Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Non-hypothetical Response to the Hypothetical Question

Wow! Quite the response to the hypothetical question about whether you would want to know if there is publication in your future and whether that would stop you from writing -- 186 comments and counting. One lesson I learned from that post: never play poker with an author, because they will cheat!! The number of people who fudged on the hypothetical was off the charts. I'll be charitable and chalk that one up to creativity and natural rulebreaking disposition I guess.

I wanted to call your attention to a recent comment by vaqqb, because I think it makes for an interesting point of discussion.

vaqqb writes:

You know, Nathan, this is a more relevant question that it looks, because so much irrational author behavior springs from it. Agonizing over rejection-letter comments, begging for any kind of personalized rejection, putting things through one crit group after another, going into pitch sessions with half-finished novels--all of that because we want someone to tell us straight-up, yes or no, are we any good? Are we ever going to be any good?

Look how many people would stop writing if they couldn't sell it; or better, look how many people would change the way they spent their time, efforts and presumably money if they knew they couldn't sell what they wrote.

From our perspective any agent COULD be our seer, with better accuracy than our unpublished crit partners, longsuffering spouses, or moms. Instead they send us fortune-cookie platitudes in a form letter. Where's our Delphi? Where's our Simon Cowell? What do we have to do to get an honest "no"?

So why don't I give people the Simon Cowell treatment and tell people when they are the literary equivalent of Spencer Pratt's soul?

Before I answer that, let me reluctantly admit that at times it is tempting. When you've read twenty queries in a row by people who will almost positively never be published, sometimes this voice in the back of the head wants to tell people to just stop and go and spend some time with their family. And for about 50% of the queries I receive, I think I could probably tell someone with 99% accuracy that they don't have the chops for mainstream publication.

But I don't give into that temptation. And here's why:

#1: It's just not my place. Who am I to tell someone they shouldn't follow their dreams? I'm just trying to do my job, which is sell books.

#2: The people who have the least chance tend to be the people who are most hostile to hearing that.

#3: Who knows, anyway?

That last point is somewhat complex, because it's my job to assess talent and abilities and good from bad, and in my own defense I would say that given that I spend hours every day assessing whether something is good or bad, just as with anything else, I've gotten very in tune with quickly and accurately assessing whether something is good. But at the end of the day, I'm just a guy with my own subjective opinions, and someone else might find merit in books that I don't get. That's why I specifically say in my queries that someone else may feel differently.

This all comes down to one basic fact about books: there is no Delphi. There are some people who rise above the cacophony of opinions and become bestsellers and award winners, but even those people will have a huge number of detractors. And there are others who most people don't think are good, but there will be some people who read their work and find meaning and value in it.

Yes, I could tell the truth to people who I think really don't have a shot, but trust me, they they don't want to hear it from me. And I'm not the person to tell them.


cindy said...

wow. nobody knows. not even the top agents and editors out there. when the next BIG THING hits, it hits hard. and i doubt anyone can predict how who or why.

the whole industry is based on huge leaps of faith. and as a writer, you have to believe in yourself and your story. if not this one, the next one or the next one. if you don't have the passion for writing--don't do it.

it's no good if you lose the passion. writing is hard enough when you are fired up and love your story.

good luck to everyone who is trying!

heather simmons said...

Assessing, in any form, is a difficult job Nathan. I have to assess parenting skills and if I'm wrong, the consequence could be a dead child. Sometimes I get so used to the lying and they all begin to look like con artists. Then they become too easy to categorize and brush away. Sometimes I have to slow down, look at it from another angle, follow my instinct and then decide if there's a chance. If I can still say no, I trust it more. You're where you are and who you are because of how well you've done at it thus far. A few will be appreciative and most will be resentful but at least we'd know the assessment was coming from the best source possible.

ICQB said...

I just feel frustrated now.

I guess if you become published, that's one way of finding out if your writing is good enough (or at least marketable enough).

But I honestly feel caught in the middle of something I can't control. No, I'm not published, but I've had some positive feedback from agents - but what does that mean? I'm waiting to hear back on a partial and if it's a no, then I'm considering officially hanging up the ol' pen & paper.

If no one has what it takes to honestly tell us if WE have what it takes, how do we know when it's time to try something else?

Not everyone can write, for the same reasons that everyone can't paint or sing or sew or carve statues.

Computers make writing seem easy. Paint by numbers does the same for painting, but does that mean you can paint?

When my parents opened a flower shop I tried my hand at arranging flowers. My mom took one look and said, "Dad needs help with the bookeeping."

Thanks, Mom for telling me that I was no good with flowers. I found out that I actually really liked bookeeping.

AstonWest said...

I'd think #2 is the biggest for an agent or publisher to worry about...

A Paperback Writer said...

I read once that Lucille Ball was told by an acting instructor that she'd never be any good at acting.
And one record company turned down the Beatles because they didn't think they'd sell and because "Guitar groups are on their way out, anyway."
Abe Lincoln lost every single election until he ran for president. And, we've all heard that the first agent that JK Rowling queried rejected her.
And I recall turning to my friend one Saturday afternoon in 1977 as we watched a preview of a movie before the real show, and telling her, "That one looks stupid. No one is going to pay to see that!" The name of that "stupid" movie? It was called Star Wars. I bet you've heard of it. ;)
So, yeah. Sometimes people make the wrong calls on other people's work.
Ball, The Beatles, Lincoln, and Rowling all turned out to be hugely successful. And I ended up loving Star Wars.
You just never know, do you?

Anonymous said...

There's no easy answer. A terrible writer could spend half his or her life focused on writing and getting published, to no avail. The only solution I can see is to have a life outside of writing, and not to pin every one of your hopes and dreams on being published.

Because being a published author isn't going to solve all of your personal and financial problems and it isn't a non-stop party. It's not the be-all and end-all and you don't wake up every morning with a smile on your face--unless you were a person who woke up that way before you were published.

Is it validation? Yes. When your agent likes your book. When your editor buys your book. But what about after that? When reviews come in? When you're backlisted?

Wherever you go, there you are. If you can't be happy unpublished, you probably won't be much happier published.

It may sound like blasphemy, but I stand by it.

beckylevine said...

Nathan, I think you're dead on target with your reasons why you don't tell people to, essentially, stop writing. I do freelance critiquing, and, yes, sometimes its temping, but just like you said--I'm not the final judge on any of this. Usually, I get an entire manuscript from an author and, hey, if they've written a whole book--I don't care how far away it is from seeming publishable at this point, they've accomplished something huge. Who is to say that they won't be able to handle the learning curve and turn that story, or the next one, into something that other people will want to pick up off a bookstore shelf.

I don't even want to be a hypothetical seer!

Shell I said...

Paperback Writer - that reminds me of a TV show my brother used to watch "Red Dwarf" he was telling me about it, trying to convince my I would like it too. He explained that it was about the last human, a highly evolved (to humanoid) cat, an android and a hologram lost in space 3 million years into the future. I thought YEAH RIGHT - that show must be really bad.

Turns out it is still one of my favourite shows despite no longer being made.

It goes to show you can't judge a book by its cover (sorry for the pun).

I do know what vaqqb is asking though. I have that voice that starts up everytime I am happy with my story "You are being silly, no-one else is ever going to like this. Why are you even bothering." It would be nice to know whether that voice is right or not.

Laurel Amberdine said...

Vaqqb is spot on.

I keep wishing someone would tell me I'm hopeless so I can quit already. It's the encouragement-but-not-success that makes me crazy.

Icqb, it can help to set yourself some kind of reasonable trying-limit. On average, how much work has a successful person put in, before their breakthrough, in the kind of writing you're doing?

Sure there will be insta-hits and people who took 40 years to make it, but I bet there's a more typical range.

It might be three complete novels, two conferences or workshops, and fifteen short stories before an agent took notice. If that's the case, it's unreasonable to expect one novel to be enough. Maybe tell yourself you'll write four novels, revise them and market them seriously, and if no one bites (or comes very close) it's time to admit defeat.

At least, it helps me to think that there's a way to know how much trying is "enough."

Gosh this is a more depressing post than I meant it to be!

(And what is with all the ---qb? Is this an abbreviation I missed?)

Anonymous said...

That's a really considerate answer.


Lapillus said...

"Who knows, anyway?"

Too true.

Most days I don't think I have what it takes to be a published writer. It'd certainly be nice to know what a few professionals truly thought of my potential or lack thereof, but in the end, good or bad input aside, I'd still write and I'd still try to publish.

Paula said...

The conclusion that a writer seems like he or she doesn't have a hope in hell, ever, assumes no possibility of improvement. Why would *anyone* ever assume that?

Elyssa Papa said...

icqb, you're probably going to hate me for saying this... but do not give up!

It took romance author Anna Campbell 20 years to get published and when her book came out a couple of years ago, it flew off the shelves.

No one was looking for Stephenie Meyer but now I think they'll be a lot of Stephenie Meyer-esque books coming out.

Reading a partial doesn't mean anything and neither does a full really. I've had a partials of my manuscript sent out along with's a constant game and each rejection you get, does make you stronger and more used to the word no.

Some people will love your voice but just don't love your story. Others will compliment you left and right but won't sign you.

Sorry to be a little gender-bias here right now but finding an agent is like finding Mr. have to kiss a lot of frogs until you find that "perfect" one just for you.

Right now, I've queried 85 agents on this one manuscript. It's out in partials with new agents. I've finished the second and starting the third. But the thing is, I won't give up because in my heart I know that I'm meant to write and be published.

So, believe in yourself. Don't let others tell you otherwise. You'll get there.

heather simmons said...


I thought we were assuming this was a 'seer', not an agent looking at the work. The agent's opinion would be subjective but not the seer's. I think the question was more geared towards, if we knew for a fact that we didn't have the talent, as opposed to whether or not someone saw the talent or not. The answer changes with the scenario.

JES said...

Nice answer, Nathan. Thanks.

Jake Seliger said...

This all comes down to one basic fact about books: there is no Delphi.

William Goldman made the same point in Adventures in the Screen Trade, when he says about movies that nobody has any real idea of which movies will succeed before they're made. The chapter on the subject is worth reading. You could bring that out to another level of abstraction and say the same thing for almost all forms of art, including books. I also use it as a jumping off point for discussing the probability of receiving grants.

Lisa M said...

I just wanted to stress that although some of these unpublished writers may be throwing some horrible stuff your way right now, perhaps a few years down the road they will hone their craft and a few of them may produce something worthy of publication.

At least that is what I'm hoping for in my in my case:-)

When/if I get to that point, when I feel my material is worth your review, I'll probably be wondering if you're thinking "this girl just needs to give it up" in the back of your mind LOL!

maris said...

A lovely answer, Mr. B!

You say that the people who have the least chance to be published are people who are most hostile to hearing they don't "have the chops" for mainstream publishing.

I was wondering about the reaction of writers LEAST hostile to hearing this. Do they typically hone their skills? Rework rejected stories? Find a genre or a plot that better suits them? Are the least hostile writers people accustomed to the business of writing, who can recognize not only why something's not working, but why it should change?

Marilynn Byerly said...

**Before I answer that, let me reluctantly admit that at times it is tempting. When you've read twenty queries in a row by people who will almost positively never be published, sometimes this voice in the back of the head wants to tell people to just stop and go and spend some time with their family. And for about 50% of the queries I receive, I think I could probably tell someone with 99% accuracy that they don't have the chops for mainstream publication.

I beg to differ. Maybe that project isn't publishable, maybe the next project isn't publishable, but one day, many writers figure things out, and the writing improves.

Most of us who are published have earlier books that never made it, but we learned our craft, we learned our markets, and we worked our butts off and still do.

I teach writing, and I see vast improvements with some writers with the right kinds of direction.

Sure, some writers will never figure it out, or they are so driven by their ego that they will never accept that they are wrong, and the rest of the world is right about their writing, but to say one project defines all writers is nonsense.

All you can tell is whether the writer has the level of craft needed and a book that will fit the available markets.

Nathan Bransford said...

I would gently disagree with the people who think that everyone can improve their craft to a publishable level simply with practice. To use a sports metaphor, I am never going to make the NBA, no matter how much I practice.

I kind of think this is a myth particular to writing -- because of the subjectivity of books and since writing on some level of quality is something everyone can do, I think people have a notion that anyone can do it on a high level if they practice.

But I'm sorry, that's just not true. Yes, people can improve their craft, but talent also comes into play when you're talking about mainstream publishing-level quality of work, and talent is innate.

Dan said...

To expand you NBA comparison, we know you won't make the Kings roster because you lack physical size, game IQ, experience, an outside jump shot, etc.

So what are some 'tell-tale' signs a writer doesn't have the innate talent and/or chance of getting published?

Nathan Bransford said...


Ha. Exactly.

I don't know that there are many tell-tale signs, but if someone really badly struggles with grammar and knowledge of words, that's going to be a seriously tough obstacle to overcome. I'm sure there are people who are able to do that through sheer storytelling talent, but in a previous post I compared that to constantly bouncing the ball of your foot while trying to be an NBA player.

Sprizouse said...

William Blake, in his lifetime, never achieved any measure of critical or commercial success. Many a critic or 'talent evaluator' told him to put away the quill. Yet many scholars (myself among them) feel he's the greatest of all the Romantic Poets.

What's the lesson? Luck has as much, if not more, to do with your success in life than talent or hard work. That's the reality nobody wants to face even AFTER success. But if you're always doing something you love and luck never smiles on you then failure won't also come with the regret that you never tried.

Corked Wine and Cigarettes said...

Originally I said I would want to know, and if I don't have the chops, I'd quit to pursue other avenues. I stand by that. Life's too short to be continually bad at anything.

But I can see where people wouldn't want to know. I heard an Olympian speaking today on BBC about the coming games and his excitement over them. Predictably, he was excited - but he added something that reminded me of this hypothetical.

He said that years of practice and hard work are about to be answered as to whether or not he will take home a medal. The hope, he went on, of winning will die right there in Beijing. Either he'll win or he won't. In essence, he has a date with a seer. But the hope of winning had become such a tangible thing, giving him comfort and acting as a crutch when despair set in during training.

So I think maybe it boils down to what that sliver of hope is worth to you. What's it worth? Does the hope of publication and the comfort of that outweigh the time wasted pursuing something in vain?

Maybe for some.

Lisa M said...

Regarding my earlier comment, I just wanted to stress that I said "some" unpublished writers "may" eventually hone their skills to produce something publishable. I surely didn't mean that anyone, with enough practice, can become a successful published author. I just wanted to clarify:-)

V L Smith said...

There are those people who will receive a couple of rejections then toss their manuscript in a drawer, the trash can or on a bonfire and call it quits for good. They'll thank the agent for sparing them years of wasted effort and abandon the writing life with ease.

Then there are those who will savor each rejection, their proof that they've at least made contact with the aliens in the publishing land of Oz. Those cold communications will bolster their courage and they will beg, borrow and steal every minute they can to write, learn and devour this thing we call our craft.

And they will change and they will grow and they will become the writers that Oz wants. And when their day arrives, they'll pull out their stash of rejection mementos and they'll laugh...wickedly.

Shell I said...

Corked Wine & Cigarettes, your analogy reminds me of the beginning of Bee Movie (yes I have seen it my excuse - I have a 2-year old) "According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way that a bee should be able to fly. Its wings are too small to get its fat little body off the ground."

Maybe the same could be applied to some writers, because they don't know they're no good they just keep plugging away & eventually it all works for them.

At least - I am hoping this is the case for me.

jwhit said...

Whoa! Nathan said:
But I'm sorry, that's just not true. Yes, people can improve their craft, but talent also comes into play when you're talking about mainstream publishing-level quality of work, and talent is innate.

Define talent. Physical stature is not the same thing. Not even close. I can't make myself grow taller, but I can work my brain.

Humans learn. That and language and use of tools are what sets us apart from other animals. Humans impose meaning. Humans seek meaning. Also sets us apart. Humans adapt, too.

In my mind, there is a range of normal. Most of us are in the middle, which is why we are less likely to be published in the *conventional way*. That doesn't mean we don't have ability to tell stories in good and acceptable ways. It just means we haven't satisfied a set of current agents and current mainstream publishers.

Effort also comes into it. Those with learning difficulties may never get the presentation up to standard. But in general, the majority of humans who work to learn their craft, expand their imaginations, take in as much as possible the experiences of other successful [your OWN definition of success here], and write write write over time, will improve, will get their stories out of their heads for sharing, and will make a difference in the world.

So, no, I can't agree with Nathan on this one. The narrow interpretation in this case is far too narrow. The NBA is not the only game in town.

tys said...

Thanks for this discussion Nathan. It's given me a little more perspective on my work.

My first novel is finished and has been read by editors at Harper Collins and Penguin, and I'm deciding what to do next. It can sometimes seem the fate of that ms is crucial to my success as a writer, but after reading everyone's comments I see that I should relax more, and write the books I want to write, instead of obsessively returning to that single ms and polishing it to within an inch of its life.

Life is too short, and to much fun to get hung up about whether any single work will see the light of day. Maybe I should spend less time on blogs like this too ;)

I also think it's hard to know if a writer has what it takes. I'm not sure if you could say I have talent. Ten years ago my writing was appalling - egotistical, lacking in the basic craft, and horribly over-written. My writing is now providing me with mentorships and nominations for manuscript awards. Is the arc from horrible to where I am now a result of inherent (but concealed) talent, or because eight years ago I decided that if I wanted to really write a book then I'd better put my ego aside and learn something?

I would say that I was always good with words (in a purplish prose kinda way), but didn't know how to tell a story to save my life. It has been pure slog, and not talent that makes me the writer I am today.

I don't disagree that you can tell if someone will never be published, but at what point in someone's career can you make that call? Maybe if after ten years of busting a gut learning the craft, and you still can't produce a half decent book, then maybe it's time to go take up golf or cross-stitch.


Shell I said...

Sorry missed the 2nd half of the bee movie quote "The bee, of course, flies anyway. Because bees don't care what humans think is impossible."

Caitlin said...

Nathan, I never get tired of the hills references. They crack me up every time! Thanks.

Elissa M said...

I have known people who will never, ever be published by a mainstream, royalty paying publisher. They repeatedly demonstrated with their writing and their reactions to constructive critiques, their incapacity for improvement.

I agree completely with Nathan that not everyone can write commercial fiction. Or literary fiction. Or any sort of nonfiction. Some people can't even write a coherent letter.

And I also agree that it's no one's place to tell these people to stop writing. Only the writer can decide whether to press on or to give up.

I write because I want to. I enjoy creating characters and stories. I like to put my musings into words. I will stop writing when I don't like it any more, and it won't matter if I'm published or not.

A Paperback Writer said...

shell i,
glad you see my point.
I was commenting on Nathan's personal responses in this post, not in the previous one with the seer. sorry if I confused you.

I'm seeing both sides of this. Nathan, since I'm a teacher, I think I can relate to how you must sometimes feel. Sometimes, I get kids where I just think they're NEVER going to be able to write even a formula essay, let alone something with style and a good point.
But, I would certainly never say, "Give it up, kid, and stick with math classes," because, well, to repeat myself, who knows?
I once had a student who arrived from Peru halfway through his 7th grade year. His English was barely passable. At that point, I never would've guessed that within two years, he'd be pulling top grades in the most difficult classes in the school and taking top national honors in academic competitions where he could use only English.
So, it's no wonder, Nathan, that you just stick with a form rejection letter when you're not interested.
(By the way, there are some published writers out there whose books lead me to believe that they'll never be able to write decently either, and yet they made it to the shelves somehow. )

Beth Terrell said...

When I was teaching teenagers with dyslexia, I was amazed at how far these students, who hated reading and writing and could barely construct a sentence on the page, were able to progress. They had a number of good ideas, but had no concept of writing as a draft/edit process. They thought stories were flung fully formed onto the page. Once they learned how to take an ordinary (or even pretty darn bad) piece of writing and polish it into something to be proud of, their attitudes toward the process completely changed for the better, and so did their writing.

I don't know how much talent I have as a writer, but maybe perseverance and a talent for editing can make up for any shortcomings.

Chumplet said...

With regards to Answer #2: Simon probably has a bodyguard. Most agents don't. You choose wisely.

Melody Ayres-Griffiths said...

Within reason, of course, the mainstream publishing industry seems to be more about marketing then content anyhow. Nathan picks books he likes because he likes them, and that gives him the confidence required to persuade someone else to like them.

He may like a book we would almost universally think is horrible. Or, conversely, he may hate a book the rest of us would love. That's why there's more than one agent in the world.

Generally, however, agents tastes are going to fall to a common denominator -- if several reject you, many will reject you. Probably all. Does that mean your book is bad? No. It merely means it's unpopular. But is there still an audience?

Likely, there is. Happily, there are alternatives to mainstream publishing. (or others) will print your books cheaply, and you can consign them through a local bookseller. Do readings, have signing just like 'real' authors do.

There's nothing like holding a proper bound copy of your manuscript in your hand, reading to an appreciative bunch of youngsters or signing something you've created that someone else has elected to buy to give you that confidence to go back to an agent, and query them again knowing that, whether they like your book or not, you know that someone else in the world does.

What else matters?

bunnygirl said...

What I find interesting is how many people think the only reason to write is to be published, and that publication legitimizes ones efforts somehow. Is there any other endeavor that carries such a load of assumptions?

Most of the people who run marathons know they aren't going to come anywhere close to winning, but they run anyway. Most people who take up a musical instrument don't expect to play at the local VFW Hall, let alone Carnegie Hall. Many people are very happy to paint watercolors that will hang on no one's walls but their own, make beer that will never be served in a bar, or grow tomatoes that will never be for sale at the local supermarket.

No one thinks it odd that people have these hobbies and in fact, people usually speak respectfully of the gardeners, quilters, and other hobbyists in their midst without ever saying, "Well, Bob is just wasting his time restoring that GTO. He's not a REAL mechanic because no one pays him to work in an auto repair shop."

I wonder why writing is viewed by so many as something that's not worth doing unless it results in a gloss-covered product on the shelf of Barnes & Noble?

Mystery Robin said...

Does that mean you think someone couldn't go from point A 'really bad book and query' to point B 'publishable book and fantastic query' with practice?

I know that writing is art and craft, but I tend to think that through discipline and practice we can all improve the craft enough to write a great book. How great, probably comes down to art.

So for that reason, I'd probably never tell anyone they'd never be published. I think that Delphi you're talking about is more "can THIS be published. Can I be published NOW? Or do I have a lot more work to do?"

We spend so much time staring at the words, it's easy to lose perspective, so we're looking for someone to point out the horizon and say "There it is - get straight."

Nathan Bransford said...

mystery robin-

Yes, absolutely, someone (or rather more than one someone) could go from bad book to really good book with practice. I'm just saying that not everyone can get there with practice.

I also am skeptical that someone could go from a book that is really bad off (and I mean in terms of grammar, idea, execution, etc.) to a publishable writer, but I suppose the world is a big place.

Shell I said...


In my opinion there is absolutely nothing wrong with writing for the fun of it. But generally following an agents or editors blog to get information about the business side of writing isn't just writing for fun.

To use one of your examples, if a gardener grows tomatos and knows that he will never sell them to a supermarket, would he bother going online to find out how to sell them? Or a musician who was content to play at home wouldn't try to find out what they needed to do to make a CD or market it. Then again maybe they would, but I wouldn't.

I love writing for the fun of writing but if that was all it was for I would turn off the computer & stop trying to improve my skills because it wouldn't matter if my grammer was perfect, if my plot was non-sense or was unique if it was just for me. If you know what I mean.

bunnygirl said...

shell i: Seeking to improve one's writing doesn't mean one is necessarily seeking publication, any more than taking guitar lessons means one is hoping for a career in music. There's no different set of writing techniques for hobbyists vs those whose end goal is a publishing contract. Everyone wants to challenge themselves and improve.

Writing is one of the few creative endeavors where there is little support for those who want to get better just for getting better's sake and I can think of no comparable mindset with other creative activities.

Knowing the ins and outs of publication is good for setting one's expectations and recognizing a marketable story once you've told it, but I don't know of too many people who turn out their best work by starting with the market in mind.

To get back on topic, though, I think there are some people who don't have what it takes to become sufficiently solid writers to get published in any market. There are also those who can write brilliantly but will never have the correct market timing and will remain unpublished. In each of these scenarios, it really is a shame there's no way to know in advance that all those hours working on queries and synopses would've been better spent doing something else. :-)

Anonymous said...

I gotta tell you--you guys crack me up with your "learning the craft" and "do I have what it takes?"....

Do any of you ever write anything, or do you just hang out online and talk about it?

Well, I'm here, and I write stuff, so I guess at least some of you do.

But I tell ya, I don't worry about it, I just write, and I send out what I write, and then I write a new one...the time I spend doing this I would only be sleeping more anyway (making myself fully alert for the day job in the process, which would in itself be nearly intolerable), so it's not like I'm making any great sacrifice.

Besides, it's hard to take myself seriously when my latest work is an action thriller about a disgruntled ex-NASA engineer who builds a bank-robbing robot with AI software that allows it to make its own decisions during a series of escalating wild-west style heists...

Maybe for the literary types who are unable to sell their insights into the human condition, the rejection is tougher to take, I dunno.

Do I give a heck if anyone ever buys it? No. Do I think someone will? Hell yes. I'd read it or watch it if it came out, so someone else probably would too. And I have not been published by a major house, but I have been offered a small-house deal...

So I will write on, knowing that I don't need to buy lottery tickets ever again cuz I already got a big one that I play 5 nights a week.

Whirlochre said...

Some people wash their hands obsessively from dawn till dusk. They stand at a sink and rinse, rinse, rinse, like magicians performing a drawn out Disappearing Soap trick.

Then there's us writers.

I suppose it all boils down to how you view the dangling carrot.

Anonymous said...

"I also am skeptical that someone could go from a book that is really bad off (and I mean in terms of grammar, idea, execution, etc.) to a publishable writer, but I suppose the world is a big place."

I guess I'm finding it hard to believe that even naturally talented writers can whip out a brilliant manuscript from the get go. The published authors I've spoken to all seem to stress that it took them many years and a few failed novels before they became successful (published) writers.

However, I guess I would need to see an example of some of the "bad" manuscripts you've seen LOL.

Anonymous said...

#2 is the real problem, I think. I've seen a lot of agents and editors mention that they used to give feedback but stopped because they received so many abusive responses from the authors concerned.

(That said, some still give personal feedback even on queries. God bless them.)


Anonymous said...

I think a writer who ends up as a professional novelist needs to have a certain amount of inate ability to start with, and then it takes 2-4 books to get good at it for most, not to mention decades of reading. If you have to write 100,000 bad words to get to the publishable stuff, then you must have to read 10,000,000 words.

That said, I am a firm believer that all people--inlcuding those who will never be professional caliber book writers, as well as those who will--can become better writers through training and practice. Writing is a skill that can be learned, it is not some zen gift that you either have or you don't. Unless you're talking about a Stephen KIng or Anne Rice or Michael Crichton; those are cases where inate, raw talent met constant practice...

Laurel Amberdine said...

There might be some confusion in terms here, actually.

Writing is a basic technical skill that can be practiced and learned.

Storytelling is something that takes talent and a certain kind of personality. It can be refined with practice, but some people don't have the ability, and no amount of practice forming sentences is going to suffice.

It's like music: anyone with basic coordination can learn to play the notes correctly. But making a series of notes into a beautiful performance is a whole other thing, and requires talent. (Along with lots of practice.)

Jenny said...

It strikes me that people who would not write if they knew they could not sell might be those more likely to sell for one simple reason:

They write to connect with a reader. If they knew they would not have readers, they would not write.

Good writing is writing that connects. People buy books not because they are interested in you expressing yourself, but because they want to read something that expresses THEMselves.

So the person who writes for a reader is far more likely to find a reader. Those who write because they enjoy the feeling of words pouring out of themselves or to admire their own "creativity" often do not.

Julie Weathers said...

Nathan, thank you for making people stop and think about their writing. Thank you also, for once again being spot on.

A person with a little talent, persistence and desire will trump a person with immense talent only every time. While at times I think it might be a kindness to tell someone they simply do not have what it takes, how can any of us read their heart?

Of course, I am one of those people who has been told to stop daydreaming about writing and grow up.

Years ago, I followed the career of a filly who sold for a few hundred dollars to an exercise boy. She was ugly and, according to the young owner, "none of her legs matched so no one wanted her." He believed in her and gave her a chance. She went on to become a champion race horse and won enough money for him to buy back the family ranch his mother had to sell to support the family after his father died.

No one can really tell how much desire and heart a person, or horse, has. Sometimes you just have to believe and do your best.

Miss Viola Bookworm said...

I have to agree with Nathan. It's similar to singing. Watch the tryouts for American Idol one time and you see that some people just have the talent or gift of singing. Others may need a bit of fine tuning here and there or guidance, but the gift is there, whereas others sound as bad as I do while singing in the car. Anyone can open up and sing. Anyone can pick up a pen and write. Does that mean that someone should? No.

I'm not saying that people shouldn't try, but at the same time, I think you have to be realistic. At 34, I still watch the Olympics and want to be the next Kristi Yamaguchi, but it just isn't in the cards for me. I also LOVE to sing, but this is best done in the privacy of my own home. Writing, however, has been something I've been working on since I could hold a pen, and with my experience teaching writing and literature, I think I might have a shot. Several agents and other writers have told me so as well.

Regardless of whether I get published or not though, I'll keep at it because I enjoy it and can't quiet the characters in my head. Anyone can do anything, but attempting to make it one's career is something different. I don't think Nathan is saying that people should stop writing, but getting published is one thing and writing for pleasure is another. I don't think anyone should give that up if they love it, but perhaps they should focus on other career goals. In the meantime, find someone who can be honest about your writing (or whatever it is that you're attempting to do) and let you know if you shouldn't quit your day job.

rooruu said...

The blogs of the world are probably the largest single chunk of publicly-available evidence that lots of writing and frequent writing doesn't always translate into compelling writing. There are some people who could write their shopping list on their blogs, and I'd read it. Others write and write and with all the goodwill in the world (which you don't have to have, with blogs, you just choose to read 'em or not) while I may admire their voluminous enthusiasm - their writing isn't compelling. And I wander off that page and probably never return.

But if they're having fun with their blog, well that's grand. But practice alone doesn't create an engaging, sellable book.

Julie Weathers said...

"Yes, I could tell the truth to people who I think really don't have a shot, but trust me, they they don't want to hear it from me. And I'm not the person to tell them."

By the time a person starts querying an agent, they should have done all they can do to get their work "publishable." At that point, I think it's perfectly understandable for a person, especially an agent, to have and give an experienced opinion.

Nathan choosing not to do so exhibits a certain amount of class and professionalism.

The people who most need to hear an honest opinion of their work are most often the ones who won't listen. That's why I'm very careful about who I critique now. Some really don't want to improve, they want you to tell them they are wonderful. I simply don't have time to stroke egos.

freddie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
freddie said...

The thing is, it's hard to know (especially at the beginning) whether you have no talent or you're a diamond in the rough.

Just_Me said...

Vaqqb is right, authors are looking for a sign, any sign, that they aren't crazy lunatics for spending hours, weeks, months, and years working on their novel.

And I respect your position on not telling someone to please back away from the keyboard. Maybe not everyone is ready for publishing, but there is some joy (I think) in just writing.

tyler said...

Not everyone who can write well gets published, or even tries, for that matter.

But EVERYONE who's been published has been read by someone, somewhere, at some stage of the game who thought, "This is unreadable dreck."

If the recruit then waits at the door for three days without food, water, or encouragement, he is then allowed to come in and begin training.

JES said...

Huh. I thought Nathan's post was pretty straightforward, hence my earlier plain-old-thanks comment...

A lot (not all) of the comments he's gotten seem to be in the "Them's fightin' words, Mister -- put up your dukes!" vein. And it may be that those of us who've taken offense need to stop and take a breath and remember what's going on here.

Which is, as I see it: Nobody who spends much time reading this blog can seriously doubt that Nathan LOVES reading and LOVES good writing. But one thing makes him different from (most of) the rest of us: he's in the business of SELLING good writing, too.

So when he said, "I think I could probably tell someone with 99% accuracy that they don't have the chops for mainstream publication," I have a hard time believing he meant to discount improvement over time, the virtues of perspiration and good luck, and so on. We need to put ourselves in his shoes -- he simply can't afford to acquire everything, no matter how rough-hewn, in the vague hope that it will really take off 10 (or even two) years down the road. Not to put words into his mouth, but I think he's really saying he can afford to GAMBLE on only that 1%.

Somebody mentioned William Blake, how long it took for him to be appreciated (posthumously at that), and so on. Yeah. And if Blake had queried Nathan, Nathan might have passed on him for any number of reasons. He SAID 99% certainty, not 100% certainty.

And anyhow, betcha anything he gets just as frustrated at writers who won't query him because he's just starting out and, hence, believe they don't have time to wait around for him to build his list. Do those writers have 100% certainty that's not a mistake? Sure they don't. But they've got to play the odds, as they see it.

It's art, yes. It's entertainment, yes. But once we attempt to move a manuscript into the marketplace, we need to appreciate that it's a business transaction -- and a bet -- from both directions.

[Apologies for the long-winded follow-up. I thought this was going to be the short version. :)]

MH said...

When did "mainstream" become a good word? Mainstream is safe. If agents and publishers are only looking for mainstream fiction, then fiction is dying. Part of the definition of mainstream is that it's not exceptional. Exceptional means brilliant, different, outside the ordinary. Exceptional art, in any medium, is what keeps the art alive. It invigorates it, takes it new places. Mainstream is stagnant. To an agent or publisher, mainstream is reliable. But don't be fooled by that. It's reliable now, but not in the long run.

Any art that closes its doors to the new and different is in the process of dying. Instead of more books with glitzy covers and little substance, fiction needs its Salon des Refuses. It needs more publishers taking chances on books that stand outside the norm, in order to invigorate the art. But publishers are businesspeople, and they look for the reliable sale. It's hard to argue with that; businesses need to make money. In other words, mainstream fiction is good for business-- right now. But it's not good for the art of fiction as a whole. If agents and publishers wanted to invest in the future of this art, they would not be looking for mainstream fiction ONLY. They would leave room for the exceptional. Doing so might not bring in fast cash, but it means investing in the future. Today's exceptional literature is tomorrow's mainstream literature. But we won't have that mainstream literature of tomorrow if we don't have the exceptional of today.

Unfortunately, I think the Salon des Refuses is happening in self-publishing, along with a lot of plain old refuse. If major publishers don't make room for the new and the different, they're not going to survive down the road.

Please, think outside the mainstream, Nathan.

Sher-May said...

I believe that people who'd give up writing altogether just because they are told they don't have viable commercial success should realize that that, itself, is at least one of the reasons they will not succeed. I realize there's a bit of post hoc ergo propter hoc going on in this statement, but really: if you love writing, you're going to write even if you're the only one who ever reads it. You write for yourself, for fun, for any other reason other than to make money. It's like playing a musical instrument -- you don't practice and play only if you're assured a spot in a concert. If you did, you'd never get offered a place in any concert.

Of course, if Delphi told me I didn't have a snowball's chance in hell getting published, I would cut back the time and energy I spend working on original projects and maybe write fanfic or something. But I don't think I would ever stop altogether. I would hate to lose one of the rare things I actually love doing.

Chase March said...

I always wonder why people don’t listen to the criticism they get on reality shows. People usually give a testimonial to the camera and say, “I don’t care what they say. I got talent and I’m gonna do what I’m gonna do. No one can stop me.”
And they are right, no one can stop them. But for me, I’d like a little honest feedback. And I have just recently learned how to listen. It really helps to improve your craft, whatever that may be.

Nathan Bransford said...


Thanks, that sums things up very well.


Publishers and agents follow the marketplace. If you want to see experimental fiction, buy experimental fiction and encourage other people to buy experimental fiction. But it's hard enough to make a living as an agent aiming for "mainstream," let alone shopping around things that aren't going to sell, first to editors, and then, should I find someone to take a chance, to the general public.

I think people may have a bit of an overinflated notion that agents and editors drive the marketplace -- to a certain extent, perhaps. But look at THE SHACK. Zero marketing to #1 bestseller. People will find what they want to read. Agents and editors spend a lot more time reacting to the marketplace than driving it.

I would ask a question of you -- how many experimental novels and other works outside of the mainstream have you read lately? Because they are most definitely being published. Maybe not with an agent and outside "mainstream" publication, but they're definitely out there.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

No, I'm not published, but I've had some positive feedback from agents - but what does that mean? I'm waiting to hear back on a partial and if it's a no, then I'm considering officially hanging up the ol' pen & paper.

Ah, icqb, don't hang it up. I've been where you are (and it's frustrating), but obviously your writing is solid or they wouldn't bother. Trust me, editors and agents are far too busy to waste time on poor writing. It could be the time is not right for your story. It could be a personal opinion: they just can't get super-excited about your particular story and feel they wouldn't do it justice in the marketplace. As an editor, I know what it is to work with stories that I can't wait to show the world. Just "settling" for a great story that does not speak to me personally does not begin to compare.

Also, please keep in mind that it takes years to perfect a craft or profession. You wouldn't just decide to be an engineer and then, engineering. No, you have to learn, you have to go to school, do internships (sometimes for free), study your industry, and then find a job (no small trick for most of us.) Writing is the same way. For my husband's first job out of college, he sent out over 250 resumes and ended up in a wonderful job after a lot of heartache and rejection. My point? He kept at it.

Keep at it, any and all of you who are querying. There are a million great writers out there whose stories will languish on their harddrives because they won't put their work out there, or they quit after a couple of rejections. The writers who succeed are the ones who perservere. And I don't mean perservering on their first book or even their fifth, but maybe their tenth. Sometimes it takes years to find your dream job; sometimes it takes years to find your dream agent.

cindy said...

it is so subjective, tho. that's what makes it even more difficult for the author querying to gauge whether their book is good. i've had probably at least 80 agents tell me no (does this mean i have no talent?) via form R or non-repsonse.

i've also had at least three say, great writing, but i could never sell this in the current market.

i had 6 editors pass and 3 say, YES, this is what we want to buy.

all on the same manuscript.

so yes, talent matters, good writing matters. but the subjectivity of it makes things that much more convoluted for the writer.

there's so many of us who write good novels. we just can't tell if it's good ENOUGH to sell until we begin querying for agents and subbing to editors. and good ENOUGH depends quite a lot on personal taste.

again, good luck to everyone who is trying!!

Anonymous said...

When I look back at some of the things I wrote and editors published over ten years ago, I'm amazed at how much I've improved. I wasn't awful (I guess...hope), but I was only in my twenties and thought I knew it all back then. I had no idea how much there was to learn, and how hard I'd have to work to constantly improve my skills. But I did.

This isn't the case for everyone, and unfortunately the people with no innate talent at all will be the first ones to agrue the point that time and practice makes you a better writer, but I did want to comment so the people who do have the innate talent won't give up.

Anonymous said...

I've seen writers who I thought were abominable. But they persevered and worked at their craft. I've been amazed at some of the remarkable improvements they made. I would be the last to dismiss a writer's chances of ever being published based on one manuscript. Of course there are those who will never rise above incompetence. But I'm not seer enough to determine the wheat from the chaff. One day a particular writer's work may be chaff. On another he/she has created wheat. And I'm not talking grain here.

Anonymous said...

I know this amazing kid who made up the greatest stories. She went on to become the most avid book reader I have ever even heard of (repeat reader, intelligent and insightful dissector of each of her beloved books, including ones she can suggest the most awesome improvements on, due to her innate understanding of story.)

And yet, she never was a good student, is a lazy writer (uses 4 for for, etc.), misspells all her words and doesn't use spell-check to correct herself...

BUT: one day she could be such a writer, if she chose to work a little, because she has such an innate sense of story and such an imagination.


On the other hand, sometimes one who can't create great becomes a great champion of those who can and do.

Lisa M said...

You know what I LOVE most about Nathan's blog? His readers' comments. I find myself coming back to peruse everyone's opinions, input, etc., again and again.
You guys ROCK:-) And of course, you too Nathan.

ORION said...

So interesting...
I have four manuscripts in a bottom drawer and 70+ rejection letters.
I'm that 1%.
And my debut novel was published when I turned 54.
If someone had told me this was going to happen I would never have believed them.
The thing is I never stopped wanting to write stories. I can't explain it. I'm that kid who sees the 10 ft high pile of horse manure and says, "There's gotta be a pony in there somewhere..."

Nathan Bransford said...


I'm guessing that, like just about every other published author, the manuscripts in the drawer may make you shudder and may not have attracted an agent, but they were probably good, but not quite good enough. I probably would have felt that they "just weren't there yet." So by no means would your earlier efforts probably make that 50%.

Just a guess based on the unpublished manuscripts of people who went on to be publication. It's not that there's a massive drastic improvement, just steady improvement from "good but not quite there" to amazing.

Jeff said...

Also, there have been a few who have ventured into prognostication about the chances of an author being published, only to be proven hillariously wrong.

No one wants to be famous for telling the next J.K. Rowling to give it up.

Adaora A. said...

I definetly understand what you mean Nathan. In a perfect world anyone can do anything they want and make a bucket load of money doing it. As far as you may like a book, or an actor may be liked at an audition, there are other things at work which also have an influence on selection. This isn't the 'natural selection' that we learned about in high school, this is a buisness. And the truth is a buisness needs to do what it has to do to continue to bring in the money (the green stuff - or red, green, blue etc in Canada) which keeps it afloat. Look at where I work (in retail). The store I work for is owned by a MAJOR Canadian company, and the company sold the franchise I work in. They decided they'd make more money selling it (and the folks who bought it decided they'd make more money rebuilding it into something which will make people want to shop there more then ever before. I think people are feeling paniked and threatened by the reality of the situation. But you're an agent. This blog is about giving us useful information. It can't be all roses and daisies. I like the truth.

Anonymous said...

That's a good answer. I'm sure many people really don't want to hear the truth. I do. I wish there was a way I could really know whether or not my writing sucked. If I found out that my writing is not good enough, I'd know there were major changes I needed to make in the way I write.

Miss Viola Bookworm said...

I'm not sure if I made this clear earlier or not, but I think it is really important to write and enjoy it instead of writing for publication. There are artists everywhere who aren't famous or making tons of money, but they love what they do. Many of them do it in there spare time and just enjoy being creative while doing something they love and trying to perfect their craft.

When I began writing my first novel, I was obsessed with trying to be published, and it took away the creative spark and fun of the experience. Stephenie Meyer always says to write for yourself and to create stories you love. When doing that, it's easier to focus on the characters, the process, and the world you have created rather than what an agent is going to say way down the road.

For me, I've decided that I do want to be published, but that isn't the main focus. I hope to be like Orion and get published when the timing is right and when my writing is at its best. There is a time and place for everything, and I'm going to keep working until I get it right. In the meantime, I'm going to listen to the comments from agents and fellow writers and try to learn and keep getting better.

Jeff said...

I don't think anybody cheated, they just changed the conditions of the game.

Anonymous said...

I have two experimental novels in a drawer. I have not tried sending them out at this point.

I have a really fun yarn going in the third novel that I am working on. I can't wait to send it out.

Maybe someday the experimental pieces will come out of the drawer. Maybe not. I am still glad I wrote them.

It feels so different, though, writing something that (and I am NOT talking dimmed down, just more mainstream) I feel is more easy to connect to the world with.

Anonymous said...

I confess I love art, originality, unique voice.

But I also love being able to pay the bills, own a house, go out to dinner, take a vacation, participate in the world.

Somewhere between high art and low brow lies the mainstream. Probably all of them are needed.

I adore the agents and publishers of high original work. I cherish them. I also appreciate and don't blame the publishers trying to sell a product that's still good, but more marketable.

And the low brow? Well, where would we be, partner, without those cowboy novels?

Ithaca said...

I think it's a bit more complicated. Let's imagine that I have a talent comparable to that of Jane Austen or Herman Melville. I write a book. I'd like to have time to write more, so it would be nice to have money from the one I've written. But a while back someone submitted Pride and Prejudice, thinly disguised, to various publishers, and only one rejected it as an obvious plagiarism. After the fact, the consensus in the industry was, Jane Austen's books are popular because they have been established as classics; they could not be sold as new books because they don't fit modern taste. An agent the other day said she would not bother to submit Moby Dick to publishers if sent in, because she thought it was not suitable for modern taste.

So the thing is, I might write my book and show it to friends who like, as it might be, Austen or Melville, and they might think it was brilliant, and it might actually (against all the odds) be in the same class as a book by Austen or Melville. But that still wouldn't tell me whether it was publishable. If agents who knew the industry thought it was not publishable, it might still make sense to go on writing. I might think: we only have a handful of books by Austen, but I LOVE Austen, I'd like to have more, I'll write them myself. I might think: Why aren't there more books like Moby Dick? I LOVE Moby Dick. I go into Barnes and Noble and the only book like Moby Dick is Moby Dick. I have NOTHING TO READ except Moby Dick. I know! I'll write the books myself. Ha HA! But I would presumably spend a lot less time on submissions.

Jeff said...

I write because I love to write, but if I didn't also want to be published, I wouldn't be here, would I.

Fiction is a unique art form in that, unlike music or painting or scuplture, what I write is not the finished product. If scuplture were like writing, you wouldn't actually sculpt, you would just draw what the scuplture will eventually look like. The printed page is the final form of the art.

Neither can fiction writers truly perform their art, or take a copy of their novel and hang it up in a bar for people to read. Well, actually, you can do that, with the internet, but it isn't the same as being published by a publisher.

To my mind, writing is only half the point of this exercise. The other half is to be read. If I'm not being read, my motivation to write isn't as great. I still write because the creative urge never goes away, but I find other ways to express and share it. That's why I write it down - to share it with others.

Dana said...

Snork... Spencer Pratt. Oh how I love dumb "reality" TV.

I read everyone's comments, and I have to admit, I'm a little disappointed. I really hope that most people write to write, because they love it. Because if you don't love it, you shouldn't be doing it. You're influencing people's lives. I just left teaching to pursue a career as a writer and I feel that the two paths are very similar. There are a lot of teachers who teach because it's what they've been doing or because they're looking forward to a good retirement package. There are teachers who teach just because they want the same schedule as their kids, or they like the summers off. Most of the people who teach for those reasons are terrible teachers. You have to love teaching to be a good teacher and you have to love writing to be a good writer. If you aren't doing it because you love it, if you wouldn't be doing it even if you never in a million years get published or paid, if you aren't doing it because it makes your heart sing... then you shouldn't be doing it at all. Life is far too short.
I like to think of myself as a "talented" writer. I have some natural talent, and I've worked hard at honing my craft. I'd like to think that I'll be published someday. I'd like to think that I'll be sitting on Oprah's set in a year with her raving about her newest book club selection, my book. But you know what... if that never happened, I'd still write. And I think that's what makes the best writers of all, that passion.

RMS said...

This reminds me a talk I heard from an author who was shopping around a story with an evil clown in it. The first editor hated it; it was too much like Stephen King's It. The second editor loved it; it was just like Stephen King's It!

Nobody does know and I find that hopeful. Ray Bradbury claims to have received 3,000 rejections. Dune by Frank Herbert was rejected over 20 times before it sold and now it's an SF classic. On and on. I believe as long as I'm open to learning as much about my craft as possible at some point the magic will happen for me. I believe I can always make it better, if not this story then the next one. And the next.

Anonymous said...

So, I'm a published author (major house) and here's how I see it:

1. Nathan is dead on the money on all his comments.

2. People in this string who are frustrated by that, and who want to be *published* writers, need to get some thick skin, focus on the work, their dreams and just keep going. Or, give up on it and do something else. Or, you can be satisifed by loving what you're doing and don't worry about getting published. Harsh maybe, but if you don't have the chops to *persevere* in this "business" then you're already toast.

3. I read somewhere that only 2% of people who submit *fiction* ms's in any given year ever get published. That didn't discourage me - it just made me dig my heels in and get busy; but then, I'm stubborn.

4. I vehemently disagree with anon 2:51. Any art *is* a gift, a talent - whatever you want to call it. If a person doesn't have a particular gift or talent, they can take lessons and they can learn to be better at that art than they were, but can *never* get to the level of someone who has the talent. The talent isn't just the inate ability - it's the drive, the dreaming, the desire and the vision to see what something can be. That can't be taught.

5. Writing is art. Getting published IS NOT validation that your art is good. THERE IS NO SUCH THING. I love Van Gogh, but you may not. That DOES NOT mean that Van Gogh is no good. It just means I love him and you don't.

6. Robert Crais says that a book is an incomplete work of art until someone reads it. He says reading it completes the work. He doesn't say it's an incomplete work of art until someone *likes* it. I happen to agree with Crais's philosophy. So, if/when you get published and someone reads your stuff (or even if you don't get published and someone reads your stuff), the work is complete - doesn't matter if they liked it or not - doesn't matter if you sold 1 copy or 100,000. Doesn't even matter if it was just your mother who read it. I think it's about sharing dreams and art. No one's work is loved by everyone.

7. Don't look for validation in whether or not someone likes your work. Love the work for what it is.

8. The work should be giving you all the *juice* you need. If you're not getting some major charge out of just crafting stories, then *please* stop.

9. Dare to dream and don't give up, because that's all this is really about. If you're afraid to even dream all the way, then stop writing now, because your heart isn't in it and you're wasting your own time.

10. Finally, I worked on seriously pursuing a writing career 15 years before I finally got an agent, 16 years before I got a publishing deal. I wasn't submitting to agents all that time - I was honing my art and craft. I only submitted work for about 8 years before - and not steadily submitting - going back and writing new stuff and then trying again (and again). Like I said, you gotta have "chops" to stick it out in this "business".

This is about love. It's all about love of the art, love of the craft, love of a life spent writing, and sharing stories. Even if you never get published, you can still have that love and keep writing (and you should).


P.S. Paint by numbers isn't painting. That doesn't mean you shouldn't do paint by numbers, it just means it's not painting. :)

Anonymous said...

Anon who wrote:

"If I found out that my writing is not good enough, I'd know there were major changes I needed to make in the way I write."

I don't think you can do that. I think our writing is an expression of who we are. I have a friend who writes prolifically but his writing is not perfect. I don't think he can change it though and every time I read something he's written, I am hearing who he is. I wouldn't want his writing to change.

Unless you mean about polishing and grammar and things. Those you could change. But if someone really told you that, where would you even begin? And doesn't that suck all the fun out of writing if you have to change the way you write to conform?

Andrew said...

Getting to the NBA is a false analogy here.

Getting to a professional level in sports requires certain innate abilities. There is no "talent" for playing basketball, per se, but you can't play at a high level unless you have the right physical attributes. You also have to start young -- your body has a best before date.

The only innate attribute I can think of that affects writing is intelligence. Can anyone name one other innate trait that creates writing talent?

Grammar ain't it. That's a learned skill. Vocabulary, similarly, is learned.

Writing is entirely learned -- unlike jumping or throwing a ball, nothing about it is natural.

Granted, from time to time you will see writing so bad that you just can't believe the author will ever learn to write. But this isn't because they lack "talent"; it's because they've wasted their lives reading crap, because they take writing for granted, because they're not serious enough to know how bad they are.

Okay, maybe this is a lack of "talent." But that's just a polite way of saying that these people are unintelligent, which in turn is a polite way of saying that they're dumb as stumps. These people should give up.

The last thing we need is more Simon Cowells. Cowell is not a seer; he's an egomaniacal dunce. Bob Dylan would never have got past Cowell, for example. Sure, some people feel Dylan can't sing, but you can't argue that he hasn't been successful at what he does.

Nathan, Richard Ford is dyslexic. That's as clear a sign of lack of writing "talent" as any -- he's got an innate disability that affects his ability to form words.

I'll bet you'd like to represent him, though. :)

Nathan Bransford said...


I really disagree, first, on the NBA thing. There are players who have all the physical gifts in the world, but then there are players like LeBron James and Jason Kidd who have an innate feel for the game that goes way beyond just being tall and jumping high. Being a high level basketball player is part physical part mental.

And I also think the analogy fits with writing -- "Storytelling" is a talent. It's innate. Trust me, I've seen natural storytellers who have zero teaching and who are far better than people who have spent years practicing and who have MFAs and who have spent so much time honing their craft. Some people just have a tremendous natural gift that trumps practice.

I also feel that writing something that really flows and captures someone's imagination (like Malcolm Gladwell, for instance, on the nonfiction side) is also a gift. No one can practice their way to becoming Malcolm Gladwell. It's an innate gift that he has honed just as any NBA player who started with the physical gifts and then practiced their entire lives.

Writing well is an incredibly complex trait that involves perception, empathy, knowledge.. it's so hard to put your finger on. But good storytellers just know what makes a good story. It's not something you just learn, even if practice is an important part of it.

Andrew said...

Nathan, I'd say those "natural storytellers" are people who have read well, have come from backgrounds where stories are told, and have always played with stories, whether orally or in writing -- in other words, that there are more ways to learn than through formal education.

Writing is a complex skill, and as a result it's hard to identify what makes some people apparent naturals. So we create a black box and call it "talent," which removes the complexity.

Anyway, this is beside the point. We don't really mean the same thing by "talent." I will grant you that some people are unlikely ever to become good writers. Whether we call that a lack of talent or a hopeless and multifaceted skill deficit is moot.

Anonymous said...

Hi, Just wanted to mention that a friend of mine with SIX unpublished novels of women's fiction just sold her latest at auction to a big-name publisher via a very well-known agent. I think it's the kind of novel that you would have rejected, Nathan. Not that there's anything wrong with that--your taste is your taste--but you would have rejected her other work, too. There has been a vast improvement in her writing over the years. The book comes out next year. Should she have quit? Should she have read the tea-leaves as "give it up, you'll never get published?"

I thought so a few times, but I'm glad she didn't.

So how can you call that? Also, many editors did turn the novel down. It was a small auction (two editors really going at it/and then one who made a single offer).

Go figure.

Anonymous said...

This all could be taken one step further, by asking if some people have no innate talent and will never get published no matter how hard they work to perfect their skills, then why do we see so many crash and burn novels being published these days? The crash and burn books are the ones where agent, editor and publisher thought they could pull it off, but didn't.

If innate talent were a standard fixture in publishing, we'd all be reading wonderful books, the heavens would open up and glorious angels would start singing.

Wanda B. Ontheshelves said...

The Ear Thing

Re: "I'd say those "natural storytellers" are people who have read well, have come from backgrounds where stories are told, and have always played with stories, whether orally or in writing"

Have you ever seen LeBron James play basketball?

There is a character in the movie "Grand Canyon" (great movie by the way), who had played with some big-name basketball player when he was young. The character says: "He and I weren't playing the same game." There was "something there" that the average NBA player doesn't have. It's just not "skill." Or "skill deficit."

I mean, do you define imagination as a "skill?" Do people "learn" to be "imaginative?"

One of the most amazing things to me in getting my MFA in "creative writing," was how UN-creative the average MFA student was (and professor, if I may be so bold).

I taught one day in grad school, as a guest teacher in someone else's classroom. The students were told to come up with questions for me. One question was about meter, learning meter and all those technical aspects of writing poetry, and I answered: "I don't pay any attention to that."

And later the teacher who'd invited me to teach told me she felt like "jumping out of the window" when I said that, because she'd been holding me up to her class as an example of all the fantastic poetry you can write when you LEARN METER. She just assumed if I wrote the way I did, I MUST be studying very carefully my dithyrambs etc!

You don't need to LEARN it, or study it. Just use your "ear." That is, your innate natural talent. How do you develop "your ear?" You read and write.

I think this is true of fiction also. At least, I had a teacher who couldn't understand why I wasted my time writing poetry, when I was so "gifted" writing fiction. It's the "ear thing."

A separate issue from actually getting published, but I have to say something in defense of the "ear thing."

freddie said...

I agree with the 'ear thing.'

I think it's true of grammar, too. Undoubtedly, grammar can improve through study, but I think a writer should absorb a lot of rules through reading a lot.

jwhit said...

The 'ear thing' equates to music nicely. There are people who play by ear. Not necessarily even perfect pitch, but an affinity for the sounds that translates into their fingers. Are they musicians? Of course. Are they educated musicians? No. Can they explain to anyone how they do what they do? Probably not in a way that is transferable.

Now lets talk about driving. People can get behind the wheel of a car with little formal instruction and push the pedals and react to the environment. But does that make them the kind of driver you want on the road? No. But even experienced drivers, those with training plus driving experience [practice] drive 'by ear'. They get muscle and perceptive memory. If we had to think about driving at the level of a learner driver, there would be LOTS more accidents. We move to a level of 'expertise' where 'natural', dare I say a perception of 'talent', is exercised.

Writing as expressed by Wanda is somewhat like that. As we gain more and more awareness and practice, that is using those concepts in new ways, we add them to our 'natural' behaviour and even find it hard NOT to do them any more. That is called learning. In writing, it may be called 'voice'. I'm not sure.

Talk to any 'overnight success' and you will find out how long that 'night' really was.

Jeff said...

I think talent really is the factor that divides the great from the mediocre. Mozart had prodigious natural talent honed by years of ruthless practice. He could do things normal people, even great musicians with years of training and practice, simply couldn't do.

I actually met a guy like this when I was a teen. He had never had a music lesson in his life, but he could listen to a piece of music one time and then play it back perfectly. He was also able to pick up an unfamiliar instrument and just play it. I actually saw him do this with a violin - an instrument he had never touched before. The parents of another friend of mine were antique collectors and they had picked up a violin somewhere. This guy walks over, picks it up and starts playing. He had a natural talent that was frightful to behold. But it wasn't just parroting what he heard. He could riff and improvise and completely blow you away.

I often wonder what happened to him. He never became a famous guitar player, though at the age of 16, he was clearly on his way to being one of the greats.

I've also known wonderful storytellers who were functionally illiterate. Storytelling is an art. Writing is the craft of bringing stories to the printed page, because a well-told tale often doesn't translate well to the page. Writing can be learned. Storytelling cannot. At best, you can learn to fake it and become a technically proficient but mediocre writer.

To my mind, a story isn't truly finished until it's published.

Jeff said...

The driver analogy is a good one, but take it a step further. An experienced driver may seem talented, but put him or her in a race with race car drivers at the NASCAR or Indy or Formula One level and you'll see that there is also a talent for driving. And within the professional level, there are levels of talent. In fact, at the very highest level, it is often talent that is the only difference.

Megaera said...

"What I find interesting is how many people think the only reason to write is to be published, and that publication legitimizes ones efforts somehow. Is there any other endeavor that carries such a load of assumptions?"

It's not a matter of validation. I know I can write. It's a matter of the process being so out of my control (you can't have it both ways -- you can't tell us that it's in our control because if we write a good enough book we'll get published, and then in the next breath tell us it's all the marketplace and luck and expect us to believe only the first part, sorry).

If there was another way to quit practicing in front of the mirror, which is what writing for "the joy of it" (aka for myself and a few friends) is to me, I would jump at it with both feet. AAMOF, I would prefer another way if there was one.

No, putting it up on a website or having it printed and bound at is not going to do the job. Neither is just getting it onto Amazon. What's needed is the distribution, not the physical product.

If there was another way to get the distribution, then we'd be getting somewhere.

But that doesn't seem to exist.

Anonymous said...

I am in the business of medicine. It's a tough field. The vast majority of people who set out to go to med school never get in. Highly competitive.

But there's talent in medicine as well as learning.

I had the misfortune to have worked with a doctor who had the highest scores on the medical boards EVAH. In the history of the boards. Perfect scores all three times.

But the guy couldn't diagnose his way out of a paper bag. He couldn't spot impending demise. He diagnosed a three-day-old with "viral syndrome." Well, yeah, herpes encephalitis is a virus. I saw the baby two hours after he did and Flight for Life was on their way.

I passed my boards, did upper echelon kind of scores. But what I have that genius doctor lacked is gut intelligence.

I can't tell you how many times I have looked at a patient across the room, and thought, "Oh, bad language, bad language, they're dying." No idea what was wrong, just bad mojo, impending demise.

Follow the steps, baby with encephalitis, massive heart attack, germs rampaging through the blood stream.

I'm not perfect, medicine is an art not science, but if I had to trade my gut smarts for a perfect score on the boards, I wouldn't do it. Gut smarts can't be taught. (I don't think.) It's innate.

Same with writers. If your grammar sucks, you could take classes. Heck, if I wanted to, I could probably learn grammar, punctuation, etc.

But to be a storyteller, to catch the imagination of people other than yourself, is innate, and in my opinion un-learnable.

Lupina said...

Anonymous, you just told a really great story. I'd like to read a medical thriller by you.

These posts have all been fascinating, but the wealth of thought is leaving me a little dizzy. I'm afraid to overthink my career choice, myself. I need all the mental energy I can muster to keep up my writing schedule.

However, I've always used Jane Hamilton as my role model. She started querying agents in the "A" section of Writer's Marketplace for "Map of the World," and didn't find one til she'd reached the alphabetical end. That agent, she has said in one interview, wrote back and said, "Who ARE you?" As we all know now, she was (and is) really someone. I'm so glad she didn't give up.

ChrisJ said...

"This all comes down to one basic fact about books: there is no Delphi.

The secret to the Oracle at Dephi's success was ambiguity, never giving a clear-cut answer to a question. So in that sense this whole discussion is quite Delphic.

Anonymous said...

I read once that Lucille Ball was told by an acting instructor that she'd never be any good at acting.

Apocryphal. No such thing is mentioned, or even implied, in either the memoirs of her acting teacher, John Murray Anderson ("Out Without My Rubbers"), or Ball's ("Love, Lucy.")

And one record company turned down the Beatles because they didn't think they'd sell and because "Guitar groups are on their way out, anyway."

Have you heard the Decca audition tapes? They performed badly. Note, too, that just one record company turned down the Beatles. One. Not every single company for whom they ever auditioned, or even dozens. Just one.

Ditto for J.K. Rowling.

Abe Lincoln lost every single election until he ran for president.

No he didn't. He was elected captain of his Black Hawk War militia company, he was elected to the Illinois House of Representative in 1834 (and reelected to that seat three times), and elected to the U.S. House in 1846.

I recall turning to my friend one Saturday afternoon in 1977 as we watched a preview of a movie before the real show, and telling her, "That one looks stupid. No one is going to pay to see that!" The name of that "stupid" movie? It was called Star Wars.

Are you a movie producer? Because, if not, that story is really pretty irrelevant, isn't it?

Ball, The Beatles, Lincoln, and Rowling all turned out to be hugely successful.

They did. And they all enjoyed early success, too, hitting the jackpot with their earliest efforts. Which is basically the opposite of your thesis.

charlesdentex said...

At the risk of sending this in past the sell by date, I would like to refrase the question. Suppose there was a seeer who could tell you with absolute certainty wether or not you are going to be diagnosed with terminal cancer between the age of 57 and 60, would you like this seeer to tell you? Would you want to know?
NO. I would not. The joy of life is the blissful lack of knowledge about the outcome of our endeavours, the writer's job as well as the agent's job.
Would I like there to be such a seeer?
NO. I would not and thank god there isn't one.
What should we do if such a seeer appears and starts telling us our future?
Don't ask me, I am afraid my answer will not be kind.

Californio said...

I blogged on this at, but the guts of my response is the following:

Another answer to why not tell writers “you are no good,” would be because it will deeply hurt them, perhaps even beyond their writing career. An analogy: when a young woman sees a guy coming to the street, and it is clear what this guy is thinking and it’s out of the question, a well-bred young lady does not say “Sorry, you’re too short, not good-looking enough, you have a weird sense of humor, your taste in clothes is hopeless,” or whatever, she just says, “I’m busy,” “I already have a boyfriend,” “We’re moving to a foreign country,” “My father won’t let me date until I’m 30” or anything to avoid passing judgment on this guy as an individual. To do so would be cruel.

Can you imagine this girl telling the young man, “Not only am I not interested in dating you, but I’m confident no other woman would give you a chance either. I really think you should join a monastery.”

The best path in any tense situation is to be gracious, allow people to keep their dignity. Anything else builds bad karma. And, not to be too Californian about this, hurting others, in any way, hurts the world. I think politeness is an asset even in the 21st century.

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