Friday, November 30, 2007

How to get published: A cynical perspective.

Charles here again, this time on a bit of a rant.

Rose and I went to see a movie the other night, one of those critically acclaimed flicks with big name actors choosing small roles, the kind of movie that plays at art houses (The Little Theater here in Rochester), the kind that stay with you weeks after seeing them. Often – but not always – those movies leave more loose ends when the final credit rolls than a dozen mainstream movies. The movie we saw met/exceeded all of those standards, especially the unresolved ending. The name of the movie isn’t important, but the fact that it was 100% satisfying without a neat ending got me to wondering why fully resolved, neat endings seem to be a requirement in the mystery genre. Not for the Big Names – they can do what ever they want. But us mid-listies? We better stick to the rule that demands an ending all warped up nice and neat.

Which is strange since the books I love to read the most are precisely the ones that are don’t have the kind of endings I feel compelled to write. It seems that the bigger the book – big as in complex thoughts and philosophical conundrums – the messier the ending.

But just try to write a mystery with an ambiguous, messy ending. First, your editor will probably reject it – not because it’s not well written or interesting but because the very real problem that it is un-saleable. Mystery readers like tidy endings, publishers what to publish books mystery readers will by (and recommend), therefore publishers look for/insist on mysteries with tidy endings. Very predictable and probably very profitable (since if it wasn’t they’d change the business model). But is it this insistence on a “happy” ending (most loose ends resolved, motives explained, justice delivered in one form or another) the thing that’s holding most mystery authors from writing a book that is as memorable and debatable and subjective as the art house movie I went to see (which, by the way, was billed as a thriller/crime story movie)?

By writing the kind of stories the market wants (even a small market, like mine) rather than writing what we could be writing, are we little more than sub-contracted skilled workers producing a marketable product for a for-profit business? Yes, you can always write what you want, but given the market, it won’t get published unless you follow the conventions of the genre, i.e. a tidy ending.

Let’s say you’re a first-time novelist and you decide, the hell with it, you’ll follow your muse and not the market since it’s a damn good story that deserves to be read. As I explained, you will find it hard (read impossible) to get it published. You are left with few palatable options. You can go to a vanity press and kiss your chances of ever being taken seriously goodbye (with that book, any way). Or you can self-publish the book on your own, which is almost exactly like going to a vanity press but you get to put your own logo on the back. No matter how good the book is – and I’ve read some excellent vanity/self-published books – you will have a hard time finding a book store to carry them, you will find yourself not listed as an author at most of the mystery conventions, and the only awards you will be eligible for are the self-serving awards created by the vanity presses, print-on-demand shops and writing magazines.

So the lesson today, kiddies, is this: If you want to get published, write the same book every one else is writing. Just be sure that you’re original!


Vicki Delany said...

Interesting comments, Charles. WHen I first proposed In the SHadow of the Glacier to Barbara, Seargeant Winters dies at the end. As you can imagine, that was the end of that idea. A series I LOVE are the Simon Serallier books by Susan Hill. Largely, I bet, because of the highly unorthodox endings. No surprise that Hill is British - do you think that British books are allowed to be a bit more unconventional than those aimed at the U.S Market?

Anonymous said...

Sad, but true. It's happening to me now.