Monday, October 27, 2008

Guest blogger Lou Anders: "Don't Be Good; Be Brilliant."

There's a book on my shelf, taking up valuable space, that I just can't wait to throw away. I'm a collector, serious style. Brodart jacket protectors on all my hardcovers, don't touch anything without washing your hands, reading editions and archiving additions for special titles -- that's how serious. So what's this about wanting to throw a book away?

Well, I'm also a very occasional writer, and like a lot of you, I've got that one title that once made me go, "If this can get published, anything can. Heck, I can write better than this crap." So it's there, on the shelf, waiting for me to actually finish a novel, at which point I get to reward myself by tossing it in the trashcan where it so clearly belongs (and no, I won't tell you it's title). But until then, an author with a finished novel, even a terrible one, is still one novel ahead of me, and so there it sits.

Now, obviously there are bad books out in the world. Lots of them. But taking off the wannabe author hat, and putting on the editor one, the truth is that the way to get published is not to aim for being slightly better than crap. As the editorial director of Pyr Books, I get pitched books anywhere from three times a week to three times a day. I read hundreds of manuscripts, partials, outlines, proposals. I probably sift through a hundred possibilities for every one good book. And while you might think that the vast bulk of what gets rejected is unreadable drivel that's easy to dismiss, that really isn't the case.

The truth is that most of what comes in is perfectly competent. Stories with an interesting protagonist with a clear motivation, on a journey with a definite beginning, middle and end. The problem isn't that it's full of problems. The problem is that it's competent, okay, decent, moderately well-executed, perfectly servicable... You get the idea.

To stand out from this sea of submissions, you need to sparkle. You need to be un-put-downable. As jaded as editors are, you need the manuscript that makes you want to grab the phone immediately to call your spouse, boy/girlfriend, best friend because you can't wait to talk about it, the manuscript that has you leaping out of your chair because you've got to do something to disperse the energy that's rushing off the pages and into your heart. You need to be brilliant.

That might sound discouraging. It shouldn't be. Yes, it's a lot harder to be brilliant than to be merely competent. But you know what - when you are brilliant, it's a lot harder to resist as well. I truly believe that everything brilliant finds its way eventually. Because as jaded as we editors can be, we like getting excited by a book as much (or more) than anyone else. So instead of keeping that book on the shelf until you've earned the right to throw it away, maybe we should all throw away our "I can do better than this" books. Maybe the shelf should only contain things to aspire to, not works to excel but works to equal. What a library that would be.

Sounds brilliant.


Joya said...

What an inspiring blog post! I'm bookmarking it so I can come back to read it every now and then.

I look forward to your future blog posts here. :)

Lou Anders said...

Thank you very much!

Unknown said...

It's all about voice, right? I get it. I wish I had more of a distinct voice. I don't know how to develop it either. I don't know if you can develop it - maybe you just have to be born with it.

There's this blog making the rounds right now - the super hopeless romance blog or something like that. The writer is some 23 year old girl who is writing about her crush on her best friend. She started it about two months ago and already has thousands of people reading it every day - it's a word of mouth thing, spreading around like wildfire. The thing is that her writing is not the most polished (it's a blog after all) but she has the most wonderfully distinct, funny voice. I imagine she'll have an enormous chick lit career someday, because I can see an agent reading her stuff and not being able to set it down.

I'm jealous, because I think my writing is more like what you just described - competent - and unfortunately competent is never going to get me published. How depressing.

Marie Force said...

Interesting post, Lou! I'm wondering what you think of the notion that one person's brilliant is the next person's unreadable. As a recent debut romance novelist, I've learned that you'll never please everyone, but if you satisfy the people you set out to please, you've done your job. A lot of books that have been called "brilliant" just don't work for me, which certainly doesn't make them any less brilliant. It's all relative.

Tburger said...

Oh. My. God. Lou was a friend of mine from UVA. Well done Lou!!!!! I always thought Golos would be the literary genius! :) perge!

Anonymous said...

Great post. I completely agree about aspirations. After all, when someone sets out to be an artist do they aspire to paint better than a four year old, or do they study the masters for inspiration? It's the same thing in writing, I think. I always look to my favorite writers when I want a boost, to remind myself of how powerful a good story can be. After all, that's why I started writing in the first place. I bury the duds in the back of my mind.

richgoldstein13 said...

"Maybe I'm not part of the 1% of people who think they're going to be successful [authors] and are totally right, but part of the 99% talentless, misguided dickheads." - Jeremy

Sex Mahoney for President