Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Difference between a Writer and an Author: Too Proud to See the Hubris

Sometimes, you can tell a book by its cover.  More often than not, you can tell, for instance, if the book is self-published.  You can tell in the way most diagnosticians can pinpoint a particular symptom.

Disclosure:  You do have a number of prejudices about self-published books, starting with the cover art.  You by no means have prejudice--singular or plural--against all self-published books nor, in fact, the concept of author as publisher.  A number of self-published works have gone on to wider-than-anticipated readerships, wider, in fact, than many of the more conventional publishing projects.

Additional disclosure:  You are aware of any number of books published in conventional channels that have been disasters which should never have been published in any form.  Additional disclosure yet"  You have been the acquisitions editor (and thus sponsor--godparent, if you wish) of more than one book you hereby acknowledge with whoops of cheer should not have been published.

So where does this leave you in terms of argument about self-published books?  It leaves you at the doorway to a state of mind and spirit called hubris, a state with which you also have familiarity because there is a time between your completion of a work of your own with which you are pleased to the time when the work has managed to wangle an invitation into the ongoing process of publication.

After you've finished a work of any length, the work is certain to have undergone several revisions, recasting, and critical examinations focusing on such matters as use of language, emotional resonance, fact, clarity, cadence, and voice, to name a few of several potential targets.  On some primal level, you consider yourself finished with the work--done. What more can the work need?  And who is better qualified to judge than you, who were once hired by a New York publisher because of the way you described your taste?  (Even now, you shudder at the memory.  Try defining that word, "taste," and see what it gives you.  Hint:  It gives you a leg up on the horse of hubris.)  And haven't you been editor in chief or director of a number of publishing venues?  If nothing else, you should understand the process.

Indeed, if nothing else, you do understand the process, which you admit does on occasion produce an individual with such clarity of vision and ability to articulate that their projects need little of any editorial support.

You also understand the process to the point where you understand there are writers today, Tom Clancy, Dan Brown, and Michael Connelly come to mind, whose work sells with a steady vigor, giving each of these worthies an extra leg up on the horse of hubris to the point where they consider themselves the final arbiters of their work.  As the acquisitions editor of one of them told you, "He doesn't take edits.  He doesn't think he needs any, which is why I stopped providing them."

You also understand the presence of men and women whose work sells at about the same level as this band of others, men and women who give full ear and trust to their editors, in search of that holy grail of artistry, the yet better product.

When an editor points to a passage of some weakness, softness, perhaps even obscurity, you feel squirts of defensiveness in much the same manner you'd feel adrenaline rush into your bloodstream when a driver makes a precipitous lane change in front of you or a motorcyclist appears from behind, then passes you.  If you'd had previous concerns about such a passage, the defensiveness is all the more virulent.

Learning to listen is a time-consuming process, every bit as necessary as learning such basics as point-of-view or how to turn conversation into dialogue.  You begin the writing process by listening to yourself and your vision of things, either as they are or as they ought to be.  After a few hundred thousand words or so, you begin letting your characters in on the conversation, listening to them, in particular if they wish to do something you'd not intended them to do.  You in effect loan the family car to the kids.  A few more hundred thousand words and you discover you've let the characters in on the planning stages, meaning your beginnings have to do with getting to know the quirks and limitations of your characters, in some cases allowing some of them to be smarter than you.  A few more hundred thousand words and you'd down with all of them being smarter than you.

After treading this path for a time, you're ready to learn how to listen to a qualified literary agent (by which you mean someone who's served time in the editorial trenches) and editor.  You understand that neither is using you as a foil in some revenge fantasy where they are asking you to pay for their past frustrations.

So, okay; you're past the amateurish cover and inside the book, where such things as type face, copyediting, and general format cry out, "Amateur. Amateur."  This can be something as basic as the use of italics in the text or exclamation points or sentences in all-capital letters, or something even more egregious such as the obligatory weather report and travel writing descriptions to prove to the eager reader that this book was written by a professional.

You can tell.

True enough, you can also tell if the writing is remarkable for its amateurishness in the more conventional books.  Then, nothing, not a spiffy cover design or a pleasing layout can cover the fact that it was not only the writer who was not on his or her game but the editor, the art department, and the sales department.

You can tell.

And you can also see how much an act of hubris it is to believe you can do it all on your own.

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