Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Not What I Do Best

Kay, so staying quiet is not really my strong point.

I guess I'll have to limit it to staying quiet about what currently need being stayed quiet about. (How's that for a beautiful, not to mention perfectly grammatical, sentence?:))

I hope to have an update by Friday.

Till then I get to sit nervously at my computer and pretend to be in one piece.

I've been thinking about rejections today. And I hope I don't offend my very pleasant anonymous poster who said, "Because the only difference between an author and a writer is luck."

I have to say, in 95% of all the writing I have seen, that's just not true.

I am a writer, at the moment. I've never been published outside of a newspaper, I have written three books, and have two WsIP. Pretty run of the mill as far as unpublished writers go. I've been writing off and on for about four years and very seriously for about 18 months. *shrug* I'm a writer.

Someone on (I think--I've been surfing too much the last few days) linked to a study where under-average test takers were asked to self-evaluate their test results. On average, they estimated that they had scored in the 62nd percentile. In actuality, they scored in the 19th percentile. The study suggested that the better you think you are at something, the worse you probably are, and that those who think they are okay and even pretty good, are probably doing great.

I think this applies to writing. In my creative writing classes in college (I have a BA in Creative Writing, go me:)) the people who had prose so beautiful it made you want to cry were always the most hesitant to send their stuff out to literary magazines. But the people who wrote the most agonizing, dead stories were always quick to say, "So, do you think it's ready? I think it's ready."

And what is there to say at that point?

I took a poetry class where there was this bitter, middle-aged, divorced woman who was the absolute epitome of the cliched bitter, middle-aged, divorced woman. They do not get any more bitter, middle-aged, or divorced than this woman. Anyway, she wrote poetry I would give a third grader a C for. It was terrible! The first time it was her turn to be work shopped it was a mess. We would say one very, very small thing and she would get up in arms. "Well, you just don't understand it." "No, XXX was the point of that." "Can't you see that I was trying to do XXXX?" And she didn't just say it, she screamed it! She was downright abusive. And not a single person said, "This sucks," we were just barely scratching the surface.

The next time she was up for critique, I kid you not, two people showed up to class. Me and one other brave soul, plus the professor.

We were again abused and screamed at even though we were trying to say nice things. (We learned from the last time. This time our compliments weren't good enough, I guess.)

My point is that people who think they have created great art and are completely closed off to suggestions are usually writing crap.

I would never comment on this if I had not been there myself. Worse, I really thought I was open to suggestion. My husband read my book and gave me an excellent run down of what did not work.

Clearly he did not understand my book and it was simply not the kind of fantasy he preferred. I brushed his suggestions aside and proceeded to start selling my book. It took a lot of rejections before I took a really good, hard look at my book and made myself think, "This is not the greatest book in the world. If it was, someone would have recognized that by now."

Now I look back at that first draft and I'm a little embarrassed. I have learned to be teachable and because of that, my work has improved. A lot. You know the award for most improved player? Does it go to the MVP? No, it goes to the person who sucked eggs in the beginning, and then became okay.

You know what? I sucked eggs. I'm okay now.

Do I have the greatest book in the world?

Ha!! No. I have a good story that is now encased in better prose than it originally was. That's all I have.

Is it good?

I think it's pretty good.

Can it sell? Maybe. In the hands of a good agent I think it's chances are better.

But I will never be a Neil Gaiman or a Stephen King, or even a Katherine Stone (who, especially in her early books, has prose to make you cry.)

I believe that skill is generally recognized. I know a lot of bestselling authors eventually write crap, but let's compare apples to apples for a moment and just look at debut novels. 95% of debut novels published by the big houses are excellent. Whether you like their genre/style/etc. most of them are clearly well-done. There's five percent that aren't, I grant you.

I also believe that 95% of the writers out there who are unpublished, and have been so for years and years, are not unlucky. They just aren't very good. And I know I will probably be raked over the coals for that sentence but that is what my experience has shown me.

Luck is a convenient scape goat. Luck is what takes a pretty good book and turns it into a bestseller instead of a well-written novel that got picked up by the wrong editor. But even that is stretching things. Bestsellers sell because someone likes them and is buying them. Don't tell me that Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling are bad writers. I don't care how beautiful or average their prose is, if they can tell such a good story that they entice the imagination of millions and even billions of people they are good writers. Period. Writing isn't all about prose--it's also about finding that spark that makes people want to read more . . . as shell out twenty bucks to do so.

The difference between 95% of authors and writers is not luck. It's skill. And you're not going to convince me otherwise.

And in ten years if I am still unpublished I will own up to that statement and declare myself to be without skill.

And you can quote me on that.


Anonymous said...

Well-said. In my opinion the difference between most authors and writers is persistence.

To take an example from something I'm actually accomplished at (I can't claim that about writing): I'm a pretty good musician. I've been playing guitar for twelve years. I'm better than most - certainly not all - of the guitarists I know. This is not because I'm some guitar-savant that just picked up a guitar and was instantly great. I sucked when I started. The only difference between me and the guy who can't play guitar is that I couldn't put the thing down even though I was awful. And because of that, I eventually got better.

The world has a huge amount of bad guitarists. They all have one thing in common: giving up. I've heard the same excuses countless times. "It hurts my fingers." "I just can't hear the melody." "I'm more interested in piano now."

I think everyone has this vision of picking up a guitar and suddenly becoming Van Halen or something. And when they struggle to play even the E-Chord, it becomes discouraging.

In the same way, I think most writers have a vision of 1) writing their novel (an unparalleled work of genius, btw) 2) Sending it out to the agents who snap it up 3) Finally leaning back while the fame, royalties, and praises flow in.

But reality is very different. Even though our first draft may feel like the next Lord of the Rings - it probably sucks. Sooooo, the key is to keep writing. Don't worry if what you're writing doesn't exactly blow people over - you're just at that stage of being a writer. With more practice you're going to start turning people's heads.

Sorry for the long post here. That whole "luck" comment that "anonymous" left really ticked me off.

BTW: Maprilynne, from what I've read, I don't think you're at the "suck" stage of being a writer. Your first chapter was great! It inspired me. This is more of a long-winded agreement.

Maprilynne said...

"In my opinion the difference between most authors and writers is persistence."

I totally agree. And if you love it and are getting better, you will persist!

Maprilynne said...

BTW, I'd love to play the guitar!

Not enough to do it, clearly, but it's always been something I thought would be fun.

I play the piano instead . . . but not very well.:)

Anonymous said...

That's true. The gist of a story that makes it appeal to readers is quality. Quality comes from skill. But even skill is a debatable subject. Read Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier who won the National Book Award. Now, it sold in the millions and was made into a movie. Who said it isn't a well written book. If you like the southern style of prose, you'll like Frazier's skill. But many critics, many readers share this thought: It doesn't deserve the award given it. That's skill that distinguishes a quality book from a mediocre one. Now let's talk about luck. If skill separates a good writer from a bad one, luck does not. In the beginning, all writers start out in a dumpster. All looking up at the blue blue sky and all thinking that's where they want to be. Some get published. A mixed bag. Some take a long time to become an author. Like James Lee Burke. His first novel, The Lost Get-Back Boogie, got so many rejections he could decorate his bedroom walls with rejection slips. Then his luck came. His luck was his persistent agent who never quit on him. Kept sending the manuscript out year after year. When it was published, it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. In his preface, Burke took a shot at those editors who rejected him and one of them wrote: Why should I keep reading about these scums that I don't even care about?

Many published authors aren't worth reading. And many books from these kinds are returned by booksellers to the authors' publishers after 30 days. If you compare apple to orange, it isn't fair. But apple to apple? Yes, there are many rotten apples on the shelves that nobody wants to buy, while yours, the delicious red apples, stay in your farm's barrels. Sure, there are just as many rotten unpublished novels that aren't worth reading either. They make you wince just to read the first page. And there are so many of aspired writers who think they're "writers" just because they sit together in Barnes & Nobles sipping latte or cappuccino and critique each other's work. At the end of the day, everyone leaves with a big smile. That's why so many independent editors live off these no-talent wannabes.

It's not that "luck" is the yard stick of a novel's quality. Don't get me wrong. It's not the excuse either. That's double wrong. But luck, damn me to eternal hell if I don't say this, can lift you out of a dumpster -- and oh yes -- you'd better have written something worth reading. A good book might not get published while a bad one is. That's luck. To get loose out there screaming to the whole wide world: I GET PUBLISHED! But who cares?

Maprilynne said...

I definitely agree that luck plays a part, *sometimes* a big part.

I have luck on my side in my current position in that I was given a carte blanche recommendation from NYT Bestselling author. It is definitely luck that I found her and enjoyed her personality and made good friends with her *before* she was famous.

But, if I didn't have a decent story, she was not going to give me a recommendation at all. Skill still plays a bigger part.

I could nerver (never, never) deny that luck is involved, but to say it is the *only* difference? It just doesn't make sense.

A difference? Yes. The difference? Not on your life. A significant difference? I wouldn't even go that far. One of the many, many differences? Absolutely.

Anonymous said...

But, well, how did I get my big foot in my mouth? It's fun to argue, though. But we're behind each other. Let's raise the glass!

Maprilynne said...


Anonymous said...

I have to say that i'm glad I stumbled on your blog. I sat down a year ago and tried to type a story that wouldn't quit dancing around in my head, but ended up with a complicated pregnancy (my second not-so-good pregnancy) and didn't finish it until a month ago. I sent it out to several writer friends to edit and I'm anxiously awaiting their feedback. (I've taken the advice from other blogs and have already started the second, here's hoping that's not crap either.)

I'm scared that I don't have the luck or the skill, but I'm glad to hear that not all writers are confident that they have best sellers as these last few weeks I've worried that I wasted my time, but at this point, I'll take luck, skill, determination or whatever to get it published.