Tim Clare’s Cone O’ Tragedy: On Submission

Last Sunday, CNN published an opinion piece about Chuck Ross, ‘the man who turned rejection into a career’. Back in the 70s, a young Ross, frustrated that his mystery novel had failed to find a publisher, retyped National Book Award-winning novel Steps by Jerzy Kosinski, then submitted it to 14 publishers and 13 agents, taking off the name and title. All rejected it. Ross – and hundreds like him – held this up as irrefutable proof that the publishing industry was a cabal of incompetent douchebags and they could all go fuck themselves.

The CNN piece presents this as a slam-dunk gotcha. Ross claimed publishers had rejected his mystery novel without giving it a fair crack of the whip, and he knew this because he had sealed the last few pages. All of the manuscripts were returned to him with the seal unbroken, proving they had not read to the end.

I would have just shaken my head and moved on, had I not read the accompanying comments thread on Metafilter. Metafilter is wonderful, intelligent site, usually characterised by reasoned, informed debate.

Instead, I read comments like this:

There’s something fundamentally broken with this industry. J K Rowling’s latest book is further proof of this.

This isn’t a surprising result, is it? Everybody knows it’s next to impossible to get anyone to read a work that isn’t from an established working author or that doesn’t have some bigger money-making deal (a movie, some other creative property) tied up in it. Talent/merit is necessary but not sufficient in just about every creative industry.

Man am I glad I stopped writing. I can’t even fathom trying to figure out what publishers are looking for.

Yes, there were countervailing voices, but I was frankly shocked to read this self-serving bullshit on an ostensibly sensible website, backed up with a bunnyquotes story endbunnyquotes from an ostensibly respectable news source.

People. Friends. You really need to cut this shit out.

I have read hundreds of manuscripts as part of my work doing freelance manuscript consultancy. Let me tell you from years of painful, hard-won experience: 90% of what I see is crap. Sturgeon’s Law remains immutable. The people who wrote it are, I daresay, wonderful, worthwhile folks. Writing a shitty novel does not decrease your worth as a human being one iota, just as writing the next Ulysses does not increase it. It’s just words, not a referendum on your right to exist.

I have to read the whole damn novel because I’m writing a report on how to improve it, but I can tell from the first page if it’s got promise. I’ve never read a shitty opening five pages that magically bloomed into compulsively readable prose. Shitty novels are shitty all the way down. They are shitty in their bones.

The only unbroken seal Mr Ross needs to worry about is the one formed by his rectum enveloping his head. What dizzying egotism! Constructing an elaborate, industry-wide conspiracy of talent-deniers, rather than admitting that your novel is dull!

Besides the fact that Chuck Ross’s ‘experiment’ ignores the simplest explanation – that the agents and editors in question were reasonably well-read and recognised that he had plagiarised a prizewinning manuscript – it says nothing about the quality or lack thereof of his mystery novel. Which, of course, is rather the point. £50 says it was wall-to-wall turdageddon.

Aspiring writers – allow me to introduce you to my friend Mr Occam and his amazing razor. If your manuscript gets rejected, it is probably not very good.

I’ve written about this before, which earned me close to 50 pieces of hate mail. (mostly from people who, after I responded to their initial emails courteously, confessed to being aspiring writers themselves then asked if I would please read their manuscripts) Interestingly, every correspondent assumed I was published! (I wasn’t, at the time) I shall now engage with some common objections.

But lots of bad novels get published! What about Dan Brown, Jeffrey Archer, 50 Shades, etc.

I agree that Dan Brown and Jeffrey Archer are cackhanded fuck-ups who ought to have their laptops slammed shut on their hacky fingers. I mean, that’s what you’re advocating, right? That the publishing industry raises its standards and publishes less, rather than more? Surely you wouldn’t be so crass, possess so little self-respect, as to be arguing that, because areas of the publishing world have low standards, your work need only be better than the worst novels ever written to merit a print run? Surely you’re not saying ‘lots of people have already defacated on this public footpath, so why can’t I?’

Publishers don’t read slush-piles anymore and agents are so busy that brilliant novels go unread.

Firstly, I don’t accept that agents aren’t taking on new clients. I hear about new authors finding agents all the time. Agents and publishers love books and they would all fucking love to discover a brilliant new author – they would feed their grandmother feet-first into a woodchipper for the privilege. Who told you this information? Did you read it on the internet somewhere? You did, didn’t you? You pranny.

Secondly, this is only of concern to you if you are currently in possession of a ‘brilliant novel’ to tout around. Here’s my theory: you’re not. At best, you’ve got a so-so manuscript in need of work. When I say ‘you’, I’m addressing aspiring authors who come out with this sort of creaky old canard, unsolicited. Funnily enough, all the writers I know who produced genuinely brilliant manuscripts never bleated about this problem. I don’t think they ever paid it much mind. They were too busy editing their fucking work.

The publishing industry is about making money, not promoting art.

Weirdly, I hear this most often from male authors of thrillers and adventure stories, as if they’re grafting on the fringes of avant-garde literature with their discursive narratives of middle-aged men uncovering global terrorist conspiracies.

Again, this is only relevant if your proposed novel genuinely falls under the sainted aegis of literature. But look, even if the publishing industry were an irrational folly set up to promote art – and I think, to a certain extent, many editors do support less commercial titles with the bigger sellers on their lists – there’s an implied, invisible adjective you’re deliberately eliding.

It would promote good art. Your novel is shitty art.

Just because it’s literary fiction, doesn’t mean it’s good literary fiction. Sure, rail against modern reading tastes and dismiss UK agents as a raft of tepid, middlebrow milquetoasts. Even if you’re right, you haven’t demonstrated that your work transcends all that. In fact, I suspect you throw up so much chaff precisely to draw attention away from your own failings as an author, which are many and grave. Perhaps if you stopped reading biographies of Hemmingway and learnt to write a simple, declarative sentence, you might produce something that finds an audience.

The future of publishing is self-publishing. Better to get your work out there. Let the readers decide.

As an author I have nothing against self-publishing. As a reader, it can fuck right off. I’ve not yet read a self-published novel that reached the rarefied heights of ‘good’. (and don’t say ‘what about Wool?’ I’ve already completed Fallout 3, thank you, I don’t need to read the fanfic. Also, I read some and it’s adequate, albeit extremely derivative – good for self-published fiction, but not ‘good’ by normal standards. Also, it’s been conventionally published, so it doesn’t count)

I’ve read some self-published poetry collections that were good, and some that weren’t. The economics of poetry are a bit different.

I certainly agree that the lines between ‘traditional’ publishing and self-publishing are going to get more and more blurred as this century trundles on. Whether the two settle into relatively stable symbiosis or one consumes the other remains to be seen. I expect, in the future, some quality, credible self-published novels will come out, probably from authors with existing fanbases, established bloggers, webcomic artists, etc. But the vast majority will remain irredemable dogshit.

At least there’s some honesty in the above position. You’re tired. You’ve been rejected across the board. Better to reach a few readers than none at all, eh?

I mean, sure. I stick first drafts of poems up on this blog every week. It’s useful for me, it keeps me on a writing schedule, and every so often I churn out one that I like, that becomes part of my set. It’s a helpful creative practice. I’d be pissed off if someone said that, unless a poem gets accepted by a national poetry magazine, I should just bin it. I’m sharing my process with whoever’s interested, but mainly, it’s for my benefit.

On the other hand, in the example above, I’m not charging, and I’m presenting the pieces as work in progress, rather than the finished article. I don’t drop them into a document every time I knock out 50 and publish it as an ebook. That would devalue the poetry and prose I spend ages on. And who knows? Maybe I should keep some of my rough work a little more private. Quality over quantity, innit.

Look, we all write something that, later in life, we look back on and think: ‘cripes, that wasn’t very good’. Even published authors often revisit earlier novels with a degree of embarrassment. I have mixed feelings about some of my output, for sure. It’s a healthy impulse. We grow, we change, and hopefully we improve. I’m not advocating a policy of ‘perfection or silence’.

But maybe don’t ask the world to pay for your rough drafts, eh? By all means, share chapters online with your peers, ask for feedback, listen, develop your craft. Then, if the novel you create is not exceptional (and I see no reason why this should not be the standard you hold yourself to) take all the knowledge you’ve amassed, and move onto the next project. I have five novels sitting on my hard drive. You will never get to read them. You know why? They’re fucking godawful. (I put the first up on a website when I was 15 and I’m glad to say I think the vintage internet has swallowed it)

Why release something that you just feel shruggy about? In the words of Chris Morris, where’s your self-re-cocking-spect?

The publishing industry is by no means perfect. Editors and agents are the first to admit that. They see novels they love fail to reach the wide audience the authors deserve. It’s hard convincing strangers to read stuff! Also, it costs a lot of money. That doesn’t mean they don’t try their hardest to fill the world with more good stories they think people will love.

Some agents and editors are venal myopic philistines. That’s because some humans are venal myopic philistines. Maybe we all are, a little bit.

Tossing down your red pen and refusing to fight to make your novel the best it can be is cowardice. Justifying your spinelessness with the false bogeyman of Evil Mainstream Publishing is cynicism.

I understand the impulse that makes would-be authors renounce submission in favour of submission. It’s painful to work your hardest at something only to discover you’re shit at it. I know, because it happened to me. I had a breakdown. It was horrible.

But it’s not an excuse. However comforting – even useful – the belief system, it’s false. Truth is axiomatically better than falsehood, so listen to me. Stop worrying about submission guidelines and query letters and industry trends. Let’s look at your first paragraph. Could it be better? Show me how. Good.

Now you’re getting somewhere.