Thursday, March 12, 2009

So Bad It Burns

I've lately had the opportunity to evaluate and edit an increasing amount of unpublished or self-published fiction. This means two or three novels a week ... and I'll be honest, it's left me a little ragged and a little freaked out.

The first thing I noticed was that as soon as I opened one of these books, as soon as I was in a position to professionally evaluate fiction, my standards went through the roof. All of a sudden, good enough wasn't good enough anymore. Books I would have praised from family and friends were subjected to a level of criticism that surprised even me ... and this was instructive. It was like I suddenly looked through the window that agents and editors see every day, and I understood, in a way I never had before, why a book has to be nearly perfect before they'll commit.

The second thing I noticed was this: if I was an acquisitions editor, I would have passed on every book I've read recently. Every. Single. One. And I would have done it quickly, often within the first 10 pages. As an editor, I'm paid to finish, so I do, but it's amazing how quickly you can tell it's just not there. My friend Erica calls this the "meh" factor, and that's as good a word as any.  

In a few cases, I think I see potential. The next question is: will the author do the work? And a surprising number of times, the answer is no. Many people seem unable to confront the professional, solid advice that's staring them in the face. I can't tell you how many times I've left detailed editorial comments on a manuscript only to have the author ignore every single one or write an equally detailed defense. I can only hope I'm not unwittingly among that number ...

My last thought was this: exposure to this seemingly never-ending flow of hopeful, often clumsy, but occasionally authentic fiction is like standing too close to a fire. You can feel all that burning desire out there, the thinly disguised traces of desperation in the Introductions and author e-mails, and it's just a little ... overwhelming. I often say that I wish all of my writer friends and I could get seven-figure contracts and retire to a tropical island forever. But when you really see the volume out there, you realize that the island would be the size of Greenland. 


Mark Terry said...


Do yourself a favor and never volunteer to be a contest judge either. I was a judge for the Thriller Award recently and a friend of mine was/is a judge for the Edgar Award and we've talked about how you can get to hating fiction and novelists pretty damned quick as a judge. In my case it wasn't that any of the novels were bad, it was just they all started to taste the same after a while. I started to think, "Oh please, could I just read something new here, rather than 101 variations on the same thing."

LurkerMonkey said...

I believe it ... People always complain about the bad fiction that gets published. I say, you should read the fiction that doesn't get published. It's a whole different world.

spyscribbler said...

Oh Jon, I hate that mental place. When I started studying the fiction I read deeply, I went there. I've been looking for the perfect novel ever since, and it took me TWO YEARS to find one, and would you believe I took issue with ONE SENTENCE and ONE PARAGRAPH near the end?

Erica Orloff said...

Hi Jon:
Parallel lives (my blog today is pretty similar).

I still thing there is a strong thread of denial/insanity/hubris running through way too many writers who believe if they write something "as good as" that somehow they "deserve" to be published. Average won't cut it.

Then there's that "work" thing. The level of work required is gut-wrenching sometimes. And standing firmly with your arms crossed just positive you have the perfect novel isn't going to cut it either.


LurkerMonkey said...


Now I'm curious ... what's the book?

LurkerMonkey said...


Totally. It also makes the point that it doesn't make sense to say, "If only someone would give me a chance and work with me ..." Because why? There are 10 million more out there.

spyscribbler said...

Little Bee by Chris Cleave. I loved it so much I can't tell you.

You know, it made me think that if you can write that well, there's really very little competition up there.

Zoe Winters said...

I hate to beat a dead horse here, but we clearly aren't reading the same things. I've been seriously let down by a number of books I've read in the last year put out by NY. Some of them so bad I couldn't even review them on my blog.

How that qualified as "near perfect" in any editor or agent's eyes, I'll never know. What's even more appalling is that these books supposedly had a fabulous NY editor's pen taken to them, and they still suck.

One shudders to think how bad they were to begin with.

But it doesn't matter in the end whether a book is published by NY or self published, I can pick my own books based on what friends like, looking at the cover, the back copy, and reading a couple of pages, and of course if I've read and liked anything else the author put out. Just like all other readers.

LurkerMonkey said...


Zombie neigh! Ouch!

Get it? A dead horse being beaten ...

I wondered if you would read this and, if you did, I knew it is an issue you're interested in. But I wasn't trying to annoy you. Trust me.

I've noticed a general decline in the quality of copy editing and proofing of books coming out of NY myself lately. But, honestly, when I'm comparing just about any book that has been through any professional editorial process, and that has been vetted, it is typically much better than the things I'm seeing in the slush pile or POD pile. Your experience might be different, but that's just what I'm seeing on the ground.

Ultimately, you're right: everyone gets to choose their own books, and with the proliferation of self-pubbed books, the selection is much more vast. Ultimately, that will be a good thing, I think.

Zoe Winters said...

hehehehehe I didn't think you were trying to annoy me. I'm not that vain. ;)

And of course your point is valid, but I think this is a serious problem when we talk in generalities. I guess I just find it really offensive KNOWING that KEPT has been well edited, and well done, that "someone" (not you) is going to go: "Oh it must suck it was self published, I should hop over here and read a "vetted" book.

And I'm like "yeah, sure, you do that." Because I know odds are very good that that "vetted" book won't be as painstakingly edited as my book was.

And no, I'm not saying I'm a wonderful or brilliant writer. Even if I thought it, I wouldn't say it. I'm just saying my book is damn well edited. And that's a sight better than over 50% of what's coming out of NY these days.

And that's the issue I have. This mindless clawing to mediocrity. I don't TRUST a NY editor with my books. Because I don't have any guarantee they know what the hell they're doing. Just because my book would end up better than 90% of the slush pile, doesn't comfort me.

I want a book as great as it can be. And as counter-intuitive as that might seem to people, that means taking control of my own work and only letting those I'VE vetted, edit it.