Incongruity in Publishing

I’ve been doing a lot more reading lately than I have in months past, just for the pure joy of reading.

A while back I gave up on the idea of reading computer programming books and took the family to our local Borders and spent a C-note on reading books.  Money mostly well spent.  A few hiccups, but nothing I can’t live with.  LOML liked her haul too … mostly.

Why mostly?

Well, there are a few reasons for that.

For one thing, there’s a disconnect between what we see in bookstores and what those trying to get onto bookshelves are told.  I thought, at first, it was me and my incredible, raging arrogance that all the books I looked at seemed to be … well, lousy.  I poked around the tiny section called “horror” and picked up a classic collection of H. P. Lovecraft’s, found Stephen King’s On Writing and grabbed a copy of Self-Editing and Revising by Jason Scott Key.  Oh, and re-acquired the ol’ standby, The Elements of Style by Messrs. Strunk and White.

I grabbed one other book for pleasure.  My love picked up a Jodi Picoult, an Amy Tan and some unheard-of author – at least for us.  She seemed pretty happy with her haul, too … until we started reading.

We noticed something.  New, aspiring or wannabe authors are told time again to strengthen their prose.  Cut adverbs, use stronger verbs and nouns, limit adjectives, omit needless words (Rule 17 in Strunk and White, by the way).  Keep it clean, make sure it moves the story forward.  If you have a prologue that doesn’t separate from your main story by either time, distance or both, rename it “Chapter One” and go from there.  Write a story that hooks from the very outset, and then use every technique known to man to keep the reader interested and entertained, tense, horrified, intrigued, mystified, whatever.

And that’s fine – it’s all good advice and makes for better writers.  Right?


8 thoughts on “Incongruity in Publishing

  1. Bad books, and badly written books get published for some reason or the other.

    But a wannabe writer wants to be a WRITER, and not merely a published author, so I for one would take every bit of advice I can find.

    Excellent advice. I don’t know the answer either, but I know that I want to be more than I read. But selling like J. K. Rowling wouldn’t be bad either. 😉

  2. Publishing companies want writers who know who will sell books. Picoult is at the point where her name alone will sell books. You’re not. Therein lies the difference.

    I’m ALMOST okay with this, if the stuff Picoult turned out were GOOD. It’s not. But let me ask this: if I go out and get her FIRST book, will IT be in accordance with all their rules?

    The newbies have to do it all right in order to show the publishers they’re capable. And even the “rules” are merely there as guidelines. Those books are geared toward the wannabe. The point of all those rules is to show that you have a command of the English language. Once you’ve shown that, you can break rules all you want.

    That sort of double standard is horrible. That’s worse than a union. It’s not just disappointing and discouraging, it’s disgusting. And why are the AGENTS party to this crap? Shouldn’t the industry, the way it’s set up right now, be such that NOTHING but BRILLIANCE appears on the shelves??

    And if “breaking” rules means writing the crap I see on shelves now, forget it. Give me quality writing any time. But that’s me — I won’t lower myself to that standard even if I get a J. K. Rowling-esque contract.

    Still, what you say makes perfect sense and harmonizes the dichotomy … I guess. 😦

    Thanks for stopping by hon.

  3. What I am told by publishing people is that there is one set of rules for wannabes and another for those with book deals. Small publishing outfits will be stricter than huge houses that can glut the market.

    Yeah, Sherri’s echoed the same thing in her comment. It’s BS and unfair, but that’s life. Who said it was gonna be fair anyway?

    One editor/publisher whose blog I read admitted that big name authors are almost exempt from editing because they sell regardless. It is all about what sells, not how well written it is.

    That’s hideous. Hearing that makes me sick. Who’s blog, if you don’t mind my asking? I like to follow agent and editor blogs to see what’s going on in the industry.

    I mean, dang, Joe the Plumber has a book coming out now.


    Which brings me to this point, and it’s important, a writer sucks people in with their voice and by writing about things people are interested in reading. You don’t have to be “good” in a technical sense if you can connect with readers. Look at books written for pre and teen audiences for example. Very few well-written books there. And speaking as a teacher, most people can’t read very well enough to tell good from bad writing.

    That’s disappointing to hear. I read somewhere that writing DOWN to teen audiences is frowned on in the publishing industry. They can handle books written at a normal adult level, for the most part, and while the stories need to center on the demographic, it’s bad and demeaning to practice “dumbing down” the book for YA audiences. I guess once again, it’s “do as I say, not as I do” in the industry’s practice.

    I use adverbs. Sometimes I tell more than I show. But I allow myself to be edited because I know it improves me and my writing. Just once I would like to read a book on writing where a writer admitted the truth – that the rules of writing are merely guidelines.

    I’ve actually done a great job, if I do say so myself, of cutting “-ly” adverbs (not adverbial phrases or the ones that DON’T happen to end in “ly”) from all my work. I’ve worked very hard on trying to tighten my use of nouns and verbs to be better, more descriptive and stronger. I edit the hell out of myself, though, because as Stephen King pointed out, ALL prose can be collapsed, at least to some point. And I feel I’m a better writer for it.

    And yeah, I’m with you — I’d love to have them just tell the TRUTH about what goes on for a change.

    Thanks for sounding off and spending so much of your valuable time with me.

  4. I don’t think the dichotomy is necessarily a bad thing. You’re coming at it from a one-right-way standpoint. How did Jodi Picoult get to be a famous novelist? By selling lots of books in the first place. How did she sell lots of books? By touching people, giving them enjoyment, escape, whatever. Someone appreciated her early work.

    Okay, fair enough, and as a writer I’m not interested in doing any less than my best in my own work. I want to obey the rules (what my buddy Ben calls “Obey the Fist”) for writing’s sake, not for compliance with any set rules of publication. But my question was, for Picoult to sell a lot of books in the first place, SHE should have had to leap through the same hoops and over the same hurdles to near-perfect writing as set forth by the literati and publishing industry for ANY newbie, right? She was a newbie before she was a famous novelist. Therefore, the rules MUST have applied to her too. Right? So I’m wondering now, and this question was asked earlier but not addressed, is her earlier work, and I’ll even allow just her FIRST book, better (as far as meeting the requirements agents, editors and publishing houses set forth for all newbies) than her later work? And it BETTER be stronger and better than that piece o’ crap I tried to choke down or something’s wrong. Something’s a lie. See what I mean? Do you think that’s true (the better stuff earlier from her)?

    What I was trying to say earlier is that it’s no big deal. Those books are going to lay down some rules because that’s what we want, a road map. But even the greatest authors of our time aren’t following the rules all the time, and yet they are still great. And some may still not like their books. It’s subjective.

    This is true, and I’m not arguing the validity of your statements, doll. You’re dead-on right. The greatest authors of our time, hell of ALL time, don’t follow the rules. I look, for example, at H. P. Lovecraft, considered a giant in the genre of choice for me. And what I see is a man who tells, not shows, whose dialog is wooden, lame and bigoted, and whose prose is so purple and flowery I almost gag on it. Yet, he’s a giant, because he could TELL that story better than most, he could evoke the feeling of horror, which is what horror is all about, and he had really interesting (if repeated) ideas. I concede your point — it’s a road-map, true enough, but the road map may or may NOT lead to the destination we’re seeking. If the story sucks, I can relate. If the writer sucks, that’s fine too. But there are a LOT of good writers getting turned down AFTER jumping through all those hoops and who have better stories, better prose to convey them, and better skills over all than the “authors” crowding the shelves. Look at your own work. Look at Dwight’s. Look at mine (yeah, mine — I’m not bad; may not be so in the opinion of others but I compare favorably to Picoult’s work, I can tell you that). I could go on and on. Yes, I have a lot of work left to do and have a long way to go and God willing, I’ll keep improving, but c’mon — we match up to those people with names on spines pretty doggone well.

    In addition, those books we’re talking about aren’t the only places I’m seeing the “perfection or bust” standard. Agent and editor blogs are replete with it. (Nathan Bransford is a notable exception.) And in addition to that, they add the EXTRA layer of “Please me with your query letter or bust FIRST” obstacle, so we have to achieve yet ANOTHER area of perfection before we even get SEEN by the “Perfect or Bust” purveyors and gatekeepers of the shelves.

    It is what it is, and it has to be done that way, so I’ll do it, but I think I disagree that it’s no big deal. I think it’s a VERY big deal. In a corporate environment, this sort of discrimination, if not proved out in performance (i.e., the books on the shelves SHOWING that standard is in play) would lead to a heavy class-action lawsuit that would probably crumple the industry like an empty aluminum can.

    Just sayin’. 😉

    Here’s something to ponder. I don’t think a book is ever perfect. There is always some detail that needs enhancing, a better verb choice, too many adverbs. If the publishers only printed perfect books, we’d be missing out on a lot of great literature, and we wouldn’t have the dream of seeing our names in print.

    But I think the “Perfection or Bust” mentality is there, and is in play, and “Perfection” is whatever the person reading your work (agent first, editor later, publishing committee beyond that) SAYS is perfection. Don’t you think? And yet, again, the point of my post is that the standard doesn’t reflect in a lot of garbage on the shelves. (That doesn’t mean there aren’t really good books written, though.) But, I think you’re right, and I agree with you — no book is ever perfect; it’s too subjective. I think Nelle Harper Lee’s masterpiece is brilliant, someone else will dislocate their jaw yawning while reading it.

    I can’t find the section, but I think On Writing discusses this at length. If I find the passage I’m thinking of, I’ll come back.

    Actually, I just finished (or pretty much finished) On Writing last night. While he says you can edit and draft to death, the implication of never being perfect might be insinuated but isn’t stated emphatically.

    Stimulating discussion today! 🙂

    Thanks! I’m glad you’re so active in it, and that it’s got people talking. And maybe thinking. 😀

  5. There is a lot of crap on the shelves!! Kristy wonders why I have such a hard time when I’m buying or even looking for books. It’s because there is absolutely little that is well written out there. She is reading Twilight right now and just said that the OtF would hate it! It’s a problem that has actually existed for a long time and I consider it to be the inability to tell a story. That simple. I too have found books out there that have NO hook! When I pick up a book in the bookstore I have one simple test. IF I’m not dying to turn to page 2 after I finish the first, back on the shelf it goes!

    True enough, Ben, and that’s as good a litmus test as exists for what we, the subjective readership of the world, find entertaining. I’m like you: you’d better grab me by the lapels and start screaming in my face (to again quote Stephen King from his book Danse Macabre), or I’m not going to get far. This was my problem with Picoult. It’s a book that’s ten years old, and it had no hook, nothing to compel me to read on, the characters weren’t interesting … nothing. Nada. Zilch. But for you or for me, if those things aren’t there, we can’t even get past the first stage of screening. My question before was, for Picoult to get past that first hurdle, didn’t she have to comply with near-perfection the first time out to even reach a stage to write crap?

    OtF just the same, bud. It’s the higher road in writing.

  6. Well, as far as Jodi Picoult’s first book, I don’t know. I’ve only read one, and it was a more recent one. I didn’t notice a problem with adverbs in that one, but then again I don’t have the hatred of them that you do :).

    LOL! Smart-alec. Wanna make somethin’ of it? HUH?? 😉

    I found the writing to be immersing, the characters vivid. There was a lot of “telling”, but I found it acceptable within the format of the book. I wouldn’t read another of hers for one reason: too depressing. 🙂

    Interesting. I figure there HAS to be a reason she’s so popular, but I just couldn’t choke through more than 35 pages. I just couldn’t stomach it.

    Thanks for your comments over at BVA. I’ll be posting the next chapter shortly.

    I can’t wait, and you’re welcome. I hope I didn’t come off as an arrogant POS, though. Just tryin’ to help. 🙂

  7. The standard is this: Will this work rake in copious amounts of cash?

    Right. No question, that’s the “gold standard”.

    The various editors of the various publishers all have different criteria they use to answer this question. Unless you know one personally, you’ll never really know what they want.

    Exactly, and that’s part of my point. But what they want from NEW authors and what they’ll accept from ESTABLISHED authors aren’t even close, and THAT’s the crux of the problem. I read books that are utter crap and get pretty ticked off knowing some pretty special writers who do better every time they lay fingers to keyboard. I think that’s wrong. The readers suffer, because they have to put up with garbage they’ve paid for while good stories and good prose languishes in a slushpile — or DOGpile — and never sees the printing press. I still say that’s wrong.

    And there is no one writing style that “works” for everybody. Apparently some folks really do like adverbs.

    Yes, I’ve noticed. Ugh.

    Actually, I think some people like the “idea” of a story more than the execution of the story itself. Case in point: the Twilight Series. I didn’t care for the prose (or really the main Character), but the idea really got me going. I dug up old notes on a vampire piece I’d thought about a while ago and fleshed it out. I considered writing it before I moved on to the the Oasis sequel.

    Would love to see it. I’ve not read Meyer myself, but have heard mixed reviews. Some (most) people I know who have read Twilight were disappointed or couldn’t finish it.

    One interesting take on what makes a story “work” is the “A Story Is A Promise” guy.

    Thanks! I love learning new stuff.

    As far as salable/publishable goes, I have no real insights.

    All us wannabes are sorta left in that same lurch bud, but thanks for sounding off.

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