9.12.19

The Worst Writing Advice in History

I did the best advice, see below. Now for the worst, to whit:

"All you have to do is write a good book."

Really?  I mean, really?

Ah, let me count the ways in which this is a pile of steaming horse crap, beloved though it may be by writers, editors and other industry professionals the world over.

Look, I get why they love this line. It's like a free get out of gaol card every time they get pigeonholed by some desperate, sweaty wannabe at a convention who wants 'The Answer!'.

"Write a good book," they say. "The rest will take care of itself," they say. And then they wave to an invisible someone on the other side of the room and make their getaway before the wannabe can drag the real truth out of them.

It sounds so reasonable! So wise! So simple! And so, so wrong.

Let's take the obvious and most meta exception. The universe? she is lumpy, yes? By definition nothing good, bad or indifferent ever happens 100% of the time. There are always exceptions. This means that some good, even some great books have gone unpublished in the past and will do so again.

There is no magic drift net trawling the hard drives of the world's aspiring writers capturing the 'good books' and wafting them gently to the inboxes of appropriate editors. No, there's slush piles, and contests, and brief conversations at conventions and festivals, and MFAs, and workshops, and your third cousin's best friend who happens to be a cookbook editor at Random House and maybe she can slip your manuscript onto the desk of the appropriate person, pretty please? I'm begging you!

And likewise some truly awful books have made and will continue to make it to print. We've all picked up a book, read a few pages and asked ourselves, "How did this get published?" The answer, lumpy universe.

So, I think we can agree that simply writing a good book is no guarantee of being published. (And being published is no guarantee of sales either, as every book marketer knows to their sorrow. (I once read a stat suggesting 8/10 books published by major publishers take a loss, which seems crazy high to me? Anyone confirm?))

There are thousands of manuscripts scuttling through the undergrowth of the literary ecosystem looking for a publisher today. One or two might find a home. With any luck they will be a couple of the good ones, but, statistically speaking anyway, it's iffy. But never, in any universe, will every good book be published.

The other thing that irks me about the "Write a good book" canard is that it suggests that every poor fool of a writer who can't get a publisher is to blame for their own failure. And, certainly, there's plenty of blame to go around. Writers have to sit down at the banquet of failure and tuck into their fair share. God knows I've written a couple of books that no one would ever publish, and I knew it. Practically the first thought I had when I finished them was, "Well, no one's ever buying that off me, then."

I would contend these books are 'different' rather than 'bad', but your milage may vary. (If you're curious)

But plenty of other writers have written perfectly good romances, crime noir thrillers, sci fi epics, and so on, that could be published, that might even sell well if they were, but never will be. Fiction – novels, stories, screenplays, or any other variety you care to name (even writing ads) – is a saturated and intensely competitive market. And competition must always have its worthy losers.

But no one wants to tell the worthy losers the truth. No one says, "Oh lots of people are talented, lots of people are busting their hump, most of them will fail anyway. And by most I mean 99.8%."

I'm not sure why. It is too tough?

I guess they don't want to discourage the next J K Rolling (even if she was only ever published because an agent's 8 year old daughter pulled Harry Potter out of the slush pile and insisted her mother read it).

But someone needs to say it. So I did.

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