Honest Critiques

No, I mean it. REAL honest. Email your excerpts or full stories, up to 1000 words or so, to honestcrits [at] yahoo [dot] co [dot] uk. Synopses would also be welcome. My backlog is so daunting now that I recommend not submitting anything you are not prepared to wait a couple of months for a response on.
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  • Friday, December 02, 2005

    Time I Was In Bed

    Well, it's late, but I've done too much work today to want to go to bed at a sensible hour. I say work - I imagine if I'd been down the mines for eight hours, I'd be long since knitting up the ravelled sleeve of care - but having spent the last six weeks focusing obsessively on minute details of style in this book we're outting together, I feel the need to sound off about nothing much in particular. Plus I have had a few glasses of wine and some grappa, but I probably shouldn't be mentioning that, right?

    Anecdote: I recently went on a training course which is supposed to teach us editors What Goes On In The Production Department. If we're the Eloi, these guys are the Morlocks - they often move mountains invisibly in the background, and only occasionally pop up to the surface to devour an unfortunate colleague who has made an unwise choice of format. So I sat there for a couple of days in the hope that the next time our lovely but unrepentantly monosyllabic Glaswegian production controller appears to tell me that my book's going to be late, I will be able to argue him into submission armed with my dazzling comprehension of what the hell he's on about.

    We get towards the end of it and my cranium is so stuffed with practical wisdom it feels like the liver of a foie gras goose. It's time for the exercise where we get together in little groups and prepare specifications for various imaginary books; we choose the Harry Potter-type book, a kid's paperback, 110,000 words, selling at $8.95, print run of 25K.

    My partner and I get to go first, and we knock it out of the park. Out presentation combines staggering technical insight with a deep and sympathetic understanding of the aesthetic value of the project. The whole thing is costed, down to each sheet of paper required on press, and laid out in a clear schedule that will get our book from manuscript to market in less than four months. Once the applause has ceased to echo, the next group is called - the unenviable task of following us made even more daunting by the fact that they've chosen the Potter assignment as well.

    Long story short: they'd actually done their sums right, and we only sounded like we had. Their book is 100 pages shorter, due to the fact that I'd misread the casting-off tables and specified a 5cm column width for our book. Quick, grab a copy of Harry Potter, open any page, and measure how wide the text block is. Now imagine it was 5cm wide, instead. Yep, that's an extra 8 tons of paper right there.

    Next time the Glaswegian comes round with bad news, I'm going to buy him a pint.

    What else. Well, I was going to reply to Lesia Valentine, who wrote:

    You're a professional, so what I'd like to ask of you, on behalf of us all, is just how the system "works." To us, all that means is that it works for you (and others on your side of the chasm). We don't feel it works for us. We're all frustrated with what we see as a system as slow and bureaucratic as the U.S. government [...] We are being reduced to churning out formulaic fertilizer where all that is necessary is to take the previous novel and insert a new name and occupation for the protag.


    OK. The system is slow and bureaucratic because 1) there are a huge number of writers trying to get published; 2) in order to evaluate a piece of writing you have to read it; 3) this evaluation is subjective and so a book bought by one editor may not be bought by another; 4) every publishing house is, unavoidably, different, and so the writer is going to have to tick different boxes. I don't see any of these things changing any time soon. However, what I do see is that there are very many good, bad and indifferent first novels published every year, most of which have come through this system. So it continues to produce a wide variety of new publishing. It 'works for us'.

    But why should it work for you? The book market is - well - a market. You are trying to put your work on that market. The market doesn't owe you anything. It's up to you to create a product that will appeal to it. The publishers are just there to be your partner in case you can't afford to print, market and distribute a book yourself, and their decision-making process is geared towards deciding whether that market appeal exists. So, really, forget about the publishers. If a publisher asks you to retread your last novel, it's because they believe the market wants that.

    Sure, we sometimes publish stuff for love, but we have to be commercial, too, or we lose the ability to do that, too. If something crosses our desks that's obvious commercial gold, the system swings into frighteningly rapid action.

    If you're finding that your book is languishing in a slush pile, it might well languish in a warehouse or bookstore too. The former situation is cheaper and less traumatic for all concerned. Trust me on that. The first run of my first published book is 90% pulp. It's not a nice feeling. (The second one's selling very nicely, thank you...)

    Secondly, about that formulaic fertilizer. Can you make a living out of it? Then churn it out. You can always write the Great American Novel once you're financially secure. Believe it or not, there's lots of good new writing out there; I know the bloody Da Vinci Code looms over everything like the Eye of Sauron, but things aren't as bleak as all that. And hey, lots of writers I know and respect have done their share of hack work. Don't be too precious about your trade.

    It's better than going down the mines.

    Good night all...

    Torgo, 2:33 am

    10 Comments:

    Welcome back!
    By the way, is there a way to convey to an editor (when submitting) that one would be thrilled to rewrite, alter and generally prostitute one's work as much as desired? I mean, without sounding really abject?
    -Barbara
    Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:37 am  
    Well said and very interesting!
    Blogger Anne Merril, at 3:41 am  
    Excellent, Torgo!
    Blogger Bernita, at 11:32 am  
    Presuming one is not particpating in a practice of questionable ethical morality by 'outting' a book, is that a typo - or a UK'ism for putting together a book?
    Blogger Brady Westwater, at 5:11 pm  
    I may be crazy, but I like the publishing process. I like the fact that my query letters are read, that agents send me personal notes asking for those first 75 pages to see if they want to take on my novel. In the digital world, it's wonderful to go to the mail box and see that shining letter from an agent who's responding to a query. I had one agent ask for email submissions. The next day he had a reply in my inbox. "This is nothing I'm interested in handling." I much prefer handwritten notes scribbled on my query letter. Even the rejections are easier to take. And you're right, after all that writing, I'd rather not have something published at all than have it put on a "remainders" table for weeks until it sinks into "out-of-print land, never to be seen again.
    Blogger Stephen Newton, at 6:00 pm  
    Putting, Brady, yes. Sorry. Grappa.
    Blogger Torgo, at 6:10 pm  
    Mmmm, grappa. Eau de vie!

    But it does make word verification just the teensiest troublesome.
    Blogger quanty p biederman, at 1:52 am  
    Great to see that you time machine didn't get pulled in behind the doors!

    Okay...I'll bite...what's grappa?
    Blogger Bonnie Calhoun, at 3:10 am  
    A very potent brandy also suitable for removing paint and powering high octane vehicles.
    Blogger Brady Westwater, at 6:36 am  
    It's made from grape skins, seeds and stems and served as a digestif. It will actually take your nail polish off, according to my girlfriend.

    Barbara, you could say something like 'I feel there's still room for improvement, and would welcome suggestions'...?
    Blogger Torgo, at 12:13 pm  

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