Sarah here. I was just watching American Ninja Warrior (ANW) and marveling at the dedication of those athletes, how they’ve trained for hours upon hours upon hours to get where they are. And then, since my brain is always churning with metaphors and comparisons, I started thinking about the differences between sporting competitions and the publishing industry. The observations I made were quite staggering.
Can you imagine ANW not allowing an athlete to compete simply because she’d come alone? In tryouts, she sped through all the obstacles and hit the buzzer, but since she’d brought no fans waving bright posters with her name on them, the producers told her to get lost and not to return without at least twenty people to cheer her on. Sound preposterous? (I’m sure there’d be a lawsuit filed if that ever happened!)
Well, I’ve observed something just as ludicrous: I know several writers who have practiced and honed and nearly perfected their story-telling skills over the course of decades—yet they’ve never had a single manuscript accepted for publication. Oh, they have tried. The list of agents they’ve queried is longer than a CVS receipt. But since these writers are not social media stars, they were told by one agent after another: “Your book is great, but it’s just not right for me.”
It isn’t really the agents’ fault, though. They are simply doing good business. No one wants to try and sell a product they know won’t sell, like fishing poles in the middle of the desert.
But we’re not talking about any old product. We are talking about a craft, an art form, that has evolved and been esteemed for millennia. Shakespeare didn’t whip up all his poetry and plays in a fortnight. Boromir memes could tell you that one does not simply write a brilliant book the first time one tries. Stephen King didn’t. J.K. Rowling didn’t. You didn’t. I didn’t. Becoming a good writer takes just as much devotion and dedication as athletic training does.
We’re also not talking about a barren wasteland. Art thrives in America like nowhere else. Our country isn’t called the land of opportunity for nothing. With our affluence, there is high demand for entertainment in all forms, especially those involving artistic talent. Think of all the talent competitions on TV like The Voice, Idol, and AGT. It would take a lot of guts (and insanity) for someone to try to get on one of those shows if he barely knew the lyrics to the song he’d chosen and had never taken one voice lesson or even a choir class!
Back to my ANW metaphor—picture an unprepared athlete actually being allowed to run the course. Instead of hitting the gym for an hour every day, they’ve been working on their tan or their nails or sewing the perfect costume. Gotta look good when you’re on camera! But they forgot to think about looking good in the sense of athletic skill. They might make it through the first few obstacles, but they are clumsy and hesitant because they haven’t prepared a strategy. It’s highly unlikely they’ll make it to the buzzer. I’m not saying they couldn’t, but I’d never bet money on it.
So why is the publishing industry today doing the equivalent of that? Why are publishers willing to accept books with flat characters, clichéd or convoluted plots, awkward dialogue, and typos on every page—while brushing aside manuscripts that have been carefully, lovingly crafted by people who trained as rigorously as any buzzer-slamming ninja on ANW?
Would an ANW episode get high ratings if none of the athletes had come prepared? We love seeing buzzers smashed. We cheer wildly when speed records are shattered. Our spirits take flight when ninjas soar with grace and elegance. But if I sat through an episode, and nobody made it past the second or third obstacle, I’d feel ripped off—and I’d stop watching entirely if that became a pattern. We want quality shows with accomplished athletes. So why don’t publishers seem to think people desire excellence in literature too?
That incongruity baffles us, at Thinklings. And the shortage of good books being printed is why we formed our company in the first place. We long to read well-crafted tomes. And we know that millions of other readers do as well. Yet, so frequently, we are offered books that were barely edited, sloppily proofread, and/or thrown together haphazardly, from blogs or even by people with some writing talent but not enough practice. They could become quite skilled if they took the time and put in the effort. But, unfortunately, they jumped the gun and skipped ahead several steps to the fun part—the gathering-followers part. It seems that publishers have also been jumping the gun, thinking ahead to the selling stage without first considering what they are selling.
There’s nothing wrong with having fans and a social media presence. We all love being praised for what we’ve accomplished. And I don’t know anyone who hates making money or hopes their book won’t sell many copies. BUT it’s important, with whatever project we’re tackling, to take steps in order and perform them well—just like the top American ninjas do.
Then, and only then, will you have truly accomplished something. A book worth gabbing to all your friends about; a novel that makes readers’ hearts and imaginations soar.
What books have made your heart soar? What elements (such as well-developed characters, an unexpected plot twist, etc.) produced that effect?