So this is a question I, somewhat arrogantly, haven’t actually addressed on the blog yet: how good do you actually have to be to get published? Temporarily pushing aside the luck, the timing, the taste and all the other myriad factors that contribute to publication: is the book actually just…good enough?
Well, actually, I suppose the first question is; does it actually have to be good? Now, you can throw all the Fifty Shades of Grey / Twilight arguments you like at me, but the answer is yes. Yeah, I know: E.L. James is rich, Stephenie Meyer got a contract within a month or something, that book you read last month was purest bollocks etc. etc. There are always going to be exceptions to the rule: every now and then I think the universe likes to throw a curveball, just to check we’re all paying attention. Plus, I maintain that if E.L. James had been submitting to agencies, she would have been soundly and eternally ignored. She was published because of her fanfic’s pre-existing popularity, and thus a guaranteed audience – and if the last year has taught us anything at all, it is that there is absolutely no accounting for the public’s taste.
So, let’s assume that yes, the book does – obviously – have to be good enough to be published. How do I know when I have touched upon such hallowed ground?
Well, for me, it’s a combination of four factors, in descending order of common sense.
- I have edited it until my eyes bleed.
Another thing we can just assume, is that a first draft isn’t good enough. Unless you’re magic, or perhaps Shakespeare (though even then…unlikely), a first draft is never going to be the best you can make it. I – she says, preening – have edited my book so much I lost count of what technically counted as a draft when I started the whole thing again from scratch, four edits in. I have edited it so much I simply cannot do it anymore, without knowing it will actually serve a purpose. I don’t say this out of arrogance or smugness, so much as with the hollow, weary eyes of one who truly – truly – cannot listen to the sound of her own narrative without screaming anymore. So that’s my measure of when you’ve edited enough; when you know it by heart, spend half an hour debating over comma placement, and cannot look at the manuscript without feeling slightly sick.
- Positive feedback from knowledgeable sources.
Now, this doesn’t mean ‘my mum reads lots of books, and she loved it’ (not least because my mum – whilst generally fabulous – hasn’t read it, probably wouldn’t like it, and would have no qualms about telling me so). I am, however, fortunate enough to have been able to take an MA in Creative Writing, and so had access to published, experienced writers to edit and feedback on my work. One of them said she thought that, with some work, this story would be publishable, and I have clung to that casual comment like a particularly voracious koala bear. I expect a similar effect could be achieved by paying for a professional editor’s opinion. Expensive, but – rest assured – cheaper than an MA.
One a similar note, whilst I haven’t actually had anything approaching an offer of representation from an agent, I have had several personal, heartening rejections (ha) and three full manuscript requests, which – if somewhat soul-destroying when they come to nothing – are unquestionably encouraging in the long run.
- Arrogant comparisons to published books.
Now please don’t think too badly of me for this one. I frequently read books so mind-alteringly astounding they make me feel like a time-wasting goon, with not an ounce of talent to speak of. I also often read books that leave me with a sort of begrudging admiration for a phrase or paragraph that feels depressingly beyond my own meagre ability. But occasionally – just occasionally – I read a published book, and get a twisted thrill of smugness, combined with a hearty dollop of bitterness, and the thought ‘I think I would have pulled that off better,’ or ‘I think my idea’s more original than that,’ or, most often, ‘WHY is she doing that, my characters are never this plot-servingly stupid!’ (disclaimer: not always true). And hey, they got published, right?
- Sheer pig-headedness.
The fact is that an awful lot of the time – and especially more recently – I’m not at all sure I’m good enough. I re-read excerpts of my submission and am suddenly, burningly sure they’re crap. I write a few lines of a new project, and cringe even as my fingers tap. I receive a rejection and ignore the positive comments, so as to wallow in the ‘oh GOD, she’s RIGHT, I am a TERRIBLE WRITER’ of the criticisms. Not only is this unhelpful, I know – in my heart of hearts, and less self-pitying moods – that it’s unfair. On good days, in soft lighting, I’m pretty sure I’m a decent writer. But failing that, I am as bloody stubborn as they come. And you’d be surprised how useful that is.
Next Post: Being as I’m not currently mired quite so deep in the self-pity trench as I have been in (many) previous weeks, I’m going to try and stagger through a post on what happens if this actually doesn’t work. Because, let’s face it, there’s a good chance it won’t, and we might as well all be prepared.
Submission Last Week
Just two, because I’m STILL waiting on that third MS response…which doesn’t feel like the most encouraging sign…
Current Rejection Tally: 17