Saturday, November 15, 2008

How Many Legs in "Buffalo"?

On his blog, Nathan Bransford once said that he can often tell when someone will almost positively never be published from their query letters.
Yes, that's true.
It seems likely that most of these people have no sense of this, as they are continuing to query.
The next logical step in this self-destructive thinking pattern is that I may be one of these people myself.
So my question is, when should an author give up? Is there any way to tell if I'm just a crap writer and it's never going to happen? I know you'll say you shouldn't be doing this if you don't love it, etc. But in reality, although I enjoy writing, I don't love editing and revising and all that jazz. In fact, I hate it. If I knew I'd never get published I'd just give up on that bit and stick to blogging and leaving comments on blogs to fulfill my need to communicate with the world.
I know, you hear things like, "Crazy people don't think they're crazy."-- and it makes you think, "um... I don't think I'm crazy. Does that mean I'm crazy?" Writers live a great deal in their heads, and sometimes it gets a little crowded in there, huh?

It's sometimes hard to bring across to people to whom writing with clarity comes naturally, but editors and agents get piles of queries from people who are barely competent to scratch a drawing of a buffalo on a cave wall, and who would probably manage to misspell even that.

I can tell from the way you wrote this letter that you have a fine grasp of the English language, the use of its grammar and punctuation, and are capable of putting ideas in logical order without unnecessary repetition.

You know the quote "I don't know art, but I know what I like"? There are plenty of people like that in books, as well. On the one hand, it's fine for people to like whatever they like, and especially in children's books I am a proponent of readers reading whatever makes them want to read more.

But when it comes to writing, yes, there's the rub. "I don't know writing, but I know what I like" just doesn't fly when you're trying to create writing rather than just consuming it. Would you say "I don't know electricity, but I know what I like," before attempting to wire a house? Would you say, "I don't know brain surgery, but I know what I like," before picking up a scalpel?

Perhaps writers who are secretly worried they're terrible and don't know it could cast their minds back to their high school and college days, and ponder how well beloved they were of their English teachers. Did your teachers give you high marks on your writing? Or did you get every paper back with misspellings and ungrammatical constructions marked in red, and points withheld for style? Have you been complimented on your writing by people who read a great deal in the same field for which you're writing? Or have you been complimented on your writing by people who think of the comics page as their primary encounter with written language?

There's no need to love every part of the industry-- truly, there's no one who does. There are difficult, exhausting aspects no matter which role you have. You've got to love some part of it, and love that part a lot, for that very reason.
And you've got to recognize it when your own imagination is trying to stab you in the back. ;)


Sarah Y said...

oh, yes. it gets a bit crowded in my head, for sure. great post. thanks for that!

Deirdre Mundy said...

That's why it helps when you post the "How to tell you'll never be published" columns, EA.... because we can all read them and think...

"Cool... I'm better than 90% of the slush....."

Thank you for propping up the egos of fragile writers everywhere! =)

Anonymous said...

Everyone in my head agrees that it's too crowded but no one wants to leave.

Unknown said...

Hmmm...This really does have me thinking.

On the one hand, I do rather wish that there was a way to convey to an editor/agent that I would be willing to devote the time to making my book perfect--that I am not one of those naive authors who thinks that just because it is written, it will be published.

On the other hand, I am perfectly aware that my writing itself should be evidence of this fact.

It's a bit encouraging to know that one of the signs of never being published is that sort of gross misunderstanding of the way writing works. I can, at least, string together a comprehensible sentence.

I have been a member of several critique groups, and there are at least two individuals I can think of from that experience who will never be published. One, because she refused to change anything. One, because her attitude was that since I didn't understand what she was writing (through a combination of bad grammar, poor plotting, lack of characterization, etc.) then it was my fault and I was ignorant not to get her story.

Anonymous said...

What a lovely post. This wasn't my question but it easily could've been.

I'm agented but can't sell a book. It's been several books now. It isn't the agent -- which means it must be my books. Don't know what to do. When trying harder and writing more isn't enough, where do you go? How do you give up? Getting this far was exhasuting, and yet here I find myself, and it still isn't enough. I'm tired.

Anybody else out there agented but not selling? Are you going to quit if you don't? What is your breaking point?

Yat-Yee said...

anon 10:42
I am sad to hear of you situration. I want to say don't give up, but what do I know. Maybe I should wish you clarity and renewed strength for whatever it is you choose to do.

Literaticat said...

Anonymous 10:42 wrote: It isn't the agent -- which means it must be my books.

This made me really sad. As an agent, I should probably try to prop up the myth that agents who sell a lot of books are really part-superhero and pretty much infallible. But, um...

Take this with as many grains of salt as you like, obviously I don't know your specific manuscript or situation. But, couldn't it be that this is a perfect agent for lots of books, but not the perfect agent for your book? Perhaps this would be a good time for a frank discussion with your agent.

* In your agent's opinion, IS the book not selling because it sucks (seriously doubtful, because it is unlikely that an agent would purposely send out bad work) - IF we assume that it doesn't suck, what does she see as the problem?

* And, would more revision actually help, or is it time to put this one in a drawer and start from scratch?

* Where does s/he think your books fit in to the market? Do you share a vision?

* What is your agent's goal for you? Beyond "selling this book already" - have you two discussed a career plan? What does SHE think you should do?

* Is s/he still passionate about your work?

czar said...

Having worked with dozens of publishers -- and one in particular that puts out books I can't believe made it to the production stage (among some quality output) -- I can attest that there is far more that goes into what gets published than the quality of the manuscript. Royalty publishers will want to know more about your platform than whether you are the next [fill in name of author here]. People who want to write keep writing. People who want to be published can certainly become discouraged. The two groups are not necessarily made up of the same people.

José Iriarte said...

anon @ 10:42, if you got a legit agent to bite, then you have the goods. This book may not sell--or it may sell, but just not right now. But you're a good enough writer that the only thing that will keep you from succeeding is lack of perseverance on your part. Write the next book. And the next one after that.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:42 seems to have struck a nerve... certainly all of us here in my head have been there.

One clarifier I've found useful. I think there's a difference between people who say "I want to be a writer" and people who say "I want to write." One is a public identity of sorts, the other is possible alone.

I think someone can be successful either way but people in the latter group has something to fall back on when the world isn't taking notice of their work.

Can you separate the writing process from the process of trying to publish? It's complicated: ego is part of it, financial need might be as well. But there's also - and this has been a tricky one for me over the years - the opportunity cost. The sacrifice of time spent on this thing that might have been spent on others.

I think that keeping simple pleasure alive is one of the reasons so many illustrators insist on doing some art just for themselves, why novelists write poetry they'll never publish. It's a way of - I don't know - keeping faith with the private experience at the core of artmaking.

Deirdre Mundy said...

I definitely wouldn't REVISE if I wasn't trying to publish. Revison is HARD.

I originally started submitting my work as a way to overcome my crippling fear of rejection. But after I sold a few things, I realized that my hobby could supplement the family income, too.

Also, I think writing for publication forces you to keep improving.... it's a way avoid laziness and stagnation.

Now it

Michelle Moran said...

To Anon 10:42 who wrote: Anybody else out there agented but not selling? Are you going to quit if you don't? What is your breaking point?

The breaking point is your own personal threshold for rejection. It's also how much you enjoy writing for the sake of writing. I wrote two novels before my agent was able to sell my third in the US (the first was sold in Germany!). If I had quit after book one, or given up hope after book two, I would never have seen books three, four and five published (and there were many more books I wrote before my agented days).

Don't give up. But do have a frank talk with your agent about what the problem might be. For me, I needed a new subject matter, an even better book, and a concept which would really grab editors in an already crowded market.

Michelle Moran said...

Btw, Anon 10:42, you can a look at Jeff Abbott's guest post on Nathan Bransford's blog. He didn't sell anything within the first two years of being with his current agent.

Anonymous said...

I think I still love you, working illustrator. Can I move into your head?

Stephanie J. Blake said...

Oy. This is timely for me. It's not the fear of rejection. It's just the sharing part that is hard.

Kind of like going to karaoke. I know I can sing when I'm by myself, but when I start to sing in front of other people, my voice tends to get squeaky, until I get over the stage fright.

Anonymous said...

A couple of random thoughts ...

1. I know people who even go beyond the "I want to be a writer" and express it as "I want to be published." To me, this is a warning sign that it's more about ego than art. (You don't sound this way, though, Question Asker!)

2. I think another good sign is when people who know about writing or publishing and know nothing about you like your work. In other words, someone -- an editor at a conference, for example -- who has no preconceptions.

I know a couple of (ahem!) "strong personalities" who are very confident in their work and I suspect their critiquers (often friends) are hesitant to be completely honest. If you think this is you, it's probably another reason to seek completely blind feedback.

3. I agree with those who say that there may be an agent mismatch going on with the writer who commented. I personally know people for whom an agent switch was all it took to sell; likewise, a writer who dropped his agent and sold his novel to rave reviews on his own.

Anonymous said...

I'm Anon 10:42.

Thank you for all of your kind replies. It's such a hard sort of thing to have to keep facing -- knowing your ms is good, agent approved, makes it to aquisitons, but no sale. And the next one, equally good -- but doesn't even get to aquisitions anywhere, and of course, no sale. You start second guessing everything. I think I'll wait and see if the book I have out on subs now does anything. If it doesn't, well, I'm not sure yet.

This whole thing would be easier if I had a crystal ball or something.

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear you'll keep plugging, Anon 10:42!

And a thought for the question poster who hates revising ... this was me, too, until I enrolled in an MFA in Writing for Children program. It forced me to look at this step in the process in a whole new light. Although I still wouldn't say that I LOVE revising (I'd prefer my words to drop onto the page in perfect, polished pearls, of course!) but I am much, much better at it. (And I am --finally!--published.)

Anonymous said...

Ha, ha ... ditto to what working illustrator said :)

SWILUA said...

Anon 10:42:

I SO feel your pain! the other night I dreamed that my agent sent me an email with a link to some uber famous author (Micheal Crichton type level of famous) that said they wrote 95 books before they got published. In my dream email she was like, "see, don't give up!" and I just glared at the screen wanting to puke thinking, "I am SO not going to write NINETY FIVE books!!"

I keep trying to quit writing, but can't figure out how to do it. So far that's the only reason I haven't! We should form a club or something...

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

When should an author give up? Never, if you're writing because you love it and can deal with the possibility of remaining unpublished. If you truly love writing, only give up when someone in the medical profession is standing over you, looking at a watch, and calling "time of death." But not before then. -MPEA

Anonymous said...

Hey, you know Anon 10:42, I could have written that post.

I've been with my agent a good couple of years. I've had novels right to acquisitions, and even had editors call me to tell me how much they loved said novel... and yet no sale.

Yeah, its heartbreaking. Do I ask the question about my agent and whether he can actually close the sale, or is it all about the market and being in the right place, at the right time?

Regardless, but what I do feel is I owe my agent my loyalty. He's really taught me a lot over the years... and if he believes in me, I'm going to be here, still believing in him.

In the meantime, I'm working onward, always searching for that better concept, always trying to improve my delivery.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:42, you're ahead of me, anyway -- I can't even get an agent, and I know I can write. People Who Know have told me so repeatedly, and so have my own instincts.
I think the most validating thing I ever heard at a conference was, "In order for you to get published, lightning has to strike -- it's got to be the right manuscript for the right editor at the right time." Some manuscripts are probably more likely to get struck by lightning than others. They're...taller, I guess, if I have to continue the analogy, but not necessarily higher quality.

Anonymous said...

mb said:
**They're...taller, I guess, if I have to continue the analogy, but not necessarily higher quality.**

Note to self: must not write short manuscripts.

Working Illustrator 12:12 and Anon 3:09 bring up great points about "I want to write" vs. "I want to be published."

I understand, but I think that only holds true in the very beginning of the process. In the beginning you are toying around, taking your time, thinking up titles and practicing signing your autograph. Most writers have those passing thoughts of fame/money surrounding this fabulous book they are going to write. But then, as they begin writing, reality sets in. It's hard. It takes way longer than you thought it would. But you do it, you write a book or two, until you have one that is good.

At that point it's not about art or your ego, I think it's just human nature, that something should come of it. You've done a thousand rewrites, been down that hard road of agent rejection, and even then, as others have stated, if you can get an agent, you may not sell.

It'd be like continually giving birth but never having the baby at the end. My writing goal is the public consumption of my words -- otherwise I would've stayed in those initial stages of toying around with book titles and practicing my famous signature like lots of would-be writers do.

czar said...

While I used to diss self-publishing, as I imagine many authors still do, it has become an increasingly viable alternative. The key is to use all the same quality-control mechanisms that royalty publishers use: experienced copyeditors, experienced page and cover designers, and so on. A self-published book doesn't have to look like a fourth-grade reader. Don't hand your work off to some random internet self-publishing outfit and hope for the best -- at least not without a lot of research.

And frankly, I've found among the publishers I work for and the books I've seen that most smaller publishers have far higher quality-control standards than the publishers with the big names.

Ultimately, from what I understand, it's up to the author to market the book anyway, unless you are a known commodity. So unless you're willing to work as hard selling the book once it's published as you worked writing it, what's going to happen to it?

I know more than a few self-published regional authors who have sold thousands of books (and pocketed much, much more of the money) by working festivals each weekend at meet-the-author tables. And they continue to write because, not only are they writers, but they are getting the positive reinforcement of selling books and talking to readers and signing books for happy buyers.

True story: an author is sitting at a table with his books, and a busload of tourists from Japan unloads in front of him. They are very excited to meet the author and get his autograph on a book. Many bought three or four of them, probably with little idea of the content. He sells 100-150 books in about half an hour with a cover price of $15, and that money goes right into his pocket. If the book were published with a royalty house, how much of that $15 would he be getting? Even a dollar?

And this story took place in Appalachia, folks.

A friend came to me one time and said he wanted to die with "author" on his tombstone. He was a pastor, and a local newspaper helped him publish his book of collected columns. Proceeds went back to the church. A year later he comes to me and says he doesn't want to die being a one-book author.

If you're a writer, keep writing. If you want to be a "published author," that's different, and there are different ways to make that happen these days. Yes, more than a little ego is involved. And occasionally some lightning, as mb said.

Mom's Fortress of Solitude said...

Great post! I know I have read quite a few articles, online and in print, that were full of common errors.

Although I have never been published (just recently initiated the attempt), I absolutely adore writing!

I truly believe that even the best of writers overlook the simplest of mistakes -- "you" when it should read "your," punctuation errors, the dreaded type "o" -- hence the need for a good editor. Writers can become wrapped up in conveying their message, and lose sight of the words and meanings actually presented to their audience, in a technical sense.

Don't get me wrong, though. I am my own worst critic! Maybe it's OCD. Maybe it's a fear of criticism. I don't know. I tend to make several revisions on my own before being somewhat content with the result. I am never fully satisfied, though, until I have received positive comments from my readers, regarding the message. At this point, I know the message has hit home in the hearts of others.

The greatest writers are those who strive to remain hidden, allowing their subjects to take center stage.


Anonymous said...

I'm the original question-asker. Thanks so much for this post and the feedback. I'm in the soggy depths of rewriting my first novel, and was looking for an excuse to give up. (Incidentally, I also spend a lot of wondering if I'm crazy.) Thanks again, will get back to editing.

Bluestocking Mum said...

Great post.

Lina's sentiments echo my own.

Will keep at it. I just want to write.
(Although it would be fantastic if some of it was ever published!)

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Bo said...

It's wonderful to read about high school students having to write things for class but this is a pretty foreign experience to me. Perhaps it was just my school, or perhaps it's different in The Netherlands (where I grew up) but I have no writing to look back on. The only writing I did for school was in university, and those were all academic (and obviously non-fiction, which is far from what I currently write).
The chance of this comment being read at all is next to nothing but I still thought it was important to point out in case someone did come across it, as we aren't all lucky to have been introduced to writing at a young age. (Also I didn't think the fact that I was 12 when this post was written should deter me from commenting...)

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