Tuesday, March 4, 2014

TUESDAY TIPS: Don't settle for "good"

IT’S A CONVERSATION I HAVE HAD any number of times. I will praise a writer’s work—in a workshop, or in a one-on-one, and he or she will ask, “Do you think it’s good enough to be published?”
And that is a question I am always hesitant to answer, because the plain fact is that “good enough to be published” may not be—and probably is not—good enough for you.
Better than 60 years ago, science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon took a look at what was available in literature, in film, and in art in general, and declared, “Ninety percent of everything is crud.
And Sturgeon knew what was not crud: his contributions to the TV show Star Trek included the “prime directive” and Mr. Spock’s famous parting line, “Live long and prosper.”
Six decades on, 90 percent of everything is still crud, and that includes contemporary fiction. I just finished judging a prestigious international fiction competition—one in which the publishers were challenged to cherry-pick the best of last year’s catalogues—and I was astonished and dismayed by the number of entries I read in which the both the writers and the editors seem to have been to some degree tone-deaf; there is no other way to describe the lumpy language I encountered.
At the same time, I read some entries so lyric that I was re-reading entire paragraphs just to savor the words, but when I got to the ends of the books, there was no “there” there. These were writers and editors who failed to realize that, perhaps more than anything else, plot and structure determine whether readers like the book, and if a writer’s work is to have legs, he or she must understand how to land it—how to make the book end with resonance.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I read some great books in that contest. But the crud overshadowed the cream to a remarkable extent.
People often say how high the bar is set for one to break in on contemporary fiction. I say it myself—I shudder to think how well some of my own work would be received, if it was received at a publisher in 2014, and not in those halcyon days when I first entered the craft. And for what it's worth, most debut novels are pretty good—or at least the crud quotient is pretty low when one looks only at first novels. But, be that as it may, fiction as a whole conforms pretty well to Sturgeon's Revelation, and the contest I judged was no anomaly; a lot of junk still makes it into print each year. 
I am not sure why that is. Some of it, no doubt, can be chalked up to “contract killers,”—rushing out the final book called for in a publisher’s contract, which the writer may want to get off the plate at all costs, so he or she can move on to a more lucrative project. Some of it might be time-related; the book was listed in the catalogue, so writer and editor threw caution (and craft) to the winds, and settled for getting it down, rather than getting it right.
And much of it comes because writers and editors tend to be overworked people, and when the book is one of several that must soon be in play, they yield to the seductive force of turning in something that they feel is good enough for publication, and not the very best work they can do.

Those are the charitable assumptions. Beyond those are the possibilities that neither writer nor editor has an ear for words, or that a talented nonfiction writer has decided to try his or her hand at a novel, without bothering first to set a benchmark ... say by reading a few pieces of book-length fiction written in the current century.
Of course, not everyone is this way. But writers who understand and consistently deeply practice the value of both lyric language and satisfying structure are rare—so rare that, when I mention their names, you will recognize them. Stephen King is one, and so is Dean Koontz. J.K. Rowling is one, and John Irving is another. These writers (and, one must assume, their editors), “get it” that language and structure are two equally important aspects of craft. And because their work represents this understanding, they rank consistently among the most successful people in their field.
So … is your novel good enough for publication? You tell me; where do you want to go with your work?
Because, if the answer is, “As far as I can,” you will keep working—working on language and working on structureuntil you will arrive at a product that is so obviously superior that you will no longer need to ask the question. 

No comments:

Post a Comment