Tuesday, February 21, 2006

How not to get your novel published, part one...

In the interests of upping the “practical advice” quotient of this blog, I have decided to inaugurate a series of posts geared towards helping the aspiring author. These are my people, after all, the striving creative types, and too often they suffer needlessly. They’re baffled by the publishing world’s caprices and–in their ignorance–they make all sorts of little blunders. These blunders then provoke rejection letters, which in turn inspire frustration, self-doubt, and–ultimately– discouragement. For a truly talented writer, this doesn’t need to happen.

As a low-level publishing functionary, I know all too well what I’m talking about. Too often writers think that they can just shove their toiled-over opus in a box, shoot it off to some agent or editor, and then reap the rewards their genius is due. You all need to disabuse yourself of this notion, because it will kill your dreams. Talent is the main thing, of course, but it’s unfortunately far from being the only thing. You can be the next Thomas Pynchon or Flannery O’Connor or Alice Walker but–unless your extraordinarily lucky or extremely well-connected–you’re still going to have to jump through many, many hoops. I want to help you do that without tripping too badly.

First off, it’s important that you recognize the main rule: the industry is set up to make sure that never-before-published authors stay that way. Trust me, it is a million times easier to reject a new writer than it is to encourage one. This is a very risk-averse field. To some, firing off a million “best of luck” letters is far preferable to the peril an unproven author represents. They can jeopardize career momentum and set the editor, agent, or publishing house up for ridicule, after all. Better to avoid them altogether. Exacerbating this mindset is the sheer number of manuscripts making the rounds at any given time. Your brave and unique vision is just a drop in the torrent that washes up into their mailboxes every morning. You can’t assume that your brilliance will be recognized by those (like me) employed to wade through it. You can’t assume that you’ll merit much more than a sullen glance, really. You’ve got quite a challenge ahead of you: you must stand out without screwing up.

One of the simplest, and most common, ways to screw up is to boast in your introduction letter. I can’t tell you how many manuscripts I’ve seen which the author has seen fit to preface with claims such as “you’re going to be blown away!” or “this is far better than that dreck in Barnes & Nobel” or “I’ve invented my own style–which I call Neo-Retro-Whateverism”. I don’t think I’ve liked a single one of these and I won’t pretend I wasn’t predisposed against them from the start. My reaction–and I’m sure this is the majority one–isn’t to think “Oh, wow! What a self-assured enfant terrible! I can’t wait to experience their powerful new voice!”. No, what I think is, “This person is full of shit”. You don’t want the person evaluating your book to think you’re full of shit. Try a variant of “Here is my novel. I hope you like it.” instead. Even if you’re not a naturally humble person, this approach comes off far better.

So, today’s lesson: be self-effacing and polite. Let your novel’s qualities speak for themselves. Don’t issue challenges or pronouncements to the publishing flunkies who will be reviewing it. Take my word for it: they’re an easily alienated bunch, often with their own raging artistic egos to defend. Come off badly with them and they’ll be tempted to take you down a notch.

That might not be fair, but it’s the way it is. Sorry about that.