Kristen Nelson has an excellent blog post at PubRants regarding how “strong writing” alone isn’t enough to sell a novel. It made a lot of sense to me, but I was surprised at how many of the commentors just did not get it — period.
I’ve seen this elsewhere around writing fora, loops, and journals/blogs. Many writers assume that writing “well” is the most important factor in selling a short story or novel. These are often the same people who ask “How are Terry Brooks / Robert Jordan / Dan Brown / etc. best-selling authors? They can’t write for crap! They break all the ‘rules!'”
(Trust me. I’ve heard it. I didn’t understand, either, several years ago.)
The key here is story. An author doesn’t hit the NYT if the story sucks rocks. It might not be to some people’s tastes, but that’s going to be true of about anything, because personal likes and dislikes are subjective. Bestsellers have some quality in the story that captivates readers, otherwise they wouldn’t read it. (Outside of the controversy factor, that is, but I doubt that controversy alone can make a bestseller.)
I’ve been in critique / writing groups for several years now, and I have seen a lot of stories and novels that are technically perfect. The writing shines. But the story itself is often standard, predictable … “safe.”
This attitude is often encouraged in various sorts of writer’s groups. I’ve received far too many critiques from multiple different sources where the critiquer focused on the writing but ignored the big picture. I know other people who have received the same. Romance writers have talked about receiving crits from contests that focus primarily on writing “perfection” without looking at the story. Perhaps the intention isn’t to encourage people to focus on the writing first, but it’s often the way it comes across.
This isn’t to say that good writing isn’t important. If your writing sucks like a cheap whore who can’t figure out which end to blow, an agent or editor likely won’t make it past your query letter, much less take you on. (And by this, I mean truly horrid prose. If you’ve ever critiqued a beginning writer’s first novel or short story, you know exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about.) Writing is important, too.
But. It’s a lot easier to fix a novel that has passable writing than it is to fix a story that’s at heart “ho-hum.” Line edits are a piece of cake. Rewriting the entire book because it’s competant but not good enough? Not easy. (I’m in the middle of it myself.)
Yes, it’s a delicate balance. But I don’t think it’s impossible. The Internet is an immensely useful tool for writers to commune and help each other along — but the “downside” to this is that there are more competant writers than there used to be. At one point, it was good enough to be “competant.” It isn’t anymore. You need to be good — and by that, I’m not talking about the technicalities of writing alone, but the quality of the story you’re telling. Though how to tell a story that’s unique and different while still being marketable is another matter entirely… 😉
Is it tougher for writers to get published nowadays than it used to be? I think so, though I couldn’t say for certain. I know there are some writers who get upset and worried about the competition, wondering whether or not they can “make it.” Me? I see it as a challenge. 🙂
What do you think? Are the expectations / standards for new writers unreasonable (as some people seem to think), or is it par for the course? Do you find it depressing — or just another obstacle to overcome?