Wow! Quite the response to the hypothetical question about whether you would want to know if there is publication in your future and whether that would stop you from writing — 186 comments and counting. One lesson I learned from that post: never play poker with an author, because they will cheat!! The number of people who fudged on the hypothetical was off the charts. I’ll be charitable and chalk that one up to creativity and natural rulebreaking disposition I guess.
I wanted to call your attention to a recent comment by vaqqb, because I think it makes for an interesting point of discussion.
You know, Nathan, this is a more relevant question that it looks, because so much irrational author behavior springs from it. Agonizing over rejection-letter comments, begging for any kind of personalized rejection, putting things through one crit group after another, going into pitch sessions with half-finished novels–all of that because we want someone to tell us straight-up, yes or no, are we any good? Are we ever going to be any good?
Look how many people would stop writing if they couldn’t sell it; or better, look how many people would change the way they spent their time, efforts and presumably money if they knew they couldn’t sell what they wrote.
From our perspective any agent COULD be our seer, with better accuracy than our unpublished crit partners, longsuffering spouses, or moms. Instead they send us fortune-cookie platitudes in a form letter. Where’s our Delphi? Where’s our Simon Cowell? What do we have to do to get an honest “no”?
So why don’t I give people the Simon Cowell treatment and tell people when they are the literary equivalent of Spencer Pratt’s soul?
Before I answer that, let me reluctantly admit that at times it is tempting. When you’ve read twenty queries in a row by people who will almost positively never be published, sometimes this voice in the back of the head wants to tell people to just stop and go and spend some time with their family. And for about 50% of the queries I receive, I think I could probably tell someone with 99% accuracy that they don’t have the chops for mainstream publication.
But I don’t give into that temptation. And here’s why:
#1: It’s just not my place. Who am I to tell someone they shouldn’t follow their dreams? I’m just trying to do my job, which is sell books.
#2: The people who have the least chance tend to be the people who are most hostile to hearing that.
#3: Who knows, anyway?
That last point is somewhat complex, because it’s my job to assess talent and abilities and good from bad, and in my own defense I would say that given that I spend hours every day assessing whether something is good or bad, just as with anything else, I’ve gotten very in tune with quickly and accurately assessing whether something is good. But at the end of the day, I’m just a guy with my own subjective opinions, and someone else might find merit in books that I don’t get. That’s why I specifically say in my queries that someone else may feel differently.
This all comes down to one basic fact about books: there is no Delphi. There are some people who rise above the cacophony of opinions and become bestsellers and award winners, but even those people will have a huge number of detractors. And there are others who most people don’t think are good, but there will be some people who read their work and find meaning and value in it.
Yes, I could tell the truth to people who I think really don’t have a shot, but trust me, they they don’t want to hear it from me. And I’m not the person to tell them.
wow. nobody knows. not even the top agents and editors out there. when the next BIG THING hits, it hits hard. and i doubt anyone can predict how who or why.
the whole industry is based on huge leaps of faith. and as a writer, you have to believe in yourself and your story. if not this one, the next one or the next one. if you don’t have the passion for writing–don’t do it.
it’s no good if you lose the passion. writing is hard enough when you are fired up and love your story.
good luck to everyone who is trying!
heather simmons says
Assessing, in any form, is a difficult job Nathan. I have to assess parenting skills and if I’m wrong, the consequence could be a dead child. Sometimes I get so used to the lying and they all begin to look like con artists. Then they become too easy to categorize and brush away. Sometimes I have to slow down, look at it from another angle, follow my instinct and then decide if there’s a chance. If I can still say no, I trust it more. You’re where you are and who you are because of how well you’ve done at it thus far. A few will be appreciative and most will be resentful but at least we’d know the assessment was coming from the best source possible.
I just feel frustrated now.
I guess if you become published, that’s one way of finding out if your writing is good enough (or at least marketable enough).
But I honestly feel caught in the middle of something I can’t control. No, I’m not published, but I’ve had some positive feedback from agents – but what does that mean? I’m waiting to hear back on a partial and if it’s a no, then I’m considering officially hanging up the ol’ pen & paper.
If no one has what it takes to honestly tell us if WE have what it takes, how do we know when it’s time to try something else?
Not everyone can write, for the same reasons that everyone can’t paint or sing or sew or carve statues.
Computers make writing seem easy. Paint by numbers does the same for painting, but does that mean you can paint?
When my parents opened a flower shop I tried my hand at arranging flowers. My mom took one look and said, “Dad needs help with the bookeeping.”
Thanks, Mom for telling me that I was no good with flowers. I found out that I actually really liked bookeeping.
I’d think #2 is the biggest for an agent or publisher to worry about…
A Paperback Writer says
I read once that Lucille Ball was told by an acting instructor that she’d never be any good at acting.
And one record company turned down the Beatles because they didn’t think they’d sell and because “Guitar groups are on their way out, anyway.”
Abe Lincoln lost every single election until he ran for president. And, we’ve all heard that the first agent that JK Rowling queried rejected her.
And I recall turning to my friend one Saturday afternoon in 1977 as we watched a preview of a movie before the real show, and telling her, “That one looks stupid. No one is going to pay to see that!” The name of that “stupid” movie? It was called Star Wars. I bet you’ve heard of it. 😉
So, yeah. Sometimes people make the wrong calls on other people’s work.
Ball, The Beatles, Lincoln, and Rowling all turned out to be hugely successful. And I ended up loving Star Wars.
You just never know, do you?
There’s no easy answer. A terrible writer could spend half his or her life focused on writing and getting published, to no avail. The only solution I can see is to have a life outside of writing, and not to pin every one of your hopes and dreams on being published.
Because being a published author isn’t going to solve all of your personal and financial problems and it isn’t a non-stop party. It’s not the be-all and end-all and you don’t wake up every morning with a smile on your face–unless you were a person who woke up that way before you were published.
Is it validation? Yes. When your agent likes your book. When your editor buys your book. But what about after that? When reviews come in? When you’re backlisted?
Wherever you go, there you are. If you can’t be happy unpublished, you probably won’t be much happier published.
It may sound like blasphemy, but I stand by it.
Nathan, I think you’re dead on target with your reasons why you don’t tell people to, essentially, stop writing. I do freelance critiquing, and, yes, sometimes its temping, but just like you said–I’m not the final judge on any of this. Usually, I get an entire manuscript from an author and, hey, if they’ve written a whole book–I don’t care how far away it is from seeming publishable at this point, they’ve accomplished something huge. Who is to say that they won’t be able to handle the learning curve and turn that story, or the next one, into something that other people will want to pick up off a bookstore shelf.
I don’t even want to be a hypothetical seer!
Shell I says
Paperback Writer – that reminds me of a TV show my brother used to watch “Red Dwarf” he was telling me about it, trying to convince my I would like it too. He explained that it was about the last human, a highly evolved (to humanoid) cat, an android and a hologram lost in space 3 million years into the future. I thought YEAH RIGHT – that show must be really bad.
Turns out it is still one of my favourite shows despite no longer being made.
It goes to show you can’t judge a book by its cover (sorry for the pun).
I do know what vaqqb is asking though. I have that voice that starts up everytime I am happy with my story “You are being silly, no-one else is ever going to like this. Why are you even bothering.” It would be nice to know whether that voice is right or not.
Laurel Amberdine says
Vaqqb is spot on.
I keep wishing someone would tell me I’m hopeless so I can quit already. It’s the encouragement-but-not-success that makes me crazy.
Icqb, it can help to set yourself some kind of reasonable trying-limit. On average, how much work has a successful person put in, before their breakthrough, in the kind of writing you’re doing?
Sure there will be insta-hits and people who took 40 years to make it, but I bet there’s a more typical range.
It might be three complete novels, two conferences or workshops, and fifteen short stories before an agent took notice. If that’s the case, it’s unreasonable to expect one novel to be enough. Maybe tell yourself you’ll write four novels, revise them and market them seriously, and if no one bites (or comes very close) it’s time to admit defeat.
At least, it helps me to think that there’s a way to know how much trying is “enough.”
Gosh this is a more depressing post than I meant it to be!
(And what is with all the —qb? Is this an abbreviation I missed?)
That’s a really considerate answer.
“Who knows, anyway?”
Most days I don’t think I have what it takes to be a published writer. It’d certainly be nice to know what a few professionals truly thought of my potential or lack thereof, but in the end, good or bad input aside, I’d still write and I’d still try to publish.
The conclusion that a writer seems like he or she doesn’t have a hope in hell, ever, assumes no possibility of improvement. Why would *anyone* ever assume that?
Elyssa Papa says
icqb, you’re probably going to hate me for saying this… but do not give up!
It took romance author Anna Campbell 20 years to get published and when her book came out a couple of years ago, it flew off the shelves.
No one was looking for Stephenie Meyer but now I think they’ll be a lot of Stephenie Meyer-esque books coming out.
Reading a partial doesn’t mean anything and neither does a full really. I’ve had a partials of my manuscript sent out along with fulls…it’s a constant game and each rejection you get, does make you stronger and more used to the word no.
Some people will love your voice but just don’t love your story. Others will compliment you left and right but won’t sign you.
Sorry to be a little gender-bias here right now but finding an agent is like finding Mr. Right…you have to kiss a lot of frogs until you find that “perfect” one just for you.
Right now, I’ve queried 85 agents on this one manuscript. It’s out in partials with new agents. I’ve finished the second and starting the third. But the thing is, I won’t give up because in my heart I know that I’m meant to write and be published.
So, believe in yourself. Don’t let others tell you otherwise. You’ll get there.
heather simmons says
I thought we were assuming this was a ‘seer’, not an agent looking at the work. The agent’s opinion would be subjective but not the seer’s. I think the question was more geared towards, if we knew for a fact that we didn’t have the talent, as opposed to whether or not someone saw the talent or not. The answer changes with the scenario.
Nice answer, Nathan. Thanks.
Jake Seliger says
This all comes down to one basic fact about books: there is no Delphi.
William Goldman made the same point in Adventures in the Screen Trade, when he says about movies that nobody has any real idea of which movies will succeed before they’re made. The chapter on the subject is worth reading. You could bring that out to another level of abstraction and say the same thing for almost all forms of art, including books. I also use it as a jumping off point for discussing the probability of receiving grants.
Lisa M says
I just wanted to stress that although some of these unpublished writers may be throwing some horrible stuff your way right now, perhaps a few years down the road they will hone their craft and a few of them may produce something worthy of publication.
At least that is what I’m hoping for in my in my case:-)
When/if I get to that point, when I feel my material is worth your review, I’ll probably be wondering if you’re thinking “this girl just needs to give it up” in the back of your mind LOL!
A lovely answer, Mr. B!
You say that the people who have the least chance to be published are people who are most hostile to hearing they don’t “have the chops” for mainstream publishing.
I was wondering about the reaction of writers LEAST hostile to hearing this. Do they typically hone their skills? Rework rejected stories? Find a genre or a plot that better suits them? Are the least hostile writers people accustomed to the business of writing, who can recognize not only why something’s not working, but why it should change?
Marilynn Byerly says
**Before I answer that, let me reluctantly admit that at times it is tempting. When you’ve read twenty queries in a row by people who will almost positively never be published, sometimes this voice in the back of the head wants to tell people to just stop and go and spend some time with their family. And for about 50% of the queries I receive, I think I could probably tell someone with 99% accuracy that they don’t have the chops for mainstream publication.
I beg to differ. Maybe that project isn’t publishable, maybe the next project isn’t publishable, but one day, many writers figure things out, and the writing improves.
Most of us who are published have earlier books that never made it, but we learned our craft, we learned our markets, and we worked our butts off and still do.
I teach writing, and I see vast improvements with some writers with the right kinds of direction.
Sure, some writers will never figure it out, or they are so driven by their ego that they will never accept that they are wrong, and the rest of the world is right about their writing, but to say one project defines all writers is nonsense.
All you can tell is whether the writer has the level of craft needed and a book that will fit the available markets.
Nathan Bransford says
I would gently disagree with the people who think that everyone can improve their craft to a publishable level simply with practice. To use a sports metaphor, I am never going to make the NBA, no matter how much I practice.
I kind of think this is a myth particular to writing — because of the subjectivity of books and since writing on some level of quality is something everyone can do, I think people have a notion that anyone can do it on a high level if they practice.
But I’m sorry, that’s just not true. Yes, people can improve their craft, but talent also comes into play when you’re talking about mainstream publishing-level quality of work, and talent is innate.
To expand you NBA comparison, we know you won’t make the Kings roster because you lack physical size, game IQ, experience, an outside jump shot, etc.
So what are some ‘tell-tale’ signs a writer doesn’t have the innate talent and/or chance of getting published?
Nathan Bransford says
I don’t know that there are many tell-tale signs, but if someone really badly struggles with grammar and knowledge of words, that’s going to be a seriously tough obstacle to overcome. I’m sure there are people who are able to do that through sheer storytelling talent, but in a previous post I compared that to constantly bouncing the ball of your foot while trying to be an NBA player.
William Blake, in his lifetime, never achieved any measure of critical or commercial success. Many a critic or ‘talent evaluator’ told him to put away the quill. Yet many scholars (myself among them) feel he’s the greatest of all the Romantic Poets.
What’s the lesson? Luck has as much, if not more, to do with your success in life than talent or hard work. That’s the reality nobody wants to face even AFTER success. But if you’re always doing something you love and luck never smiles on you then failure won’t also come with the regret that you never tried.
Corked Wine and Cigarettes says
Originally I said I would want to know, and if I don’t have the chops, I’d quit to pursue other avenues. I stand by that. Life’s too short to be continually bad at anything.
But I can see where people wouldn’t want to know. I heard an Olympian speaking today on BBC about the coming games and his excitement over them. Predictably, he was excited – but he added something that reminded me of this hypothetical.
He said that years of practice and hard work are about to be answered as to whether or not he will take home a medal. The hope, he went on, of winning will die right there in Beijing. Either he’ll win or he won’t. In essence, he has a date with a seer. But the hope of winning had become such a tangible thing, giving him comfort and acting as a crutch when despair set in during training.
So I think maybe it boils down to what that sliver of hope is worth to you. What’s it worth? Does the hope of publication and the comfort of that outweigh the time wasted pursuing something in vain?
Maybe for some.
Lisa M says
Regarding my earlier comment, I just wanted to stress that I said “some” unpublished writers “may” eventually hone their skills to produce something publishable. I surely didn’t mean that anyone, with enough practice, can become a successful published author. I just wanted to clarify:-)
V L Smith says
There are those people who will receive a couple of rejections then toss their manuscript in a drawer, the trash can or on a bonfire and call it quits for good. They’ll thank the agent for sparing them years of wasted effort and abandon the writing life with ease.
Then there are those who will savor each rejection, their proof that they’ve at least made contact with the aliens in the publishing land of Oz. Those cold communications will bolster their courage and they will beg, borrow and steal every minute they can to write, learn and devour this thing we call our craft.
And they will change and they will grow and they will become the writers that Oz wants. And when their day arrives, they’ll pull out their stash of rejection mementos and they’ll laugh…wickedly.
Shell I says
Corked Wine & Cigarettes, your analogy reminds me of the beginning of Bee Movie (yes I have seen it my excuse – I have a 2-year old) “According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way that a bee should be able to fly. Its wings are too small to get its fat little body off the ground.”
Maybe the same could be applied to some writers, because they don’t know they’re no good they just keep plugging away & eventually it all works for them.
At least – I am hoping this is the case for me.
Whoa! Nathan said:
But I’m sorry, that’s just not true. Yes, people can improve their craft, but talent also comes into play when you’re talking about mainstream publishing-level quality of work, and talent is innate.
Define talent. Physical stature is not the same thing. Not even close. I can’t make myself grow taller, but I can work my brain.
Humans learn. That and language and use of tools are what sets us apart from other animals. Humans impose meaning. Humans seek meaning. Also sets us apart. Humans adapt, too.
In my mind, there is a range of normal. Most of us are in the middle, which is why we are less likely to be published in the *conventional way*. That doesn’t mean we don’t have ability to tell stories in good and acceptable ways. It just means we haven’t satisfied a set of current agents and current mainstream publishers.
Effort also comes into it. Those with learning difficulties may never get the presentation up to standard. But in general, the majority of humans who work to learn their craft, expand their imaginations, take in as much as possible the experiences of other successful [your OWN definition of success here], and write write write over time, will improve, will get their stories out of their heads for sharing, and will make a difference in the world.
So, no, I can’t agree with Nathan on this one. The narrow interpretation in this case is far too narrow. The NBA is not the only game in town.
Thanks for this discussion Nathan. It’s given me a little more perspective on my work.
My first novel is finished and has been read by editors at Harper Collins and Penguin, and I’m deciding what to do next. It can sometimes seem the fate of that ms is crucial to my success as a writer, but after reading everyone’s comments I see that I should relax more, and write the books I want to write, instead of obsessively returning to that single ms and polishing it to within an inch of its life.
Life is too short, and to much fun to get hung up about whether any single work will see the light of day. Maybe I should spend less time on blogs like this too 😉
I also think it’s hard to know if a writer has what it takes. I’m not sure if you could say I have talent. Ten years ago my writing was appalling – egotistical, lacking in the basic craft, and horribly over-written. My writing is now providing me with mentorships and nominations for manuscript awards. Is the arc from horrible to where I am now a result of inherent (but concealed) talent, or because eight years ago I decided that if I wanted to really write a book then I’d better put my ego aside and learn something?
I would say that I was always good with words (in a purplish prose kinda way), but didn’t know how to tell a story to save my life. It has been pure slog, and not talent that makes me the writer I am today.
I don’t disagree that you can tell if someone will never be published, but at what point in someone’s career can you make that call? Maybe if after ten years of busting a gut learning the craft, and you still can’t produce a half decent book, then maybe it’s time to go take up golf or cross-stitch.
Shell I says
Sorry missed the 2nd half of the bee movie quote “The bee, of course, flies anyway. Because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.”
Nathan, I never get tired of the hills references. They crack me up every time! Thanks.
Elissa M says
I have known people who will never, ever be published by a mainstream, royalty paying publisher. They repeatedly demonstrated with their writing and their reactions to constructive critiques, their incapacity for improvement.
I agree completely with Nathan that not everyone can write commercial fiction. Or literary fiction. Or any sort of nonfiction. Some people can’t even write a coherent letter.
And I also agree that it’s no one’s place to tell these people to stop writing. Only the writer can decide whether to press on or to give up.
I write because I want to. I enjoy creating characters and stories. I like to put my musings into words. I will stop writing when I don’t like it any more, and it won’t matter if I’m published or not.
A Paperback Writer says
glad you see my point.
I was commenting on Nathan’s personal responses in this post, not in the previous one with the seer. sorry if I confused you.
I’m seeing both sides of this. Nathan, since I’m a teacher, I think I can relate to how you must sometimes feel. Sometimes, I get kids where I just think they’re NEVER going to be able to write even a formula essay, let alone something with style and a good point.
But, I would certainly never say, “Give it up, kid, and stick with math classes,” because, well, to repeat myself, who knows?
I once had a student who arrived from Peru halfway through his 7th grade year. His English was barely passable. At that point, I never would’ve guessed that within two years, he’d be pulling top grades in the most difficult classes in the school and taking top national honors in academic competitions where he could use only English.
So, it’s no wonder, Nathan, that you just stick with a form rejection letter when you’re not interested.
(By the way, there are some published writers out there whose books lead me to believe that they’ll never be able to write decently either, and yet they made it to the shelves somehow. )
Beth Terrell says
When I was teaching teenagers with dyslexia, I was amazed at how far these students, who hated reading and writing and could barely construct a sentence on the page, were able to progress. They had a number of good ideas, but had no concept of writing as a draft/edit process. They thought stories were flung fully formed onto the page. Once they learned how to take an ordinary (or even pretty darn bad) piece of writing and polish it into something to be proud of, their attitudes toward the process completely changed for the better, and so did their writing.
I don’t know how much talent I have as a writer, but maybe perseverance and a talent for editing can make up for any shortcomings.
With regards to Answer #2: Simon probably has a bodyguard. Most agents don’t. You choose wisely.
Melody Ayres-Griffiths says
Within reason, of course, the mainstream publishing industry seems to be more about marketing then content anyhow. Nathan picks books he likes because he likes them, and that gives him the confidence required to persuade someone else to like them.
He may like a book we would almost universally think is horrible. Or, conversely, he may hate a book the rest of us would love. That’s why there’s more than one agent in the world.
Generally, however, agents tastes are going to fall to a common denominator — if several reject you, many will reject you. Probably all. Does that mean your book is bad? No. It merely means it’s unpopular. But is there still an audience?
Likely, there is. Happily, there are alternatives to mainstream publishing. Lulu.com (or others) will print your books cheaply, and you can consign them through a local bookseller. Do readings, have signing just like ‘real’ authors do.
There’s nothing like holding a proper bound copy of your manuscript in your hand, reading to an appreciative bunch of youngsters or signing something you’ve created that someone else has elected to buy to give you that confidence to go back to an agent, and query them again knowing that, whether they like your book or not, you know that someone else in the world does.
What else matters?
What I find interesting is how many people think the only reason to write is to be published, and that publication legitimizes ones efforts somehow. Is there any other endeavor that carries such a load of assumptions?
Most of the people who run marathons know they aren’t going to come anywhere close to winning, but they run anyway. Most people who take up a musical instrument don’t expect to play at the local VFW Hall, let alone Carnegie Hall. Many people are very happy to paint watercolors that will hang on no one’s walls but their own, make beer that will never be served in a bar, or grow tomatoes that will never be for sale at the local supermarket.
No one thinks it odd that people have these hobbies and in fact, people usually speak respectfully of the gardeners, quilters, and other hobbyists in their midst without ever saying, “Well, Bob is just wasting his time restoring that GTO. He’s not a REAL mechanic because no one pays him to work in an auto repair shop.”
I wonder why writing is viewed by so many as something that’s not worth doing unless it results in a gloss-covered product on the shelf of Barnes & Noble?
Mystery Robin says
Does that mean you think someone couldn’t go from point A ‘really bad book and query’ to point B ‘publishable book and fantastic query’ with practice?
I know that writing is art and craft, but I tend to think that through discipline and practice we can all improve the craft enough to write a great book. How great, probably comes down to art.
So for that reason, I’d probably never tell anyone they’d never be published. I think that Delphi you’re talking about is more “can THIS be published. Can I be published NOW? Or do I have a lot more work to do?”
We spend so much time staring at the words, it’s easy to lose perspective, so we’re looking for someone to point out the horizon and say “There it is – get straight.”
Nathan Bransford says
Yes, absolutely, someone (or rather more than one someone) could go from bad book to really good book with practice. I’m just saying that not everyone can get there with practice.
I also am skeptical that someone could go from a book that is really bad off (and I mean in terms of grammar, idea, execution, etc.) to a publishable writer, but I suppose the world is a big place.
Shell I says
In my opinion there is absolutely nothing wrong with writing for the fun of it. But generally following an agents or editors blog to get information about the business side of writing isn’t just writing for fun.
To use one of your examples, if a gardener grows tomatos and knows that he will never sell them to a supermarket, would he bother going online to find out how to sell them? Or a musician who was content to play at home wouldn’t try to find out what they needed to do to make a CD or market it. Then again maybe they would, but I wouldn’t.
I love writing for the fun of writing but if that was all it was for I would turn off the computer & stop trying to improve my skills because it wouldn’t matter if my grammer was perfect, if my plot was non-sense or was unique if it was just for me. If you know what I mean.
shell i: Seeking to improve one’s writing doesn’t mean one is necessarily seeking publication, any more than taking guitar lessons means one is hoping for a career in music. There’s no different set of writing techniques for hobbyists vs those whose end goal is a publishing contract. Everyone wants to challenge themselves and improve.
Writing is one of the few creative endeavors where there is little support for those who want to get better just for getting better’s sake and I can think of no comparable mindset with other creative activities.
Knowing the ins and outs of publication is good for setting one’s expectations and recognizing a marketable story once you’ve told it, but I don’t know of too many people who turn out their best work by starting with the market in mind.
To get back on topic, though, I think there are some people who don’t have what it takes to become sufficiently solid writers to get published in any market. There are also those who can write brilliantly but will never have the correct market timing and will remain unpublished. In each of these scenarios, it really is a shame there’s no way to know in advance that all those hours working on queries and synopses would’ve been better spent doing something else. 🙂
I gotta tell you–you guys crack me up with your “learning the craft” and “do I have what it takes?”….
Do any of you ever write anything, or do you just hang out online and talk about it?
Well, I’m here, and I write stuff, so I guess at least some of you do.
But I tell ya, I don’t worry about it, I just write, and I send out what I write, and then I write a new one…the time I spend doing this I would only be sleeping more anyway (making myself fully alert for the day job in the process, which would in itself be nearly intolerable), so it’s not like I’m making any great sacrifice.
Besides, it’s hard to take myself seriously when my latest work is an action thriller about a disgruntled ex-NASA engineer who builds a bank-robbing robot with AI software that allows it to make its own decisions during a series of escalating wild-west style heists…
Maybe for the literary types who are unable to sell their insights into the human condition, the rejection is tougher to take, I dunno.
Do I give a heck if anyone ever buys it? No. Do I think someone will? Hell yes. I’d read it or watch it if it came out, so someone else probably would too. And I have not been published by a major house, but I have been offered a small-house deal…
So I will write on, knowing that I don’t need to buy lottery tickets ever again cuz I already got a big one that I play 5 nights a week.
Some people wash their hands obsessively from dawn till dusk. They stand at a sink and rinse, rinse, rinse, like magicians performing a drawn out Disappearing Soap trick.
Then there’s us writers.
I suppose it all boils down to how you view the dangling carrot.
“I also am skeptical that someone could go from a book that is really bad off (and I mean in terms of grammar, idea, execution, etc.) to a publishable writer, but I suppose the world is a big place.”
I guess I’m finding it hard to believe that even naturally talented writers can whip out a brilliant manuscript from the get go. The published authors I’ve spoken to all seem to stress that it took them many years and a few failed novels before they became successful (published) writers.
However, I guess I would need to see an example of some of the “bad” manuscripts you’ve seen LOL.
#2 is the real problem, I think. I’ve seen a lot of agents and editors mention that they used to give feedback but stopped because they received so many abusive responses from the authors concerned.
(That said, some still give personal feedback even on queries. God bless them.)
I think a writer who ends up as a professional novelist needs to have a certain amount of inate ability to start with, and then it takes 2-4 books to get good at it for most, not to mention decades of reading. If you have to write 100,000 bad words to get to the publishable stuff, then you must have to read 10,000,000 words.
That said, I am a firm believer that all people–inlcuding those who will never be professional caliber book writers, as well as those who will–can become better writers through training and practice. Writing is a skill that can be learned, it is not some zen gift that you either have or you don’t. Unless you’re talking about a Stephen KIng or Anne Rice or Michael Crichton; those are cases where inate, raw talent met constant practice…
Laurel Amberdine says
There might be some confusion in terms here, actually.
Writing is a basic technical skill that can be practiced and learned.
Storytelling is something that takes talent and a certain kind of personality. It can be refined with practice, but some people don’t have the ability, and no amount of practice forming sentences is going to suffice.
It’s like music: anyone with basic coordination can learn to play the notes correctly. But making a series of notes into a beautiful performance is a whole other thing, and requires talent. (Along with lots of practice.)
It strikes me that people who would not write if they knew they could not sell might be those more likely to sell for one simple reason:
They write to connect with a reader. If they knew they would not have readers, they would not write.
Good writing is writing that connects. People buy books not because they are interested in you expressing yourself, but because they want to read something that expresses THEMselves.
So the person who writes for a reader is far more likely to find a reader. Those who write because they enjoy the feeling of words pouring out of themselves or to admire their own “creativity” often do not.
Julie Weathers says
Nathan, thank you for making people stop and think about their writing. Thank you also, for once again being spot on.
A person with a little talent, persistence and desire will trump a person with immense talent only every time. While at times I think it might be a kindness to tell someone they simply do not have what it takes, how can any of us read their heart?
Of course, I am one of those people who has been told to stop daydreaming about writing and grow up.
Years ago, I followed the career of a filly who sold for a few hundred dollars to an exercise boy. She was ugly and, according to the young owner, “none of her legs matched so no one wanted her.” He believed in her and gave her a chance. She went on to become a champion race horse and won enough money for him to buy back the family ranch his mother had to sell to support the family after his father died.
No one can really tell how much desire and heart a person, or horse, has. Sometimes you just have to believe and do your best.
Miss Viola Bookworm says
I have to agree with Nathan. It’s similar to singing. Watch the tryouts for American Idol one time and you see that some people just have the talent or gift of singing. Others may need a bit of fine tuning here and there or guidance, but the gift is there, whereas others sound as bad as I do while singing in the car. Anyone can open up and sing. Anyone can pick up a pen and write. Does that mean that someone should? No.
I’m not saying that people shouldn’t try, but at the same time, I think you have to be realistic. At 34, I still watch the Olympics and want to be the next Kristi Yamaguchi, but it just isn’t in the cards for me. I also LOVE to sing, but this is best done in the privacy of my own home. Writing, however, has been something I’ve been working on since I could hold a pen, and with my experience teaching writing and literature, I think I might have a shot. Several agents and other writers have told me so as well.
Regardless of whether I get published or not though, I’ll keep at it because I enjoy it and can’t quiet the characters in my head. Anyone can do anything, but attempting to make it one’s career is something different. I don’t think Nathan is saying that people should stop writing, but getting published is one thing and writing for pleasure is another. I don’t think anyone should give that up if they love it, but perhaps they should focus on other career goals. In the meantime, find someone who can be honest about your writing (or whatever it is that you’re attempting to do) and let you know if you shouldn’t quit your day job.