Thursday, November 25, 2010

Who Cares About Quality

[Edited to add that Anna Bowles, who's in the biz, posted an insightful counterpoint to this post. Go. Read. Learn. Think.]

I'm about to discuss something heretical in the world of writing. Those with weak stomachs and MFAs will probably want to click away now.

Lately I've been studying unpublished openings, as in first chapters, especially those entered in the many, many contests out there. Or, more to the point, I've been studying critiquers' reactions to the openings.

First, most critters are either just very, very nice people who can't bring themselves to say a harsh word to anyone or else they are very sincere in their beliefs about what they like. If we assume the latter, then the majority of the stories being critiqued have fan bases -- people who enjoy the samples provided and would keep reading past the 1, 2, 5, 10 or 50 pages submitted.

I've seen a dozen readers gush over an entry, explaining why they like it and how they're drawn in. Then along comes the industry professional to spoil it all. A person who obviously doesn't "get" the work or respond to it in the same way the "regular" folk do.

This dichotomy is especially prevalent, I think, in contests that encourage "readers" (those who don't write at all) to critique alongside "writers."

When I hung out with the Romance Writers of America, I'd see the same lament from scores of writers plastered across the message boards: I entered so-and-so contest and the first-round judges (typically readers) gave my work perfect or near-perfect scores. Then the agent/editor read it and shot it down.

Why the disconnect?

Industry professionals tend to focus on the craft: the spit and polish, how the work is presented. In short, how professional it comes across, judging to a certain institutionalized quality. A quality that I certainly think the typical reader appreciates -- just maybe not to the extent industry professionals believe.

Much of the reading public seems able to forgive writing that isn't quite polished if the story or characters interest them. Let's call these works the literary equivalent of velvet Elvises and dogs playing poker. They may not win awards, serious art students may snicker, critics may look down their noses, but they get hung/read in a lot of average homes. Just look at fanfic sites. Readers who could be reading quality, industry-chosen works are spending time reading amateur works instead.

I've spent a number of years as a writer/editor for large corporations, have done design duty in the past, and have worked directly with printers to produce marketing collateral, so I do understand the value of editing, of paper quality, of page design, and all the rest. I've made a pretty good living for an awfully long time capitalizing on the value these things bring to a project. But I also understand how subjective everything that's creative is.

Project approval in big business often depends on the green-light from a non-creative department. The accepted "rule" in design is to always give the decision-makers a choice so they feel invested in the project. A "trick" designers use when presenting ideas to decision-makers is to give them one obviously inferior design along with the design they want to push. The problem is that an inordinate number of times, decision-makers fall in love with the inferior design. What was "obvious" to a professional isn't so obvious to someone not in the game.

The same goes for writing. I can't tell you the number of times I've returned copy for approval only to have highly intelligent, degreed reviewers change perfectly good grammar to something that's atrociously wrong. Writers and English majors know the difference; the average person on the street, not so much.

Beyond nitpicks in grammar, problems with content around continuity of theme, persuasively building a case, redundant explanations, and unsupported claims (the equivalent of story continuity, character development, tight writing, and plot holes in fiction) often go unremarked . And here's an important point: While the average non-writer will agree that the edited version is better, when they don't have anything to compare the original to, they often feel a draft written by someone only moderately versed in writing is perfectly acceptable.

The ease of self-publishing coupled with the coming ebook revolution is a game-changer not just for writers, but for readers.

Yes, there will always be dreck that no reader, discerning or otherwise, will be able to slog through. Readers will quickly learn not to purchase anything online before skimming through a sample chapter. But if a story fits their taste and is told engagingly enough, many, if not most, readers seem to be willing to overlook a plain and perhaps imperfect exterior because they know it's what's inside, deep down, that matters. That's how they judge a story.

So who cares about quality? Everyone, to an extent. We just don't all agree where quality ends and value begins.


Matt said...

You must be talking about Miss Snark's first victim. I visited that site for the first time after you linked it a week or two ago, and I was surprised that all entries received positive reviews from commenters despite the fact that only a few were written well.

The problem, I think, are new writers that aren't that well read. They use their own writing as a benchmark for what's good or not -- if others' work is equal to or greater than theirs, they have no choice but to compliment it.

lexcade said...

i had that happen with the miss snark's contest. most of the people who read the opening really liked it, etc etc etc, but the agent RIPPED IT TO SHREDS.

ever since, i've been trying to craft a new opening. :D

i agree that there's a pretty large disconnect between what readers and agents want and/or expect from writers and authors. it speaks to more than subjectivity. obviously agents will have a higher expectation from a writer's work because that's their JOB. for readers, our job isn't to read--that's our pastime. a hobby. something we enjoy. granted, more well-read readers will have a pretty clear notion of what they want to see out of a book and they'll have a different way of connecting to characters. but they're not trying to build a life out of selling those books.

sometimes, i wonder how certain books got published, not because i feel like i'm a better writer, but because i'm widely read in a LOT of areas (English major). some people are just more critical than others. and those are the people i want to read my work.

Phoenix said...

@Matt: You know, that's an interesting observation about how writers judge works. And, yes, the MSFV contest is one that I watch. But there are other contests such as Amazon's Breakthrough Novel, Gather, WeBooks, and many more where pieces are voted through American Idol style and that garner the attention of reviewers and non-writers.

The larger contests can group by genre and smaller targeted genre contests can even group by sub-genre so the readers can choose what to read that they like and where they know and appreciate the conventions. And even in thse contests there still seems to more toleration for "average" writing skills.

It'll be an interesting industry watch, I think :o)

Phoenix said...

@Lexcade: I think you're right about intended audience. If a writer has a high expectation and respect for their readership (as well as for themselves), they will do whatever it takes to present the absolutely best product they can.

(As for the MSFV's contest, I wish I'd known it was WJ judging. She'd already read a partial of my work. In fact, she emailed me after the contest to explain that's why she didn't place my entry. That's what she meant in her comments about being objective about work she'd seen before and I was happy enough to give someone else a chance with her. She even gave me a more detailed reason as to why she had passed on my partial back in August. She went so far as to go back and dig out my emailed pages to reply to. I really appreciated that [not to mention quite a bit blown away that she had even felt the need to do that!] and let her know I thought that really spoke to class!)

In all, I'm just really intrigued about where publishing is headed in the next 5 years. This is such a watershed time and there are so many expectations that will either be lived up to or be broken.

Meanwhile, happy revising!

Anna Bowles said...

Really timely post, thanks! As it happened I'd just been thinking about my professional role of occasionally raining on aspirant parades.

It inspired me to follow up:

Matt said...

I'll need to check out those other sites. I've never liked American Idol voting because people favor the underdog. Have you ever watched a sport in which you weren't vested in either team? Many people root for whoever is losing and they'll unwittingly switch their allegiance should that team take the lead.

Jeb said...

Write more meh.

On a vaguely more serious note, the problem of exaggerated praise for mediocre writing is not limited to readers with limited exposure to good writing. It is rife among newbie writers as well.

This may partly be due to all the critique group guidelines about emphasizing the positive to take the sting out of the few, mildly worded negatives you're allowed. I understand the need to rein in those critters whose knives are ever sharpened on the bones of their peers, but frankly too much positive distorts the publishability quotient for the clueless newbie, and slows to a stall their learning curve. The last feedback, they reason, was so overwhelmly positive that with these few fixes it is surely ready for publication. And off it goes to a professional, who cringes at the sight.

Critique groups are all too often the blind leading those who would not see.