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ASK THE EDITOR First Efforts Are Rarely Published

By Susan Malone

May 2002

By far the biggest pitfall I see with writers has nothing to do with style, technique, characterization, plotting and pacing, i.e., the nuts and bolts of actual writing-although these bugaboos enter into it. Nor does this pervasive and killer problem have to do with talent. Yes, you must have some talent to write well, especially to write fiction well (although I can hear a lot of hoots from the gallery at this). All of these must be present to fashion a viable book, but none comprise the dragon that guards the gate of publication. Rest assured, however, this beast will slay you every time until you address it within you.

The number one stumbling block I see for writers, especially new ones-but it bites veterans on the butt sometimes as well-is getting into too big of a hurry. Rushing. Wanting to see your work in print at all costs, and most importantly, wanting to see that happen NOW.

I get so many questions from folks just completing first novels that revolve around marketing and publishing, rather than in perfecting the craft, receiving professional critique, and digging back in to make the work actually salable in the first place. The litany of agents and editors I work with bemoan this state regularly-that writers these days don't take the time to really learn what they're doing, understand what makes a manuscript a true book, and just want to see it published. The self-publishing market, now burgeoning into a real sea of a mess, attests to this as well. For a small fee you can see your work in print. But 99 times out of 100, you're presenting your show horse in its work clothes, with cedar shavings and manure dangling from its feet; its mane and tale all tangled and ragged.

Yes, I do some work for folks wanting to self publish, which is great! Just because you're going that route does NOT mean the book doesn't need developmental editing. In fact, self-published manuscripts upon which I've worked have gone on to be picked up by traditional houses (one for a six-figure deal).

I don't count the self-published books I've edited in my list of credits, only the traditionally published ones (now at fifteen). One of my favorite examples of a writer who really "got it" is Bob Levy, author of Broken Hearts (which made a big splash in Publishers Weekly), whose second novel, Past Tense, is reviewed in the sneak preview of Authorlink's new book review section. He came to me YEARS ago, buckled down, went at this with all due professionalism, took his time, learned, dug back in, and is now being published very successfully.

So it's not the venue about which I'm speaking; it's the manner in which you go about it.

Writing is tough. You go for weeks and months and sometimes years without anyone seeing what you've done. And this drives a lot of folks batty. If your outlet were painting or music or any other creative pursuit, at least people would know that you have, indeed, been producing something, even if those efforts were elementary. But with words on the page, no one can experience your creative genius until you foist a manuscript into their hands.

So writers do. Way, way before a work is ready to be seen by another human, writers will put their babies into the hands of friends and family, if just to let those folks know that they're really up there writing and not just screwing around on the Net. And for that reason, doing so is fine. Just know your motivation. And, that the feedback you receive will not be worth spit as far as the actual worth of your book or short story is concerned. I've discussed at length in prior columns the pitfalls of this, so I won't belabor that point.

From there (and often before) writers begin querying agents and editors, and then wonder why in God's name no one will publish their masterpieces. Much of the time, these works are so on-the-surface they wouldn't even make good television movies-of-the-week. Such books are affectionately termed in this business, McNovels. On the other hand, the sad truth is that perhaps a really good book is buried under the words, but no one can see it through all of the verbiage.

What makes a good book, and a good writer, includes a host of elements, but the biggest help and conversely the biggest hindrance has to do with time. There is an ENORMOUS amount to learn about writing, whether one has the talent of Hemingway or not.

His first I've-forgotten-how-many novels were lost (by his wife, if I'm not mistaken-wouldn't that make for marital bliss), so his first published one was actually down the list as far as number.

I've seen a LOT of first novels that were great starts. And as I've worked with the writers, they've taken the time and put in the effort to truly learn the craft, and gone on to publish. What's really tough is to see a writer fixate on a first effort, when I know there's a bigger book, a better book, within him. Unfortunately, I've seen a lot of such writers who were convinced they "knew" how to write, and pushed for YEARS to have their unrefined first novels published, only to end up embittered by the business.

Yeah, it's a brutal one. And that's part of the learning process as well-finding your footing through all of the rejections; learning to sift the wheat from the chaff as far as critique goes. Just know this if nothing else: your first effort is just that-a first effort. And it may be fine. You may have talent. But you still have to acquire the skills. And, keep discovering more-putting into practice the new as you build upon the old.

Remember that the Sistine Chapel wasn't done in a day. As Michelangelo, who painted a somewhat well-known mural atop it, said: "I am still learning."

Susan M. Malone is author of: By the Book (novel); BodySculpting; Fourth and Long; and Five Keys for Understanding Men, and owns a successful editorial service. Fifteen Malone-edited books have recently sold to traditional publishers! Malone is a contributing editor to Authorlink.com. http://www.maloneeditorial.com