Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Fool's Gambit

Over the last few weeks I've been systematically putting all my writing into folders on my iCloud. After downloading Pages for my iPhone it made sense; I may as well have all of my writing available on the go. I could do some work on a lunchtime, or on the train, or when I'm waiting for someone or something. As I've been going through the process I've been having a brief look at that work, seeing what I could revive at a future date and what I should dispatch to a shallow, unmarked grave right now with the minimum of ceremony. Most of that work isn't great. There's no way the last completed draft of Empire Rising (from circa 2006) would be accepted by any professional publisher, for instance. Even the work I've produced over the last two years isn't up to the standards of the magazine market I want to be published by. I doubt Interzone's editors would think twice before sending me rejection after rejection for work of my current standard.

It's a spur to improve, not least because to impress the professionals improvement is a necessity, not an option. If I want to become a writer who has some form of income from his writings, I have no option but to analyse my work and see where I'm going wrong. Is it my ideas, or is my writing style flawed? Is it just a sub-standard story? The end result of this is that the quality of my writing increases, with my chances of publication rising with each improvement I make. The rigmarole of submitting and rejecting acts as quality control, meaning the readerbase of those magazines will only ever have the very finest work presented to them.

By and large, this is true at the big publishers. Although the ultimate aim is to generate a big profit on any investment made in a writer's work, the quality will be high. A book isn't generally marketable if it lacks in quality. Something riddled with mistakes will more often than not find itself filtered out of the editing process and rejected. It's not to say low-grade material won't find its way to the shelves and sell millions (like a couple of well-known recent examples), but it is safe to say that if someone can't construct a sentence properly they won't sell their book.

Just writing something of novel length is an achievement in itself. I've managed it three times in seven years, most recently clocking in with a 51,000-word Nanowrimo novel in November last year. Anyone who has the patience to manage to reach the end of what could be a two- or three-year process - especially if they have a full-time job or the kids to keep an eye on all the time - deserves respect and no small amount of admiration. Some people write purely for the sense of accomplishment the end of a lengthy project brings. But often at the end of a project the writer will decide to take the next step and look to publishing their work.

Without taking away that initial accomplishment, the big target is publication. Publication brings with it a seal of quality. Someone else thinks the writer's work is worth reading - or marketable, with functional sentences, in the case of paranormal romance - and will get it out there. But there's still a long way to go between completion of a first draft and the shelves of Waterstone's. There's the editing process to complete, hard work in itself, then a potential second draft, and then the next edit. I seriously doubt many writers are so gifted that they could write a 70,000-word novel and have it published without some degree of editing taking place.

Yet the platform exists that means a writer can now do just that. Self-publishing has always been an easy way out, but in years gone by it was frowned upon as a refuge for the desperate and the vain. Thanks to Amazon - and in particular the Kindle - it seems that this is no longer the case. The Kindle marketplace is flooded with self-published books published through Amazon's own service, most of which should never have seen the light of day.

Remember what I said above. The traditional model for publishing has the quality control checks in place. Whilst an editor's second job may be concerned with a book's marketability, their first job remains to edit. A story I heard some time back concerned high fantasy author and teenagers' favourite Terry Brooks and surrounded the time he submitted his second novel's manuscript to noted publisher Lester Del Rey. Del Rey insisted Brooks re-structure and re-write the entire middle third of the novel that went on to become The Elfstones of Shannara. Brooks himself accepts that this made him go back and consider where he'd gone wrong, and credits Del Rey's decision with making him a better writer. Although this is an extreme example (Brooks may have had to re-write 60-70,000 words in total), it demonstrates what editors do. If your work isn't up to scratch, and they consider you to have the talent, they'll throw it back at you and force you to write to the required standard. Even if you personally don't agree with changes they make, they'll make you think about your writing. Where in self-publishing does this quality control exist? The answer is simple: nowhere.

It may be the popular option, but it encourages mediocrity. Having read 20% of one self-published book available on the Kindle, I gave up. This isn't because the fantasy story grated on me (even though it did - an editor wouldn't let so many clich├ęs past him, if nothing else), but because the author had clearly not edited properly, and nor had they thought about what they were writing. Use of 'arctic' and 'Baltic' to describe the weather conditions makes sense in our world, but in a fantasy world where neither the Arctic nor the Baltic regions actually exist using them to describe the weather makes no sense. Give an editor ten minutes with the original manuscript and they could improve it to the point where such stupid errors weren't made.

On a forum I moderate I consistently see people talking about the benefits of self-publishing. Yes, it's easy. Yes, it may mean more money in your pocket in a shorter period of time. But I have to rebut any argument someone makes on those grounds as being rubbish. No one ever celebrated easy achievements. And because of the dirge of self-published works we're seeing at the moment, the argument that it's more money in your pocket is only relevant if you're incredibly lucky and sell thousands - unlike the hundreds of thousands of other novels that end up going for free as people try to encourage reviews that will get people to buy their work.

I don't want to read low quality fiction. It does nothing for me. I want something where I don't notice horrible use of language every ten sentences, and I want to read something with structure and poise and elegance. I want to read fiction of high quality, and for that reason I will only read material that comes through the traditional model. And I will continue to aspire to write something that gets published through that model. At least that way I will have a real sense of accomplishment at the end of one day in the future.

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