Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Fine Whine I: An Unpublished Writer’s Rant

[Submitted to BookAngst 101 by an Anoymous Reader/Writer, via email, with the subject head "AN UNPUBLISHED WRITER'S RANT":]
Admit it... you’ve stopped listening already!

You saw “unpublished writer” and your eyes glazed over and you quickly clicked over to Bookslut before defiling yourself with the anxious whining of a new writer.

Therein lies the rub... I can’t get your attention without being published, and I can’t get published without your attention. For the unpublished writers amongst us who are sans MFA, short on contacts, and long on aspirations, the obstacles to a publishing career are daunting. The work's not good enough... so write better... but the only valuable feedback is locked behind those doors marked “only Pros need apply.” I get no feedback from a form letter saying, “this material isn’t right for us.” Sure, it’s easy to write another book, but will it be better? Oh sure, I’ve taken writing classes from nobodies, and I’ve been told I can write. So can a million others, apparently, as well as the Shakespeare-typing-chimpanzees.

How do you pluck that one possible out of a big stack of impossible? Is it possible that you’ve made your mind up before you’ve even resigned yourself to the icky chore of dispensing your slushpile?

I’m just sayin’.

To which Max responds:
Sorry, but this is self-pitying crap. Yes, you're right: I did shy away from your subject line--because (even before there was a Mad Max Perkins) I get dozens of unsolicited emails a day from writers wanting me to read their masterpieces. I recognize you're just trying to get through to somebody--but this ain't the way to do it. And it's not because you don't have an MFA or took "classes from nobodies": trust me on this, I delete them all without prejudice. [And--personally?--I'll be much less inclined to give you a open-hearted read if you've got an MFA than if you don't. Not a big fan of the production-line industry responsible for so many More Fucking Artistes...]

If you're not getting published, it sure ain't because you're not part of the "In Crowd." This conspiracy-theory gobblety-gook is a favored excuse for people who haven't got the talent or haven't got the drive, or both. The world is lousy with literary agents; and literary agents only get paid when they make a sale; so they're a competitive and fast-acting group. From my perspective, there are basically two reasons why a writer doesn't have an agent: either the writing's not quite good enough, or the writer hasn't applied himself seriously--doggedly--to finding one.

Whether or not publishers should have a responsibility to read material submitted to "Dear Slushpile," the reality is that most no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. If you think this reflects the hard-heartedness of today's market place, you're right: publishers are enormously understaffed relative to yesteryear, which means that there are far fewer sets of eyes per submission than used to be the case... Another reason why your initial focus should be on getting your work to agents: they might actually read it.

This week's inspiring story about a writer discovered on the slush pile strikes me as the exception that proves the rule--and my guess is that his/her career began perhaps two decades ago.
“Only Pros need apply”...I get no feedback from a form letter saying, “this material isn’t right for us.”
First of all, damn right: pros ONLY, please! The business of writing, and of publishing the work of serious and talented writers, is, indeed, a matter of PROFESSION in the profoundest sense. If you write as a hobby, that's wonderful for you--but I have no place in that experience, and it's naive of you to expect me to be reassuring if your work fails to engage me. My professional responsibility is to find writers and books that I feel have literary and commercial merit (and it's not coincidence that there's often a strong corrolation between the seriousness and professionalism with which writers approach their craft and the extent to which I'm likely to be impressed). I have neither time or motivation to engage in feel-good correspondence for its own sake.

Finally: I accept the charge that this is a low blow, an easy shot--but, to my mind, anybody who says "it's easy to write another book" probably isn't putting nearly enough time and energy--enough professionalism--into the work in the first place.



Anonymous said...

Ho ho!
You tell it how it is, bro'!

This wannabe expects and wants no more favours in the literary pit fight. If I'm the last man standing, then I want to have earned it.

Bob Liter said...

Damn. You have to have talent and be professional? Well, gee whiz.Maybe lucky would also help.
Bob Liter

Anonymous said...

Can't I just screw up my face and talk about how my characters are so real that they've run out of control? And that my muse insists I spend 300 pages setting up the plot?

Kel-Bell said...

"Write without hope or fear."

Carl Jung says that the number one human desire is acceptance.

This drives all artists.

But we must rise above this instinct, and learn to accept ourselves.

Shed the skin of insecurity and "write...without hope or fear."

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

Someone's got to break it to "Unpublished Writer": Once you make that first sale and join the "Professionally published authors club," guess what? It doesn't get any easier to make sales. I know folks who've made various best-seller lists that still get rejections. It's a competitive market. Deal with it or find another hobby.

Anonymous said...

This week's inspiring story about a writer discovered on the slush pile strikes me as the exception that proves the rule--and my guess is that his/her career began perhaps two decades ago.

Yikes, Max. Two decades ago I was in high school. My first novel was published in the late 90s.

I did send a query letter and a sample chapter before sending the whole manuscript, which I only sent after the editor's assistant requested it. I also sent my query directly to one editor rather than to "Dear Big Publisher."

Maybe that means my manuscript wasn't strictly unsolicited. I apologize if I unintentionally mislead anyone.

( finally caved and chose a name to distinguish my replies from other anonymous posters'.)

Anonymous said...

I don't really get this. Writing may be creative, but publishing is a business. No one is obligated to buy your product. You have to sell it. I don't think you get many paper clip makers complaining that they can't get their business off the ground because paper clip retailers just refuse to give them a chance, as if said chance is owed them, and it's being withheld out of spite.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Dear Max:

I think you're being way too hard on this writer, and you fell back on spouting the same old boilerplate I've heard a gabillion times till I want to puke. The cream rises to the top, blah blah. If you're not getting published you're not trying hard enough, or the right way or you're just no damn good. He complains that form letters don't offer any meaningful feedback, and your response is get an agent, they read submissions. From my experience, agents pretty much think alike and agents and editors share the same mindset. After all, they're all swimming in the same water.

Agents respond in two ways. If they like what you've sent, they'll call you. If not, you get a form rejection. I don't think this writer wants what you call "feel good correspondence." He wants some information so he can engage in course correction.

Yes, the world is lousy with literary agents, and most of them are lousy. I once spoke with James Parish, a writer who's been writing books about movies for over twenty years, and he opined that most of the agents he's encountered shouldn't have been in the business.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Over at another blog, POD-DY MOUTH, there's an interview with somone who's been an editor for 15 yearts and is currently employed by one of Random House's imprints. And here's a clip from the interview that I think is pertinent.

Girl: Bonus question: True or false-"If you have a brilliant manuscript, your book will find a home/get published."

Editor One: Tremendously false, and though many of my peers feel it is a rather recent phenomenon, I believe it was never true. I would estimate that there are thousands of excellent books that have been lost in the ether for a whole host of reasons. What scares me more is the opposite is true: that if you have a bad book, it does not mean you will not get published. This industry is very arbitrary. My own imprint is guilty of this.


Brenda said...

I found your site from Brenda Coulter's blog, whose site I found from Romancing the Blog (just in case you were wondering. If not, ignore all that jazz.)

As I posted on Brenda C.'s blog, I had the same idea a year ago. Then six months into *seriously* writing and looking behind the scenes, I realized my thoughts were very off target. It's not that this person can't write (I mean, he may not be able to, or he could be freakin' brilliant), but I think it's just simple ignorance of the industry. I would think that were were all readers before we became writers, and the readers really have no idea how hard is it to crank out 100K word novel, much less the days spent querying and submitting to houses and agents, the crapload of rejections, the re-writes. Ugh..I feel ill just TYPING the word REVISION.

HOWEVER, having that said, not too long ago I approached a similiar topic and went on a huge rant. I don't mind rejection letters that are form letters. True, they teach us NOTHING, but I understand (now) the amount of submissions one must read through, therefore a personal rejection letter is very time consuming to the agent. BUT, PLEASE, any agent reading this, please please please (did I say PLEASE?!) make it somewhat professional. As writers, it is POUNDED into us to get the agent/editor name right, make sure your query is PERFECT. Blah blah blah. But yet it's acceptable to send me a form rejection that's been copied SO MANY TIMES that the signature is barely readable now, and the copy of the copy of the copy got jigged along the way and now the letter sits at a slant on the paper? Nice. Or how about the one form letter that said "Dear Writer" and then they used a pen and crossed out writer to scribbled "Brenda" above it. Uh. Yeah. Classy. Neither one of those places will EVER represent me. I know they're sobbing at there mere thought of losing me (facetious tone inserted here), but it reeks of such unprofessionalism that I never want to even look their direction again. As for the one that scribbled "Brenda" over writer, that was kind of nice..I mean, at least they knew my name, but that entire crossing out of the word "writer", well, I analysized the crap outta that one. I realize I'm ranting yet again, but please keep the double standard at bay. We do our best - I'd hope the agents could do their best, present themselves as a person as well as a professional, in the best light possible.

Anyway....It's not that he sucks, Max, at least, I hope not. It's just that he doesn't know any better. Thankfully, he has you, and us, to educated him. Right? Right.

At least, that was my excuse. And he may borrow it as his own if he wishes.

Brenda said...

Whoa. We REALLY need an edit feature.

~slinks away, now wishing she'd signed hers as anonymous, too~

Anonymous said...

Today I spent over an hour on the phone with an agent who graciously took the time to tell me that, while my writing was good, it wasn't good enough yet. (Believe me, I have enough form rejections to wallpaper a house.) This was my first phone rejection and after having it, I know she's right. No, it isn't an editor's job to help the unpublished learn how to write. Nor an agent's. But it sure is nice, when once in a while, someone takes the time to lend a helping hand. When you don't have that, the only recourse is to keep writing and to keep reading. We have to remember that when we do eventually sell, we are _competing_ against the bestselling authors. We have to be as good as, if not better, than them. And it won't ever get any easier. In fact, it will be harder with sales figures to keep building and reputations to uphold. Nothing in this industry is easy. That's why it holds such fantastic rewards.

Anonymous said...

Many new writers pay strict attention to advice: cut the passive voice, avoid this info dump, don't change pov, read, read.... they are told that breaking anyone of these rules will automatically consign them to pubhell....and then they pick up a monstrous best seller and find the author breaks every one of the rules...

A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."

PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."

PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."