Not Sucking Is Hard

Leech
Not sucking is especially difficult if you happen to be a leech. (Photo by Chris Schuster, via Wikimedia Commons)

Before I get into the subject of this post, a couple of news items. First, I’ve had another essay accepted for publication, this time in a literary magazine called Hotel Amerika. This is a really exciting place to get published, because although they’re a relatively young journal, launched in 2002, they’ve already had something like 10 mentions in the Best American Essays series, which is a lot by my count. My piece will be in their Volume 9, Number 1, the Fall 2010 issue.

Crazy—two acceptances in two weeks. When it rains, it pours. Or should I say, when it snows, it dumps three feet on us?

Actually, I have been loving the snow. We have these eerily spiraling gothic icicles hanging off our roof, so long they go down past the bedroom windows. The kids in our neighborhood have been digging labyrinthine tunnels into the snowbanks. Amandine and I go for fun walks in snow down to the bridge over the creek. Plus, I have enjoyed all the stupid puns: Snowgeddon, the Snowpocalypse, Snoverkill, Snowverwhelming. Who comes up with these? Possibly most exciting of all, I get to keep all my library books for an extra week with no fees. That’s big for me; as a person with not much money and a large literary appetite, I’m a heavy library user and hate giving books back.

So, back to not sucking. Not sucking is hard. I am realizing this as I slog through the first pass at revising my novel. It amazes me there are writers out there whose first or even partial novel drafts are good enough to get published and be readable. David Foster Wallace’s forthcoming The Pale King, Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise—I read the Nemirovsky book when it came out a few years and was blown away by how great it was, and was angry when it just stopped, right in the middle.

If you took a first draft of just about anything I’ve written and tried to read it, you’d probably want to puke. I have to revise and revise and revise before it even gets close to readable, and even then it still often sucks. If I died and some idiot decided a first draft of mine should be published, I’d be horrified and rise from my grave to seek gory zombie-style revenge. (Apparently Nabokov felt similarly about The Original of Laura, which I haven’t read but hear is for die-hard Nabokov fans and scholars only—he asked that the draft be burned after his death. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s plotting vengeance from the hereafter at this very moment.)

It’s surprising just how hard it is not to suck. The other day on the forums on Nathan Bransford’s website, someone was saying that probably 25% of novels are good enough to be published.

I do not expect to ever see my work in print. How could I, knowing the numbers and having attended a few years worth of statistics classes? It’s what, 0.1% of all completed novels that get bought by a print publishing house? Thing is, I don’t believe that only one in a thousand writers is good enough to be print-published, I think a lot more of us are producing publishable quality. My personal guess would be that a good 25% of us write quality that’s virtually indistinguishable from the average published novel. Being (not) print-published is not only a matter of working hard enough and honing your skills, it’s a simple matter of insufficient demand and waaaaaaay too much supply.

But I disagree—I do think it’s more like one in a thousand novels that are good enough to be print-published by a “real” publisher. I’ve read unpublished or self-published novels by family members, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. While I wouldn’t say they sucked, I will say that in each case, I could see why they weren’t published, and could tell a clear difference between those novels and the published ones I read. I was happy to have the opportunity to read these amateur efforts. I enjoyed them, learned from them, found them interesting, memorable, and entertaining; they helped me understand the inner life of their authors better. But they weren’t at the same level of writing as published books usually are.

There are a lot of people out there who like to mock the prose of Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer, or hate on genre fiction. But the more I struggle to get my own writing not to suck, the more I’m in awe of these writers. Attaining the level of nonsuckiness they do is not easy or simple, it’s not something any random joe or jill schmoe off the streets can do, and it’s definitely not something 25% of novel-writers can do. For example, among my happily extended library loans this past week, I finally got around to reading Soulless, by Gail Carriger (which I learned about from her agent Kristin Nelson’s blog). It’s hilarious and fun vampire steampunk (who knew there was such a genre?), and I highly recommend it. Did I see flaws in the writing? Yes, but then I’ve found flaws in novels by James Joyce and Jonathan Franzen too. The point still remains: these people did it. Their novels do not suck. We should all be so lucky/hard-working/talented/endowed with that certain literary je ne sais quoi.

8 thoughts on “Not Sucking Is Hard

  1. Therese, I would love top read your essays in the distinguished journals. I do believe that it takes special talent and perseverance to get to the point of being published. Can you send them to me?

    Thanks

    Natasha

  2. Hi there! stumbled upon your blog via one of your comments on litdrift 🙂 Congrats on your acceptances! that’s awesome!

    If you took a first draft of just about anything I’ve written and tried to read it, you’d probably want to puke. I have to revise and revise and revise before it even gets close to readable, and even then it still often sucks.

    I feel the same way about my writing!

    I’ve read unpublished or self-published novels by family members, friends, acquaintances, and strangers. While I wouldn’t say they sucked, I will say that in each case, I could see why they weren’t published, and could tell a clear difference between those novels and the published ones I read. I was happy to have the opportunity to read these amateur efforts.

    I’m curious to know, have you read Lisa Genova’s Still Alice by chance? This was originally a self-published novel that was eventually picked up by an agent who was able to sell the book to Simon and Schuster I believe. It’s done quite well since then in terms of sales at least. I haven’t read it myself so I was wondering, if you had read it, did you think it read more like a regular published work or not? I think the same thing happened to the Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry. I’m generally inclined to agree with you, that there’s something that self-published or unpublished work that’s lacking that published works seem to have, but I do wonder about these situations where not only does a real publisher pick these titles up but they end up doing quite well and even ending up on the New York Times Bestseller list.

  3. Hi Nicole, thanks so much for dropping by! I haven’t read Still Alice, but now you’ve got me curious. I’ll have to check it out and see if my library has it.

    Of course, every published book starts out as an unpublished book, so it’s not like there are no unpublished or self-published manuscripts that are publication-quality, it’s just I think the percentage is smaaaaall. You always hear these stories of self-published books that end up getting picked up and becoming successful, but when you look at the bigger numbers … yeah, it gets depressing real quick …

    Anyway, nice to meet you. LitDrift is great, isn’t it?

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