Saturday, February 10, 2007

A Book Any Aspiring Novelist Ought to Read (A Vine-Ripened Review)

First, a confession: I read a lot of books on the topic of writing. Some are good, some are bad, and most are indifferent, but after you’ve read a few, you seldom find anything new. Why, then, do I continue to read them? Partly from nervous habit, partly, I suspect, because they de-exalt the process—more on this is some other post—and partly for the same reason that fishermen might read Bass Master magazine, which in my opinion isn’t to learn about new lures or rods, but rather to remind themselves that they really are fishermen, even when they’re not fishing.

The internet, like the US Congress, tends toward polarization. If you troll through the forums, you’ll find two opposing opinions expressed by writers about the prospects of publication. One group—let’s call these the Pangloss crowd—contends that all good books get published. (As you might suspect, the ranks of this group are mostly filled with published writers.) The other pole—let’s call these the Conspiracy crowd—claims the entire publishing system is rigged, and that trash gets published while great novels languish in drawers.

Pat Walsh says the story is a lot more complicated than either side realizes.

Walsh—founding editor of the classy indie press MacAdam/Cage—has written a book that ought to be on every writer’s bookshelf: 78 reasons why your book may never be published and 14 reasons why it just might. The number one reason Walsh cites that your book might not get published is because you never finish it, but he goes on to list twenty-four other ways you can write an unpublishable novel, some of which pertain to poor writers (14. You Do Not Have Style) and others to talented writers (15. You Have Too Much Style) All in all, 25 reasons your book might be bad, and all of them reasons that will have the Panglossians nodding and chanting, “I told you so.”

But that leaves 53 other reasons you might not get published, and, while these won’t satisfy the Conspiracy crowd, Walsh lays out some truths about the publishing industry that are all too often Panglossed over. To engage in massive paraphrasing and summarizing, if you have a good book—even a great book—you may remain unpublished because a) you piss people off, b) your agent pisses people off, c) you don’t understand how publishing works, d) you present your book badly, e) you didn’t do your research, f) you just plain had bad luck…

Various people have argued that the slush pile is so hideous that even a mediocre manuscript will shine like a beacon. Anyone who has ever been in a large writing workshop with a heavy weekly manuscript load will have reason to doubt this—after a few repeated exposures to terrible writing, one becomes snowblind and uncharitable, and the next piece needs to work hard to get a fair hearing. Walsh lists this as: 47. You Are in Bad Company, and states the problem both succinctly and all too vividly:

Reading piles of mediocre-to-lousy writing leaves a person numb, worn out, and prone to miss gems. One fresh clam will not undo the ills of a platter of bad ones.

Walsh admits that many fine books do not synopsize well or generate nice sales handles (he cites Ulysses and The Old Man and the Sea as examples, and offers two short and funny loglines for those books). He also recognizes, unlike editors and agents, that cover letters and query letters may not reflect the quality of their book: “Sadly, good manuscripts are often saddled with lousy cover letters…” (Unfortunately, he doesn’t point out that this is because writing self-promotional materials and writing a good book use different skill sets.)

78 reasons…gives insights into office politics, agent-editor relations, profit-and-loss statements, editor’s career motivations, writing conferences, and a host of other behind-the-curtain matters that affect writers and how their manuscript submissions are treated. I’ve never seen another book quite like it…

…and yet it doesn’t seem to be very popular with writers. Many of the posts I’ve seen about it on the web whine the book is discouraging and pessimistic, and in some cases doesn’t offer remedies. (Q: Is there a remedy for bad luck, other than good luck? The author never claimed he was writing “How to Get Published.”)

I admit that Walsh’s writing, while often hilarious, is acerbic, and frequently as frank and to-the-point as a quick sock in the nose. At times, the book would verge on savage were not so much of his humor at his own expense, and if you’re looking for inspiring, follow-your-bliss, Natalie-Goldberg-type warm fuzzy-wuzzies, this is not the book for you. If you’re an aspiring novelist, there are sections that will make you cringe (“Dear God, is that me he’s talking about?”); but it’s a book that bears a second reading, and the next time around, most of what Walsh has to say will seem like no more than common sense. (So give it that second read before slashing your wrists.)

I have one quibble with the book: 22.You Read Your Writing Aloud Too Much. Walsh claims that words need to work on the page, and that writers who read their words aloud can, like great actors, bring sense and power to writing that is essentially flat and lifeless. Perhaps so, but I think more writers ought to consider reading their words aloud, preferably in a monotone. I’ve seen many a train-wreck of a sentence that a writer would never have let stand if he’d tried to mouth it.

The ..and 14 reasons why it just might section that ends the book is obviously intended as Hope hiding at the bottom of Pandora’s Box, and it’s as close to soothing and inspiring as you’re likely to get from this treatise. There’s little here in the way of recommendations that doesn’t read as “avoid everything in the 78 reasons (if you can!)” In these chapters, though, Walsh lets his love of writing and publishing (which is a subtle undercurrent in the rest of the book) shine through.

Yeah, yeah, very nice. But buy the book for the 78 reasons Why Not.


cate sweeney said...

Hi David
Yeah like the sound of this book, but maybe won't read it at the moment as I'm trying to finish my second novel and worried how it will be received! However, it does make you think... WOW! Weren't we lucky to be picked up by a major publishing house? And even though there are complaints about the MNW way of doing things, it's just so great they are giving so many of us a great chance. And we didn't have to struggle with the covering synopsis either!

I love reading books about writing too. They are often inspiring and I think we hope there will be some easy magic formula if we keep reading, but there isn't it's a mix of hard slog and divine inspiration. I agree about reading your work out loud especually the dialogue bits.

Enjoying the blog

David Isaak said...

Yeah, I wouldn't recommend reading Walsh when you're trying to stay inspired. The last thing anybody needs in the throes of creation is a reasonable assessment of the odds.

On the other hand, as legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager said, "When the dream is big enough, the odds don't matter."

Neil said...

David, may I humbly recommend Mat Coward's Success... and How to Avoid to it, published by TTA Press.

David Isaak said...

I'll hunt it up--very promising title!