Is Your Writing Really Mediocre? Here’s the Truth

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In my usual browse of article headlines on Feedly this morning, I stumbled across this gem from Hannah Giorgis in The Atlantic. Giorgis declared that much of what’s on Netflix these days is mediocre, and that we’re allowing our boredom to get the best of us when it comes to selecting what we watch.

I can’t say I necessarily agree with Giorgis–even if the content is well done, much of it relies on popular plot structures that are as worn as grandma’s 1947 couch cushions. The predictability can be a turnoff no matter how artistic the approach might be.

But of course, you have to ask, who ultimately gets to decide what “good” content is, not just in film and TV, but in all art?

In lots of cases, it’s just a few publishers or producers from a few big companies. In book publishing, for example, that means the big five (Penguin/Random House, Hachette Book Group, Harper Collins, Simon and Schuster, Macmillan).

Lots of writers dream of sending in a book query and getting a contract with one of the big five. There’s some prestige to it, the idea that your book was “good enough” to stand out from this enormous pack and get noticed.

The trouble is, the big five want sales. And much of what is on their list has nothing to do with how you write and everything to do with what the public happens to be buying at any particular time. They want stories that are going to yield a profit. And so when they look at manuscripts, if they don’t think it’s going to sell, they’ll pass.

Need an example? Try Jack Canfield, co-creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, who had publishers tell him that the books were “too positive” (heaven forbid we have some positivity as mental health concerns are on the rise), that the title was stupid and that people don’t read short story collections. He was rejected by 144 publishers, and even the 145th made him prove via signatures he had interest in the manuscript.

Sometimes, publishers flat out miss the mark about what the public is open to. 500 million copies later, Canfield’s earned the right to tell them they were about as wrong as it gets.

So here is the conundrum. We have a very small set of gatekeepers who, for all their talk of wanting something fresh, by actions prove that what they really want is to keep reproducing what seems to work from a sales standpoint. But in maintaining that model, the gatekeepers automatically ensure that the public can’t engage with good variety easily. Perhaps the public would get out of the rut and buy other stories, if the gatekeepers would only allow them into the market. It’s hard to know.

So perhaps the problem is not the mediocrity of the manuscripts that are rejected at all. Sure, there’s a lot of you-know-what that probably wouldn’t hurt anybody by staying in the bottom of a drawer or getting corrupted on a hard drive. But perhaps there glorious flowers we can’t see because we’re not truly allowed in the garden.

As a writer, I can say that the most agonizing element of this situation is that writers never really are sure whether they are the weed or the rose. Perhaps they are spectacular and have been rejected dozens of times simply because what they have written doesn’t fit the model. But perhaps, the rejections lead us to consider, the writing really is subpar and beta readers just tried to spare our feelings. It’s easy to get discouraged and confused.

My biggest fear with this system of things is that our most fragrant and rare blossoms are never cultivated. I would not be at all surprised, for instance, to see a publisher reject a modern Georgette Heyer (a romance writer critiqued as as close to Jane Austen as you can get), simply because “the writing is too archaic”. Perhaps that grossly underestimates what the public is capable of enjoying and understanding. Or perhaps, in a worse scenario, it suggests that the system has denied our experience to such a degree that we really do need some schooling on what mediocrity actually looks like.

In either case, I see independent and self-publishing as increasingly necessary. It is only through these channels that the bias of the gatekeepers can start to have less of an influence on individual and overall public choices. But alongside that, we also need systems that are going to make access to those books easier for everyone at every level. That can mean more e-readers or libraries, or it can mean more writing English programs, tutors, book clubs, etc.

But it also means reexamining what it means to be eloquent, how to recognize and reject plot tropes and how to create tension and conflict that doesn’t require an on-screen explosion or special effect. That is more complicated to build, because it butts up against other social issues and nuances, like the way we teach or even racial and income disparities.

Reading and any other art is for everyone. The minute that the critique and development of it falls into the hands of a privileged few, our ability to determine what has merit becomes incredibly diminished. But if we become more democratic, if we educate ourselves away from the gatekeepers, mediocrity will lose its grip. That, I think, is a vision that can’t turn to reality fast enough.

In the meantime, be open to practicing and improving what you do, and if you have excellent feedback from beta readers on a consistent basis, don’t give up. Find a way to get what you’ve made out there. When your sales prove you were right, hold your profits in your naysayers’ faces.

Why Good Writing Fails to Get Published

Rejection from publishers is something that virtually every writer will experience in his career at some point. In fact, some professional writers acquire so many rejection letters that they probably could paper their walls with them. As a beginning writer, it’s difficult not to get discouraged by these personally hurtful little pieces of mail, but rest assured: Rejection letters often have no bearing on the quality of your writing.

The reality of publishing is that a book (or any other text) gets published when it is a good fit for the publisher. At the most basic level, this means you have to submit to publishers that produce your manuscript’s genre. Don’t submit a science fiction novel to a romance publisher, for example, no matter how confident you are you’ve written the greatest thing since Star Wars.

Beyond submitting within the right genre, you have to explore what the publisher is producing at the current time. The manuscripts a publisher receives vary over given periods. A publisher who publishes biographies, for instance, might get 100 biographies one year and 1,000 the next. If the publisher has an overflow of a certain type of work, it can be much more picky about what manuscripts it selects to meet the publishing goals within that genre. Your odds of having your manuscript selected go down as a result. Publishers may even announce that they are no longer accepting submissions within the genre that has the overflow.

The simple solution to this issue is to do a bit of research prior to submitting your proposal package to the publisher. Look on their website or use resources such as Writer’s Market to determine the types of titles and plots the publisher has put out recently. Then analyze whether your manuscript fits one or more of the publisher’s immediate production needs. You need to be able to show that your manuscript fits what the publisher is doing and thus prove marketability, but you also need to be able to show how your manuscript has fresh ideas compared to previous publications.

Some publishers reject great writing not because of improper publisher/genre/manuscript matching, but because they quit working when they write the last chapter of the text. They construct a so-so query letter that doesn’t catch the editor’s eye, has basic grammar or spelling errors and that doesn’t truly summarize the plot or the author’s experience. No query letter can be completely cookie cutter because ideally you should customize each query letter to the publisher to which it is sent, but every query letter needs to have an excellent hook, flawless presentation and prove your competence. As you try to promote your work, don’t make the mistake of judging the manuscript on the editor’s behalf within the query–let the editor decide for himself whether you’ve got a text that could propel you to fame.

Great writing sometimes doesn’t get published because, quite simply, writers don’t take a chance on themselves. For whatever reason, they don’t think what they’ve written will make the cut, or they are afraid of the possible rejection editors can give. Subsequently, they submit nothing and have their worst fear realized–they never get to see what they write in print. Meanwhile, less worthy texts find places on bookstore shelves.

Publication also can evade amazing writers because the writing isn’t right for the time. For example, stories with vampire themes have been wildly successful over the past decade or so (notably, the Twilight saga). Had these books been written in the 1600s, the period where witches, vampires, werewolves and the like were highly ostracized in the United States, they might have had no hope of publication. In the same way, people who write in the style of Charles Dickens might be labeled as too archaic and complex for modern readers, even though Dickens’ work is considered classic.

Finding solutions to these issues isn’t always easy, but you can do your best to send your manuscript to the publisher most likely to need it. You can customize and perfect your queries. You can get feedback on the manuscript to build your confidence before you submit it. And you can be mindful of the market, researching what sells and what doesn’t. All you have to do is start.