Ever wonder why you keep getting all those form rejections from agents and editors?
When I was in college, there was a guy in my Early American Lit class who complained that he didn’t understand why the teacher even took his papers, she ought to just carry a big rubber stamp so she could stamp “C-” on his right there at his desk.
This is a very hard way to live, people, and yet it’s the way so many aspiring writers do.
Therefore, without further ado here’s the brutal truth, from an independent editor who loves you:
- Your story is badly-written.
You haven’t bothered to pay your dues. You thought you were going to fly through writing a book like you flew through your wedding, high as a kite on the excitement and with no idea what you were going to do about it afterward. Years and years of sweat and tears and patient toil did not even occur to you.
Go to the library, go to your local community college, go to your mother’s bookshelves, and find the classics. Read them. Not, you know, antiquated language like Cervantes or that pantywaist Hawthorne or difficult language like Faulkner or Joyce or Gertrude Stein (for god’s sake, not Burroughs). But straight-forward writers like Dickens and Hemingway and Flannery O’Connor and Dashiel Hammett and Edith Wharton and P.G. Wodehouse and Isak Denisen and Ivy Compton-Burnett and Maxine Hong Kingston and Raymond Chandler and Elizabeth Bowen and Irene Nemirovsky and Conrad and Updike and Bellows and Saligner and Kerouac and Graham Greene and, if you can take his subject matter, Paul Bowles. Read books in which every single word was chosen specifically for where it is. No getting down the general gist. No leaning on popular culture to hold up the sentences. No hoping the reader won’t notice. Every single word. Read books that were—as they once were in all the major American publishing houses, although they really aren’t much anymore—well-edited.
Sit yourself down and study those sentences. Learn how to choose every single word specifically for where it goes. Learn how to be even better with sentences than the greats, because you’re probably not going to get edited. (You’ll fail, but, you know, too bad for you. These are the times you live in.) No cheating.
Do this forever.
- Your story is badly-plotted.
Who is this character all alone in the hook? Why do they disappear forever on page 10? What’s with the guy with the mustache on page 37? Where did the heroine go? How come the hero doesn’t appear until page 214? Why is that dog always underfoot? You pantsed this damn thing, didn’t you?
Take apart your favorite classics to find the essential building blocks: hook, conflicts, faux resolution, climax. Find them. They’re there.
Sit down and learn how to design a proper plot. Do not get up until you have.
- Your imagination is unoriginal.
CLICHE CLICHE CLICHE. Stop it! You’re making professionals in the industry hate you!
If you don’t want to learn to develop your imagination, fine. Don’t. Nobody’s forcing you to try to get published. Nobody’s holding a gun to your head and walking you and that stack of queries out to the mailbox. “Mail those, or I shoot.” You’re a free agent.
Take a good hard look at yourself in the mirror and ask yourself, “Am I really, at heart, a professional writer? Do I really want to spend the rest of my life digging deep, deep into the world around me for the things I didn’t realize I see or hear or think or misunderstand and then pull them like worms out of their holes out onto the paper, where I can spend about seven years arranging and rearranging them until they say something they didn’t say out there where anyone could see them? In the correct order? So they satisfy NOT my secret eternal longings but those of a whole lot of anonymous readers out there I will never get a chance to know? And also, by the way, learn to play the whole, long, convoluted, difficult business game that goes with publication these days—not just to play it, but to become an expert at it? Really?
“Or do I just want people to pay attention to me?”
Because there are all kinds of great ways to get attention besides throwing a few words on paper and trying to pass the buck.
Reality TV springs to mind.
- Your story is well-written, your plot is well-structured, your imagination is great. But. . .
YOU FEEL SORRY FOR YOURSELF.
Oh, so sad. Boo-hoo. You’ve had a hard life. Me too. The agent too. The acquisitions editor too. The publisher too. We’re a bunch of sad sacks. The publishing industry’s full of ruined humans.
This one is hard to combat. This one is a real stickler. Because, let’s be honest here, we all feel sorry for ourselves sometimes. You know what’s a good thing to do at those times? Walk away from the page!
And when you come back, sit down and begin to take simple, impartial, non-judgmental notes on the details of the world around you. Cart your notebook with you when you go places, not so you can jot down profound thoughts and exciting truisms (they’re all going to read like so much uninspired nonsense when you get home anyway), but so you can stop constantly and take notes on the places you go and the people you see. I don’t bother writing down scraps of conversation—people rarely say anything particularly noteworthy in public. (God knows, I save all my best lines until I’ve got my audience cornered in private.) But record the world. This is the world you live in. It’s the world your characters live in, too.
You are here to give it immortality.
- You’re one heck of a writer, and you’ve written one heck of a book. But you know what?
You’re a little peanut. Floating on a very big, very rough, very, very, very littered sea. Everybody out here’s a peanut. (Except the folks on the NY Times best seller list, who are lying on deck chairs on a cruise ship on the horizon, trading witticism about litter on the waves in the golden sunset. Stephen King is the one wearing the captain’s hat.)
If we all got together, we could squish ourselves up and make peanut butter.