A monthly column of wit, insight, irreverance and inspiration by a published author and veteran of the publishing trenches.

The Ink-Stained Wretch: "Somebody tell me already?"

Don Whittington

November, 1998


Why doesn't someone just tell me…?

Is that you? Have you ever wondered why everyone is so reticent?  I'm an adult, you say. I can take it.  How hard can it be to just tell me what's wrong with my stuff?  Maybe I shouldn't be writing at all?  Is that it?  Then for crying out loud just tell me!

Some people will.  Some editors will look you right in the eye and say, "You have no business writing.  You should give it up."  Their theory is: why should you labor under delusions when you might spend your time more profitably playing golf or growing roses?

But is that really what you want?  These same editors will often tell you that no writer worth his salt would ever listen to such nonsense anyway.  Are you that way?  Would you keep writing no matter what they said because you know in your bones it's what you're supposed to do?  Probably, you are.  Most writers are like that.  But here's the thing; that doesn't mean the editor wasn't right for that particular piece of work.

Most writing professionals won't tell you what's wrong with your work, and they certainly won't tell you to give it up.  Why?  Lots of reasons, really.  There isn't enough time in the day to tell all submitters why their work failed to make the cut.  (Especially when in many cases the answer would be: well, I knew by the second paragraph I didn't want it.)  But the most important reason an editor isn't likely to tell you to give it up is that history has proven them wrong too often.

I know an editor who passed on Grisham's The Firm.  He's a good friend, and no, I won't mention his name, but to this day he will tell you that he was right.  A few million Grisham fans would disagree.

Some people write a dozen books before they "get it,"  whatever the hell "it" is. Others hit the long ball first time.  There are no rules.  An editor can never be sure that you won't follow your bad effort with a brilliant one.  Michener tells us that his first agent took one look at his second novel, and dumped him.  The agent told him in no uncertain terms that he considered him a one hit wonder.  Did that help make Michener a better writer?  Of course not. It depressed Michener for a long time, scared the hell out of him, in fact.  And since Michener went on to publish, not only that novel, but one or two others that did okay, it didn't do that agent a whole lot of good either. Most editors aren't going to tell you much simply because they know it  probably won't help you, and it might hurt you.

So get over it.  Quit relying on other people to tell you whether your work is any good or not.  If you enjoy writing, then do it.  But be honest with yourself.  If you've written half a dozen novels and gotten nowhere, ask yourself some hard questions all of which begin with the same qualifier:

I know I'm a good writer but…

1) Am I a novelist?

        (Maybe you've chosen the wrong form. You don't have to write novels to be a writer.)

2) Am I letting the supposed market influence me?

        (Write a good story, not a Time-Traveling Horse Whisperer.)

3) Did I do the work?

        (Did I re-write and analyze? Did I study books about construction, story theory, self-editing? Did I learn the craft?)

4) Do I have the right motivation?

        (If you're just writing so we can all admire you then please stop now.)

On the other hand, if you're writing because you have something to say, and if you don't say it you might burst, then welcome to the club.  That's your chair over there.  We saved it for you.