I'm reading Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass of the Donald Maass Literary Agency in New York City.
His premise seems to be this: the type of reception our writing receives is usually a direct reflection of the writing itself. That means, much as we'd like to blame too much competition, a poor economy, not enough access to major publishers and close-minded agents/publishers who can't see genius, the bottom line is that our writing is mediocre. That's a bitter pill to swallow, which is probably why most of us work so hard to point the finger at some other reason.
In the nineties, when the publishing industry became a lot more hostile due to the consolidation of major publishing houses and the demise of smaller ones, I remember getting angry with a book critic — I've forgotten which one — who more or less wrote a good riddance to the concept of the mid-list author. The very fact that they're mid-list means they're work is only okay. Why boo-hoo the disappearance of mediocrity? Why not look for and reward the exceptional?
The implication is that while many of us may be good writers, we're not great writers, not only because we lack the tools with which to create a fantastic story — we might be very good in plot and dialogue, for example, but lousy in character development and setting scenes — but we don't seem to know we lack those tools, or if we do, we're too lazy to take the steps necessary to do the job not just right, but beyond our expectations and those of our readers.
How can we be sure that might be our situation? By looking at how people react to our stories. If our stories are exceptional, they'll not only sell, but start a word-of-mouth wildfire, what Mr. Maass considers the premier indicator of a breakout novel.
That kind of excitement by the reading public is not the product of luck, Mr. Maass argues, but rather of writers who acquire the skills necessary to create exactly the effect they want:
To write a breakout novel is to run free of the pack. It is to delve deeper, think harder, revise more, and commit to creating characters and plot that surpass one’s previous accomplishments. It is to say “no” to merely being good enough to be published.
It is to a commitment to quality.
What do you think?