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Writing

The Island of Misfit Writers

“A winner never quits, and a quitter never wins, but someone who never wins or quits is an idiot.”

A lot of people will tell young writers, “If you keep at it, eventually you’ll get published.” If your current book is being rejected, you just need to keep trying, and make the next book better.

I’m sure they’re (mostly) just trying to be encouraging and helpful, but I have to wonder how much damage this ‘encouragement’ is doing. The problem, you see, is that it isn’t true. There is absolutely no guarantee that a writer will ever get a book published by one of the big houses, no matter how long and hard they try, no matter how good a writer they become. It is quite possible to be really good, stick with it for years and years, and fail completely.

It’s the dirty little secret of the publishing business; quality doesn’t matter. Once a certain minimum standard of literacy has been (more or less) met, a ‘good’ book doesn’t stand a much better chance of being published than a ‘bad’ one. (Dirty little secret to readers and writers; publishers are doubtless astonished that anyone thinks it could be otherwise.) The publishing business is all about selling books, but how good the book is doesn’t really factor into it. We’ve all read books that leave us wondering, “How did this ever get into print?” It got into print because enough people at the publishing house thought they could sell it, no matter that the writing is mediocre at best. Sometimes they’re right, too, and the book becomes a best seller.

Okay, sure, probably 95% of the manuscripts rejected by any publisher are simply bad. Most of these are rejected on the first page; the wooden dialogue, clunky writing, and (often) poor presentation (typos, bad grammar) are immediately apparent and a form rejection is quickly flicked back at the writer.

Of the remaining 5%, though–dozens or hundreds of novels per year–most are adequately well written, and almost none of them will see print. (I’m talking here about unpublished writers, but it happens to established pros too, more often than they like to think about.) Most of these books will be rejected for reasons having little or nothing to do with how good they are. Maybe the intern sifting through the slush pile just didn’t like it. Maybe it got lost. Maybe the editor thinks it’s too similar to another book she just bought. Maybe it’s too similar in appeal to what one of their big name writers does, and they don’t want to threaten that gravy train. Maybe it’s not similar enough to what they already sell and they aren’t sure how to market it. Maybe the editor got interrupted partway through reading it, forgot where she was, and just stuffed a form rejection in the envelope. Maybe it touches some hot-button issue the publisher doesn’t want to touch. Maybe she has a cold and is grumpy and rejecting everything that day. Publishers need new books, and new authors, to stay in business, but reading submissions is only a small part of an over-worked editor’s day (usually done outside office hours, in fact), and rejecting a submission is a lot less work than accepting it.

This can lead to a lot of angst and confusion on the part of new writers. On the one hand, they have people telling them, “If you’re not selling, you just need to keep at it and write a better book.” On the other hand, their best efforts keep being rejected, without any feedback as to why. Probably every writer, at some point, has asked herself, “What’s wrong with this? Why isn’t it good enough? What do I have to do to make it good enough?”

It’s entirely possible that there isn’t anything wrong with it. That there isn’t anything you can do to make it any better. That all there is to do is keep trying and see if you get lucky, because luck counts for about as much as talent. Maybe more.

How do you know when you’re good enough, just not lucky enough? That’s the young writer’s dilemma; you probably don’t. Your writer’s group, if you have one, probably doesn’t have any better insight than you do. If you know an established pro, she can probably tell you, if you can convince her to read your manuscript, but most pros are reluctant to do this even for friends. Especially for friends. There’s that 95% who really aren’t good enough, remember, who also bug established writers for an opinion, and until someone reads your unpublished manuscript there is a natural (and usually justified) tendency for them to think it’s awful.

This is why some writers keep trying to break into the established publishing houses rather than self-publishing; that contract (and check, small as it may be) is a validation that they are good enough, validation that they can’t get any other way. Let’s face it; your mom or your spouse saying that your book is really nice just isn’t the same as a four or five (hah) digit check from a publisher.

So what do you do if you’re a young writer, trying to break in and not getting anywhere? Simple; keep plugging at it, hoping you’re good enough, trying to get better, and waiting for that lucky break. Or take your case directly to the people by self-publishing, though you need luck there as well. Or bag it; give up and try to find some other passion. (I said simple, not easy.)

Whichever way you go, you can, if you like, hold your head high and tell yourself that it may not be you that’s lacking. Many talented writers over the generations have toiled in obscurity, never getting that break, never getting the recognition they probably deserved. You are in a distinguished, if obscure and often bitter, company.

And the world really does need ditch diggers, too.