Sunday, January 08, 2006

More Intimidation

Meanwhile on the World Wide Web...

A site was hosting a discussion concerning my blog entry from a few days ago, about the writing contest I'm judging. The comments basically said I was being too harsh, dismissing stories for typos or incorrect formatting or too many exclamation points, because if I looked past those, the story might have actually been good.

I agree. It might have been good. Even very good.

But "very good" doesn't win contests, and doesn't get published.

"Great" gets published. "Wonderful" gets published. "Mind Blowing" gets published.

I wasn't being paid to judge each story on its own merits, or to offer detailed critiques on how to make it better.

I was being paid to find winners.

It comes down to the writing. All of the points I'd mentioned were indicators that warned me the writing wouldn't be wonderful. And the indicators were always right.

Consider the agent, going through 300 manuscripts in the slush pile that have accumulated over the last month.

She's not looking to help writers. She's panning for gold. And to do that, you have to sift through dirt.

It might be some very good dirt she's dismissing. But it is still dirt.

Be the gold.

The best way to get published, or to win a contest, is to shine. Don't be mistaken for dirt. Don't do anything that lets them reject you---because they're looking to reject you unless you can show them you're brilliant.

Here's an interesting fact. After slogging through the first thousand stories, I got irritated at several writers. Not at the inept ones--as I said, I could quickly decide if something was no longer worth reading. But I became angry at the ones that held my interest and made me finish them, even though they weren't winners.

Sometimes I knew the story wasn't good enough, but something about the piece made me read it to the end anyway.

Consider that for a moment. I know I need to pick a handful of winners out of a few thousand. I get paid the same amount, no matter how long it takes me. Logic says as soon as I can safely say, "This won't win," I should put the story aside.

But in a few dozen cases, I had to keep reading, just to see where the writer went with it. Even though I knew it wasn't going to win.

I'm sure it is the same with agents and editors. I'm sure they get sumbissions all the time that they know aren't right for them, but they finish reading them anyway.

That's tragedy. That's shooting the game-winning point at the buzzer and missing.

You need to be better than that.

I preach all the time about determination, and hard work, and luck.

And I'm right about all of that. But you still have to write a kick-ass story.

"Very good" stories are read by a few people. "Excellent" stories are published, and read by thousands.


Anonymous said...

A very important point here, and either people will learn it from trying or they won't learn it at all.

James Woods directed a film a few years ago and got Melanie Griffith to act in it and in an interview he was asked why and he said she was good and she fit the part and "she has whatever that 'ooomph' it is that makes somebody a star."

In writing, we all need that 'ooomph.' There's very little "good enough" in the arts. It's like being in school and doing "good enough" to get a B+ or even an A-, and saying that's "good enough." But in the world of getting your writing published and then noticed, you need to add that something else. You have to not just work on perfection in mechanics--spelling and grammar--but shine everything to a high gloss.

It's a mistake to think editors and/or agents will "fix" the spelling or grammar or other mechanical issues if the story is good enough (whatever the hell that is). They're busy and the industry has shifted toward editors largely acting as "acquisition agents" and their jobs as "shepherding" the manuscript to publication, more than shaping the work and editing the content. That isn't to say they don't edit and shape, but it's not their primary job.

Momma didn't teach you that "neatness counts?" It does. Get the spelling and grammar right and all the other mechanics of writing. Here's something I think editors and agents believe to be true--spelling and grammar is Writing 101. You're not going to get published until you graduate from Writing 401. If you're screwing up Writing 101, you're not ready.

Mark Terry

Brett Battles said...

Absolutely right. You want the editor or agent or judge in a short story contest to become absorbed with your story. Surprisingly, that's what they want, too. But if the formatting is wrong, or it's loaded with misspellings or grammatical errors that's just going to take the reader right out of the story. And if the reader is an editor, agent or contest judge, they’ve got a pile a mile high of other material waiting to be read, and they are going to move right on to the next thing. As writers, we have to take advantage of every chance we come across. That means always putting our best foot forward. Mark Terry is right…Writing 101.

Joe, when it comes to those stories you read to the end even though you know they won’t win…I can understand your frustration. My hope is that those are writers early on the road (maybe Writing 201.) I remember writing some pretty bad stuff years ago that, at the time, I though “kicked-ass.” I was wrong. In some cases very wrong. Let’s hope those authors continue to grow. At least they showed enough to keep you going. It was just unfortunate for you, you still had a stack a thousand stories deep to go through!

Jean said...

A most important point, and I'm surprised more people don't get it. (I know I shouldn't be, but I am.)

Mindy Tarquini said...


They can talk about you all they want, insist you weren't being fair, weren't giving everybody a fair shake, that you might even have been (*gasp*) MEAN about that contest judging.

Meet the future generation of people moaning and groaning about how the publishing world is a closed club and how you have to know somebody to get in.

Maybe you do. You still have to write a really good story. Or maybe a better than 'really good' story.

And they can all go to POD, or back to whatever it is they really do for a living and leave the field less competitive for the rest of us.

You keep on doing what you're doing. There's a reason so many of us read your blog.

Jim said...

Joe: It seems to me that judging a contest (as you did) and reviewing a MS as an agent or editor, are very different tasks. Agents and editors have the opportunity to remove the dirt from the gold. Still, I agree that the more dirt there is covering the gold, the less likely the gold will be found.

JA Konrath said...

You could sell your 1962 Corvette with the blown engine, and might find a buyer who likes to fix cars.

Or you can fix the car yourself, and have unlimited buyers.

Jean said...

What I heard Joe saying was that agents and editors reviewing manuscripts are, in essence, judging a contest. They have a finite number of book slots to fill, and their "winning" submissions are competing for those slots along with the "winners" of all the other house editors. If we want to compete for that slot, we need to be ready to go.

Brett Battles said...

Jean, that's what I heard, too.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I went to a panel last year with agents and publishers talking about "how to get published". This was in the UK, with some big names on there, from Orion and Curtis Brown, to name but a few.

And they said if there are typos in a cover letter they toss it. They don't even read it. What they said was, "It shows me you don't take your writing seriously."

It's our job. And as someone who deals with magazine stuff, I know from first-hand experience how bloody annoying it is to say to someone, "We like the story, we want it, but you need to fix your grammar" only to have them say back, "Do I really have to edit it?"

That really pissed me off.

Diana Cacy said...

Speaking as a small time editor, this is sadly true. Take the time to make sure your pieces are as perfect as they can be, or they may not get accepted.

Due to time constraints and a high volume of submissions, we've had to pass on some very good stories for our publication.

And as a writer, I expect to be treated the same way. I choose to enlist the aid of three other friends in finding the errors before I send something out.

After being an editor myself, I appreciate the need for it.

Rob Gregory Browne said...

I have only one thing to say: I hate exclamation points!

Author-Gerald said...

Sandra - I've heard the "yeah, but the editor will fix the mechanics if the story's good enough." I even got tossed out of a writers' forum because I was arguing against this. Some writers live in a vacuum, and ignore everything that is told them, because they think their writing is wonderful.

Joe - don't get dispirited over the few who chose to ignore wise words of advice. There's plenty of us listening, and taking notes.

Anonymous said...

A question without any ulterior meaning...

Why do you think there are so many lousy books being published these days by legit houses?

I think I read that more books were published in 2004 than in any previous year. But sales are dropping at a regular rate. My professional book reviewer friends constantly tell me that they read many more bad books than they do good.

Couldn't things helped by the publishers being a little more "choosy" when it comes to product?

JA Konrath said...

"Why do you think there are so many lousy books being published these days by legit houses?"

Because the books sell, or the houses believe they will sell.

Once an author becomes a brand name, they'll be on the NYT List forever. Even if their last several books have been awful.

If a book is poorly written, but has a great hook, it has a much better chance of selling than a well written book with no hook at all.

This is a business. Books are a product. The sizzle sells the steak.

Clay said...

I come at this topic from a little different approach. For about two years, I was the senior editor at a national automotive magazine. Senior editor was a fancy title for "the guy who handles all the freelancers."

It quickly came down to professionalism for me as I read some 200 query letters a week as well as giving a first read to all freelanced articles (and 80% of the magazine was freelanced).

To me professionalism translated to good spelling and grammar, a demonstrated knowledge of the magazine, following the commonly accepted guidelines for queries and manuscripts, and not calling me twice a day.

Persistence is important in this business. I remember one writer who sent me query after query. I'd reject one and he'd immediately send another. All were well written, very professionally done -- he was just barely missing the mark. Finally, after about a dozen rejections, I sent an assignment for a different story back with the rejection slip (his query was similar to a story we already had in the works). Seven years later, when I look at that magazine at the store, I still see his name in there.

Talent is oh so important. You have to be able to tell an entertaining story. But you also must be professional. I have little doubt that I passed on writers far more talented than the ones we hired because they hand wrote their queries, sent them in on perfumed pink paper, or violated any number of rules of professionalism.

Jude Hardin said...

My advice to aspiring writers: Find a story you love, and then spend as much time as it takes to write the hell out of it. Don't chase your tail by trying to follow market trends. It might get you published, but you (and your readers) will never be happy with anything less than the truth. Write the book only you can write. Write what you love, love what you write. The end product will be something you're proud of, not just a sales ranking. If your only goal is to make money, go sell vitamins or something. A book, a work of art, should come from the soul. Be professional in your craft, but never sell out. Write what's inside YOU, not what the market dictates. You might fall on your ass, or you might become the next Stephen King. Regardless, you can say you did it your way.

Anonymous said...

Another reason to polish, polish, polish. I needed an extension on a VERY tight deadline I have - my first one with a new NY publisher. I was given it because what they've seen of my work has been so clean that it's required very little in the way of revisions or editing.

Unknown said...

Hey J.A...

Just wondering what you think of the whole James Frey story on The Smoking Gun (found it through Miss Snark's Blog).

Off-topic, I know, but I'm interested to hear your thinking on it.

JA Konrath said...

I have been following the James Frey story, and my reaction is: who cares?

The guy made up some stuff and sold it as autobiographical non-fiction? So what? There are many things more important in life than a bestselling author telling lies.

Jaye Wells said...

"Be the gold." Wonderful advice as usual. What a shame it would be to have something I worked on for months get tossed in the trash because I was too lazy to do a basic google search on correct ms format. Or do spellcheck. What did writers do before the internet and word processing? My sneaking suspicion is they learned this stuff before they started writing.


Jude Hardin said...

"I have been following the James Frey story, and my reaction is: who cares?"

Not me, Joe. I don't read memoirs. I don't give a rat's ass about someone else's personal history.

But, I would suppose that people who DO read memoirs would care. Frey's book lowers the memoir category to the level of National Enquirer-type nonfiction, and sets a precedent for every forthcoming memoir to be looked at under a magnifying glass.

In effect, he has rendered the memoir, a complete category of nonfiction, defunct.

Publishers, even his, should care.

Agents, even his, should care.

Readers, who assume a memoir published by a reputable house is a true account of actual events, should care. Why would those readers want to buy the next memoir?

Most importantly, the authors working on genuine memoirs should care, because their work, however truthful, will now be viewed by a new cynical public eye.

If someone wrote a mystery-thriller that would somehow make all future mystery-thrillers seem like a waste of time, would you care, Joe?

I know I would.

JA Konrath said...

Truth and integrity are wonderful things.

So is selling 1.5 million books.

Memoirs are read for the same reason novels are read: for entertainment.

So the narrative non-fiction book you just read about the drug crazed criminal had some lies in it? Shocking! You must be devestated. Lemme give you a hug.

I bet his publisher is really upset that they made all that money. Maybe next time they check the facts. But I wouldn't hold my breath.

P.S. There's no Santa Claus either.

Jude Hardin said...

Ah. So we have a moral dilemma here: Truth and integrity vs. sales.

Which is more important in the long run?

Do you want to be an artist, or hawk snake oil?

People eventually wise-up to con games.

True Art is eternal.

The choice is yours, Grasshopper.

PS from Santa: Get a clue.

PS from Jude: Yeah, I could really use a hug.

JA Konrath said...

You can't take integrity to the bank, cash it, and buy 40 houses.

As I've said before, if you want to be an artist, write poetry in a journal. If you want to be published, treat it like a business.

That means doing things you don't want to, like changing your work according to editor suggestion to make things more marketable, learning how to sell your product when all you really want to do is create it, developing a platform that turns you into something you may not actually be.

It means compromising your integrity.

It's all shades of gray. Everyone has a different lines that they won't cross, and that they will.

I'd rather be rich and hated than die poor and be recognized as a genius 20 years after my death.

And I'd rather sell 1.5 million books and be known as a liar than sell 2000 books and be known as a saint.

I'm sure Frey is sleeping fine at night.

Jaye Wells said...

Actually, The Smoking Gun article about Frey claims he tried to sell this book as fiction originally. But his publisher bought it as memoir and supposedly had him take out the false parts....riiiight. I'd like to say I'd turn down a $50,000 advance if a publisher said they wanted me to publish my paranormal romance as memoir. But I think I'd probably go out and buy a pair of fangs instead. (I jest...kind of)

I think the point is millions have read this book and gotten something out of it. Do his exaggerations nullify what they got out of it? Has anyone ever read David Sedaris and believed everything he wrote was 100% accurate and free of exaggeration? Or is this backlash due to the fact that Frey is making mad cash off this book?

I detest liars in real life, but perhaps Frey has discovered a new genre: Mockemoir?

Jude Hardin said...

So James Frey made a ton of dough on a book. Great. I have no problem with that. I hope he enjoys every steenking penny.

I guess one could argue that, like prostitution, his was a victimless crime.

But who in their right mind is going to shell out $25 for a memoir now? If readers do keep buying then, by golly, let's all jump on the bandwagon. I think I'll write about that trip to the moon I took in my secretly-built rocket ship back in 1975 (okay, so I smoked a lot of weed back then and maybe I'm a little mixed up on my facts).

Perhaps Frey actually did those of us who write fiction a favor: Since the publishing industry doesn't police itself and verify facts in books that are labeled nonfiction, maybe more readers will turn back to novels for entertainment. Since it's all bullshit anyway, might as well read the best liars in the biz--us, the novelists.

Jaye Wells said...

"But who in their right mind is going to shell out $25 for a memoir now?"

Honestly, this will probably boost his sales. I understand some of your frustration, Jude. But I guess I always go back to the basics: "Don't believe everything you read."

Also what is the difference between autobiography and memoir? According to Merriam-Webster:
Memoir: a narrative composed from personal experience
Autobiography: written history of a person's life

Perhaps Frey could have taken a cue from the movie industry and put the disclaimer: Inspired by actual events.

JA Konrath said...

"I think I'll write about that trip to the moon I took in my secretly-built rocket ship back in 1975"

I think there's a movie like that coming out this summer. Something about a private spacecraft. Or am I having deja-vu?

Jude Hardin said...

I haven't heard about a movie like that, Joe, but I wouldn't doubt it. All my good story ideas are stolen by the mind-reading aliens that I met on my trip. I was working on something called THE MICHAELANGELO CODE when...well, you know.

That's it. I'm never taking the aluminum foil off my head again.

PJ Parrish said...


This should be etched on all beginning writers' foreheads in blood. Okay, a little drastic but I am crabby today because I am also in the role of acquisitions editor lately.

Kelly and I are conducting, for the second year, a hands-on intensive manuscript workshop at Sleuthfest. Folks have to submit a first-chapter sample to get in. We were specific to the point of anality (is that a word?) about format. Could not believe what I am seeing:

1. No names on each page. What? I'm supposed to go back and FIND the author's name?
2. No numbers on the friggin pages. Shall I tell you about the manuscript I dropped by mistake?
3. All Italics. Try reading THAT for 50 pages!
4. Pages with two paragraphs per. Writing is a visual thing! ARGH!
5. No dialog! Boooorrring.

But that said, most of the samples came in looking pretty darn professional.

Like you, I can see the other side, what editors and agents endure. And it ain't pretty. First lesson any writer needs to know: How to properly format a MS.

Happy new year!

JA Konrath said...

Listen to the PJs. They know of what they speak.

Jude Hardin said...

It amazes me that people still submit improperly formatted manuscripts, with all the information readily available on the subject.

Thanks to Kelly and Kristy for reading my chapter and all the others. See you guys at the workshop.

Anonymous said...

I am reading the compilation of your blogs now and, while I am learning a lot, I am also very disappointed that you didn't take enough time to edit out all the typos. So far I have seen close to a hundred of them.