Thursday, November 30, 2006

Standards and Practices

So you're a writer. You've written a book and now you're wondering what to do with it. Is it worthy of publication? How would you know if it was?

Well, the easiest way to tell is to ask someone. A writer's group is always a good option. An amateur reviewer might be willing to let you know. Beta readers are also a possibility. Basically, you are looking for anyone who is able to give you solid, dependable feedback.

But wouldn't some kind of scale be helpful? Something you can use to measure your writing against? I propose that Teresa Nielsen Hayden's list of reasons that a book is usually rejected be pressed into service to cover this need. The full list is as follows:
  1. Author is functionally illiterate.

  2. Author has submitted some variety of literature we don’t publish: poetry, religious revelation, political rant, illustrated fanfic, etc.

  3. Author has a serious neurochemical disorder, puts all important words into capital letters, and would type out to the margins if MSWord would let him.

  4. Author is on bad terms with the Muse of Language. Parts of speech are not what they should be. Confusion-of-motion problems inadvertently generate hideous images. Words are supplanted by their similar-sounding cousins: towed the line, deep-seeded, dire straights, nearly penultimate, incentiary, reeking havoc, hare’s breath escape, plaintiff melody, viscous/vicious, causal/casual, clamoured to her feet, a shutter went through her body, his body went ridged, empirical storm troopers, ex-patriot Englishmen, et cetera.

  5. Author can write basic sentences, but not string them together in any way that adds up to paragraphs.

  6. Author has a moderate neurochemical disorder and can’t tell when he or she has changed the subject. This greatly facilitates composition, but is hard on comprehension.

  7. Author can write passable paragraphs, and has a sufficiently functional plot that readers would notice if you shuffled the chapters into a different order. However, the story and the manner of its telling are alike hackneyed, dull, and pointless.
  8. (At this point, you have eliminated 60-75% of your submissions. Almost all the reading-and-thinking time will be spent on the remaining fraction.)

  9. It’s nice that the author is working on his/her problems, but the process would be better served by seeing a shrink than by writing novels.

  10. Nobody but the author is ever going to care about this dull, flaccid, underperforming book.

  11. The book has an engaging plot. Trouble is, it’s not the author’s, and everybody’s already seen that movie/read that book/collected that comic.
  12. (You have now eliminated 95-99% of the submissions.)

  13. Someone could publish this book, but we don’t see why it should be us.

  14. Author is talented, but has written the wrong book.

  15. It’s a good book, but the house isn’t going to get behind it, so if you buy it, it’ll just get lost in the shuffle.

  16. Buy this book.
Basically, you want to fall as high on the list as possible. The basic cutoff line should be at least above number 8 before you even think about self-publication. Ideally, though, you want to be somewhere above number 11. The publishing industry may not have a reason to publish you, but if you can somehow come up with a good marketing plan, doing it yourself would not necessarily be a bad idea.

The important part here is to adhere to some kind of standard. Spelling, grammar, punctuation and coherent storytelling are all good places to begin, no matter who you are. It is possible to break the rules successfully, but it is easier to do so after you have proven that you understand (and have mastered) the rules in the first place.

If you are unwilling to do something as simple as write coherently, then you should probably ask yourself why your readers would want to do something complex, like trying to decipher what you have written.

Remember: self-publishing has a very bad reputation right at the moment, mostly because of people who couldn't be bothered to listen to (or even seek out) criticism. If you want to change that perception, it is in your best interests to present a product that shows your commitment to your craft. You can tell everyone who will listen that not all self-published books are inherently crappy, but you should also be willing to practice what you preach.