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.