On the Subject of Subjectivity

Deep breath…

The Da Vinci Code is the best novel ever written. You know it’s based on a true story, right?

The Left Behind books are more well-written than anything by Fitzgerald or Hemingway or any of those boring Russian authors.

The Road. It changed the way I view dialogue said the man. And punctuation. His life was a series of fragmented sentences. And so was the book. The Road is not just Cormac’s tarmac. It is brilliance said the man. The boy turned his head and coughed.

Don’t you dare question the infinite incredibleness of The Lord of the Rings trilogy or a horde of orcs will pour out of your closet in the middle of the night and chop you up and feed you to the Balrog!

Atonement? [tap…tap…tap-tap…tap…] The best book ever written [tap-tap…tap…tap…tap-tap-tap] that features a typewriter as a main character! [tap…tap…zzzzing!]

I’d marry the Twilight books if I could. But only after months and months of chaste, yet extremely passionate longing. If you don’t agree, I’ll bite you in the neck.

Sigh. The Notebook. A Walk to Remember. I don’t care which one you choose, you absolutely have to fall in love with anything Nicholas Sparks writes. Of course, then something tragic will happen to you. But that will just make you love his books more. The most recent one? I don’t know what it was called, but it made me cry. They all make me cry. They should come with a box of tissues. Sigh. I just love Nicholas Sparks.

* * *

Hi, it’s me. Your noveldoctor. You breathing okay? I suspect a few of you might be experiencing some kind of emotional and/or physical distress. Go ahead and take a moment to calm down.

Okay. Wait a second. Some of you in the back row are still hyperventilating. Breathe in through your nose…now exhale through your mouth…


I really don’t need to say much more here. You know exactly what I’m going to say next, right?


Ha! Bet you didn’t see that coming. [I considered writing “Squirrel,” because doing so would immediately divide the audience into two camps, thereby underscoring the point I will have beat to death by the end of the next paragraph. Camp one would have been all, “Ah, how cute. That’s from ‘Up’! I loved that movie!” Camp two would have smugly grumbled, “What a lame attempt at humor. That whole ‘squirrel’ thing is so yesterday. Get some fresh material, Parolini.”]

Here’s the paragraph where I make the point you already see coming. When it comes to reading, subjectivity rules. What you love, someone else might hate. What you see as brilliant, someone else might see as pretentious or just plain stupid. Readers like what they like…because they like it. (Go ahead and get that tattooed down your spine. I won’t charge you a royalty. But please send me a picture.) Argue all you want about the literary merits of Brown or Meyer or Jenkins & LaHaye, millions of folks read and enjoyed their books. Does that mean you have to love them, too? Nope. Read your Nabokov. Your Tolstoy. Your Austen. Your ┬áMarilynne Robinson. You’ve always read what you enjoy. Why stop now?

Okay, we’re about to make the leap from talking about “reader subjectively” to exploring “acquisition editor/agent subjectivity.” Lock the germ-infested metal bar tight against your legs, remain seated, and by all means, keep your hands and other body parts inside the vehicle at all times.


* plink *

We’re there. What’s that? You didn’t feel any dramatic stomach-drop excitement? Well, of course not, silly. That’s because there’s very little distance between your reading subjectivity and the subjectivity found in the agenting and editorial realms. Yes, editors and agents have a practiced understanding of “good writing” versus “bad writing” and they quickly pass on all “nowhere near good” manuscripts based on this somewhat objective (though not purely so) criteria.

But that’s not all they do.

They also rule out manuscripts that simply don’t grab them. In fact, they do this a lot. This is where the editor’s or agent’s selection process starts to look surprisingly like the reader’s selection process. You’re going to argue that agents and editors choose books that have a chance of selling. That their personal preference may play some role, but that it’s not the main factor. You would be right, at least in part. But… why does one manuscript look salable to an edigent (just coining a word here so I don’t have to keep writing “editor” and “agent” every time) and the next one doesn’t? Sub. Jec. Tivity. Whether the edigents are asking the question “would this sell?” or “do I like this?” they’re doing so through a filter uniquely their own. This is why it’s so important to seek out agents who represent books similar to the one you’re writing. I’m aware this is common sense. But sometimes I think writers skip this step and select agents based solely on how cute they look in their blog photo.

The book you’re submitting to agents? It might be a perfectly publishable book. (Or one with enough promise to be publishable at some point in the future.) And yet you get rejected. Once. Twice. It happens to nearly every writer. Even the ones mentioned above. Just keep working on the craft of writing. Do all you can to eliminate anything that would relegate your book to the “easy dismissal” category. Then do your research. Send it to more agents.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

We all know the hard truth: many novels, even some that are brilliantly written, won’t find a home on the shelf at your local Barnes & Noble. Yours may be among the missing. But the only way to be certain yours won’t make it to the shelf is to give up trying.

Don’t give up.

Listen. Learn. And hope that one day your study and persistence will pay off and that the gods of subjectivity will smile upon you and drop your manuscript in the lap of an edigent who just happens to love urban fantasies featuring a protagonist who is half unicorn, half stockbroker.

Now get back to work.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering. I just made up those comments at the top of the post. I do happen to like some of the books mentioned, but not all of them. Guess which ones I like and I might send you a prize.

Stuff I Made Up Last Minute

One: In Which I Make a Single Point About Dialogue But Don’t Actually Tell You What the Point Is Because It’s So Obvious Even a Non-Writer Could Figure It Out

“So it’s Friday and that means I can talk about whatever I want,” said Stephen.

“You can talk about whatever you want any day,” interrupted Stephen’s alter-ego, Pedro.

“I know that,” interjected Stephen, “but Friday is my day to be especially random.”

“Pedro?” queried Pedro. “You named me Pedro? What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing’s wrong with me,” countered Stephen. “Pedro is a fine name. What concerns me is this horribly stilted dialogue.”

“Tell me about it,” grumbled Pedro. “Not only am I saddled with a name that calls to mind an outdated Napoleon Dynamite reference, you’ve got me ‘interrupting’ and ‘querying’ and ‘grumbling’ and that’s just not right.”

“Yeah, well, look at me. I’ve ‘interjected’ and ‘countered’ and who knows what’s next,” puzzled Stephen. “Oh great, now I’ve ‘puzzled.'”

“Look, you’re in charge of this stupid conversation,” argued Pedro, “so why don’t you just fix it?”

“I will, eventually,” answered Stephen, “but I like to pound my point into the ground and then keep pounding it until the sound of the mallet against metal and mud gives everyone around me a headache.”

“Mission accomplished,” ached Pedro.

“So I don’t need to actually explain the point?” tribbled Stephen. “Oh c’mon, me. Tribbled? That’s not even a word.”

“Ha!” Exclaimed Pedro loudly. “You really sound stupid…hey…wait a minute. You just burdened me with an adverb!”

“That’s for laughing at me,” gargled Stephen.

“You just gargled!” burped Pedro. “I can’t believe you just gargled that sentence!”

“Yeah, well you just burped your words. Don’t poke fun at me or I’ll have you fart the next ones,” threatened Stephen.”

“You wouldn’t dare,” farted Pedro.

“Told you. Clearly, I rule,” gloated Stephen.

“Fine, you rule,” acquiesced Pedro. “Oh, c’mon, now. You’re making me look like a real loser.”

“I win!” celebrated Stephen.

“I’m afraid there are no winners in this conversation,” Pedro concluded brilliantly.

He was right.

Two: Upcoming Things

  • The second contest starts next Friday. Here’s how it’s going to work. I’m going to give you three “First” sentences to choose from and three “Last” sentences. Your mission? Write a short story or scene that begins with any one of the First sentences and ends with any one of the Last sentences. What possible real-world writing skill am I trying to teach with this? I’ll tell you next Friday.
  • I’m working diligently on a new semi-regular feature. It’s called “Doofus and Talent” and if you’ve spent more than five minutes in a dentist’s waiting room, you’ll know exactly what children’s magazine feature I’m ripping off.
  • Also coming soon, the first in a series called “Things I Learned About Writing From…” or something like that, except there will be some other words where the ellipsis is now. And next week, I’m going to give you, yes give you, seven characters Guaranteed to Spice Up Your Novel. Just plug and play.

Okay. This has been Friday.

See you on Monday.

Back Tomorrow…

Yes. There will be a new post on Friday.

Expect it to be only slightly brilliant. The project that has been stealing my time has also been stealing brain cells, so I don’t know what will spark when I finally rub two meaningful synapses together.

You have been using your time wisely, though, haven’t you? I mean, that novel is at least 2000 pages longer now, yes?


See you tomorrow. Or really late tonight if you consider “after midnight” tonight instead of tomorrow.

Back to the brainsuck…

More Friday Miscellany

Welcome to another weekend edition of Noveldoctor.com. Today? Five random things.

Item the First – Tomorrow evening, the Christy Award ceremonies will be held in Denver. The Christy Awards are given to celebrate and promote the best of Christian fiction. A novel I edited, Safe at Home, by Richard Doster, is one of three nominees for best “First Novel.” I won’t be at the ceremony (I don’t have anything to wear and I sincerely mean that because I work out of my home and in my home I don’t maintain a dress code apart from “wear something when you go to Starbucks”), and so I won’t be able to practice my “it doesn’t matter who wins, it’s just an honor to be nominated” expression for the non-existent cameras. Richard’s a great writer, so it really doesn’t matter what happens after people have stuffed themselves with cheesecake or whatever they’re serving. You should read this novel. It’s about the 1950’s and family and minor league baseball and the cultural stirrings that swelled into the civil rights movement (which Richard explores even further in his second novel, Crossing the Lines).

Two – I’m thinking about my next contest. It’s going to be fun. It has a name. The name is “First and Last” There will be lovely prizes, including some Really Cool Stuff From a Box in My Closet. You will want to enter. Look for it in…two weeks. Meanwhile, keep stopping by so I can teach you all kinds of things about writing and editing and not taking yourself too seriously.

Third – Do you write YA or MG? (That’s “young adult” or “middle grade” for the uninitiated.) Middle grade author Adrienne Kress recently wrote a blog post about “The New YA” and if you write either (or think you do), you should read it. Click here to go directly to the blogpost, then add your comments to the thread. Be sure to say something nice to Adrienne, too. She’s not only a writer, she’s also an actress and therefore is doubly in need of the occasional kind word.

For Fore Four – So I’m watching David Letterman as I type this and that young whippersnapper Daniel Radcliffe (you know, the actor who was naked on stage in Equus and also is in movies about a wizard or some such thing) is on and he just used the following phrase while describing a method for improving your microwaved pasta experience: “bookended by condiments.” If you weren’t a fan of Radcliffe before, surely you are now. In totally unrelated news, I have discovered the spell to make myself 30 years younger and will soon be courting Emma Watson.

The Fifth Element – If you missed it earlier, now would be the time to correct your error. Kilt-wearing literary agent Chip MacGregor recently featured a series of posts answering a whole bunch of basic publishing questions. Click here for the first post, here for the second, and here for the third installment. But be warned, if you read all of these posts, you’ll have no excuse for making stupid mistakes as you work toward your goal of publication.