karen_w_newton (karen_w_newton) wrote,

The meaning of words

Words are important to everyone but especially to writers. One of my favorite Mark Twain quotes was his famous, “The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”

Writing versus story telling is an example I like to use of related but very different meanings. It is possible to be an excellent story teller and a bad writer— and the other way around. Some writers get upset when a mediocre writer gets rich off a compelling story— a situation that illustrates, I suppose, that if you can only be good at one, you are better off being a good story teller, at least in terms of fame, money, and readers.

Another word that gets us hung up is “good” versus “marketable,” as in “Your story is good but not marketable.” To start with, read this post from Del Rey editor Betsey Mitchell. While everyone else has been making predictions, Ms. Mitchell went back and reviewed the manuscripts she read over the last year and then categorized the reasons for her rejections. Keep in mind that she's only seeing agented manuscripts, so she's not likely to be even looking at typical slush pile, written-in-crayon-by-Prisoner #196-A875-type submissions. She's looking at stories that managed to at least attract an agent.

Here were her reasons for rejection (I've paraphrased her a bit):
 duplicative of Del Rey's existing list: 22
 not a match for the list: 14
 genre not doing well: 18
 writing/story telling not good enough: 43 (note that she makes the distinction that you need both)
 flawed plot: 5
 pretty good but would rather see next one: 5
 protagonist not strong/likeable enough: 3
 needs too much editorial work: 7
 falls between genres: 14
 not a good book to debut with: 2

So, out of 133 rejections, 43 ranked as not up to her standards as far as the writing/story telling skills of the author. Keep in mind an agent liked them enough to take them on, so there is some level of subjectivity in the “not good enough” label. Add in the 7 that need too much work and the count for a flawed plot, and that makes a total of 55 m.s.s. that weren't “good” enough. The other reasons relate mostly to genre and personal taste and the all important marketability. For those 78 writers, the choice is to change the story to fit the market or to keep looking.

And by the way, Ms. Michell bought two books and bid on one she did not get, for a total of 3 books out of the 136 non-slush-pile manuscripts she read last year. That's a tad over 2% acceptance rate from agented manuscripts.

Now I think I will go look up the word depressed.

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Tags: editors, publishing, writer

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