Mark Terry

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Writing A Publishable Book

May 9, 2007
Jessica Faust (of the faustian bargain, one wonders?) of BookEnds Literary Agency had this to say yesterday on her blog:

Publishing is not about selling a good book. Publishing is about selling a book that will sell, and rarely does that have to do entirely with how good the book is. Usually it has a lot more to do with how marketable it is. Sure that has a lot to do with how the book is written, but it also has a lot to do with plotting, characterization, and hook.

This was pretty much the final thing she had to say in the post, which was in response to a letter she received by an aspiring author who had 100 rejections and a seemingly endless number of rewrites, and couldn't decide whether to keep tweaking or bail out on the project. Jessica told him he should bail. Then she pretty much wrapped it up with the above post, which I thought was an interesting comment that all aspiring novelists should think about.

I've always concentrated on "good writing" which by my definition means "effective, efficient, vivid and economical" writing. I suppose if I wanted to teach a course I'd just shorten it to the Three Es. I could add elegant, but I don't think my writing is terribly elegant, poetic or even beautiful. It's serviceable, it's immediate (that's important to me and my editor told me it was what she liked about my books, so I'm doing something right) and, what I feel is most important: it's effective. In other words, it does what I want it to do.

All of which is apparently important to getting published, but probably not as important as writing a marketable manuscript that tells an effective story. (There's that word again).

I admit to a long failure at figuring out the "hook." Only now am I getting the hang of that (sort of), but I can see how that must make the whole book easier for your agent to sell to an editor and the editor to then sell to the marketing staff and publisher. Here we go: female private eye works northern California; loaner ex-military cop wanders the country getting involved in adventures and helping people; female Chicago cop chases serial killers and her name is Jacquelyn "Jack" Daniels and each book is named after a cocktail; 5th century Byzantium mysteries featuring the Emperor's chief councelor as detective; female forensic pathologist; female forensic anthropologist; Homeland Security expert on biological and chemical terrorism; well, you get the idea.

Once you get that "hook" and that's not necessarily as easy at it sounds, you have to execute the story in a reasonably effective manner. Then you have to have a character that is reasonably memorable.

Then you have to get lucky.

But yeah, I would agree with Jessica that the success of a book doesn't necessarily depend on how great a writer (or stylist) you are. There are other factors and those can be harder to learn than learning to write well. But I do believe that learning to write well (or good, if you'll excuse the tiny joke) can solve a lot of problems and move you on your way.

Mark Terry


Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

All very true. Mary and I, in our combined style, can say what we need to say. There are many, many unpublished writers who are stylistically superior I'm sure.

I have known writers who agonize over technique and style and rewrite a million times, but have nothing interesting to say (or probably do but never think to write about it) They will become angry reading this or that published story or book in which the writer makes stylistic errors and they'll say "it's not right. Why is this person published when I'm a better writer?" The problem is that they may be better stylists but they are not better writers. Writing involves much more.

Of course Mary and I do need to find a hook that'll catch more

9:31 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Yeah, Eric. I'm sure there's a blog in my future when I talk about what being a "good writer" means.

I recognize I'm very good at what I do, especially the nonfiction and specifically the types of nonfiction I write. My writing style and approach is not necessarily good for all types of writing and all types of readers, but for these clients, I'm writing precisely what needs to be written in precisely the way the publishers need it to be written. And as long as I continue to do so I'll stay employed.

It's more complicated for fiction, but... maybe not that much more.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Didn't Grisham send his first book, A Time To Kill, out over 100 times???
I thought I read that somewhere...

6:56 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Could be. It's not uncommon, or at least, it wasn't when there used to be more publishers.

I heard that Elmore Leonard's "The Big Bounce" was rejected 85 times before it got published--and that wasn't his first novel!

(and now it's been made into two films. Unfortunately, Elmore Leonard was quoted as saying, I always thought the first film version of "The Big Bounce" was the worst movie ever made... until the second movie version came out).

Somehow I think that assessment didn't prevent him from cashing the checks.

4:32 AM  

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