The first time I thought I could possibly write a book someone might actually want to read was probably the first time I read a really badly written book. I’ll refrain from naming it to protect the innocent — okay, fine, it was The Celestine Prophecy — but it doesn’t really matter because the book went on to net the author kajillions of dollars, not just in royalties but in subsequent book-related gigs like speaking engagements, not to mention the sale of its film rights and the various sequels it spawned. (I think there were two, which are two too many, but I digress.)
Anyhoo, I remember thinking, Hell, even I could do better than this! And so I did. Well, I tried.
I’ve since learned that good, even great writing doesn’t necessarily guarantee publishing. A few months ago I reviewed a chick-lit novel for another of my blogs and was appalled by the horrible, horrible writing. I’ve nothing against chick-lit, mind you. One of my favorite authors is the brilliant Irish writer Marian Keyes, who takes puts the “lit” in that phrase. And I actually think that Bridget Jones’ Diary is a great book.
I was furious not with the novel’s writer — I mean, the world is full of bad writers — but rather with the editor for allowing her employer (one of the world’s biggest publishers) to invest even a dime in this piece of crap. I’ve read rough drafts of fellow writers’ manuscripts that were infinitely better than that “polished” work, and yet I’m also aware that few of my colleagues will ever find publishing nirvana, at least in this lifetime. Nowadays it seems that publishers crave “buzz” more than they do good literature, that nonfiction self-help books guarantee sales while a literary author should consider herself lucky if her debut novel’s numbers hit four figures. If you want to be an author, publishers want to know your “platform,” how many subscribers you have to your (and they assume you have one), and what famous author you can get to blurb your manuscript. Writers are now expected to spend part — if not all — of their advance on their own marketing and publicity, from scheduling their own book tours to buying copies of their own book to pestering local radio stations to interview them. Too bad if your book doesn’t lend itself to talk radio. Can you imagine Somerset Maugham discussing Of Human Bondage with a DJ who didn’t even take the time to read the first chapter? Or Mark Salzman trying to discuss Lying Awake (one of my all-time favorite modern novels) with a perfectly-coiffed-but-clueless blonde TV anchor in some podunk Midwestern town?
I read a quote from a famous Hollywood actor who said that, in order to succeed, you really have to be a little clueless about the challenges you’ll inevitably face. In other words, you can’t know too much about how hard your life is going to be, how sick you’re going to get of mac-n-cheese dinners, how many days you’ll have no more than ten dollars in the bank. Having even a bit of that knowledge can strain the faith of even the most passionate writer/artist/musician.
I think he also should have added (and maybe he did, I just don’t remember) that you shouldn’t know too much about the success of others either. Thanks to the Internet, we now know more than ever about how much an author or screenwriter got for her latest novel/script, and what kind of publicity tour her publisher is planning for her (which of course the latter will completely pay for). In spite of myself I still scan the pages in Script magazine that announce the advances first-time screenwriters nab from studios. Like stories in Self and Shape about how so-and-so lost X pounds and kept it off for a decade, these little tidbits leave a painful knot of envy in my stomach. I know I shouldn’t torture myself and should instead use these examples as inspiration, but I can’t help it. The horns just come out without any extra help from me.
Funny thing. I think I get more inspiration from those aforementioned awful books that I occasionally still “accidentally” read. (That chick-lit book was given to me by the publisher to review in my blog. What can I say? I wrote how much I hated it. Never ask me to review something without expecting full honesty.) I like to believe that if shit like that gets published, my novel has a tiny, tiny little chance of finding a good home somewhere. Hey, it’s free to dream.