when “good enough” might not be good enough

In the department of “recursion: see recursion”…

Jay Lake posts on how do you know when it’s good enough in response to the thread that evolved yesterday on my blog entry which was a response to his entry about quitting writing.

He says:
No one cares about your work more than you do.
The writer is the worst judge of their own work.

This correlates very easily with the issue that was raised about publication being a way to measure whether one has reached a level of writing that is “good enough.” Setting aside my instinctive reaction to the phrase “good enough,” I realized some variables that can make this a more complicated equation and, perhaps, a flawed approach.

#1 Bad books get published. Everyone seems to say so. And we’re not just talking about books that a person subjectively doesn’t like or writers who feel they can write better than the books that are out there.

#2 Good books sometimes don’t get published. The corollary to #1. It just might be true. One can make all sorts of arguments about it. There is a certain cadre of self-published authors who claim their books are good and that no agent or editor would even read them. That might very well be the case. However, it could also be another subjective measurement shored up by Jay’s 2nd rule wherein the writer is the worst judge of their own work. If you want to try out the experience and assess the odds, someone is already doing it for you at POD-dy Mouth. And there have been some pretty good books turned up in the process. There have also been some real hum-dingers.

#3 Some good books aren’t publishable because it’s not their time. This goes along with #2 but I thought it was a different enough issue to give it a unique paragraph. Besides having a certain level of subjective quality, a book also has to have a corresponding marketability. In other words, someone has to believe it will sell enough copies to get back the publisher’s investment. In some cases, it’s because the book’s topic isn’t timely (e.g. people get gun-shy about natural disaster novels after there’s been a big one). Or, the best-written book in the world comes across the desk, but the subject of the book is too distasteful. I’ve heard many an agent say that they will never represent a book about “x” topic.

#4 There are only a finite number of available publication slots per year. Many of these are taken up by option books — authors who are already on the board, thereby making the available pool for new writers that much smaller. It’s less, then, that good books aren’t published as only the best of them have a shot at getting published. So, perhaps “good enough” isn’t an accurate measure with supply outweighing demand by such a huge factor. There may be a marked division between being a good writer and being a good (and also) published writer.

Have I missed any?

As an aside to #3, I rarely recommend writing to the market. For a number of reasons. Usually by the time one has written such a book, the market has passed one by. The books that are getting published now and establishing a trend were acquired, in most cases, at least a year ago, if not more. So the editors are thinking about what to publish next year. Ditto for agents, who may even be a few months ahead of some of the editors on the curve. Sometimes, a person just happens to have written a book that fits a trend. Synchronicity. This can come out of interaction in the writing community where ideas seem to have an organic growth quality. Or it can come out of social and economic environments that move creative people in generally the same direction.

However. I digress.

The bottom line is that every agent and editor want good books. Always. They want to sell and publish books. It’s what they do. But, it requires both instinct and skill. In the end, it may be more of an art than a science. Which makes it damnably hard to measure to scale.

11 responses to “when “good enough” might not be good enough

  1. And because Jay writes and thinks so quickly and so deeply he already has a response to his own post about knowing when they aren’t good enough. See: http://jaylake.livejournal.com/786312.html
    Resonating statements include:
    If I don’t love the story, or at least love something important about it, I don’t send it out.
    It’s not about knowing when stories are good enough, but rather making informed albeit imperfect decisions about when they are not good enough.

  2. You two are going to turn into a viscious vortex of recursion. 😉

  3. Since I was the person who brought this subject up 🙂 I guess I should reply. Mr. Lake’s response :
    He says:
    No one cares about your work more than you do.
    The writer is the worst judge of their own work.
    I did read his post, and, yes, those words are as contradictory as they are true. I haven’t submitted enough of my novels to truly judge whether I can answer my own question. Yes, I’ve had good responses. I have been asked for the ‘whole’.
    Writing, for me, is a series of stages from one novel to the next. I can look back at earlier novels and see the faults, as we all can. I can also find things I don’t even remember writing and see things which are damned good. Because I’ve stepped back and allowed that disconnect someone wrote about yesterday.
    The ‘is it good enough’ question came about because of seeking publication. It’s good enough for me and Aunt Sissy, isn’t necessarily good enough for Mr Big Name publisher, or, as Jennifer says above, maybe my synchronicity is waay off.
    I know that everyone I’ve talked to about publication has said: persistance, persistance, persistance. I listened to Robert Sawyer talk about that, too. Keep banging on doors and one day…
    I think the frustration comes from ‘not knowing’. By that I mean I am willing, and able to improve, if that is what it takes. But all the time one receives form letters there is this vacuum of ‘Okay, this must really suck, or I picked completely the wrong agent.’ The answer, I suppose is to try lots and if one gets no response or continual rejections after a partial then obviously the novel needs work, or to be trunked, and off we go again.
    Writing entirely for oneself is a different matter.
    I can quote as contradictory a quote as Jaylake. My first drafts suck: My first drafts are the best writing. But, as the writerly skills improve, the gap is lessening all the time.
    What I do have to learn (mainly) and I think I said this yesterday, is not to *ask* ‘am I good enough’, but to believe I am.
    I’m still rather glad I asked it, though, it’s been an interesting and thought provoking thread or two.
    Sue Curnow

  4. The books that are getting published now and establishing a trend were acquired, in most cases, at least a year ago, if not more. So the editors are thinking about what to publish next year
    Actually it takes about two years on average for a book to be published. So editors and agents need to be looking at least that far out. And for children’s books it’s even further since the illustration process takes much longer.
    I think writers have a tendency to take rejection by an agent or editor very personally. But it’s almsot never a personal thing for the editors or agents. Just suck it up and keep querying.
    One of my college professors told a story about how another professor wrote a short story for a journal and submitted it and then never got an answer and he was very sad and mopey about it. Until he finally called and found out the editor he had queried committed suicide and his story was one of the ones that was ruined in the blood splatter. They ended up accepting his story after he submitted again. You just never know WHY these things happen.

  5. Good/Bad
    There’s also the issue that good/bad is a subjective judgement based on taste, experience, as well as guidelines of what we regard as the norm. One person’s ‘I hate this book’ is another’s favorite–so go figure.
    About all I can ever say to my own work is:
    -This is as good as I can possibly make it at this time (ie, I don’t know how to fix it and I’m starting to hate this).
    -This makes me laugh, cry, chuckle, turn on the lights and bring the dog in to sleep with me.
    Of the two, I’d rather my work pull out the latter reaction. You can always fix typos and awkward phrases, but it’s really hard to up the emotion. However, it’s just not always possible–some work will just come out better than other pieces for a variety of reasons. And I just hate when I read work that is technically right, and so dead that it lays on the page and won’t even roll over. But even that judgement is subjective–someone else is gonna like it.

  6. Dichotomy
    You wrote: Bad books get published.
    Then you wrote: The bottom line is that every agent and editor want good books. Always.
    You can see the dichotomy, and this is what frustrates an endless amount of non-published writers! “Every agent and editor wants GOOD books.” Yet BAD books get published.
    And the unanswered question is, WHY?
    There must be SOME point where subjectivity departs, and bad writing separates from good writing like curds from whey. If this must inevitably happen, then why the bad-books-getting-published?
    I know you don’t have an answer. I’m venting, more than anything.
    Venting with, perhaps, the tiniest hope that someone might shed a bit of light on this.

  7. I can see what both you and Mr. Lake is saying.
    You see, I am my worst enemy when it comes to my writing. I have been known to pick apart what others told me were perfectly wonderful stories. My brain on the other hand, figured every line was completely horrible. I had to stop, and look at it from an outside perspective and the only way I could achieve that is by stepping away for a few months. I saw my writing with fresh eyes and it slowed my urges to tear my own hair out. :p
    The best advice I have ever received was “if you write only for the trends, its going to be crap because your heart’s not in it.”
    well damn. wasn’t that the truth!
    sometimes when I feel like I am being overwhelmed by my own work, I come to your blog and read up on the newest posts. its an odd way for me to escape without really escaping. :p so gracias!

  8. I’d follow on nomoretwaddle’s comment. Bad books get published, publishers want good books. Why?
    I’d argue that the second premise is faulty. Or at least, subject to interpretation. “Good” books to publishers may not be, well, good.
    Revise clause 2 as “publishers want MARKETABLE or PROFITABLE books,” and there’s less of a dichotomy. No less frustrating, perhaps, but more understandable.
    That’s not a knock on the motivations of publishers. This is a market society, but profit and quality are not always mutually reinforcing, as they are (thankfully) also not mutually exclusive. But it’s the former point that’s at stake here.
    As a reader (I’m a published academic, which is a slightly different kind of review process), the adage is simple: Life’s too short to read bad books. 🙂

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