely, received some constructive critiques and written a better second novel? And a truly awesome third one.
I regularly read accounts from published authors saying what horrible writers they USED to be. They improved. And most other writers willing to work, study, and practice can improve, too.
I know your office must see a lot of terrible writing, so I can see where you're coming from. But I've also seen a lot of comments posted here from young writers, and I'd hate to see a potentially great future writer hanging up their laptop because they thought they had no business writing.
"Wouldn't a shredder be a lot safer?" - Gilbert J. Avila
I wish every writer seeking publication would read the Cornell study on incompetence. Some writers, no matter how many manuscripts they write and revise and workshop, will never attain competency in writing. Not because they're stupid-across-the-board or have no taste in books, no. They simply can't recognize competence in the first place.
Because of this (repeatedly)
proven psychological aspect,
Incompetents have no way of seeing that their own work is substandard, no way to perceive a higher point toward which they must strive to qualify for respect and success. In essence, Incompetents have no self-determined path toward competency, because they think they're already competent.
Cornell demonstrated two things: Incompetents universally over-estimated their abilities, and Competents universally underestimated theirs, while simultaneously
overestimating the PRESUMED abilities of their so-called cohorts/study peers.
The big gap here is in learning. Given appropriate comparative data, Competents are understand instantly that they're adept at a much higher level, and they correctly revalue their own work higher, and the rest of the throng's lower. I.e. they're not acting superior. They ARE superior. It's impolitic to say so, but it's a fact. Sorry.
Whereas Incompetents don't learn anything of the revelatory sort. In fact, even after being informed of their ranking below competency, they persist in their delusions of competence (and in their measuring of the Competent as no-more-competent than themselves).
The study found that the ONLY way to take an Incompetent to competency is by remedially removing their incompetence and slowly, slowly replacing it with competence. Which, only works a very little bit. Sometimes. If at all.
I think the frustation of Competents seeking publication is justified. Incompetents are irritating and exhausting. They actually do NOT learn, as say a competent amateur will. They're not really in the game, except in the role of dung providers to the heap where the work of the Competent writer can be offset to its best effect.
But I disagree that the majority of published genre books are garbagey spewings by incompetents, or were found by agents who are successful as purveyors of incompetence. I don't believe there is any such beast outside of the scamming fields.
"Agents have less time as it is, let alone looking at things which clearly will never be published."
Sorry! I have to respectfully disagree. I fully appreciate how much time agents spend looking through slush piles, but let's be honest. MOST of the stuff they look at will never be published. And I think everybody has every right to SEEK publication. It may be a hassle for agents to read manuscripts that are clearly not up to par, but that, after all, is their job. In a perfect world, only people who wrote beautifully would submit, but unfortunately, we do not live in that world. This is why agents are gatekeepers. They're supposed to weed out the crap.
Good conversation, though.
The author should be the first person to weed out the crap. I could tell just from reading it that my first novel--well, the first version of my first novel, written on a computer that crashed, thenk God--sucked big time. So I rewrote it and that version is what got published. Anyone who reads the genre they're writing in should be able to tell whether their work is up to even the most minimal standard. Not to mention some of the standard self-checks available, searches on 'said', 'was', 'were', words ending in -ly, simple mechanical checks. All things that authors can and should be able to do.
"I do agree with the premise that great writing is often ignored because it can't be pigeonholed into a genre."
The story of my (writing) life.
The main catch here is that judging one's own work (well) is among the highest-level skills a writer can have. Any writer who's even remotely good at it is probably among those who SHOULD be published.
I'd like to come down on the side of letting the marketplace decide what "should" be published. I can't think of anything that sounds good coming after the phrase "... no business doing ..." except maybe "no business telling other people what they can and cannot do."
Well, like I said, we don't live in a perfect world where all aspiring authors know what crap is.
Authors should be weeding out their crap, and then agents would get perfect manuscripts. I think any agent will tell you, he/she does NOT get perfect manuscripts. What should happen and what does happen are two very different things. :-)
One of the biggest clues to how seriously you take your craft is whether or not you've ever confronted the truth of your own crap. Many beginning writers haven't reached that point yet. However, I don't know a professional writer who hasn't. Humility can be excrutiating, but it's essential.
I happen to have just written a series of posts on this humbling experience on my blog on the craft of fiction writing at: http://victoriamixon.com. Please feel free to let me know what you think.
You are right. But nowadays a writer has the option of blogging if they want to share something that may not have a commercial appeal. 'Family tales heard in childhood' sounds like a very interesting blog idea. I would like to visit such a blog although I may not buy that book. But of course how is a writer to know whether or not he is worth being published. I guess that is the reason agents are there to sift through that. Though I'm sure agents wish only the good writers queried them. No harm wishing!!
I agree. There has to be a distinction between a great literary project from someone who has the experience and talent, and the someone who aspires.
Great post--thank you!
I disagree with John that if there was less genre fiction published, more people would read literary fiction. As amazing as it seems to everyone who loves reading and writing, there are people who just don't read unless they find something they really love. For these people, it's not a question of 'Shall I read?" but 'What shall I do?' If there's a book that interests them, they'll read that. But otherwise they'll watch a movie, play a video game, surf the web, etc.
If all genre books were pulped and there was only literary fiction left, some people would just stop reading because it's not their thing.
Jessica, really, I would agree with you if books like Twilight didn't exist.
Now as there are a million females on here who loooove Twilight, I'm sure most of them who've read this comment are sharpening their knives, ready to cut my head off at this instant.
I. Don't. Care. Get in line.
But my point is, Twilight - though not properly written - has a great story that appeals to these people. So I don't really think we all can sit here and say some people have no business getting published because they can't write well. This is a very subjective art. What you think distinguishes a good writer from a bad writer, or a writer who should be published or not may not parallel what a million readers think.
In the end, that's where you come in, Jessica. You and other agents. You are all gatekeepers. It's your job to give us readers the best we deserve. Just remember that in publishing, there are no rules to what makes a great book. Anything goes. Hey, look at Twilight! Did anyone actually think it'd be this big? I read it back when people weren't talking about it and I didn't think it would come to this.
Okay, now you can kill me.
Jessica - I enjoyed the initial post and I thought it was well-worded.
Jessica, I would amend your edit to, "there are people out there who have no business seeking publication right now."
I have a friend who's always wanted to be a writer but her stuff stank. Everything from her blog to her writing exercises were just . . . awkward. But she worked and worked and practiced and studied and now she's having significant success.
I was in a workshop once with a non-native English speaker who wrote the most painful dialogue. Her story simply did not read well as written. But if she keeps working on her English and started writing about, say, other non-Native English speakers (rather than the WASP types she was trying to write about) maybe someday she'll find - or create - her groove.
"The "common" people were not educated enough, he said,to effectively rule themselves. Hamilton was wrong. Democracy has worked just fine."
The United States government is actually a republic. So, maybe Hamilton was right?
It seems many have mistaken my comments to mean I believe genre fiction should not be published. I do not think this for one moment.
For example, take Ken Follett's classic thriller "Eye of the Needle." Certainly genre fiction, but if the teens who read Twilight read this book instead they would learn about the deprivations the English people suffered during WWII, about Operation Overlord and the D-Day invasion, about why some Germans who were not Nazis chose to fight for their country, etc., etc., etc. While being thrilled by a wonderful story and vivid characters, readers actually learn something incredibly important about history and why the world is as it is today (and, of course, those who forget history are doomed to repeat it).
But what does one learn from reading Twilight? Nothing, other than the personal story of non-existent creatures. If the only purpose of a book is to entertain, we have lost a chance to teach while the reader is being entertained. To those posters who state their children would not read books if the Twilight books did not exist: in my opinion, that is quite regrettable.
I apologize in advance for any offense my post might cause; it is unintentional.
It's foolish, boring, and pedantic to suggest that books only teach in very literal, obvious-on-the-surface ways.
Reading about fantastical creatures can teach a lot about humanity, for example.
And Twilight can teach a lot about the dynamics of a budding abusive relationship.
I can understand the notion that literary agents act as the gatekeepers. My problem is that I don't have confidence in them in that role. I'm not saying they're no good at it. I just don't happen to agree with the selection criteria they are using.
Yes, they filter out the rubbish. Unfortunately they filter out a lot of good stuff too - anything with minority appeal, anything lacking a long term strategy (eg. the author has no immediate second book plans) or anything which they cannot confidently predict will sell in large numbers.
Exactly the strategy that large mainstream publishers adopt - which is why the agents do it. It's all about big budget, big scale books. Unfortunately it marginalises minority appeal books and places too much emphasis on celebrity or reputation ahead of quality. It is a sad fact that folks are more likely to purchase rubbish from a name they've heard of (even if not as a writer) than good writing from an unknown.
Maybe good work from minority appeal, or unknown, authors won't sell in the tens of thousands but does that mean it doesn't deserve to be published? Should it not be available to reach its small, but discerning, audience?
Like most wannabe writers, I am confident that my own work is better than most of the other wannabes. It's only human nature. However I considered myself vindicated, and my suspicions about the industry confirmed, when a large UK publisher told me my Alice book was "an excellent pastiche", "very well written" and "a subject much in vogue" but still turned me down because I wasn't "a celebrity author". They therefore felt it wouldn't sell.
I rest my case.
Great post, well said, and now I'm wondering if I should even submit! My first NF go-round, I was told, "Great topic, you're a funny writer, but publishers say no one will buy this."
My book is in its 2nd incarnation, and we'll see...one can only try, right?
I agree that not everyone should seek publication.
I spent nine years on my first novel, because I realized along the way how terrible it was. I had to keep working on it and educating myself about the process. Only now am I seeking publication for it, when I feel it could be salable and relevant to readers. It may never be published, but novel number two is a heck of a lot better thanks to nine years of practice on novel number one. That is what writing is: a craft.
I wish getting published wasn't as difficult as landing a record deal. But then sometimes I'll read a truly terrible book and wonder how it managed to get published. Which brings me to the point that marketing is nearly everything when it comes to the success of a book.
I'm convinced a good number of great works (or at least relevant works) are being overlooked because they do not fit into the mold of what the executives think can make a buck. Everyone's looking for a breakout novel, when dozens of good, salable novels are being turned down. Sometimes the audience disagrees with the execs, albeit this may be rare. That's why I think self-publishing can be a good test of this theory. If you really feel your work should be out there for people to read, have it professionally edited and try to market it for yourself. You may find that your novel is crap, but then again, it may not be.
Even an awful book may bring joy to a reader if only to laugh at the dreadfulness of it technically.
Maybe from an ecological standpoint less printing would be good. But publish electronically.
Every piece of writing is an opportunity for others to learn something, about writing, about writers, about the individual writer specifically.
The more communication that goes on, the better for us all personally.
Since I started working on my novel, I've been participating in some writers' groups and reading writers' online forums.
I've read sections and excerpts people share for criticism. I've read posts describing the projects people are working on.
My experience is, admittedly, purely anecdotal and has not been subjected to rigorous methods of scientific testing. However, it's hard not to draw the conclusion that personality disorders and serious mental illnesses are significantly more common among unpublished authors than among people generally.
I've also looked at a number of agent blogs and checked out some of the #queryfail feeds, and agents seem to find a lot of profound weirdness in their slushpiles.
Based on my own observations and on stories relayed by agents, I've drawn the following conclusions:
There are a lot of people out there writing 250,000 word sci-fi or fantasy epics where every character has a six-syllable name with the sole exception of the heroic protagonist, who will have the same name as the author and/or sex with an elf. A significant percentage of these novels are also based on existing intellectual property which the author does not have permission to appropriate.
There are a lot of people out there writing books about their cats. Many of these authors print their query letters on stationery that has pictures of cats on it and most of these queries also smell like cat urine.
There are also a lot of people out there writing erotic fiction that explores sexual fetishes most people would find disturbing and distasteful. Some of the books in the categories discussed above also fall into this category.
On top of that, a lot of people write "mainstream" or "literary" novels where nothing happens. Maybe the protagonist burns one on his couch and eats a bag of Doritos, but that really isn't a plot arc.
A lot of people who think they can write do not read, for some reason, and don't have a clear idea of what a novel is, or how it is structured. Some of this can be improved with reading and practice, but there are limits.
A lot of people are also very boring and kind of stupid. Medical science has not yet developed a cure for this.
So, yeah, some people have no business writing.
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I will tell you right now that there are so many wonderful books out there and to decide that entire genres aren't worth being published is nothing but elitism and snobbery.
I agree with DebraLSchubert.For the moment, the merit of a work is ultimately determined by a plurality of tastes and opinions, but my day will come.
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