Throwing Darts at the Moon

Toward the end of my “submissive” period as an author, I realized there is an unfathomable gap between a submitted manuscript and the preferences of the target — the professional reader. I wrote my novels with an ideal reader in mind, a receptive, welcoming reader to whom I was eager to present my fictional world and characters. The professional reader can’t be that way, for good reasons. Publishers must perforce reject the majority of manuscripts sent to them by hopeful writers. The professional reader approaches manuscripts with rejection in mind.

Manuscripts rarely return to their authors with a list of reasons for rejection. Unless an editor is almost inclined to accept a manuscript and suggests specific changes that might tip the balance in its favour, the writer is forced to guess. Even when reasons are given, they are often less than helpful. In my submissive days, I used to brood over sentences such as, “Your narrative voice slightly missed the mark at drawing me in,” wondering exactly what would have elicited a different result.

From my experience with critique groups over the years, I have realized that a piece of writing provokes a range of opinions from a group of people. Some want more backstory, others none at all. Some love lush descriptions, others hate them. Some focus on certain words or punctuation marks, others question the motives and personalities of the characters. When your opus is read and rejected by an unknown stranger, you have no knowledge of their quirks and preferences. You do some tweaking or rewrite the whole thing and send it into another black hole where it will be read by someone with completely different ideas about what constitutes a good piece of writing. For any rewrite to match the idiosyncrasies of the next professional reader is like throwing darts at the moon.

That’s if the manuscript is read at all. Most writers who have sent manuscripts to publishers have at least one story about a submission that was rejected more than a year after being sent, or received no response at all. Ever. And yes, we’ve all heard stories about enormous slush piles clogging the premises of beleaguered publishers. Shame on all of us wannabees for burdening them with our stuff. But declaring themselves open to submissions, especially with statements that queries meeting their requirements will be read within a specific time period, implies that publishers will treat those submissions with respect. But not all do. It is, after all, a “buyer’s market.”

Some years ago, I took an evening course on the business side of writing and publishing. One of the statements made by the instructor that has stayed with me was, “Self-publishing is masturbation.” In those days the only means of self-publishing was the vanity press, years before “indie authors,” print-on-demand, ebooks and Smashwords arrived on the scene. When those avenues to self-publication became available and quasi-respectable, they were taken up with such eagerness, in such huge and overwhelming numbers, as to constitute something more like a revolution than a mere trend.

Is that any wonder, given the exigencies of trying to get published in the time-honoured, submissive way? Rejections for unspecified reasons, after months- or years-long waits, repeated as many times as the writer can endure (and some of us are more patient and persistent than others), is not what any writer signs up for. Most of us writers — well, here I had better speak for myself — I want my works to be read. My novels are “out there,” not languishing in someone’s slush pile or abandoned in a drawer. If I can make a few bucks from them, that’s icing on the cake. If that constitutes metaphorical masturbation, so be it.

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2 comments

  1. What are publishers supposed to do? They’re not charities, they’re running a business. They have to take a risk and hope a book can be marketed and appeal to a decent amount of people in within the general public.

    It’s not publishers’ fault if loads of people write novels. You’re lucky if you have the free time and the resources to do so. If you enjoy writing, that’s wonderful, but don’t be bitter if you can’t make a career out of your hobby.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Robert. Of course publishers aren’t charities, but I believe some of them could be more businesslike in their dealings with writers. If they say in their submission guidelines that they will try to reply within three months, they should live by that statement. If circumstances change (more submissions than they can deal with), a small change to the “Submission Guidelines” page is all that’s needed.

      As for bitterness, I’m beyond that stage. Writers now have the option to self-publish their works easily on the internet. That will divert many manuscripts from the traditional publishers and make writers’ works available to readers. Whether a particular work attracts readers depends on the quality of the writing and the author’s skill as a marketer (among other things).

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