Saturday, September 15, 2012

Bigger 10 - Find Out How Good You Need to Be

One of the best novels I've read in the last ten years is unpublished. This is an agented manuscript by a person who has had success in other media and had cultivated his own social media posse, and I can't understand why it's consigned to limbo.

It's not alone. I've read works-in-progress, indies, contest entries, and stories on the submission treadmill that range from worth fixing to polished and entertaining. I've read many more manuscripts that declared themselves to be typing exercises from page one, but that's not the point here. The point is, knowing the quality of what is not being sold is important for getting a realistic view of how good you need to be.

Yes. Yes. I can pull ten published novels at random off the shelf in a bookstore and find most, if not all, aren't very good. Novels like that probably lure many people into writing who know they can do better. In one way, that's good because having unrealistic expectations when you begin writing can help you to stay at it until you develop your craft. But, if you still think this way, it is holding you back.

No editor wants to champion a mediocre book, much less a bad book. The hope is ever present that the next manuscript they pick up will send tingles down their spines. Not that is will only be good enough to package and sell (unless you are a celebrity who happens to have a platform).

This is why it is good to gain the humility those good, unsold novels have to offer. And if you want to write bigger books, books that draw large audiences -- hey, look at where the bar is. Pretty high.

How do you get manuscripts into your hands?
  • Join a writers group. There are a lot of reasons you should be part of one already, but most have critique groups with lots of manuscripts to read. If you don't have a group nearby, there are online groups.
  • Get some writing buddies. And read what they are doing. They'll love you for it. And they will read your manuscript in return.
  • Get the word out. Almost everyone I know has someone who as written a manuscript or is working on one. They are almost always looking for readers.
  • Read slush. Slush is unsolicited manuscript, and the piles tend to build up quickly for those involved in publishing. Agents are always looking for interns, and often they'll let you work part-time and remotely.
  • Teach a writing class. And be wowed by what some of the students produce.
  • Judge a contest. This is probably the easiest. Some contests require minimal training, but there is always a need for more judges. Stephie Smith has a great site that lists contests. Volunteer.
For most manuscripts, you'll know immediately why they haven't sold. Often, just by reading the first page. Some will be amusing, but will have obvious flaws. A few will challenge you to find reasons why an agent or editor would pass on them (and the process of determining these reasons can help you to discover problems with your own work).

Then there are the others. The ones that are clearly better than most of what you find on the shelf. Manuscripts that send a tingle down your own spine. These, not the unholy messes or the fine but flawed stories, are the ones that tell you how good you need to be. They are the ones that demand you sharpen your premise, take another look at your structure, ask more of your characters, and polish your prose.

It is easy to imagine you can get away with being good enough when you read through this month's offerings at the bookstore. It is much harder to do that when you read a manuscript that impresses you, but has never been published.

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