[Note: By this afternoon I’ll be on a plane to the UK so I won’t be able to respond to comments after noon Eastern. I’ll do my best to jump back into the conversation later in the weekend.]
Stephen King has said that most readers have a moment early in life when they throw a book across the room and exclaim something along the lines of “This garbage got published??? Are you kidding me?” What happens next determines whether or not you’re a writer. Some will leave it at that. Some will rant to their friends or post a nasty online review. Some will send the author hate mail. And some will follow up this moment with something that begins as a rhetorical gesture and ends as an epiphany: “I could do better than that!”
It may not be true, of course. Not yet. Many would-be writers set out to write a book only to discover that it’s much harder than they realized. Some will suffer years of rejection before abandoning the dream, some will never completely abandon it but will also never really learn why other people don’t see anything in their work. Then there are other writers who set out to be better, people who realize that writing is craft as well as talent, perspiration as well as inspiration, and that while you can’t make yourself lucky, you can at least persist, and that is sometimes just as good. The fact that you are here and reading this today means that most of you fall into this last category.
Reading this site—and I mean all of it, comments as well as initial postings—makes one thing clear. We don’t all agree what good writing is, and even if we did we wouldn’t all agree on how to do it. That’s OK. Some of the discrepancy is about taste or genre: the darkly erotic fantasy that works for one reader might be roundly ridiculed by her cyberpunk reading friends. You can’t please everyone, and trying to do so is going to make for very bland writing. The trick, I think, is for writers to know what they are trying to do and then seeing if it gets the right kinds of response from the right kinds of reader.
Tricks will only get you so far, however, and I think it’s good to keep in mind that first revelatory exclamation—“I can do better than that!” OK. So let’s see it. I don’t mean, write the same kind of tripe which you flung across the room. What’s the point of that? Maybe you’ll sell it, but do you really want to send a stack of pages out into the world knowing in your heart that somewhere other people will start throwing them at their walls just as you once did?
Come on. You’re better than that. It’s not enough to be successful. You want to, need to, have to be GOOD, whether that has something to do with success or not.
And for once, I don’t care if it does. I don’t care if brilliant novels mount up forgotten in the slush pile while crap hits the bestseller lists. We all know this happens, but we also know that most successful books have to be at least competent, and most which are more than routinely successful are also more than competent. Even those wildly successful books we hate almost always have something that made them stand out that he have to—grudgingly—recognize. As I say, we can’t make our own luck. We can’t predict what will be hot in eighteen months that will make our newly released books topical and apparently loaded with foresight. What we can do is write the best book we can: not one everyone will like, but one which—for the right kinds of reader—will, for one shining moment, eclipse the competition: a book which urges young writers to strive for the dizzy heights you have achieved, rather than prompting them to throw it across the room. To do less is to embrace mediocrity and to take away from the publishing game the one thing you can control: the quality of your own work.
So don’t set out to write a book as good as the ones you discard. Write something better. And whether that (or the next, or the next) gets published or not, make your next book better than the one which went before it. Set impossible standards for yourself. Raise the bar higher than you can ever possibly attain, then shoot for it. And if you don’t reach it, keep trying, even if you know you’ll never quite get there. Just make sure you are demanding every ounce of the work and talent within you. Aim to be magnificent, but always be sure to improve. In the immortal words of Samuel Beckett, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”