I have noticed a sort of interesting attitude in some submitters. It's that the trick is "getting away with it". You know, say I point out that a four-page long prologue all in italics (because, I guess, it takes place in the villain's head) might be kind of annoying. (I'm making this particular issue up, as the attitude is the important thing.) And the submitter comes back with (rule #1-- don't argue when you're being rejected... it doesn't help), "But (insert bestselling author's name) got away with it!"
"Got away with it." It sounds sort of childish, doesn't it? "But you let Ryan stay up till nine last week, and that was a schoolnight! How come he can get away with it and I can't?"
Sure, I know it's infuriating to be told that you've done something wrong, when you know for a fact that publisher, maybe even that very editor, let someone else get away with exactly this. Maybe you left out quote marks, and you know Charles Frazier in Cold Mountain did just that and got away with it. Or maybe you start with a line of dialogue, and someone like, well, me, points that out as a particularly egregious obnoxiousness, and you go to your bookshelf and pull out FOUR books that start with a line of dialogue!
Or maybe the editor rejects with a comment that your opening situation is cliched, and "we're looking for fresh premises," yet (insert Old Dinosaur Author's name) is published by this house and no one can figure out WHY she's still getting published, since she is on her 50th book using the same characters (just changing the names). How come she can get away with being boring and repetitive, and you're just using a conventional opening scene and you get dinged?
Is that fair????
1) No. It's not fair. Neither is life. How old did you say you were?
2) (Big name author) did it right. You did it wrong. Maybe the editor says your use of all that Regency detail is didactic and dull, and you point out that (insert best-selling Regency author, if you can find one :) had all that info about tin mining in Cornwall in (book title), and all the reviews said that the detail made the world of the book come to life. So how come she got away with it, huh? Well, maybe she deftly inserted the detail through character-- hero is a mine owner, heroine's father died in a mine collapse, while you relied on page-long info dumps of research material, barely changing the Wikipedia wording. Doing something at all is not the same thing as doing it well.
3) She did it better than you did, or differently, and you're remembering the general (italicized prologue) and not the specific (villain's POV). Maybe that italicized opening worked for Big Name. Maybe she did amazing things with it. Maybe this villain's perspective is really fascinating, so fascinating that the editor agreed to leave in the italics, which would draw attention to the villain's careful controlled raving... but yours was not so good, and all the italics did was hurt the reader's eyes.
4) You're right-- you do it just as well or better. But the publisher has never made a dime off you, and he's made a lot of money from Big Name, and is willing to cut BN some slack, or rather, has to do that or BN will go elsewhere.
5) You're right-- BN's plots are totally redundant and it's embarrassing. (I agree, and say everytime that this is the LAST BN book I'll ever read!) But you know, BN has this readership that will read everything he writes. It's a guaranteed 75K sale-- in hardcover. Your story, on the other hand, might be done better, but "better" isn't actually what BN's readers are looking for. They like the comfort and familiarity of the themes and treatment.
6) Yep, redundant. But BN's agent had lunch last week with Matt Damon's agent, and Matt was stuck in the Boston airport and had nothing to read but the 10th in that series, which his agent had stuck in his carry-on, and he hadn't read the other nine in the series so wasn't struck as we are by the repetitiveness, and guess what-- by the time the flight arrived at LAX, he called and optioned the film rights. Does your agent lunch with Matt Damon's agent? No? Too bad, so sad.
7) You're right-- yours is better done. But that author was sitting next to the Managing Editor at a banquet and it turns out they both love dogs, and both had lost their pets recently, and they held hands and cried together about Fuzzy and Rover, and Author told Managing Editor about this great project where you can adopt a retired racing greyhound (who would otherwise be euthanized), and the brindled former champ "Diddy" came to live with Managing Editor, and Diddy is so loving, so great with the grandkids, and Managing Editor wants to bring Author as much happiness as Diddy has brought the family.... There might be a lot more involved here than you know, or could possibly replicate.
8) This agent has one, count 'em, one author who writes needlepoint mysteries, and she's not about to take on a competitor. Her loyalty goes to her current client, not a submitter, especially a better one.
9) Yes, back in the past, what you and BN author did with sentence fragments was just fine, great, in fact, post-modern and all that. And we all used to think leg-warmers were sexy. Jennifer Beals still looks pretty good in leg-warmers, and besides, Flashdance was so cool. Back then.
10) True, Editor doesn't like this thing you did that BN did too. Editor can't tell you this, but he went to the mat arguing with BN about this, and BN brought in her agent-- you know, the one who is BFF with Matt Damon's agent-- and there were veiled threats made, and Editor's company just laid off three editors, and this really wasn't a good time to alienate Big Name Author and Big Name Agent, so Editor backed down, and has thought ever since that he was a big coward, that he should have made a stand on that issue, and he's vowed never to let that Whatever into another book. Even if it means that he rejects the next Harry Potter.
11) You argue with Editor about this Whatever, and she was thinking of working with you, and now she thinks about what it be like, working with you when you argue like this, and life's too short.
12) You use those words, "But you let someone else get away with it," and it sounds real juvenile, and this isn't a children's literature publisher.
You know the bottom line here? What counts is not whether Cormac McCarthy "got away with it." What counts is whether the story works for the reader. And if you're submitting to an editor, any single element can make that story not work. Maybe it worked for Cormac, maybe it didn't. But whether it worked or not for him, the fact that he did it doesn't make yours right.
First go back to your story. Imagine you're the reader. Does this thing, whatever it is, contribute to the reader's experience-- in a way that the reader will appreciate? (I say this as someone who thinks that a reader will really be a lot better off for having read my mini-history of how West Virginia seceded from Virginia-- really! It's part of American history! You have a problem with learning more about history?) And maybe you're right-- the reader will LOVE it. But the reader will never see it if--
Well, you know the end of that sentence.
I remember Laura Kinsale (who does amazingly dangerous things in her plots and prose and "gets away with it" because she's BRILLIANT) wrote an article about "when you get the call" (from the editor), and she kept repeating, "How badly do you want to sell this book?" Well, how badly DO you want to sell this book? Badly enough that you'll change that prologue from italics to Roman font? Badly enough that you'll ditch the whole prologue? Yes? Well, it's time then to humbly thank the editor and go off and make the changes and resubmit and hope that is the ONLY problem she had. Your story is more than that one thing, or it better be. It might even be lesser without that-- but maybe it'll be better, and anyway, maybe it'll be more saleable.
But what if you don't want to sell it that badly? What if the issue isn't just the font, but something so integral to your vision that you simply can't change it? Well, okay, just don't go all sulky and pre-teen and pout about how someone else "got away with it." You really can write something brilliant that isn't going to sell to this publisher. Or maybe any publisher (now). Maybe it's really, really good. Maybe this thing you're doing (the thing Susan Howatch got away with :) isn't wrong, is terrific, but is just too experimental or innovative for traditional publishing... now what?
Well, know yourself. Know your work. Don't idealize here. It's time to evaluate as objectively as you can whether the story is as good as you think. (Put it away for a bit first.) If it is-- if you have your own certainty AND some objective evidence, like contest wins or editorial regret ("This was a very hard decision for me...") or an agent's support-- then start thinking about your options. (First, love yourself for having written something wonderful.) Traditional publishing is not the only option. (And even if it is, you have options-- waiting a couple years and resubmitting, getting another agent, submitting to hardcover houses rather than softcover or to smaller regional presses....) You can self-publish. You can go with a non-trad press. You can break new ground and try some interesting web-publication (a scene a week in a blog? Hey, why not?). You have a lot more options now than ever before. Don't sell yourself and your story short, so pay close attention to your rights and the reversions thereof. The traditional publishers might actually be MORE interested if you sold 10K copies in e-format, or if your "Twitter-novel" has a thousand followers. You need to have accessible print rights to take advantage of such an opportunity.
Keep looking for options. Recently an author sold an English-language novel to a Spanish publisher (it was translated and published there). Some novels have been turned into screenplays and sold that way (of course, you lose the italics then :).
Just don't whine. No "but so-and-so got away with it!" That sort of attitude doesn't just alienate editors and agents. It gets in the way of your understanding of your own story, because that attitude is All About You, and the story better be About More than You. This is about connecting the story and the reader together. If Whatever Thing works to help that, good. But it doesn't work because someone else got away with it. You have to pull away from the personalizing of this situation, thinking of the editor or agent as a parent and other authors as siblings or even rivals. Go back to your story. This isn't about you, and it's not about what you can "get away with."
I don't think it's delusional for you to think that a book can be wonderful and still widely rejected-- been there, endured that :)-- but I do think it's unproductive to think about this in terms of "getting away with something." If your story is really good, see if it's measurably harmed by losing whatever is identified as a problem. And if it is, then you have decisions to make... fortunately, you also have options. You have many options. But you can't reach those options or make good decisions unless you can be objective and thoughtful and analytical about your story.