Breaking In (Part 4): What’s in a Name?

Over the past few days I’ve been sharing my observations on what it takes to break into the world of writing and get your work published.  I’ve been especially focused on writing novels, and I’m also more squarely focused on the fantasy and science fiction genre markets.  All of these observations are those of an outsider: someone who has yet to really be published.  Some would call me a wannabe, an appellation which is technically true as I do, indeed, want to be a writer.  More specifically, I want to be a professionally published writer, and I want to be able to make a living off of doing that.

But there’s a wide gap between where I am and where I want to be.  So, I’m trying to learn everything I can about the industry and gain some insight on how editors makes the decisions they make on who and what to publish.  So, let’s think about things from the editor’s point of view for a minute.  An editor’s job is a hard one.  There is no shortage of people like me: wannabes.  We love writing, have what we think are great ideas, and want desperately to do this professionally.  Most of us, quite frankly, are awful at it.  Some of us have latent talent, but not the skill and experience to make things work.  From the editor’s perspective, there is a potentially infinite source of manuscripts.  The editor has to tackle that infinity of manuscripts, wade through a sea of crap (remember, if we need to write a “million words of crap” before we’ll start producing anything of quality, if there were only a few thousand wannabe writers that would be billions of words worth of crap; the estimation of only a few thousand wannabe writers is probably, in my experience, unrealistically low), and find the work of true quality that can be polished until presentable and published.  It seems a daunting, even impossible task.  How does an editor do it?

Lesson 3: Editors don’t want to read crap.

The only answer I can see to the question above: an editor needs heuristics, rules-of-thumb, to help him or her quickly eliminate the vast majority of the crap.  If you’ve seen one crap manuscript, you’ve pretty much seen them all.  Many crappy stories and half-baked novels, at least from the editor’s perspective, share certain traits and qualities in common.  So, I believe editors start from the lowest-common-denominator and work their way up, applying new filtering heuristics to each set of manuscripts that passed the last test.  They may start with simple things: manuscripts that don’t follow their manuscript format guidelines are summarily discarded without further ado.  Then they’ll get into the details: does the opening paragraph grab the editor’s attention?  No?  Discard it without reading further.  Does the story provide some new or interesting perspective on the genre?  No?  Discard it.  Each editor will have his or her own tastes and specifics on what she is looking for. 

Mostly, at least, that’s what I surmise about how things work in the short story market.  It is not a real leap of logic to suggest that things are similar in the novel market.  An acquiring editor at a novel publisher may give you more than a single paragraph to catch his interest, but only just so.  The idea, I imagine, is the same.

One of those filtering heuristics, based on some things I’ve read, may be one which the wannabe writer would least expect: the prominence of the wannabe’s name in the industry.  In other words, has the editor heard of you?  One answer to that question can be addressed in part in my previous “Breaking In” post on developing a “Writing Community”.  If there are a lot of editors in your “network” of people you know and interact with, chances are better that an editor you want to do business with will have heard of you.

In the novel-publishing market, there is one other potential source of “name recognition”: the short story market.  At least, this seems to be true in the speculative fiction world.  If you get a half-dozen short stories published in the magazines or short-story compilations that the acquisition editors are reading regularly, they’ll start to notice your name cropping up.  When your novel manuscript ends up on one of their desks, the editor is more apt to think to herself: “now where have I seen this name before?”  If your story was one he or she liked, more the better for your chances of holding that editor’s eyes long enough to give your manuscript a fair read.

Ideally, of course, you would be able to use both of these tools in tandem: growing your network to include editors and gaining some name recognition in the short story markets.  However, one or the other of these may be just entirely infeasible to one writer or another.  The drawbacks of the networking were mentioned last time.  For short story writing,  however, the drawbacks are different.  A writer who is great at long-form writing (such as novels) might be terrible at short stories.  And the reverse can also be true: a great short story writer may be a sub-par novelist.

Ultimately, the lesson for wannabe writers comes back to this simple rule: to be successful at writing as a career, you need to be exceptional at the craft of writing.  That one factor, more than any other, will do the most to improve your chances of launching  a career.  However, it’s really not enough.  Success also takes marketing savvy, developing a rapport and name-recognition in the industry.  You’ll need to find some way to get past an editor’s crap-meter and get your beautifully polished prose in front of his or her eyes.

The sad part about the crap-filtering heuristics is that, inevitably, they are imperfect.  The vast majority of what will be rejected by these filters will, certainly, be crap.  But they will also filter out gems that, on first pass, look like crap.  By the same token, there will be some crap that manages to pass through all these filters without setting off alarm bells.  The bad news for writers-to-be: there really isn’t any better or more reliable system imminently available to editors that will allow your gems to rise to the top (unpolished or otherwise).  For us, it stands only to learn the ropes of the business and do our best to improve our craft.

On Friday I’ll tie these “lessons” together and summarize my plan for developing my writing career.

Happy writing.

Back to  Part 3: Writing Community

Continue to Part 5: My Plan