The fallibility of success

calvin-hobbers bad writing

If anyone reading this is struggling to get ‘good’ work down on the page, take comfort. I am still a pretty inexperienced editor but I have now completed two commercial books and have done enough to draw certain conclusions

Here are my disillusionments:

  • Authors don’t understand commas. It’s possible that this is a US thing rather than an absolute error, but I find commas strewn around willy-nilly. Sub-clauses are only half indicated and dual-clauses (linked by ‘and’ or ‘but’, say) are broken unnecessarily. You can see some previous witterings on commas here
  • Professional, published authors sometimes stuff up point-of-view. I’ve just read a climax where the POV changed half a dozen times over the course of as many pages
  • Authors forget they have characters in scenes. They suggest actions that would leave them a smear between two docking spaceships. Their characters disappear and reappear at will
  • Characters can change remarkably between scenes
  • Authors do not understand that emotions flare instantly. Sometimes they’ll have paragraphs between a trigger and a response
  • Authors will have their characters abandon a loved-one in mid-mortal combat
  • Authors will not provide the reader with a solid, imaginable environment for their action, leaving their characters floating and the reader struggling to keep up with the writer’s ideas
  • Authors will set up Chekhov’s guns all over the place and then never go back to them. In one book I worked on the writer created a whole location, with mysterious characters and foreshadowing aplenty, and then never returned to it. It is the most boggling, unsatisfying thing (and there’s more on Chekhov’s guns here)
  • Authors will explain a stupidity too late and with a kind of off-the-cuff, ‘oh, that’s not important’-ness that simply doesn’t work
  • Authors will mess up cause and effect, like having a note written by a character who dies before they could get round to it
  • Authors will add really lame justifications to cover up the fact that they didn’t think of an issue until their beta-readers called them up on it
  • Authors will come up with limp plots and interminable pages of the protagonist agonising over what he’s going to do – and doing nothing. Yup, this one’s on me, folks

WritingHumour-Criticism

I write this not to damn the writers – really, this is the fault of a publishing system that demands writers produce work to order – but to reassure you. If you’re struggling with your writing, if you feel you’re not very good at some fundamental aspect of the craft, don’t worry. Even those who have ‘made it’ make the same mistakes.

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That’s not to say that you’re allowed the same mistakes. Publishing is unfair; it’s fair harder on debut writers than it is on a proven commodity.

Whether a novel is published or not comes down to a simple cost/benefit analysis. How hard will the agent/editor have to work to get sales?

A submission by a debut author is like an audition piece. You need to demonstrate basic competency – the more errors, the more the editor/agent has to do to get it right: your writing can be crap if the potential rewards are worth the extra time it takes to get it up to scratch.

That’s why celebrities have a head start; the ‘guaranteed’ sales will justify any extra editing – or complete rewriting – that needs to be done.

It’s also why sequels are often less satisfying than the original. The market is there – and, indeed, a sequel will often boost sales of the first book. The cost/benefit scales have shifted. And the writer has, perhaps for the first time, a deadline to meet and all sorts of other pressures on their heads.

Dilbert

So yes, you need to get the basics right. But, after the first three chapters – and with the possible exception of literary fiction, upon which I am not qualified to comment – it’s story that will sell, not technical excellence.

Also, editors like me (and those far more experienced) are here to help. Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled clauses yearning to breathe free; the wretched refuse of your steaming pen.

Get it down and move on.

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The wild rumba of revenge

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Someone must own the copyright to this but I can’t track the artist down. If it’s you, please get in touch so I can credit you

So I’m due to have a book published late 2018. I’ve been working for this for over a decade: I got my first full-book request from a publisher back in 2007, I think it was. I’ve sent out well over 100 queries – maybe it’s more like 250, I’ve not kept count. A lot, though. And now finally I have the solid prospect of publication.

So why do I feel so numb? Why am I not screaming for joy, quaffing the champagne of victory and dancing the wild rumba of revenge for past rejections?

Everyone is delighted on my behalf. People keep congratulating me and it’s hard to know how to respond. Of course, good old-fashioned modesty and reserve is part of it, but it’s more than that.

Part of it is distance. Publication is a year away and I haven’t yet got to grips with the schedule; I’m sure things will get exciting as promotions happen; as events are inked in and momentum builds. At the moment all I have is the (not entirely unpleasurable) puzzle of filling in questionnaires and trying to remember what the damn book’s about.

There’s also a degree of scepticism. I have faith in this publisher (in case you’re wondering, I’m holding off from naming them at the moment because I know they’re still working on a dedicated imprint-website and they have their own schedules that I don’t want to hijack) but I know that things go wrong.

A colleague of mine signed with a small publisher in Texas only to find that it was basically a single person who promptly ran into difficulties and the whole enterprise fell into a morass of rights-issues and recriminations. Now I don’t think that’ll happen with me – I was confident enough to sign a contract, after all – but things do go wrong. Money dries up. Backers withdraw. Shit, as they say, happens.

But my reactions are more down to the fact that this one act of good fortune hasn’t made me a different person. I have a promise. I have some degree of status – eligibility to join the Society of Authors, for example – but I’ve not changed. I’m still exactly the same person that I was yesterday; still a jobbing writer who’s struggling to create and to make a career in the field I love. If anything I feel less human as a result of signing a contract, not more complete.

It just doesn’t feel real.

And I’m pretty certain I’m not alone in this. It’s not quite impostor syndrome as I’ve not yet infiltrated the circles in which I might be disguising myself. It’s the emptiness of success. The realisation that dreams are only a start, and achieving them is less than you could ever imagine.

Shepherd

Beware (again) that this business is not all it’s cracked up to be. ‘Success’ is not something you can step into, not something that can be put on like a coat. I suspect that I’ll never be successful because that pose comes from within.

Work hard. Work for your ambitions. Take your luck when it comes and keep, keep, keep on trying.

But remember that success won’t change your world. It won’t complete you. Make sure you have family and friends around you because they’re a much truer gauge of what you are than a name on the shelves. Don’t forget why you wanted to ‘succeed’ in the first place.

 

The slough of despond

(c) Luton Culture; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

‘Slough of Despond’, Edward Callam c.1972

I am already anticipating failure. We writers are a sensitive lot, and silence to us is like a sharp slap across the buttocks with the iron ruler of destiny.

You’re probably sick of Pitch Wars already. Either you’ve entered – in which case you’ll be desperately hoping to get that magic ‘send me more’ email – or you haven’t, in which case you’ll be wondering why the hell you should listen to me ramble on about it. Again.

Well it’s like this: at some point in life you’re going to submit something you care about. It could be a manuscript to a competition or to an agent. It could be a job- or university application or assignment. You’ve worked hard; you’ve made the deadline; you’ll have sent it off with a sigh of relief and a ‘well, that’s my brain cleared of that for a while’.

Obviously, the first thing you should do is unkink with the beverage or unhealthy snack of your choice. Then…

Well, take a look at this post, written in response to last year’s Pitch Wars. Now I have a thing about odds. So the sentence ‘there’s a 90% chance you’re about to have your author heart broken’ stands out to me. Of course it’s strictly true: and this year, with more entrants, there’s an even slimmer 4.7% chance of ‘succeeding’.

The odds of being chosen as a mentee, as a candidate, as an employee, are small if you look at You vs. Number of Applicants. And certainly luck is necessary; it has to land on the right desk, at the right time, whilst the recipient is in the right mood.

But you can help yourself by making your work better. In that linked post you’ll see that the co-mentors had a system of assessing writing. A certain degree of technical proficiency is needed to get you past the first round of cuts.

So my message to you is this: if you fail in any venture the first thing you should do – after the aforementioned beverage/snack – is to make yourself better. Write something else. Write something better. You can’t lose from practice, from pushing yourself, from learning something new.

The other thing to remember is that losing isn’t losing. I’ve found new people to connect with, even if it’s a vague ‘following on Twitter’ thing. My work has been seen by more people, and maybe something will have come of that in the future. I’ve given my manuscript a good polish and that will definitely stand me in good stead. I’ve practiced pitching and have learned a great deal about the business I want to be in.

Now I’m going straight back to Oneiromancer. In rewriting up my opening chapter I created a new rod for my back in the next section. I must be ready: should an opportunity fall in my lap I must be ready to catch it; that means the rest of the novel has to be as good as the opening.

There is no rest for the wicked, and I must drag myself free of the slough of despond.