Friday, 1 July 2011

The Pursuit of Excellence

There's a generally accepted theory that no-one can be good at everything - we all have our strengths and weaknesses. But this idea is problematic for children's fiction writers in today's competitive market, because we have to achieve excellence - or near excellence - in so many categories: voice, concept, plot, character, description, action, dialogue etc. It's no wonder that it takes so long to get published - I myself have been writing children's fiction for nearly ten years and I'm only now starting to hit the required standard in most of the categories. I took a certain relish in reporting my long apprenticeship to my Oxford crit group, but I have to admit that if anyone had told me it would take this long ten years ago, you'd be reading someone else's blog right now.

The drive for excellence is a great thing for the reader and we are constantly told that a "golden age of children's publishing is upon us." To a certain extent, this competition is good for the writer too, because there is no room to be lazy unless you have a strong brand or mega franchise to rely on. But it's a tough, tough world to break into and you not only need to be excellent at the categories I listed above, but also to have excellent drive and persistence. Forget trying to come straight out of education and have a career in fiction writing – to do this you need to be either unusually lucky or unusually talented. And most of us, sadly, are neither.

I'm sure we can all, right now, summon up the names of half a dozen books that are distinctly less than excellent. Mostly, they will be titles with big deals and marketing spend behind them. These are the books we like to talk woefully about on message boards:
"I couldn't even finish it – can you believe it's selling so well?"

"I should give up trying to write something good and just churn out one of these Twilight/Hunger Games/Harry Potter rip-offs."
Which is great in theory, but harder when thousands of other people are doing exactly that. The law of averages says that some of them will get past the gatekeepers. Again, I fear that the law of averages doesn't have a lot of room for little old me.

They say that all you need is one person to say "yes" to your book to get it published. This is a wonderful, empowering statement that is as fictional as your manuscript. True, you do need an editor to love your book, because they are the ones who will champion it around the organisation. But few editors have control of acquisitions, so you also need their boss to love it and the people from sales & marketing and the booksellers and everyone else who will be involved in the journey from screen to shelf (or screen to screen in the case of e-books). It's very hard to influence the acquisitions process once the manuscript leaves your hands (believe me, I've tried), so your best chance for success lies in the manuscript itself.

Thus, I give you my one-step guide to publishing success: write a book so excellent that no-one could possibly say no to it. And while you're at it, why not build a better mousetrap and be the first person on Mars? Half measures are for losers ;-)



  1. You remind me of the witch from Black Adder.

  2. "No half-measures please, we're writers!" That should be on a T-shirt.

    I'm in the thick of the drive for excellence right now, as revision after endless revision is required to drag, push and kick my book as high and as far it will possibly go before it gets fixed in ink and paper. My sense is the bar is now set on its topmost notch. And banging ones head against it is painful!

    Great post, Nick. As ever.

  3. I've started really looking forward to reading your blog each week, Nick.


  4. *Faints and gives up on life*

  5. Uh oh, clearly I've scared everyone with my relentless perfectionism and will have to write a super positive upbeat blog this week!