Editors, where are you? – A Rant

I’ve got steam coming out of my ears. No, not from eating Bertie Botts beans, from a build-up of frustration. I’m going to have a rant.

First I wrote that as: ‘I’m sorry about this, but I’m going to have a rant.’ But I’m not in the mood to be sorry, so I’m not apologising. And I may regret this… no, I swear, I’m not going to regret it, this is going to feel too good.

Where to start?

Corporations. Big corporations. You know what they’re like: everything’s about the bottom line, chasing the big wins, the immediate gains. Who matters to the corporations? The clients, anyone who will buy the product. What about the workers, the people who produce the goods? Well, you’d better hope you’re the lucky one who catches the boss’s eye, who makes a quick splash and gets a name for being a money-spinner, because otherwise they don’t give a damn.

Right now, in the major economies of the world, we are facing a crisis of youth unemployment. Maybe this is partly to do with contracting economies, but that’s not the whole story, is it? The guys in their forties and fifties are holding all the jobs, because they’re the one who know what they’re doing, who provide immediate value to the company. In the corporate mindset, school leavers and new graduates are worthless, because they don’t have a clue – yet.

Before you think I’m disparaging the younger generation, let me tell you my gripe: companies don’t train people any more. Okay, massive over-generalisation, but, you know, I’m not in the mood to be all PC about this. I believe that, in general, short-term-ism rules. Nowadays, if you want to get training, you have to do it yourself – pay for courses, seek out mentors, and basically work your butt off, all while trying to hold down your day job if you’re lucky enough to have one.

You may be wondering why this bothers me on a personal level, since I’m one of those lucky forty-somethings.

It’s because I write. And I’ve been writing just long enough now to have realised that its not easy, producing a novel of a decent quality, or even half-decent quality. Like any other skill, it takes training and practice and hard grind. But just as any number of training courses won’t necessarily make someone an instant success story in industry, working at writing alone doesn’t get you anywhere. It requires mentoring, someone in the industry, more knowledgable than yourself, to take the time to look at your work, gently identify the flaws, and point you in the right direction.

People say publishing is facing a crisis. Well, of course it is, and you can’t place all the blame on a generation that supposedly doesn’t read. No, the problem is that it’s an industry dominated by a few big corporations. You see where I’m going with this, don’t you?

Who is taking the time to mentor new authors? Who is looking, not for books that will sell, but for authors who are willing to develop themselves? Who is training the authors of tomorrow?

I’m sick and tired of arrogant publishers who use agents as their gatekeepers and hang around waiting for a brilliant book to land in their lap with no effort on their part. I’m fed up with Literary Agents who expect an author’s manuscript to be so perfect when it arrives on their desk that all they need do is mail it to a publisher. And I’m gutted to see the closure of bookshop after bookshop, not only because of competition from on-line retailers, but because the quality and scope of books on offer from said big publishers is plummeting.

You’ve received something like this, haven’t you: “We regret that, owing to the enormous volume of manuscripts that we consider, we are unable to provide individual comment…”

Talk about shooting yourself in the foot. If you provide no feedback, that same author is going to send you another flawed manuscript, and another, and another, all the time wondering what it is they’re doing wrong.

As I write this, I’m struggling through the third major edit of the first book in my Transhumanity series. So you can see where I’m coming from. I don’t think it’s blowing my own trumpet to say that, if I can get this series finished, structurally edited, line-edited and polished, there are people who are going to enjoy reading it. Possibly, they might even be willing to pay a few dollars for the privilege. But how am I supposed to get to that point? No one in the industry has helped, or ever will help.

Individuals have helped. Other struggling wannabe authors have taken the precious time to read my work and comment, bless their hearts. I wanted to name them here, but this rant is going on a bit, so I’ll have to save that for another blog. The local council and library has helped, by bringing writing workshops to our little corner of Australia, bless them, too. But is that enough?

I’m now seriously thinking about self-publishing. Maybe it will condemn my books to unread obscurity, who knows, but it’s becoming a matter of principle. Why should I go through all the hard grind of training myself as a writer, only to give away a hefty chunk of my earnings to some faceless corporation that offers no author development whatsoever? No wonder publishing is in crisis.

Is it corporate realities and bean-counters stopping Editors from taking risks on new authors? I suspect so. And we desperately need good Editors – not the type who just proof-read and pick up the odd grammar mistake or missing comma, I mean the ones who have a stake in your product, and are actively trying to develop your book to be the best it can possibly be.

Professional Editors, where the bloody hell are you, when we need you the most?

 

Time: an aspiring writer’s enemy or friend?

I’ve been nervous about posting this, maybe because I’m new to blogging, but this is something that always seems to be on my mind: time, or the lack of it. Since I started writing, I’ve never been so aware of the passage of time.

Is it like this for all writers, I wonder? Maybe we need to feel the sucking whirlpool of time drawing us in if we are to finish each page and every chapter, if we are to complete that novel?

Or do I feel the drag of time so powerfully because I’ve already been sucked halfway down the vortex? I’m so new to fiction writing – starting from scratch two and a half years ago – and I’m in my mid-forties. I feel like an adult in training pants. Am I too late to achieve my dream of becoming a published author?

A couple of hours’ investigation and a few statistics later, my self-confidence has taken a rollercoaster ride through shock and dismay to a cautious optimism. If you’re interested in what the statistics say, strap yourselves in and don’t jump out till we get to the station:

I started by looking at the so-called 10,000 hour rule. Apparently this was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers”. Admittedly, I haven’t read the book or the studies on which it was based, but the basic principle is that it typically takes at least 10,000 hours or approximately ten years of dedicated practice to achieve mastery of a skill.

I didn’t want to hear that. Must I work another eight years to become an accomplished writer?

Perhaps not. The studies were based on chess grandmasters, top musicians and sports stars. For writers I believe the situation is different because we use our writing skills in daily life. School might not have taught us to hone our golf swing, but it gave us a grounding in spelling and grammar and creative use of language. At work we send emails and write reports – could this count towards that 10,000 hours?

That set me wondering. Suppose I’d already achieved 1000 hours from school studies, and 2000 hours from reading novels (which most authors agree is beneficial in developing a sense of plot and style). Then all those technical reports I wrote over fifteen plus years as an engineer must count for something (besides the comment on my first novel that ‘it reads like a report’), so let’s give myself another 2000 hours.

I’m halfway there already!

Is it realistic, though, to think I can drop it down to 5 years’ practice? To get a better idea I picked five of my favourite sci fi books (all published after 2011) and checked how long the authors had been writing. This is where I got a shock.

The average age at which the authors had started writing for publication (usually short stories, screenplays or comics) was 31 years. The average age at which their most popular novel was published (the one I’ve read) was 45 years. So it took an average of 14 years for them to hone their craft! (Insert expletive here).

How did I get from dismay to cautious optimism? Well, there was a lot of variation. A couple of authors were on the slow side, taking over twenty years to produce their most popular novel. Two produced a successful debut novel after 5 years and 7 years of writing. That’s looking more reasonable.

Then there’s the statistic I’ve come across (I’m not sure where it came from), that on average an author gets a publishing deal after writing three to four novels. Say it takes around 500 hours to write a novel, that’s less than 2,000 hours of actual novel-writing we’re talking about to become good enough for publication. That brings us down to about 3 years’ practice.

New studies are questioning the 10,000 hour rule as well, seeming to suggest that if one is willing to be ‘very good’ in a field, rather than ‘expert’, we might be looking at 7,000 hours. Again, that’s only 2,000 hours over my assumed base level.

I can also take some comfort in the age at which some of the most prolific genre authors published their first novels. Thriller writer Ian Fleming was 44 and wrote 17 novels, while Lee Child started at 43 years and already has 20 novels published. In the SF genre, Anne McCaffrey was 41 years old when her first novel was published and went on to write over a hundred more.

In some ways, it’s the young who are handicapped when it comes to writing novels. While the authors of debut novels are typically in their thirties or forties, there are still a significant number in their fifties (more than in their twenties) and a good few in their sixties.

So there’s hope. Maybe I won’t have to plug away at my writing for a decade or more to achieve my dreams.

Here’s the good bit, and the reason why time can be a friend rather than an enemy. Suppose I don’t get lucky and land a publisher soon. If I don’t let it get me down but keep practicing my writing, I’m only going to improve. If I keep at it with enough dedication, who knows, I might even become the writer I would so love to be, not just a decent writer but a grandmaster, who could stand up there alongside my favourite authors.

Well, you know, I have to dream.