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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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( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 9th, 2010 03:21 am (UTC)
Blrgh...this is one of those times you stick your fingers in your ears and say, "Lalalalalalaaa!"
Jan. 9th, 2010 03:22 am (UTC)
Jan. 9th, 2010 03:24 am (UTC)

Howzat?? :)
Jan. 9th, 2010 03:25 am (UTC)
eh? sorry, couldn't hear you for the shouting!
Jan. 9th, 2010 03:27 am (UTC)
Jan. 15th, 2010 06:43 pm (UTC)

love it

Hi Karen--I came over, prompted by jongibbs link. The stats are pretty daunting .... but we'll all get very good at plugging our ears and singing, I guess.

And Bogwitch, you are a master of HTML--I salute you!
Jan. 15th, 2010 06:45 pm (UTC)
Yay! I'm master of something! Now if only I knew what HTML was...
Jan. 15th, 2010 07:07 pm (UTC)
Hot metal. It means you're a blacksmith. -)
Jan. 15th, 2010 07:38 pm (UTC)
I am? Wow! And I didn't even know I could do it!
Jan. 15th, 2010 06:45 pm (UTC)
She is a master, isn't she? And welcome to the blog! Jon is a little like that guy in college that everyone used to ask to parties because he always brought someone interesting with him.
Jan. 15th, 2010 06:49 pm (UTC)
Yes! He's great at bringing people together, and entertaining and friendly in his own right, too :-)
Jan. 9th, 2010 04:26 am (UTC)
You can reason your way out of your dreams if you dig deep enough.


Just don't.

Jan. 9th, 2010 03:41 pm (UTC)
An excellent point!
Jan. 9th, 2010 12:48 pm (UTC)
Interesting - if somewhat unnerving - statistics.

Good post :)
Jan. 9th, 2010 03:44 pm (UTC)
They are daunting, aren't they? But one thing that occurs to me is that these submissions are from agents, which means those books are undoubtedly out to other editors at the same time. In some ways, that's a mitigating factor. It's not like every editor gets 136 unique submissions. There must be a huge overlap.
Jan. 9th, 2010 03:32 pm (UTC)
These stats don't surprise me, in the last few days I've seen several year-end total stats from agents as well, and they basically all say the same thing.

But keep in mind, a certain percentage of those she rejected were for reasons that WEREN'T mechanical, which means, even though she didn't want them, didn't mean someone else might. Small presses are appearing all over the place, and I think this may be in part due to so many tight rejections (good, just not for us).

With so many smaller publishers cropping up, the business may become more 'genre defined'. If you want horror - go to a publisher who does only that. Want a good hard SF -same thing.

Micro publishing in this way may become a future trend.

Jan. 9th, 2010 03:46 pm (UTC)
True, and as other commenters have pointed out, you just can't worry about it or you'll go nuts.

Oddly, I only got email on two of the above comments. LJ is weird right now!
Jan. 15th, 2010 06:48 pm (UTC)
That's scary stuff. Thank God I didn't read this before I was published :-O
Jan. 15th, 2010 07:06 pm (UTC)
See the comment about not reasoning yourself out of your dreams. A very good point!
Jan. 15th, 2010 07:07 pm (UTC)
It is that.
Jan. 16th, 2010 01:16 am (UTC)
I remembering reading this. I thought I left a remark. I guess the daunting stats sent me away. I do recall sniveling a week or so ago. But the difference between published and unpublished author is the published person kept trying, persevered.

Edited at 2010-01-16 01:16 am (UTC)
Jan. 16th, 2010 03:58 pm (UTC)
I've heard it put this way: getting published requires a combination of talent, luck, and persistence, and the only one you can truly control is persistence.
( 22 comments — Leave a comment )
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