Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Reading about Writing 2

Pat Walsh, 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never be Published and 14 Reasons Why it Just Might (Penguin Books, 2005).

In the early pages of 78 Reasons, Pat Walsh provides a statistical wake-up call to writers aspiring to publication:

Of the roughly four thousand submissions our publishing house receives a year -- unsolicited and unagented -- at least half reek of bad writing and sorry story lines. Another thousand significantly lack in one area or the other. The next eight hundred are not horrid, just not good enough -- mediocre efforts, rife with clichés and tired plots. Of the two hundred left, I would say a hundred and fifty have some real merit but are a good idea badly executed or a bad idea nicely realized. From the fifty remaining, forty are heartbreakers -- almost but not quite there. In some way, that is difficult to explain other than to say it usually manifests itself when a reader puts down the manuscript and is not excited about picking it back up. Or they fall apart at a crucial stage in a way that is difficult or impossible to fix. The remaining ten are very good and a few of them are exceptional.

He terms this the “crap-to-gem ratio.”

Alas rejection letters are unlikely to enlighten writers as to why their manuscripts fall within the crap category rather than among the gems:

Editors and agents do not give blunt advice and criticism very often. It does not do any good, because the writer almost always reacts defensively and stops listening. Criticizing someone’s writing in a candid way is an awkward endeavor. Nobody wants to hear it, even those who consider themselves thick-skinned. So instead, we wilt and temper our strong opinions down to polite suggestive remarks that may even be mistaken for praise.

In 78 Reasons, Walsh dispenses with the niceties and provides some brutally honest advice in precisely the form his title promises: a list of 78 reasons why your book may not be published and 14 reasons why it might. It’s a dumb title but a smart book. It’s also a funny book, as exemplified in the first reason why your book may never be published: “Because you have not written it.”

Walsh insists that his is a book about publishing rather than a book about writing. It is designed for the writer who has already produced a complete manuscript but is having trouble selling it. Nevertheless, more than a quarter of the book (reasons 2 through 25) is devoted to identifying problems within your manuscript and as such certainly qualifies as writing advice. I didn’t find much new here as far as content goes, but the tone is distinctly different from the sort cheerleading that is often to be found in writing handbooks. Walsh’s message is very straightforward. If your manuscript is not generating interest, it is likely because it’s not good enough. What should you do about that? Make it better.

In reasons 26 through 78, Walsh offers a wealth of inside information on how to navigate the publishing industry. He provides illuminating sections on the roles of agents and editors, the perils of self-publishing, and the truth about the slush pile.

The final section of the book, “14 reasons why it just might,” basically rehashes the highlights of what has gone before but gives them a positive tilt. These are the “dos” on the flipside of the “don’ts” previously articulated. Even here Walsh remains relentlessly realistic.

78 Reasons is a bracing read. It should prove very useful to Walsh's intended audience of writers who have completed a manuscript but are struggling to capture the interest of agents and publishers. Unfortunately, I suspect, those who most need Walsh’s advice are the ones least likely to recognize that need.

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