Wednesday, April 28, 2010

To Thomas: Well, as luck has it... LUCK has it!

Thomas points to some not-so-well-written bestsellers and says (not sure if he's saying we're steering everyone wrong by talking about how to write good sentences and good scenes ):
So, should I concentrate on passive structure, ignore POV pad my work with uninteresting facts and narrate the whole story, while disregarding my characters, or should I try sky-diving without the parachute?

Thomas, first, I'm not one who thinks a good book will always get a good sale. (I can't think that, or I have to face some terrible facts about my own unsold novel. ) Bad things happen. Van Gogh didn't sell a painting till he died, etc. (Okay, yeah, he sold one painting.) I'm not suggesting that writers die (actually, agents and editors are kind of reluctant to go with work by a dead person, I found out when making queries for a friend who ended up literary executor for a dead writer), but I am suggesting that the market is fickle, publishers don't always fully value quality, etc.

While we'd be happy if everyone who read this blog wrote to us happy news ("I did what you suggested and took out that inaccurate use of the word 'ironically', and that was the trick! The next time I submitted, I got a million dollar offer! And I'm so grateful, I'm going to send you guys 10%, and also I'm going to dedicate the book to you!!!! And tell you what! I'm also flying all those helpful commenters to Fiji for a writer's retreat!"), I hope that's not actually why anyone reads this blog (to learn selling tricks). We just write about what interests us, which might or might not help someone while writing a book that eventually sells. I do think that we try to help writers write better and get more conscious about how to create good sentences. And if you get out of our blog posts even one little suggestion that you apply and it makes your book better (if not more sellable), I'm happy, and you should be too. :)

But yes, I know all too well that gnawing frustration at reading a bestseller and knowing that it fails that "good book" test, and yet it's a bestseller! I know. I know. Sigh. What can I say. Life isn't fair. Publishing particularly isn't fair.

Truth is, though, anyone who tells you that he/she can insure a bestseller is:
A) already a bestseller with a great contract,
B) scamming you,
C) has great blackmail material on someone at Random House.

So what can we do? Get drunk. That might help. :)

Okay, okay. Practically speaking. Well, first, I'd say, instead of focusing on what bestselling authors do not-so-good, focus on what they do well. They're doing something well enough to attract an agent who can make a big sale, right? They're doing something right enough that some editor has put his/her reputation on the line at the publisher to push it,right?

So what is that? What is so good about this book that it overcomes the passive voice, the headhopping, the whatever?

You tell me. Don't tell me "nothing," because I don't believe it.

Now consider whatever "that" is, and it's probably either "a great premise," or "a fast pace," or "great storytelling," and think about how that's accomplished.

Then try to achieve "that" in your own book, ALONG with active voice, deep characterization, effective POV, and the rest.

Does this insure you a bestseller? Nah. I forgot. There's another ingredient, called "luck," and that, alas, you can't control. But if you concentrate on writing the best book you can, then if/when the luck lightning strikes, you'll be positioned to take advantage of it.

You have control of this much:
Your story
Your expression of it
Your scenes
Your pacing
Your willingness to do the work of finishing the book (this is my downfall!)
Your learning when and where to submit the book
Your pleasant interactions with people who can make decisions in the industry
Your persistence

You don't have a whole lot of control over your innate talent, though you can of course maximize that.

And you have virtually no control over:
The market
The economy
The publisher's immediate situation

And you have no control at all over:

Do your best at what you can control. You will, of course, do better at some things that others, so really highlight those, especially in your submission package (that is, if you have a great premise, work very hard on your pitch/query, and go after agents who have sold other "great-premise" books). Work on improving what you're not so good at. You never know what will most impress a particular agent or editor, so why take a chance on having that less than great?

Many bestsellers are bestsellers partly because of the author's persistence, btw, and often the "huh?" ones are the ones who have been publishing steadily for years, gathering new readers with each, and eventually get enough sales for the publisher to start pushing them, and sometimes that's not with the best book they've produced, just the one that they turn in (on deadline!) when the publisher finally takes note of them and decides to give them a lead slot and a publicity budget.

Can you improve your luck? Well, I don't think so, and in my experience, there's all this karmic activity going on that ensures if you TRY to be lucky, it'll ricochet and your great agent will be fired in some terribly scandalous and very public way just after taking you on, and anyone associated with said agent will immediately become tainted forever. (Sorry. I just think it's dangerous to fool with luck! And I once did have a minor stroke of good luck, getting taken on by a young agent at a very hot agency, and I thought my future was assured, and then she got fired in what sounded like a fairly ugly situation, and I think every single one of her authors was cast out of the agency as into the desert. I am not saying that my having good luck once caused that much misery, but you have to wonder. :)

Can you improve the market? Well, JK Rowling did. She saved print publishing, or at least postponed its demise for a decade, but I don't think that's likely to happen again.

So, what the heck. You can do one thing: Improve your book, make it great.
And send it out, and write another great book, and send that out, and work on meeting agents and editors, and work on the query letters, and cross your fingers and toes.

Beyond that, I don't have any advice about selling a book. Our thoughts are mostly on writing a book. :)

Luck. Really. If you got that, you got it all. Then again, it might be easier just to buy a lottery ticket!



Anonymous said...

It's discouraging when you read the first of a highly successful series and find they didn't bother to correct the typos through all those different editions. Found the name Francis or Frances (same character) on three pages running. Gate instead of gait. Many, many other typos. The book was first pubbed in 2007 for Buddha's sake! Fix the stuff before you put out the 2010 Kindle edition!

It's enough to drive a querying writer insane.

I think I'll go Anon with my peeved comments.

Jami Gold said...

Alicia said: it might be easier just to buy a lottery ticket!

I guarantee it's much easier to buy a lottery ticket. It's making sure it's a winning number that's the hard part. *big grin*

Jami G. :)

Edittorrent said...

Anon, yes, it's amazing to me that the bestsellers don't always get great editing and proofing. You'd think their books would be presented perfectly.


Edittorrent said...

Jami, yeah, that "winning" part always eludes me. :)

green_knight said...

What is so good about this book that it overcomes the passive voice, the headhopping, the whatever?

That question (which I heard from a friend many years ago as 'ask not what they do wrong, ask what they do right') has changed my attitude towards published works fundamentally. They must do something right to be bought by a) editors, b) booksellers, and c) the public. They must give readers something those readers want - and I bet that almost 100% of people who say 'my book is just as good'are wrong: They might have the same (or fewer) flaws, but that does not guarantee that they're _as good_ in the sense of giving readers what those readers want.

As a writer, you can attempt to be good enough - write well enough, send out hundreds of queries, hope to find the person who likes it despite its weaknesses. Many people get published this way. Or you can attempt to write _well_ in which case four out of ten agents will offer representation and editors will jump up and down at auctions. (Not me, alas, but someone I know.)

I know which route I'm trying to take.

Edittorrent said...

GK, also notice that "four out of ten agents"-- you're not going to stop at the first rejection and decide to give it up. When I think of the bestselling authors I know, they share one attribute. Tney don't give up, despite rejections and disinterest. I know I'd crumble (I have!) long before that.

green_knight said...

Alicia, when to push on and when to regroup is a difficult decision. Writers are educated to be paranoid: don't be pushy! market yourself and build a platform! tell agents it's the best thing since sliced bread! keep accepting you're not a genius!

As for the persistency, I really believe that if a hundred industry professionals tell you your book isn't there yet, it's time to listen. You probably should have listened to #50, because while there are a lot of factors, an astonishing number of people can agree on the quality of a book. (It might still be not for them, or not right for the market, or they are just publishing something similar and don't need another...)

Not being persistent is bad since you need to get past all the random hurdles of 'would have bought mss on another day and under other circumstances,' but sometimes you need to try smarter, not harder.

And thus we write the next book, and seek more assistance in overcoming our weaknesses.

Leona said...

Thank you so much for this post. I recently read a short in an anthology for Harlequin that was less than stellar, and in fact, I have sent in better. I'm not bragging or doing the usual, mine's better than that one, etc. I have seen that each one has strengths, weakness, etc.

The difference is this author is well established and I think is getting away with stuff. I am reading a lot to find out what to do to make my love scenes work. They've become stilted and boring, and if I'm bored...

What I've found instead is that my scenes are better than a lot and as good as some. I sincerely wish that I hadn't deleted them before going on a binge of reading of sex scenes. They were not only workable, but fine. I was being too critical of my own work.

Thanks for the reminder that some things are luck. It is easy to get discouraged by negative responses.

Edittorrent said...

Also though that established authors aren't good guides for what new authors need to do. I mean, if you have no track record, no fans, no readership base, the publisher does need more than might be required of an already established writer. Is it fair? I don't really care-- it's reality. NEVER settle for "good enough" in a submission, especially to a publisher or agent new to you. It will seldom actually be good enough, and really, anyway, we should have enough pride to want to always achieve our best (even once we're established :).

We have control only of our quality and our persistence. Never give up on either.

Jami Gold said...

Alicia said: we should have enough pride to want to always achieve our best (even once we're established :)

Here, here! Of course, we all know I'm the over-achieving perfectionist around here. LOL!

I think I'll consider myself really successful when my editor says I don't need editing. And you know what my response will be? I don't believe you, look harder. There's got to be something that can be improved. :)

Jami G.

Dave Shaw said...

Uh, Perfectionist Jami? That should be 'Hear, hear!'.

With love,
Nit Picky Dave

Jami Gold said...


Doh! LOL! You caught me... :) You get the gold star for the day.

Jami G.

Thomas Sharkey said...

Dear Alicia, thank you for your consideration.
Your words are worth the paper they are printed on (that is a compliment).
No, of course you aren’t misinforming us, well not me. My bitch is about “best seller authors” who have let their work slide, and are relying on their “worshippers” to keep their bank account in the black.
Jami G. put me right. (thanks again Jami) So I will carry on learning as much as I can, though I am a little confused at your nomenclature. (Premise)**
Luck, Kismet, ‘Schicksal’, Murphy’s Law, being (born) at the right place at the right time, may have something to do with it, or maybe who you slept with last night, or/and woke up with this morning.

Yes, I play the Lotto, one day I may be...

The reason I write is that I love writing. I (don’t laugh) read my own stories, I wrote them for myself and my family, they aren’t brilliant, but they aren’t rubbish either. I have written over two dozen of them and I wouldn’t mind having one of them published. I have a constant battle with punctuation and I do realize the importance of it.
I am more concerned with writing than publishing, I feel that I will find the right agent one day and maybe he will get lucky and make some cash, after connecting with the right publisher, and then I can get back to cycling.

I think my problem is not knowing how to sell myself. The synopsis, the query/cover letter, the ‘premise’ (what is that?)
1. A proposition upon which an argument is based or from which a conclusion is drawn.

Well, that’s as clear as crystal, so what is a premise, any examples, anyone?

As for this “Best-seller book”, I bought it to see how the character was presented, I didn’t buy it for advice or help on how to write, I get enough feedback from you lot, and you do it very well - just don’t stop.

So I wouldn’t be interested in what best seller authors do well, in fact, I wouldn’t know what it was they are doing well (I suffer from a form of dyslexia) only what they are doing badly.

I will be ordering “Stones Fall” this month though, on Theresa’s “recommendation”.
So, is there a book you would like to recommend?
I write mainly crime (I know how to commit the perfect m…). I also write sci-fi, and I mix the two.

Your words mean a lot to me, thank you, Alecia, you have made my…


Anonymous said...

Oh, fine. I'll just concentrate on making my novel be the best it can be. Probably while getting drunk. Hey, if it worked for Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald, it can work for me, right?