As the fearless leader of The Knife Editorial Services where “book autopsies” are performed on a daily basis at “cut rate” prices to those who dare climb aboard my slab,I often get the final question from a client: “Yeah, but is it publishable? Give it to me straight. Do you think I can sell it?
There is never a simple answer to this except to say, “Never say never. And never discourage a determined writer—unless the work is absolutely putrid, which is rare. I find there is a kernel of good in just about any piece of writing I look at. That said, let me elaborate on why this is such an impossible question for an editor or book doctor or fellow writer to answer. First of all, what is “acceptable” nowadays when it comes to the term of “published” or “publishable”? If one is seeking a major publisher, if one is seeking a medium-sized or smaller publisher, if one is seeking an online publisher, a POD publishing deal, or a e-book deal, or if self-publication is sought, then the answer to is this “publishable” changes—of course as the nature of publishing today has changed so dramatically. Mainstream publishing demands and standards are at an all-time high. If I am answering the question with mainstream publishing in mind, I must temper my reply; if speaking of other forms of publication, I must modify my reply. Does that mean I am dodging the question? Yes and No.
In the event of editing another writer’s novel, there does come a time when the client wants your honest opinion. So here goes. What is publishable in fiction? It is publishable if it has a consistent, strong, clear voice that does not falter but is ON throughout the novel. If the opening establishes whose story it is, the main point of view, where it’s happening—setting, when it’s happening—time. It opens with a scene that is un-put-down-able. If the characters are fully-realized by the authors and fully engaged by the reader. If there is “heat” –excitement, emotion, passion on every page. If the dialogue reveals character or moves the story forward, or both. If the setting is captured by the author and made captivating in and of itself—if it becomes “another character” in the novel. If the story itself is filled with revelations, surprises, twists, turns, and the plot unravels logically. If all the various thread pulled through the novel are tied up in the end.
Have I dodged the question yet again? Yes and No.
Thing of it is a novel represents a gazillion decisions made by its author, each one of which has to add to the overall effect and not detract from the sculpted whole. This is why a clear and objective other reader’s eye on it is so important. An editor can catch an illogical direction that is entirely (somehow) invisible to the creator-author. An editor can catch a “break” in the author’s voice—suddenly no longer a storyteller but a seamstress dressing a room with too many purple drapes—or in the case of a western, too much purple sagebrush—otherwise known as flowery language. If flowery language is used throughout and overdone from beginning to end, an argument might be made that this is, after all, the VOICE this author has chosen to work in, but even those authors who stop all the action to describe a person, place, or thing and falls into telling rather than smelling and sifting these descripts via the five senses, the mind, and the gestalt of the POV character for any and all scenes is likely NOT publishable—at least not in mainstream fiction. Finally, suppose an author, throughout her novel uses a deluge of qualifiers such as seemed to, perhaps would, might be getting to breakfast, very-very, almost, etc. and not remove these phrases and words that weaken and often “clip” the power of the strong verb in a sentence. This is a reason a novel is unpublishable—so many grammatical issues as to interfere with clarity. However, when an author takes orchestration well and cleans up a manuscript, amazing things can happen.
Many of my clients over the years have been published—some in large markets, some in medium and small markets, some in short form, others in long. I never tell a client that they will never be published, as I was told this by my college creative writing instructor, a fellow named Scarborough. WRONG answer. I got a C from Scarborough and was told my writing was mediocre at best, and I learned nothing from him about creative writing. This was at a major university—Northwestern, Evanston, Illinois. I have since published over forty novels, and I have never seen Mr. Scarborough in print anywhere—except as a small town pimp in my Killer Instinct. In the book, Scarborough doesn’t know JACK – nothing about nothing.
Is it publishable? So many variables to this madcap business, this so-called business of publishing, this roulette wheel, this wheel of fortune and misfortune, that there can simply be no simple answer. However, I can and will tell a client when he or she is hitting the mark. When things in the novel are truly working, and nine times out of ten it is when an author finally stops talking on the page and allows his characters to do the walking, the talking, the sniffing, the touching, the hearing, the seeing. It is when a novel’s every scene triangulates at least three and perhaps all five of the character’s senses—engaging the reader’s senses in the bargain because we are experiencing the same. It is when an author reaches that area of the sixth sense too, that spiritual sense that creates true pathos in a scene and sympathy and empathy from the reader.
That’s when it is publishable, but this also presupposes that each scene and chapter follows logically, and that any flashbacks or time leaps, also makes for logically organized storytelling. This means never losing the sight of the main character and realizing that all the others are satellite on hand to create a point in this character’s web of relationships; never losing the sense of narrative voice that must be maintained and consistent throughout a given POV; never losing sight of the basics of episodic storytelling or your reader; never allowing your reader to slip from your hand, the hand that is extended to walk the reader through every finite detail of the story. A gazillion choices. That’s what a novel is built upon. But so much depends on YOUR expectations, your understanding of the business, and your reach. Myself I am OCD about getting a book published once it’s polished. One book I have worked off and on for over 30 years and is meant as the definitive novel of its subject matter, an historical novel to set the record straight, and somehow after so many rewrites I can’t count them, I still believe there is an editor and publisher out there somewhere who will love it as much as I do. Expectations, drive, determination, persistence, attitude—these are what gets both the best and the worst published trash in the business on the shelves. Do you have to be OCD to earn publication? Maybe and perhaps but the definition of a published author is someone who, like Colonel Sanders with his recipe, never gave up.
Until next time, Happy Writing all
Rob Walker, aka The Knife
Knife Editorial Services for “book autopsies” at cut rate prices