Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Professional Authors and Gateway Standards

Randy Ingermanson has some interesting things to say about writers. He divides pre-published writers -- most of us at NTSFW -- into peer groups like a high school: Freshman, Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors.

Seniors are people who
A) regularly write luminous prose,
B) have developed many contacts in the industry,
C) continually write and send excellent queries and/or book proposals,
D) regularly are requested for sample pages,
E) often get encouraging rejection letters from agents and editors,
and so on.

They are operating on all cylinders as a near-pro writer, but are still unpublished. Seniors are also frustrated beyond belief.

For Juniors, the above adjectives and adverbs become less superlative, and for Sophomores, they become pretty spotty. Let's not talk about Freshmen.

Honestly applying the above standard criteria, I believe that most of us in NTSFW are Sophomores and Juniors. Despite now getting paid for ghost writing, and having a novel under contract, I consider myself a Junior who is concentrating on becoming a Senior.

The standard of work for a Senior to graduate to professionally published author is higher than the standard of work for a professional author to continue publishing. This is a gateway standard, not really a double standard, because you only have to meet it once. It may seem painful when you are on this side of it, but you'll be quite glad for it once you have earned your way through the gate.

* * *

Why does the gateway exist? At least three practical reasons.

First, your first published novel has no time requirement. You literally have no deadline, so you can make it as perfect as your ability allows. Everything you write after that will have deadlines, and will have to be just good enough.

Second, there's the obvious matter of name recognition-- to be a good risk for publication, a novel by a nobody has to be better than a novel by a known person, who a certain number of prior readers will buy on the strength of the prior book. (Actually, psychology shows that on average they will actually *enjoy* the book more when it is by an author that they already enjoy than if the same work were written by an unknown. One of the various psychological "priming" effects.)

Third, closely related to the second-- as you gain a track record, you will have more leverage to keep the "darlings" that you really should have killed, if you had possessed enough sense to take the excellent advice of your agent and editor. Your work will not be improved as much in the editing process. Do you suppose anyone says "no" to Stephen King?

So, there are a number of reasons that professionals might be able to publish a product that a first-time novelist cannot. And all of them make sense, no matter how painful they are to first-timers like us.

* * *

But there's another major factor involved. Perceptual bias on the part of the writer-reader. Writers are the harshest critics, especially those of us who are learning to write, and trying to develop a particular set of workable rules for our own writing.

We are so busy training ourselves to not make certain so-called "mistakes" of writing, that we diminish our enjoyment of alternative forms. In essence, we judge a work by the "mode" that we are attempting to learn to write, rather than evaluating it on its own terms.

Take a painting as a metaphor. Looking at a French Impressionist masterpiece, we could evaluate it as a incompetent piece from the POV of classical photorealism, horrible from the POV of cubism, and/or pedestrian from the POV of surrealism. And it is.

So what?

Honestly, I tried to reread Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn last year, and couldn't get a dozen pages due to the excessive use of misspellings to represent dialect. This is a book I absolutely loved as a boy, and can't bring myself to read now.

Likewise, I only managed to get about halfway through Susanna Clarke's Johnathan Strange and Mr Norell, which won the 2005 Hugo award. There was a plot there, and a fascinating universe, but I kept waiting for the *story* to begin. Because of my training as a writer, I wanted to connect to some particular character, rather than bouncing around the universe observing things occurring to a range of people, from a distance. The novel's style was modeled after a Regency (Jane Austin-type), but with scholarly footnotes that led ever deeper into the lore of Clarke's world. Readers and Hugo voters loved it. Someday, I might untrain myself so I can love it too. But not today.

How does this apply to us as "junior" and "senior" writers?

Remember that the rules we are taught have limited applicability. (Although we may not be aware of the exact limits.) They describe one particular mode of writing.

Remember that the vast majority of all things written and published do *not* belong to that particular mode which is being vaunted.

Remember that awards are won by those who create their own mode, not by those deciding to slavishly adhere to a mode designed by others.

Remember to read widely, especially among acclaimed books, to diversify your repetoir, to stretch your abilities, and to find new things that are fun for you.

Remember to read as a reader first, to experience the effect of a work, THEN go back and read as a writer to find out how that effect was achieved. Don't dissect the dog until you're done playing "fetch".

Pay attention to how all the parts work together. What did the writer gain by violating your standard rules? What did she lose? What other adaptations was she forced to make, and how did they work together?

And above all...

Feel free to abandon a work if you are not enjoying it, even if it IS famous. Life's too short to read bad books.


Shawn S. Deggans said...

I'd forgotten about that article. It reminds me a bit of Tobias Buckell's category of neopro. Personally, I think the best thing an aspiring author can do is just keep on keeping on. Perseverance and dedication to planting butt in chair seem to be the road to success--well, that and actually sending stories out to publishers. I also think the quality of today's writer is much higher than what was expected just twenty years ago. There's a certain amount of pressure on the starting author to produce something that is brilliant, because there's not much room for a mid-lister to survive long on the market. Basically, you better come up to bat and hit a home run right out of the ball park or you'll find yourself right back in the minor leagues. It doesn't seem fair, but then again, what's ever seemed fair--so I practice swinging a lot!

Dal Jeanis said...

Thanks for the reminder. Now I just have to start a list of what needs to go out to where...