Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Sometimes, the answer is "no"

by Miriam

So, once every ten weeks or so, each of us at DGLM have to come up with a lengthier than usual blog post. Turns out that on this, the hottest week in memory, it’s my turn to come up with something to charm and/or entertain you, dear readers. Unfortunately, I think the heat has melted several key synapses and I can’t remember a single book I’ve ever read. Heck, I’m not sure I remember how to read. It really is that hot.

While casting about for subjects that don’t involve having to research the Modern Library’s 100 greatest books so I can tell you why I like the ones I’ve read or how embarrassed I am about the ones I haven’t, it occurs to me that we haven’t discussed the whole not-everyone-should-be-a-writer thing. Before you all turn on me with the internet equivalent of torches and pitchforks, hear me out.

All of us here at DGLM (including the interns) are inundated with query letters and manuscripts on a daily basis. As you know from all our nattering on about slush and having to decide what to request, we see everything -- from the brilliant to the “what the…?” For the purposes of this post, let’s consider the truly awful queries which are sometimes accompanied by truly awful manuscripts. Contrary to what many of you may think after receiving a rejection letter from an agent or publisher, most of us in the business do not enjoy turning people down. Some of us have harbored our own literary fantasies and come to terms with the fact that we don’t have the courage or the talent to pursue the writing life. Most of us understand how hard and lonely a path this can be and respect the perseverance and love that it takes to plow ahead in the face of doors slamming in one’s face and the dedication to continue to work on one’s craft even when encouragement and support are in short shrift. We don’t like to turn things down, but we have to.

What most of us never say to an author whose unquestionably unreadable work has crossed our desks is that s/he should stop writing with an eye toward publication. In our eternally hopeful society, where the can-do spirit is practically encoded in our collective DNA, telling someone that they should give up trying to do something they’re just not good at is tantamount to shooting puppies. But honestly, some people should not be trying to get published. (Please note, that I’m not saying they shouldn’t be writing – if that is an enjoyable, even therapeutic pastime, carry on! – just that not everyone should be trying to get their writings published.)

Yes, ours is a subjective business and Jim McCarthy may go into a rage if someone says they didn’t love Madame Bovary while I am often called names when I say I just don’t get what the fuss about Salinger is about. But, those authors and most of the ones that do end up successfully published bring enough talent to the table – whether as storytellers, prose stylists, or thinkers – that their works enrich us on whatever level they touch our lives. Alas, too many people who are bad storytellers, incoherent and ungrammatical writers, and who have nothing new to say, think that they should have a book contract. I’m not sure there’s much that can be done about this, but I do wish we could be more honest and forthright about the fact that they probably should set their sights on other talents they might be able to develop instead of giving them false hope that maybe, if they keep going, they will attain their publishing ambitions.

As writers, do you find yourselves biting your tongue when a colleague you don’t think is particularly talented is railing about how no one “gets” their work?


  1. How do you tell the difference, though, between someone who "has no talent" in writing a publishable novel and someone who just hasn't developed their skills enough? Do you think there's a difference?

    I'm not opposed to the idea that some people may have little talent for writing publishable material, but I also think that writing is a muscle that is weak if it isn't exercised but can become very strong if it is.

  2. I once read a short story for a contest for a local writer's group about a touch football game. The work contained no fewer that 20 apostrophes in 6 pages. I don't know that this writer will ever write anything worth reading no matter how long he/she tries. On the other hand, I have a friend writing a novel on King Saul with beautiful and compelling descriptions and a great story that just needs some work on narrative structure. I hope one day his book is published, and it has a chance with some further skills-development. I wish there was an easy way to direct the former toward the idea that there is no chance of publication, but there's no easy way I can think of.

  3. They say writing a novel is the "Great American dream" and everyone wants to do it, but I haven't found that at all. I have found that of the people I know who would like to actually complete a novel, many of them don't have good reasons for doing so. They usually think their lives have been so interesting that they MUST share with the world. The world needs to hear their stories. It has nothing to do with a love of writing at all. They want the rewards of having written, but not to actually put the work in.

    I've found, among my generation, more people want to be filmmakers and write screenplays than write novels. But just like novel-writing, few have the tenacity and natural talent to actually pursue those dreams. Most of the true filmmakers started playing around with directing and filming and screenwriting when they were kids. Most writers began reading voraciously as soon as we could decipher the words in front of us. We were reading when other kids were outside playing. We were playing around with words, writing poetry or fiction, as soon as we could pick up a pen. That seems to be the difference between those who dream and those who actually do.

  4. And the collective writing community lets out a sigh, “Oh, this doesn’t apply to me. Good.”
    I am, of course, joking. We all believe it applies to us exclusively. That’s why we’re wrapping our torches in pitch and our pitchforks are being sharpened. We’re all a little intimidated by the puppy shooting, though.
    Except for me. I’m the greatest fiction writer since Winston Churchill. He wrote fiction, right? :)

  5. Everyone should write a novel and a memoir. At least once.

    As a writer, I'm glad they don't. I have enough friggin' competition already. And I understand why agents don't want to encourage more wannabes to submit than already do.

    But if one values good literature in and of itself, I think everyone who possibly can or wants to should indeed write. Because I don't think you find gold by discouraging dross. On the contrary, the more people who try to write, work at it, slave away at it, strive to bring their prose to professional standards, the more gems WILL unexpectedly emerge from the miner's pan.

    Yes, I've read slush, so painful, so trite, oy, and I understand the urge to say, "Do yourself a favor. Study accounting."

    But I've also read stories that touched me deeply, even though the grammar seemed to be borrowed from another language. I used to work in a shelter for homeless teens, and some of those kids wrote things that made me weep. Those stories would never be accepted by any publishing house. There might have been sixty pages in a row lacking capitalization, apostrophes or periods. Does that mean those stories didn't speak to the human condition?

    I often wonder how many stories we never see because they are lost through the filters of convention and profitability.

    I'm not condemning agents and publishers for doing their job as gatekeepers against the tide of trash. I understand the need for that. But I think there's a good reason for the caution to never assume you have the right to tell someone, "You can't make art." Art belongs to the soul.

    Now, to tell someone, "You can't make MONEY making art." Well. That's another story. All the idiots who think they are entitled to be rich and famous from knocking off a novel or two.... I do wish they would do the world a favor and go back to some harmless get-rich-quick profession like real estate or oil drilling.

  6. I believe that some people are natural born writers. And if they don't write, they will die from the inside out. The question I would like answered is, "How does any writer get that first break and land an agent?"

  7. I beta read for several writers. Some have talent, in my opinion, while some do not have a great deal. They understand the mechanics, but the words fall flat to me. I always keep in mind it is just me, as everyone knows writing and reading are subjective. I remain positive, and help with structure, ideas, and plot lines. I wonder in the back of my mind if any of my betas think the same things about my work. It is so hard to trust feedback from peers since we all know no good beta would go, 'Look, honey. This publishing dream of yours... have you ever considered pottery instead?'

    In the end, we are our own harshest critics. We finish up an MS, send queries out into the world with a ray of hope in our hearts and a stone of a doubt in our guts. As we wait for response, we wonder if we suck and don't know it. We wonder if someone else wrote the same idea, only infinitely better. We wonder if an agent will see the possibilities in our MS that we do, or if our ideas are delusions.

    So many agents say they respect the writers who continue to plod on in the face of adversity and rejection, but we (I'd like to think) respect what an agent goes through as well. Like you, I read through a hundred compilations of poorly thought out ideas at my 'job' and it makes me irritable at times to know how much mediocrity I slog through before I see any brilliance.

    My point is, I know where you're coming from.

  8. An aphorism will do: One who persists succeeds or becomes wise.

  9. I can't speak for anyone else but I, for one, would appreciate knowing if people who evaluate something every day of their lives for a living knew I didn't have what it takes to get published. It would save me time deciding whether or not I should keep querying- hours, weeks, days of my life waiting I'll never get back.

    If I heard it from someone who knows (or maybe a couple 'someones' since it is subjective), then I could, at my discretion, either stop writing and pick up that guitar I put down years ago and find new ways to inflict suffering on innocent passersby, or I could keep writing but not ever consider again trying to face the battle with myself over what to put in a query letter.

    It may be harsh- yeah. But haven't we all seen Simon Cowell and thought- at least he has the guts to say what everyone in the room is thinking?

    Sometimes people waste years of their life they could be doing other things- things that make themselves and others happy and benefit the world- on 'dreams' that should be given up.

    Only the dreamer can decide if it's time to pursue newer endeavors (or, in the case of book writing, to find other ways to get their work out there) but I think all this selling books on 'how-to' and holding seminars to try to teach people to be great novelists who just don't have a talent for it isn't a kindness, it's a business.

    Not everybody can sing like Josh Groban. Not everybody can write like (insert name of your favorite author here- in my case that would be Douglas Adams). Doesn't mean they shouldn't write- just maybe that they should do it at home-like singing in the shower.


  10. February Grace is onto something.

    A form letter, even though I know that's all you have time for 99% of the time, isn't a value judgement.

    I would love to know if I'm wasting my time or if I really have a chance. I wonder if there's anyone high up enough in the publishing world that I would truly take "give up, you don't have it" from as final [wry g].

  11. I was just wondering...how about those that got published and yet really do not have the talent in the first place...I know there are some. How do you explain it? The politics and business of publishing?

  12. Hmm...thought-provoking post. I do agree that there are some people who probably should not be writing for publication, and wonder/know they might be happier if they could nurture some other thing where they have the talent or skill to succeed. I think some people get too attached to their dreams, though, to the point where they don't allow themselves to be flexible or roll with what life throws at them. On the other hand, it's good to purse a dream, and nobody would accomplish anything if they gave up too easily. And of course, the judgment that someone will never, ever make it is subjective, especially if it's coming from only one person. So when does one give up and stop pursuing the dream, rather than nurturing a talent that might not be there?

    Would I be disappointed if someone told me I absolutely just don't have what it takes to be a writer? Of course! But I think I've already learned that the future I envision rarely ends up being the one I experience. I hope I'd have the grace to realize that my energies might be better spent elsewhere, without feeling bitter about it all. And then I hope I'd excel at whatever I 'should' be doing instead of writing (for publication).

  13. Truth hurts: Deal with it.

    If a respected professional says "Chances are you won't ever get published", they're probably right. Not "You're not ready yet." Not "You probably need to tighten up on your prose. But "You shouldn't be seeking publication" I'd listen. To do otherwise is as self delusional as the worst X Factor freak. "I Choose to think I know better than you, dear Sir, because I do not like you're Opinion."

    If your Mum, Dad, Friend etc says "Ignore them, I think your book is wonderful", that's like asking ExxonMobil if CO2 emissions cause climate change.

  14. Not to put any books down so I won't name names, but there are books out there that some people don't consider well-written, or some would say don't have an engaging story, or lack likable characters, yet something about each published book has excited enough people to make it to bookshelves; therefore, I would be hard-pressed to believe one opinion or two saying that I should give up the dream especially based on a query review and a few sample pages. Although, admittedly, I understand that all agents really need to judge a project is a sample.

  15. Miriam, thank you for saying what so few publishing biz professionals seem willing to say. It needs to be said more often.

  16. So many thoughtful responses! Thank you. And thank you for holding off on the pitchforks. Thing is, I'm not sure I have the wherewithal to shoot someone's dreams down so blatantly. I wish I could do it because it would perhaps save them time and heartache, but as a veteran journalist once said to me, it's just as hard to write a bad novel as a good one, and it's also a hard thing to be the one telling someone that their efforts are for naught. And, yes, gauging what's good enough to be publishable is a subjective thing -- less subjective than you think, though, when the material is truly gawdawful.

  17. Yes, I've found it extremely difficult to provide feedback/critique to a writer when I know they just don't 'get' it. I would appreciate the Simon Cowell technique rather than form rejections.

  18. One of the problems with writing as a career is that one of the standard ways to get published (by no means the only one) is having years of rejection and frustration beforehand. All together now: JK Rowling was rejected by twelve publishers, and now she's richer than the Queen.

    Which quickly leads to: 'My book was rejected, too - I'm JK Rowling! We shouldn't listen to people who criticise our work, what do *they* know, *they* turned down Harry Potter?!'

    It's confirmation bias - we see the exceptional positive result as typical.

    I very strongly suspect that Rowling worked on the manuscript following each rejection, that she took into account what those people, and others, were saying. *So she got a little bit better twelve times*. I suspect even after she was accepted, that her agent and editor worked closely with her. I imagine that what she sent to that first publisher wasn't anything like as good as the final book. That it wasn't a romantic story of the triumph of belief in her dream, but a much more prosaic one of learning and improving at every stage.

    The moral of *that* story is 'listen to these people, they know what they're talking about'.

    Don't 'give up the dream' if you get a rejection letter, but try to understand why you were rejected (and assume that if you just got a form rejection, you weren't anywhere near close). You sent someone you thought could be convinced material you thought would convince them. It didn't. That's your fault, not theirs.

  19. "I was just wondering...how about those that got published and yet really do not have the talent in the first place...I know there are some. How do you explain it?"

    It's difficult to answer that without an example, but it's usually really easy in each specific case.

    'Did they have a friend in the industry?' ... well, possibly. It's a foot in the door. But of all the jobs in the world, writing books is truly one where what you do is more important than who you know.

    I can think of lots of disappointing books, some terrible ones, many that should have been better than they were, lots that flopped. I genuinely can only think of a handful where I have no idea what the publisher was thinking.

    How did a bad book get published? The author convinced the publisher people would buy it. How? Work it out for each book on a case by case basis. Are the first few chapters markedly better than the rest of the book? Then the publisher commissioned it based on sample chapters. Were you blown away by the blurb and title and bought it on the spot? Well, that's probably what the publisher did too.

  20. I don't know that I can, or anyone else for that matter, be so sure someone will never develop into a publishable writer. They may not be there right this moment. But whose to say that through blood, sweat, and tears they may eventually master those skills? Children must crawl before they can walk...and walk before they run...but walk and run they will one day. Perhaps these writers appear hopeless now. And perhaps they will remain so. Perhaps. But I'll be damned if I could ever take such a godlike posture to pass such judgement.

  21. I agree that it's hard to tell the difference between someone who will never have the skills to be published and someone who hasn't mastered the craft yet.

    I wouldn't feel comfortable making that sort of judgment call without having followed a writer's progress over many years. If they're bent on ignoring everybody else's advice, won't revise, think every word they write is an incomparable pearl--then, yeah, they probably aren't going to be published.

  22. If someone is submitting something to an agent or editor, they think they're making a compelling case that they are ready *right now*, that it's something that could be published.

    Obviously if they take the agent's words to heart, go away, completely rethink everything, hone their craft and so on, then you can never say 'never'.

    I think the competition DGLM ran earlier this year showed the truth of it: there are surprisingly few completely hopeless, deluded wackos submitting.

    The real problem with 95% of the slushpile is blandness - the books sound terribly generic, the sort of things anyone could come up with. They're not bad, they function, but they're just not good *enough*. It's a lot harder to escape that trap in a cover letter and sample chapters.

  23. Was there a particular recent submission that prompted this post?

  24. As a YA writer who actually believes I just might be able to be published some day (come on, if we didn't think we could actually make it, we wouldn't be doing this) I have to say I would welcome this kind of honesty.

    I'm not saying it wouldn't be devastating. Sure I'd be living on Tostitos and jalapeno cheese dip for a month straight and my family would have to turn me over periodically to prevent bedsores, but still...I would want to know.

    I mean, we've all seen the early rounds of American Idol, right? Sometimes, it's pretty obvious. If I'm on par with those guys, I think the kindest thing to do is be honest.

    On that note...off to write another query.

  25. N. Clifford Henderson10/7/10 6:12 PM

    You have made me very nervous. A week after I have sent you a submission, you write about some of the terrible submissions you have received. My inherent insecurity insists that you are writing about my submission. I realize how self centered that is and that you probably have not gotten to mine yet. It has only been a week. I would have to agree with the previous comment. If it really is that bad, tell me.

  26. I think 'Simon Cowell method' is the wrong way to put it. Cowell publicly humiliates people in the name of mass entertainment. I don't think anyone's proposing literary agents should do that.

    I once wrote a behind-the-scenes book about a reality show, and one of the frustrating things for the producers was that there weren't actually all that many, ahem, 'colourful' applicants. Most of the people at that first stage, where thousands of people queue up, were perfectly competent, but nothing more.

    I think an agent should be honest, and part of that honesty is to make clear that they're giving their ruling, they aren't trying to start a conversation. 'I found your protagonist dull' is not an invitation for the writer to come back to them detailing how the agent's wrong or how dare she, that character is based on their late father who was a saint among men, it's telling them to go away and fix it.


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