Some questions and comments from the mailbag:
Bribes and voodoo dolls. Or an uncle in the industry. The more I do this, the more I try to be successful at something that is in my bones, the more the "professionals" keep mucking it up. The phrase "cottage industry" comes to mind. I can cite cases myself - and that's the problem. I can. So why should I keep doing this when what this article means is that I'll never match the whim of either the agent or the publisher.
The above is a response to a posting regarding the various ways editors drive writers and agents crazy.
Well, I didn't say that you will never match the whim of an agent and publisher; I just implied that it's really difficult to do so, and that timing and luck have a lot to do with having a manuscript accepted. A good agent is supposed to know which editors like which kinds of books, but I've had agents send me awful things that do not even come close to approaching the books I've published in the past, which is usually a good indicator of the types of things I'm looking for.
So...why should you keep doing this? Only because you love it, and for no other reason.
Please don't do it for the money. Because there really is none, or rather there is money for so very few people. If you expect that you'll sign your contract, get a huge advance, and pay your mortgage for the rest of your life based on your income from writing fiction, your life is as fictional as your novel. And your novel is probably more realistic.
I always suggest that writers approach writing as a serious hobby, one that may, some day, provide enough income for them to live on. In the meantime, please write only because you really want to; and do not expect that publishers will provide you with a living income until you have proven yourself to be a best-selling writer whom the world wants to read. Unrealistic expectations are the surest course to a miserable publishing experience and a poor relationship with your publisher.
Moving on--This was a response to a posting I'd done in which I outlined how various manuscripts had gone wrong in terms of characterization.
Okay, so the obvious question (to me) is, which of these books do you feel could actually be fixed? The issues on Books A [good narrator with stereotypical supporting characters] and B [good narrator with poorly drawn supporting characters] sound to me to be a cosmetic issue, even if they are pervasive. Unless, of course, the stereotypes and stick figures didn't have any goals of their own that affected the "plot".
My answer here is: It is much more difficult for most writers to fix character problems than plot problems. Most of the times that I give a manuscript a second chance and ask for fixes in the characterizations, the author doesn't succeed in revising the manuscript to my satisfaction. I think my point (which I didn't know I was making at the time) is that so many writers are so obsessed with getting their protagonist to be likable, or writing what they think editors/agents want, that they lose sight of the importance of good secondary characters. Of course, not all characters have to be fully rounded, but if you don't have a good supporting cast, the protagonist looks like a spot of color in a black and white world, which doesn't make for a rewarding reading experience. Think of it this way: There's a reason there's an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress. Rarely would a movie get universal critical acclaim on the basis of the lead's performance. The supporting roles must be equally strong.
Which brings me to a question that comes up at least a couple of times a year:
If I have to err on the side of good characterization or a really fantastic plot, which is the better way to go?
This one is tricky. For me, the proportion must be very close to 50/50. I can go with 60/40 plot/character, or 60/40 character/plot, but not much more than that. I strongly believe that a mystery without a terrific plot is going to be disappointing at the most primal level, and a weak plot will cause me to reject a manuscript just as much as weak characters.
HOWEVER! As a whole, I think many of my colleagues are willing to overlook weakness of story in favor of really engaging characters. After all, a series is based around a character, not a plot device. True, long-running series can get away with poor plots because by that time, devoted readers will do anything for their fix of the protag.
In other words, I think that, in the big scheme of things, if you have terrific characters and a fairly traditional mystery story, you are more likely to get published....mostly because of the way the series character drives buyer behavior and our business.
ANNOYANCE OF THE WEEK:
So, with Bouchercon about to begin (perhaps I'll be there)... I have been dealing with some writers, and some situations, in which I am told tales of writers published by small/independent/noncorporate publishers being treated poorly, or being condescended to, or being excluded, or in general receiving snobbish treatment by both writers who have been published by the "big houses" AND organizations with acronyms that will not be mentioned here. I usually stay out of these debates, as getting too intently involved in them is a sure prescription for heartburn, but for those of you who discriminate against the hard-working novelist published by someone other than the "big boys," whether you be writer, reviewer, convention coordinator, or officer of an association--Shame on you. Maybe you'd behave differently if you could get some of the calls I have, from lovely people who break down in tears as they tell me about your shabby treatment of them. Then again, I suspect that even if you did listen in on those calls, you wouldn't change your behavior, because if you wanted to behave like a human being with some dignity and grace, you wouldn't have acted that way in the first place.