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Just Write a Better Book

April 14, 2012

So you may recall I asked what I should talk about in my guest blog post for The Debutante Ball, and you answered. You wanted to know what a day in my life was like. So go check it out. Look, I get to show off my fancy linking skills. I don’t know when that pride is going to wear off, but it’s still going pretty strong.

In any case, there you have it.

But I also said I’d blog about something else here from the comments. I can’t believe people still want to hear about queries. I’ll think about it.

In the meantime, I thought this one was interesting. The lovely Arwenbicknell asked:

“An interesting question came up at a writer’s group I attended recently: “How do you bounce back from a bad first book?” That is, if a writer’s first work does poorly, how do agents get publishers and sellers interested enough to take a chance on the next one? The agent who was talking said her best advice was “write a better book,” which seemed a little flip to me. (Because writers set out to produce a sucky manuscript? Because all the people involved in the publishing process rub their hands together maliciously and go, “Mwahaha! That lousy writer! We’ll show HER in the long run!”) Me, I’m still trying to get my first book off the ground, so I have no dog in the fight, but it was definitely something I wondered about once the issue was raised.”

Check me out!! I remembered how to do colors!!

Ok, so I can see where the advice “write a better book” might come across as really flip and, quite honestly, in some cases downright bitchy. But the truth is, I could sort of see myself saying something similar (although I’m sure I would do it with a charming, perhaps a touch rueful, smile).

You may recall that I love going to writers conferences. And I do, I really do. I love to give encouragement and hope and all those rose-colored glasses kind of things. But the truth is, this is a really tough industry. It’s HARD to get a book published. And if you get your book published, it’s HARD to get your book noticed. And if you get your book noticed, it’s still HARD to do it again, and again and stand out from the crowd in that way that feels like a dream to so many writers.

I think the only way to overcome a bad first book is to write not just a better book, but an outstanding next book. Take it however you will.

And that’s why sometimes the query questions and mistakes and making it interesting to a particular person, etc. all sort of miss the point. Write that outstanding book, sum it up in a query letter, and let your manuscript do the talking for you.

I think there’s a difference between writing with the goal of not sucking and writing with the goal of being outstanding. I see a ton of manuscripts that don’t suck. I call them the good but not great ones. When I was dating I called them the “fine” dates. If he calls again, fine. If he doesn’t call, fine.

But I didn’t marry a “fine” date. And I don’t represent the “good but not great” projects.

Perhaps this agent could have worded her thoughts a little more politely, overall, I think I have to agree.

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19 Comments
  1. It doesn’t seem bitchy to me. Sounds like great advice 🙂

  2. I agree. I know there are multiple factors involved, but I believe excellent fiction gets noticed.

  3. I guess I’m not offended by “write a better book.” I can only write the book I can write at the time I write it, but each failure (whether it’s a little one or a big one) helps me learn and become a better writer, so I actually enjoy the challenge of “write a better book” every time.

  4. You said, “I think there’s a difference between writing with the goal of not sucking and writing with the goal of being outstanding.” I agree. Glasses raised for more outstanding literature. *clink* Outstanding writers, agents & editors, I ❤ you. You inspire me to reach for the stars.

  5. I love your analogy of the “fine” date. So true!

    But if In a Fix blows chunks once it’s out there in the world, let’s just change my name, okay?

  6. Great advice. And so true. There is a part of her question you didn’t answer. The part where she said: “How do you get publishers and sellers interested enough to take a chance on the next one.” I don’t know how you would answer that part, Michelle (and actually, you did answer it now that I think about it), but (in addition to your answer) I don’t think editors hold past failures over your head. I think they take each book with fresh eyes. They know as well as we do that a writer can grow and get better.

    • Umm, ok, but I hate to tell you that I don’t totally agree here. I don’t think that editors personally hold past failures against you, but I do think that publishing houses as companies will hold low sales numbers as a reason not to acquire another book.

      And the best way I know to get past that is to just knock their socks off. Or knock everyone’s socks off so that maybe someone else is willing to start fresh with you. But I mean write a knock your socks off manuscript–the kind that would make publishers overlook a poor track record.

      I really don’t think a book can be just a little bit better. I think it almost has to be a complete fresh start–a real hit it out of the ballpark kind of book.

      But hey, this is a business of opinions and mine is just one. Although it appears I’m seconding the opinion of an unknown agent at a conference.

      The reality is, a poor track record is very hard to overcome. Not impossible, but very difficult.

      And to answer someone from twitter’s question, yes, of course you would strategize and come up with specific plans based on the case, but I truly believe that it all has to start with an outstanding book.

      Write BIG and write OUTSTANDING.

      • I guess I was referring to an unpublished writer trying to sell a new manuscript. But yes, I can see how low sales records could hurt an already published writer.

      • Why did I write ‘I guess’? I *was* referring to an unpublished writer. In other words, someone who has been on submission before, did not sell and now has another book for publishers to look at. An already published writer is a totally different story.

        • That’s totally different. I agree that editors don’t hold that against you–unsold manuscripts.

  7. Shannon LC Cate permalink

    I would never argue against writing better, so it isn’t that I disagree with that, but there might be something more (and more enlightening) to say about this in a conversation that includes examples from past experiences with clients.

    Outstanding writing, by my view, doesn’t necessarily garner much market share, so words like “bad,” “better,” and even “outstanding” don’t really mean much. (My favorite “genre” is “literary fiction”–though I hate that term–and I understand that’s about 1% of the market.)

    I am hoping that when I get an agent s/he can guide me in making decisions about market, genre, publisher, etc. that can assist me in building a good career. I’d be looking for someone who could help me figure out what went wrong the first time–was it the writing, or did we go with the wrong publisher? Were the sales goals wrong for the kind of book it was? What kind of book do we want to put out there next? Should I be developing skills within a certain genre or another or changing gears in some way?

    Those are the kinds of things I’d be looking for if it was me asking the question, so while “write a fabulous book” is not anything to dispute, what fabulous means and where it means it and to whom it means it also matters.

    • I understand your point, but it would be impossible to give specific advice to a general question. And I still maintain that it would be incredibly hard to overcome a poor sales track record without something markedly better, or different, I suppose, defined more specifically depending on the case.

  8. Great post. I think the thing that is so hard here, is that there is a lot of grey area in writing. There are a ton of different factors that play into the success of a book. But I have to agree–I think poor sales has got to be one of the hardest things to overcome. It’s like watching a contestant on American Idol–they sing really good, but there is something that just doesn’t resonate with the voting audience. They are constantly landing in the bottom three. I think publishing houses worry that although the writing might be good, there might be something else that just isn’t connecting properly. Excuse me while I go off to breath into a paper bag…

  9. Thank you very much for addressing my question! Of course, I didn’t mean to say “write a better book” was bad advice per se; it just seemed like it was one tiny facet of a much larger issue where the writer has less control, as has been raised in the comments. And now I’ll go back to working my rewrite and hoping for a home run on the first outing. 😀

  10. I’ve always wondered just exactly how you “knock socks off” anything. The word ‘knock’ suggests some kind of mallet or cudgel, but given that socks are generally made of wool or cotton (unless you’re a deep sea diver, in which case they’re generally rubber), I can’t see how any knocking would help. By the time you’d ‘knocked’ any hosiery from a leg, said leg would be bruised and battered and posessed of bleeding shins. “Peel socks off” would be a more realistic phrase — yet sadly a poorer metaphor.

    “Referring to Ms Wolfson’s expertise as a literary agent, New York Times book critic Wilt Whatman said, ‘this gal peels my socks off’.”

    Technically accurate, metaphorically a disaster.

  11. I love how pleased you are with yourself for linking & coloring. Seriously impressive. I enjoyed both this post and the one you linked. Thanks.

  12. I love this – “But I didn’t marry a “fine” date. And I don’t represent the “good but not great” projects.”

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Top Picks Thursday 04-19-2012 « The Author Chronicles
  2. Top Picks Thursday 04-19-2012 | The Author Chronicles

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