Pragmatism, The Art, and Publication

- Part I: What is the Pedagogical Strategy Here?
- Part II: Postmodern Tales of Show-Don't-Tell
- Part III: Will You Please Stop Writing, Please?
- Part IV: The Seven Reasons Why Writers Fail to Publish
- Part V: On to Publication and Greatness

Seven Reasons Why Writers Fail to Publish

Whether we're talking about novels or shorts, the same issues creep up again and again (only #7 is peculiar to first novel writers). After many years experience as both an editor and workshop leader, I've been able to make a list.

  1. INADEQUATE WRITING SKILLS OR STORYTELLING/STRUCTURE PROBLEMS. In the case of the former, the writing itself does not display the energy, creativity, and polish necessary to convince an editor or agent to go deeper. This is perhaps the number one cause of failure. Usually, the writer is not aware--or at least, not sufficiently aware to enable productive change. Perhaps this is a first stab at fiction, she or he not realizing that tech or law writing ill prepares one. Also, the writer does not know a good editor or reader, and therefore, has never received truly helpful crit. Or perhaps we're back to the ego obstacle. Also, we have the "birthed baby" phenomenon: the writer has produced a passage, a character, or scene they can't possibly do away with. It is sacred to them. So it remains, defacing the narrative like a major pothole, jolting editors and agents alike each time they meet it.

    In the case of the storytelling/structure issue, the writer may be very accomplished at connecting the word dots. The agent or publisher gives it a good read then backs off. Why? Well, the story goes nowhere. It is insufficiently interesting, or perhaps even confusing. Just recently a fine writer handed me sample of his ms. His prose skill kept me turning, but finally, I bogged down on characters who spun endlessly in place, who never really took action or engaged in any reaction worth noting.

  2. MISUNDERSTANDING OF THE MARKET. Virtually every time I speak with a student (especially genre students) I discover that she or he has not sufficiently researched their market. In other words, they don't have a clue as to what types of fiction are currently being published in their genre. Why is this important? It tells the writer in advance what types of stories the market demands, and it also steers the writer away from starting a project that will be DOA on arrival due to being way way too deja-vu. As I stated before, far too many writers make the Sydney Sheldon mistake, i.e., they attempt to emulate a well published writer, falsely believing it will get them published. They don't understand that icons like Sheldon, Updike, Oates and many others can get away with horrible crimes and still be published. In the case of the first time novelist, she or he needs to examine what types of first novels have been published in their genre over the past five years: investigate story types, settings, protagonists, etc. The research always yields productive results.

  3. EGO TIMES TEN. The writer is puffed, living in a state of I-know-better. She or he is therefore incapable of successfully editing their work. Friends, relatives, or bad agents have told them their writing is good, and their story interesting . . . Perhaps the writer is a big success in their other career--why shouldn't they also know-it-all when it comes to writing? I once had a successful venture capitalist person hand me their 15 page synopsis and the first few pages of their work. The synopsis was absurdly long and unable to summarize the story in any interesting way; and the first couple of pages needed a good line editing because the prose was inadequate and one tended to speedbump over at least one awkward sentence per paragraph. Of course, these facts were unknown to the venture capitalist. This person presented me the work with a grand TA DAH!, expecting me to corroborate their own findings. Well, of course, irritation set in when I tactfully pointed out shortcomings.

  4. BAD ADVICE. Whether the source is an article, a friend, or a writer's conference, the writer has been told something that steered them wrong, or built a false expectation, or made them believe a man-bites-dog story will happen to them. For example, a writer with a manuscript in need of a good final editing told me, "Not to worry. The publishing house editor or the agent will complete the edit for me." I explained that would not happen--not for the average unpublished writer (plus the story was a bore). The writer needed pragmatic advice.

    Another piece of incredibly bad advice often heard from egoistic writers or agents: "Writers are born, not made." This is simply not true. A clever, determined writer who seeks to research and learn their craft will succeed.

  5. MORALE LOSS. The most common form of morale loss occurs at such time the writer finally realizes their writing is not nearly as good as they suspected. The writer returns to a favorite slice of writing, seeking to admire, build confidence, only to discover their favorite slice has become stale and offensive. So what happened? Writers who fail to understand that such realizations are necessary watersheds (and they happen to all writers!) and indicators of growth, become disillusioned. They quit.

    The second biggest cause of morale loss results from no success in publishing the short piece or the novel. It's been dragging on for years. Various stories or a novel ms have been shopped around. No one is buying and feedback is confusing . . . Or perhaps the manuscripts are resting like a one ton anchor on your desk (waiting for neck)--eight years later and still not ready despite several restarts and who knows how many total drafts!

  6. IMPATIENCE = LOST OPPORTUNITY. The story is pretty good, fairly original, and the writing likewise, however, the writer is impatient and sends out the story too soon. Editors will stumble over the prose a few times before reaching for a rejection slip.

  7. NO EDGE. The vast majority of first novel writers have not yet published work in viable short fiction markets. This makes it even more difficult to land a good agent. Many agents will not look twice at a writer whose cover letter does not demonstrate a track record of some type. A publishing record, even a meager one, helps convince publishers and agents that you have what it takes.