The book was astoundingly bad. The author decided to go 50 Shades of Grey on me when she’d never written more than a fade-to-black sex scene before. But that wasn’t the worst. The worst was that her protagonist was, as the romance readers say, TSTL. Too Stupid To Live.
In fact, there would have been no book if her protagonist hadn’t made mistake after mistake after mistake. Everyone she knew as well as the news, the weather reports, an old book of spells, and the entire town told her not to do those things.
Whew. Vented. I’d like to say I feel better, but I don’t. If you were a fan of this writer’s work, we’d probably have a long discussion about the merits (or lack thereof) in this book.
Now you know how peeved I am at it. You want to know what I did when I finished scanning the stupid thing?
I went onto Amazon to see if I could preorder her next book.
Seriously. I’m a reader first, a writer second, and an editor third, and only one of my identities believes a writer should hit it out of the park every time.
You wanna guess which one that is? Well, I’ll give you a clue: it’s not the reader or editor.
Every reader has a magic number in his head. That’s the number of bad books a favorite author has to publish before the reader gives up. The number varies from reader to reader. There are readers who give up after only one bad book. (Bad reader! No cookie!) But most readers give their favorite author two or three bad books in a row before giving up.
If the favorite author writes two books for every bad one, the reader will acknowledge that, sigh to himself, and say, Well, she missed me on this one. But she’ll get me on the next.
The ratio for the author I’m dealing with above? Ten good books for every bad one. That’s why she’s a favorite author. I have authors I like who write two good books for every bad one. They’re not favorites, but I read them repeatedly. Just not first if I have the choice of a favorite instead.
As I started editing Fiction River, I noticed that my outside reading slowed down. I was worried about this: One reason I quit editing sixteen years ago was that I had stopped reading with enjoyment altogether. I was worried that my critical voice was on too high, that I couldn’t see the good in anything.
I stopped and analyzed this latest slowdown, and what I realized is this: since I started editing again, I had become an even more gentle reader. I am giving the writer more of a chance than I have in years, partly because Editor Me knows that no writer hits it out of the park every single time.
If the story isn’t working well for me as an editor, I slog through and see if I can offer good suggestions for repair or if the author needs to try me again with something else. So far, only two authors have had to try again with something new. I’ve asked for a mountain of tweaks and redrafts from other writers, however.
Now, realize that I am not reading slush. Fiction River is by invitation only. I will never read slush again. That’s a brutal overwhelming process in which an author must catch me on the first page or I move onto the next. I vowed I would never do that again, and so far, I’ve kept that promise to myself.
I let this bad book by the favorite author slow me down because I had switched from reading for entertainment to reading for repair somewhere in the middle of the novel. Once I realized it, I scanned forward (she’s good enough that she didn’t let me out entirely) and decided the book got worse instead of better. If I had been her book editor, we’d have been having some pretty serious conversations.
(Of course, I suspect that whole 50 Shades of Grey thing was her traditional editor’s idea: It sells so much better, Writer. Try it. This is the perfect book for it. Not.)
Here’s the other thing that I know from a long history as a reader and an editor: there is no perfect story, no idealized version of any novel, no piece of writing that will please everyone who reads it. I dealt with this last summer in my post on “Perfection” and the posts that followed, and I collected it all into a short book just this year. It’s an important concept for writers to know.
But after this reading experience last week and the workshop experience that I had week before, I had to add one important thing. My bad book is someone else’s favorite book.
At the beginning of March, John Helfers, Kerrie Hughes, Dean Wesley Smith, and I ran a workshop for professionals that we call the anthology workshop. Dean and I have done a variation on this workshop for nearly a decade now, and we’ll do one next year with six professional editors instead of the four. (Watch here for the announcement and realize the workshop is hard to get into)
What we do is this: we have what we call “live” anthologies—anthologies that have already sold to a publisher, anthologies that have a roster of Big Names attached—and we give the writers in attendance the chance to get one of their stories into the anthology.
This would be easy for us editors if the writers were beginners. Nine workshops out of ten, not one of the editors would buy a story from a beginner’s workshop. But these attendees are professional writers, just not Big Name writers, and their stories are all of high quality. So we have a lot of good stories to choose from. An embarrassment of riches, which is always extremely difficult for editors to deal with.
Still, the four of us disagreed as to which stories were best. The editor of the live anthology got the final say, of course, but the rest of us went over the stories as if we were editing for different markets. When Dean and I weren’t editing our own anthologies, we playacted editing for Pulphouse Magazine (Dean) or The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (me). Even if John and Kerrie were editing for the same anthology (one of them actually editing it and the other pretend-editing), they still didn’t agree as to which stories would go where.
What I love most about this workshop is this: Editor #1 would say, I love this story. I’ll buy it as is. Editor #2 would say, It’s a good story. Not right for my market, though, so I quit reading and moved onto something else. Editor #3 would say, I really didn’t care for the story. I don’t think it worked. I’m going to pass. And Editor #4 (always the live anthology editor) would say, I liked it. I would want you to fix x, y, and z, and maybe I’ll buy it.
The order would switch for some stories. Sometimes the live anthology editor wouldn’t like a story that the remaining three editors liked. It’s disappointing for the author, but not that unusual. The take-away? That story should be on the market.
The writers often missed the editor interactions though. What the writers didn’t see most of the time were the glances that happened between the editors.
One editor would say, This is brilliant! I would buy it as is. And another editor would look at them sideways, an incredulous expression on his face that clearly said, Are you frickin’ kidding me? That story was the worst thing I read in this entire workshop.
If we sat around a table late at night with no writers around, we would have actually expressed those opinions. One of the reasons that Dean and I asked John and Kerrie to edit for Fiction River was because our opinions vary so widely. We knew that John and Kerrie would bring in writers and types of stories that Dean and I would never consider. Just like Dean brings in writers and types of stories that I would never consider. And vice versa.
But what’s most confounding to writers who think like writers (not like readers) is that one editor, editing for Project A, might buy a totally brilliant story, but if the editor were editing for Project Z, she’d let the story slip through her fingers despite the brilliance.
Each project had a different audience. For example, if I were editing the anthology that Kerrie was editing live—an urban fantasy anthology—I would have bought ten stories out of that workshop. Since I was play editing F&SF from my old editing days, I would have only bought one story. Just one. Because F&SF had a long history of buying urban fantasy, back when it was called contemporary fantasy, and readers of long-standing didn’t want to see yet another werewolf/vampire/shapeshifter thing set in New York. Or a story with witches in London. Unless that story had slightly off-skew element—an emotional punch, an insight, a different way of handling old tropes.
I’m the same person. But different projects will have different needs. A perfect story for one project might be the wrong story for another project.
During the workshop, I watched light bulbs go on over the heads of two writers whose work I just adore who tried for years to sell me stories at F&SF. I couldn’t buy their stories for that magazine, but when Dean and I started Fiction River, one of those writers was among the first I invited into one of the anthologies I edited. I felt so happy to invite her—not because I felt I owed her, but because I finally had a project that would fit her voice and style and would be the perfect venue for one of her excellent stories.
You do the same thing as a reader. When your best friend, who never ever ever reads urban fantasy, asks you for a book recommendation, you don’t haul out your favorite Patricia Briggs novel. When your uncle, who can’t sleep if he reads horror fiction, asks you to loan him your favorite novel from last year, you bypass the Stephen King you loved for the John Grisham novel that kept you enthralled.
You tailor your recommendations to your audience, because you know that haranguing your friends and family to change their tastes doesn’t work. They know that if they suddenly “discover” George R.R. Martin, then you might know other books—similar books—they can read. And they’ll ask. That’s you haul out all those books you’ve been waiting to share.
When writers think about their own work, however, they never think like readers or editors. Writers believe that one bad book, one bad story, hell, one bad sentence will kill their entire career. Then they’ll finish their writing day, head to the couch, and pick up their favorite author’s latest, knowing that author disappointed with her last outing, but her next is still worth reading.
This is an especially hard lesson for those of us who write in multiple genres to learn. Traditional publishers have told us for years that writing outside our genre is a kiss of death. And for marketing reasons, it used to be. The sales force wouldn’t know how to market a romance writer who suddenly became a thriller writer.
(Oh, wait! Lisa Jackson pulled it off. And Tami Hoag. But publisher of the almighty Nora Roberts made her change her name when she branched into sf/mystery/with romantic suspense elements. And there are bestsellers who write under a dozen different names because one publisher frowned on switching genres. No, I won’t tell you who those bestsellers are.)
Readers are proving adept in this new world at moving with their favorite authors. I’ve had readers ask me to stop using pen names. As a reader, I prefer the branding of pen names. It’s a quick and easy way to know if the story will be light or dark, funny or gory. I admit to all but a few of my pen names, and I do so openly so that my readers can find them. But my pen name preference, once the only way to survive in traditional publishing, has remained only because it’s what I prefer as a reader myself.
For example, a writer I’d invited into one of the Fiction River anthologies just turned in the story. It had a byline that made me smile. I’m familiar with this writer’s various pen names, and this pen name is my favorite of the writer’s work. Remember, I’m the reader who loves Barbara Michaels and hates Elizabeth Peters even though they are both the writer Barbara Mertz. I pick up the Michaels books and ignore the Peters books, and have since the 1970s.
One of the reasons professional writers come to our anthology workshop is to remind themselves of this lesson. Not every editor is the same. Not every reader is the same.
One editor’s best story ever is another editor’s are you kidding me? story. One reader’s best story is another reader’s worst book ever by a favorite author.
And writers have to be careful: Just because a book was hard to write or dealt with a difficult topic doesn’t make it a bad book. I was at a book signing with a now-dead bestselling author. A long-time fan brought a cherished book to the signing. This book had been read so many times the cover was falling off. She wanted her favorite writer to sign this brilliant work.
The writer took one look at it, and said to the other professional writers in the room, “I have no idea why readers want us to sign the crappy books.”
She signed it and didn’t even notice that her fan left in tears. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the fan tossed the book in the dumpster on the way to the car.
What disrespect the writer had for her fans. What disrespect we writers have for the people who read our work. Our readers don’t expect perfection every time we publish a book. They expect a good read, something to take them from their lives for a few hours. They hope to get a memorable read, but escape will do. They’ll even settle for a bad read now and then, if you’ve already provided them with hours and hours of pleasure before.
We writers know that if we put on our reader caps. We forget it as writers. We’re as bad as that horrible bestseller, tossing our books back at our fans with a sneer—or worse—not letting the readers decide what’s good and what isn’t.
Our job as writers is to do the best we can, declare the book finished at a certain point, and put it on the market. Then we need to move onto the next book. Our readers will decide which of our works are worth their time.
How do they decide that? By talking to their friends. I do that every month. I post my recommended reading list. If I love a book, it goes on the list. I never ever ever slash another writer’s work and advise you not to read it. That is a waste of my time and yours. Instead, I point you to writing I’ve loved in the hopes that you will find something you like.
If I don’t love a book by a favorite author, I don’t recommend it. Bottom line.
I’m making decisions as a reader for other readers. As a writer, I do the best I can, finish the work, get it on the market and move onto the next.
Oh, and when a fan in line at a book signing tells me some book is her favorite and I personally hate that book of mine, I never tell her that. I don’t sneer at my own work, because I’m sneering at my reader too. If I put the book out there, then the fans have the right to respond to it. They have the right to their own opinion.
The readers will make sure the good books survive and the bad books get read only by completists. Charles Dickens wrote fifteen novels, five novellas, and hundreds of short stories. If I pressed you to name three right now, you’d all name A Christmas Carol. Then you’d name two others, probably different ones than I’d name. I doubt any of us would name Barnaby Rudge or Domby and Son, although I’ll bet some of you completists out there have read them.
Write a lot. Write well. Constantly strive to improve. Move forward. Market your work, then let the market decide its merit.
Stop asking this question: What if I write a bad book? Guaranteed, as a professional writer of long-standing, you will write a bad book. Only your readers will disagree as to which of your many books that is.
As I was winding this up, I decided to check the Amazon listing for the bad book I mentioned above by my favorite author. Twenty-six people agreed with me; this is the worst thing Favorite Author has ever written. Forty-three people believe this is the best thing Favorite Author has ever written. About a hundred other readers fall in-between those two extremes.
These rankings are almost identical to her other books. When I look back a year, two years, five years, I see similar splits. My opinion still differs with a number of the other readers: they hated one of my personal favorites; I hated this book.
I preordered Favorite Author’s next book. I don’t expect to be disappointed.
After all, a writer can’t hit it out of the park every time. But when a writer does hit it out of the park, well, that’s pretty damn special indeed.
I’m diving back into a novel I had to abandon to handle last month’s work. I told one reader I was working on a novel in this series, and he scrunched up his nose. “Can’t that wait until you write in [his favorite series]?”
Naw. I do what I do. When I do it.
And part of what I do is this business blog. I’m humbled by how many of you show up here every Thursday. If I don’t answer all the comments, it’s only because I’ve been swamped. But I do appreciate them.
Just like I appreciate the donations, letters, links, and referrals you all do for the blog. Without your support, I would stop doing the blog. So this is something I do because you guys let me know you’re interested.
I am quite grateful.
And please remember, if you see something you like or learned something here or in previous blogs, please leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: “The Bad Book” copyright © 2013 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.