Philosophy of Writing – 5 – Get Your Hopes Down

Posted on December 9, 2011 by


Untitled. From the set "Cuervos". Photograph of Street Art. 2010. La Mesa / El Messa |

Untitled. From the set “Cuervos”.
Photograph of Street Art. 2010.
La Mesa / El Messa |

This series takes an unpopular approach to editing fiction. It’s been said by smart, successful people in the industry that the biggest difference between an unpublished author and a published one is a finished manuscript — so amateur authors had best not spend their time worrying about perfecting their first drafts, and just get it down on paper.

I don’t agree. A finished manuscript is the absolute bare minimum you need to be published at a reputable publishing house; if you can’t produce one of those, you’re sunk whether it’s polished or not. It’s like telling aspiring film stars that their primary hurdle is whether or not they possess a face; it’s true, but useless. The writing professionals who tell you to “just get it down” are making a mistake: an unconscious assumption of a minimum of quality in prose that is “just got down”. Their standard for first draft prose is not the same as your standard for “just get it down”, not by a long chalk. Their first draft will likely resemble your final draft — and they’ll have written it in half the time. (Although it is true that if you’ve never written a novel-length work before, you should do that before worrying about anything else — see post #1 in the “How to Edit Fiction” series.)

Before you can really aim for publication, you must first understand just how high standards in large trade publishing houses can be. If you live in the United States, you’re lucky: the market is big enough to support a good many debut authors. In the U.K. it’s a different story: major publishers will release one or two debut SFF novels in a given year. That’s fantasy and sci-fi put together. Have a read of one of the best-kept secrets in the SFF community: this Q&A thread with one of the most revered names in publishing, agent to Hannu Rajaniemi, and the man who first published Wheel of Time in the U.K., John Jarrold. My statistics are from Mr. Jarrold’s posts.

If you want to be published by a major house, you must make certain you produce a debut novel that agents and publishers simply can’t turn down. Well, shit — that’s an impossible task. Truly, it is; nobody knows what the market wants, not even industry pros. They can only make some very educated guesses.

Being published at a major house is difficult and few people manage. Being successful with a small house or at self-publishing is just as difficult. If you want it, if you really want it, you must be ruthless with yourself, and that means raising your standards.