Lately, I’ve noticed an uptick in the numbers of writers (and agents) discussing when it’s time to give up on a book. Not in the sense of beginning to write a story and then realizing, at some point, that the meat of it isn’t there and it’s not meant to be a novel, but rather in the moment when it’s time to look at the finished product of a novel, acknowledge it’s not good enough, and move on. Such moments inevitably come after a long, slow process of submission and rejection. Sometimes the thought seems to be that if enough literary agents pass on a novel, it must not be good enough for publication and is better off trunked or drawered, ignored but never quite forgotten, dismissed but never quite put out of mind.
Other times, the time to shelve or drawer or trash or bury a book comes later, after an agent has already accepted a project for representation and taken it out on submission to editors, all of whom read the book but scratch their heads because they can’t figure out how to sell it or don’t have room in their lists to do so.
I don’t think you should ever give up on a story just because someone else doesn’t get it, and between the condescension of agents purporting to know when to start a novel and the outright masochism of writers kowtowing to business and commerce and market and all the other factors that have absolutely nothing to do with either writing a good book or telling a good story, I’m just not sure which is worse.
Should you give up on a story? I don’t know. I can’t tell you that. But I can tell you how to make that difficult choice. I know. I’ve done it before.
My very first ever novel, the first draft of which I completed just after my freshman year of college, was called Twilight Brilliance. The narrator of my debut novel, Meets Girl, appropriated it just as he appropriated much of my life to tell his story; it was a mediocre Dean Koontz rip-off.
I’d say it was “bad,” but that’s a matter of taste. I’m not sure it was bad. It was no worse than a lot of published books. It was even a shade better than a couple of Dean Koontz novels I’ve read (e.g., False Memory, the last one I read). It was competent, and the grammar was correct, most of the sentences complete (save the ones intentionally fragmented).
When I was at USC, I studied with Ted Post, who had directed several episodes of The Twilight Zone and worked with guys like Richard Matheson, Chuck Norris, and Clint Eastwood. On Wikipedia, I once read that Post and Eastwood argued about a certain shot of Magnum Force. Post wanted to reshoot it, feeling it was good enough but not quite as great as it could be. Eastwood responded by noting that “good enough” was good enough for 80% of his fans.
Now, this is apocryphal. Like I said, Wikipedia. Might never have happened, and I can’t even find the reference in question now, though I’m certain I read it at some point. Who knows? I can’t corroborate it, and the last time I talked to Post was when I shook his hand to thank him for the class.
But the sentiment seems apropos here.
Without making broad, sweeping statements, consider the books that sell a ton of copies. Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Just about anything by James Patterson. It’s much like the Occupy Wall Street movement, which notes that 1% of the population controls so much of the wealth. I read on Galleycat once that just a year or so ago, 1 out of every 8 books sold was by Stephenie Meyer.
None of those three writers are what anyone would call “great.” I’m not sure most would acknowledge anything besides technical competence, and most of those acknowledgments would be begrudging at that. Regardless of one’s feelings for the books, they’re generally free of grammatic or typographical errors, and the language, for the most part, satisfies the rules of English.
And that’s obviously good enough for a whole lot of readers.
Look at any list of bestsellers. Do you see books that win awards? That are upheld as epitomes of storytelling and craft? Sometimes, yes, but for the most part, not so much (and that’s not even to mention the huge discrepancy between books that win “prestigious” awards and books that sell a ton of copies).
They’re “good enough.”
Now, when Clint Eastwood noted his scene was “good enough” (which he may not have done), one might argue, well, he was Clint Eastwood. Some people achieve a high enough position in their career that they can coast. Ride their laurels, so to speak.
(What’s interesting, now, of course, is Eastwood’s amazing movies. Gran Torino isn’t technically competent; it’s a legitimately perfect flick, subtle and brutal and superb. Magnum Force, one might argue, is probably not those things.)
Which is to say that when Twilight Brilliance was rejected (as it was), it was rightly so. I’m not Clint Eastwood or Dean Koontz, so I’m not really at a point in my career when I might be able to publish a “good enough” novel.
I’m not sure Meyer was, either, or Brown, for that matter, but then, one might consider whether the target market for Twilight or The Da Vinci Code was readers for whom “good enough” was good enough.
The thing is, you have to define “good enough” for yourself. What does it mean? Do you love your story? Do you think others will?
Which I mention because there’s a different option among “revising again,” “continuing to query,” and “giving up the book and moving on to a new one.” And that other option is publishing it.
Doesn’t matter how. Publishing nowadays is easy. Put it on WordPress. Upload it to Kindle and Nook. Grind it into Smashwords. Set the price low, get on Twitter, and start a blog. Easy peasy.
Well, why the fuck not? Digital publishing is no longer the realm of the desperate and disenfranchised. It’s a legitimate decision.
So here’s some advice. Channel Dirty Harry. You’re wondering how many words went into it, but you’re not sure it’s perfect, so you have to ask yourself: is it “good enough”?
Well? Is it, punk?
It’s a decision you have to make yourself, which I say because I’m quite tired of masochistic writers kowtowing to condescending literary agents who talk about how important craft is but whose client lists are full of outright crap. Books you’ve never heard of. Books nobody’s bought. Books that one could debate are “good enough.” Books that demonstrate that “falling in love with the work” might not actually be the greatest rubric upon which to base a business decision.
And when you define for yourself what “good enough” means to you and your writing, you can proceed accordingly.