Questions: Does the cream always rise to the top?

March 5th, 2007

Lots of good topics arise on our Questions page, some that deserve a somewhat longer answer than the quick response. A few weeks ago, Debbie White asked:

So, published writers: Do you think that a person who has reached a certain skill level will get published if they are persistent enough to find someone who likes their style? (And that if you keep getting rejected, you might want to think about revising further?) Or can even someone who is genuinely skilled and is sending their novels to the right markets with good query letters still not get published simply because they don’t have the right connections or some other ‘luck-based’ thing?

And so to my own answer,

Will everyone who deserves to get published get published?

Alas, no. Would that it were true. But there are many reasons a deserving work won’t hit the shelf. Here are two biggies:

  1. Not getting the book in front of the right person. You might be submitting to “the right market”, but it’s tough to look at the Literary Marketplace and pick the perfect editor or agent who will love and fight for your book. The more your work falls into the cracks between genres, the harder. There is always an element of subjectivity to an editor or agent’s choice of projects – when they see literally hundreds of deserving works a year, of course they will choose ones that evoke their own deepest responses. Hearing pros in person at a convention or conference might help. But sometimes editors or agents will say one thing in a panel discussion about what they’re looking for, and then go right ahead and take on something that doesn’t fit what they said, just because the work hits the right chord. (I can witness to this one!) And you DO want an editor or agent who loves your work, because that’s the only way you’re going to negotiate the minefield of publishing.
  2. Vagaries of “the market,” ie. an editor loves it but can’t sell it to her bosses because “that kind of book” isn’t selling. And, of course, just because something is skillfully written does not make readers buy it! (Silly readers…) Maybe the book hits a subgenre that’s lagging or oversold – rollicking adventure, Arthurian, fairytale retellings, chicks in chainmail, or whatever.A good friend of mine wrote a terrific novel that had three publication offers several years ago, including one from one of the big NY houses. Through vagaries of bad agent advice and ill luck, she went with a small publisher that went bankrupt right as she held the bound galley in her hand. By the time all this was untangled, the subgenre had gone “out of style” and this most deserving book still languishes.

Is it a matter of “having connections”?

No. Many authors come from virtual nowhere. I am a software engineer/mom who took up writing for fun as my kids got older. I had never been to a convention, never met a published author. I didn’t go to Clarion. I can name a number of other published authors with similar stories — people who wrote for the love of it, and then started looking into the business when they saw what they did as good. Often the break does not happen with a first book. (See persistence!)

Is there an element of luck?

Certainly. Having your work land on someone’s desk before another author’s gets there. Winning a contest that your ideal editor is judging. Writing in the sub-genre that is ready to hit the bigtime right when you’re ready to market the book (and no, there is no magic way to predict what that might be). Acquiring an agent who can tell you exactly what a particular house/editor is looking for. Networking and learning the business are critical skills. And, to my mind, not the easiest.

If you keep getting rejected, could it be a sign you need to revise?

Certainly it could be. Note, I’m not saying it always is — you might be JK Rowling, dealing with those who Just Don’t Know. But most rejections are for cause, not because the editor hasn’t met you. So how do you know what to do, assuming you are not getting comments back with the rejections? One of the first things an author must learn is to step back from his or her own work and read critically. No one writes perfect prose. Beyond basic grammar, spelling, and usage (eg. lie/lay or infer/imply) – faults that some naive writers believe acquiring editors will magically overlook (NOT!) – are those greater quagmires of plot and character development, dialogue and exposition, tension and conflict.

The big problem here is that most of us are blind to our own faults. We are so close to our own work that our minds fill in the gaps. We know what our heroine intends. We know why the villain does evil things. We know where people are standing when the fight begins. Sometimes you must look through someone else’s eyes to get the proper distance to see plot holes or awkward prose or flat characters. This is why many, many well-established authors still have first readers or critique partners. So find people to read your book – serious readers/writers, not friends, not family, not beginners. These people are not going to rewrite your work, but observe and report the gaps you can’t see. Applying craft, ie. revision, does not destroy art!

Does persistence make a difference?

Absolutely. A woman I know had one genre novel published years and years ago — a western. She wrote all sorts of things after that — romance, women’s fiction, mainstream, western — and was rejected over and over again. But she kept writing, trying, learning. Year before last, she wrote this little cozy mystery…and BOOM, she became a Booksense bestseller, has sold at least seven books, and is now being released in hardcover. Another fellow I know, wrote and submitted umpteen fantasies, only to be rejected. He switched to YA, and is now on his second contract. Again, these are just a few of MANY such stories.

So, the bottom line, Debbie and all: Keep writing. Study your craft. Find your voice. (So often the difference between a skillfully written book and one that sells is the uniqueness of the author’s storytelling voice. Which is another whole essay.) Learn the business. Write stories that you enjoy. And enjoy the writing, too.

9 Responses to “Questions: Does the cream always rise to the top?”

  1. Debbie Whiteon 06 Mar 2007 at 12:36 pm

    Carol, thanks for your thorough answer. I appreciate that you took the time (twice) to answer me. :)

  2. kateelliotton 06 Mar 2007 at 2:34 pm

    Thanks, Carol. I think it is so important to emphasize, as you did, that “deserving” does not come into the equation. Yes, there are plenty of times (even most times) when a book is rejected because it is not good enough, needs revising, etc. But there are also times when a book is rejected (and never published) not because it isn’t as good as other work being published, but just because.

    Btw, aspiring writers should not use this as an excuse – it’s not me, it’s just that I didn’t meet their requirements – the onus is always on the writer to make their work the best it can be. And to keep revising, writing new material, and pushing to improve the work.

  3. glenda larkeon 06 Mar 2007 at 6:57 pm

    Oh, so much wisdom in that reply!

    Debbie, so often publication comes down to sheer persistence – persistence in writing and learning your craft, persistence in marketing your MS. Does “knowing” the right person help? Think on this – I was taken on by an experienced agent, who had once been an editor in a top London publishing house, in January 1991. Surely someone who “knew” people. She managed to sell a book of mine in 1998, for a 1999 publication date. And that wasn’t even the same book that had attracted her attention in the first place. That book wasn’t sold until 2002 – over eleven years of trying! And yet once published it was shortlisted for a “best fantasy novel of the year” award and has since gone on to be published in the US, and in French, German and Russian translation.

    It’s a mad business, this.

    One mistake I think some beginning writers make is that they try too hard with revising their first book – or even first books. To be frank, most first books need to be stowed on top of the wardrobe and forgotten. They are part of the learning process, not for publication.

  4. Betsy Dornbuschon 06 Mar 2007 at 8:31 pm

    Applying craft does not destroy art.

    No one can hear that too many times. Good post, Carol. Thanks.

  5. […] – Does the cream always rise to the top? “Will everyone who deserves to get published get published? Alas, no. Would that it were […]

  6. Carol Bergon 07 Mar 2007 at 10:19 am

    You’re welcome, Debbie. Your question was a good one – and touches on so many important issues.

    Kate wrote:

    Btw, aspiring writers should not use this as an excuse – it’s not me, it’s just that I didn’t meet their requirements – the onus is always on the writer to make their work the best it can be. And to keep revising, writing new material, and pushing to improve the work.


    Glenda wrote

    One mistake I think some beginning writers make is that they try too hard with revising their first book – or even first books.

    I think one of the best things a writer can do to for an early or multi-rejected book is to write another book. Only then go back and look at the first one. It is amazing how distance, not just of time, but of words, can give you perspective on your writing.


  7. Muneravenon 07 Mar 2007 at 11:39 am

    Thank you.

    I really appreciate established writers who persistently remind newer writers to be persistent. I often wonder how many grand books have not been finished or certainly have not been published because a talented new writer drowned in the slough of despond. A gift for storytelling does not always coincide with having the requisite amount of stubborness/optimism/pragmatism one needs to get through the business part of writing a book.

    I think it is quite remarkable, really, how so many writers who have, in some sense, “made it” care deeply about writers who have not. And it clearly isn’t fake.

    Writers are my favorite people. Followed closely, of course by readers. :-)

  8. Mark Tiedemannon 08 Mar 2007 at 10:38 am

    Worse than that, those who manage to get published might not be able to continue publishing, and that is also a matter of the myriad vagaries of the business. You might get published, but not by the right house to be able to capitalize on the best aspects of your particular work. You might get published, but find yourself swimming upstream against the current fad. In the “old days” when publishers actually backed their writers for the long haul, a book/writer might be “on the shelves” for years before finally catching on. Today, you have three to six months. Also, given the overwhelming influence of the bookstore chains, another factor enters in and that is absolute sales numbers. If you don’t perform at a certain level, your next novel might be the next Gone With The Wind but if the chains won’t take it, you aint’ gonna sell it.

    In my case, I had lousy timing. I was submitting space operas at a time when spacer operas were “off the table” so to speak. You couldn’t tell this by what was in the bookstores, because lead time between purchase and publish being what it often is, space operas bought two, three years earlier (sometimes longer, depending on whether we’re talking series) were still coming out, but in the cloistered realm of the publishers, no one was buying new ones. I ended up publishing them small press–right before the explosion of Scottish New Space Opera, and because of the nature of things, the books have pretty well gone unnoticed. If I had held onto them a couple more years and sold them to, say, Ace…but you don’t know. It’s like divining the future with tea leaves.

    The one true thing, though, is that persistence is the one consistently necessary element–those who pick up their marbles and go away, never succeed, and never know if they could.

  9. kateelliotton 08 Mar 2007 at 6:08 pm

    Mark, exactly.

    Having the stubbornness to keep pushing the damn rock up the damn hill even after it rolls back down again. Talent is wonderful. Persistence is what really matters, though. And the willingness to keep learning.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply