Carol Berg 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 donâ€™t have the right connections or some other â€˜luck-basedâ€™ 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 wonâ€™t hit the shelf. Here are two biggies:
- Not getting the book in front of the right person. You might be submitting to â€œthe right marketâ€, but itâ€™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 agentâ€™s choice of projects â€“ 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 theyâ€™re looking for, and then go right ahead and take on something that doesnâ€™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 thatâ€™s the only way youâ€™re going to negotiate the minefield of publishing.
- 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 readersâ€¦) Maybe the book hits a subgenre thatâ€™s lagging or oversold â€“ 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 â€œout of styleâ€ 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 didnâ€™t go to Clarion. I can name a number of other published authors with similar stories â€” 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 youâ€™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 â€” 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 canâ€™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 â€” a western. She wrote all sorts of things after that â€” romance, womenâ€™s fiction, mainstream, western â€” and was rejected over and over again. But she kept writing, trying, learning. Year before last, she wrote this little cozy mysteryâ€¦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.