Quality Control

Years ago, before I had anything published, I used to write little things and hide them in my cedar chest. I have always been an avid reader and secretly wanted to be a writer, an august state I was sure I could never attain. I didn’t have the imagination, the cleverness, to write a book, or even an article. My scribbling was destined never to see the light of day, and especially not the printed page.

One day one of my daughters wanted something in the cedar chest and came out with a handful of pages. “Did you write these? They’re really good.” They weren’t and I knew it, but shortly after a close friend commented on how well I wrote business letters and other things, so I gathered my courage and decided to seriously try. I wrote an article about my children’s adventures in 4H and it was published by Family Fun. I was thrilled. I was on my way.

It didn’t turn out quite that easy. Writing a book, writing anything, is hard work. At least it is if you want it to be good.

I wrote my first mystery novel without benefit of knowledge of the craft, or even the knowledge that it was a craft, one that needed to be learned. Why that never occurred to me, I don’t know. You have to learn to do everything else. No one dances the lead in Swan Lake without years of practice, no one is allowed to drive a car unless you can prove your competency, no one wants to grace your dinner table unless you’ve learned to do something more than boil water. Writing is no different.

I submitted my first mystery novel to St Martin’s Malice Domestic contest, by now certain my hard work and the sale of that one lone article had made me a competent author. I was certain to win. The book came back with a note from the judge, saying it had promise but I needed to learn how to write. Well!

How dare she! I picked up my precious manuscript and started to read. It didn’t take long. She was right. I realized I had two choices. I could put the book back in the cedar chest and do something else or I could learn how to write. I chose to learn.

Four novels, several short stories, articles and blogs later, I’m still learning. My work is earning praise from readers and reviewers and I’m about ready to tear down all of the rejections I used to paper the bathroom wall and replace them with glowing reviews. It’s taken years of hard work and I’m not finished yet. I’m sure I’ll still be learning, still rewriting, still giving my books more layers, tightening up the story, fleshing out my characters on the day I shut my computer down for the last time. Which brings me to my point.

Today almost any one can get just about anything in print, or published on the web in some form. Put your novel up on Kindle, Nook or Smashwords. It might sell. Create a Facebook page and get a Twitter account. and you’re good to go. Self publish and set the reading world on fire. Maybe. However, most really good books are still published the old fashioned way, with an agent to guide you through the hunt for an editor and that same editor doing what they are supposed to do. Edit. Conversely, many of the self published books are poorly written by earnest people, many with talent, all of whom were willing to put in the hours, days, months it takes to write a book, but haven’t taken the time to really learn their craft. How is a reader to know which is which?

For me, it goes back to quality control. I look at reviews, see if the libraries stock the book, see if others have read it, and see who published it. That doesn’t mean I’m going to like the book, and it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, but it does give me a guide. Trying to pick something to read out of the thousands of ebooks offered, or the hundreds of new books that just came into the local library, or find my way through the stacks at Barnes and Noble, is daunting. You can’t tell the quality by the cover. You never could, but now that so many people are proficient at photo-shop, you really can’t. I’m not saying all self-published books are poor quality. Many aren’t. I know authors who are talented, write tight stories, build beguiling characters, are meticulous editors, but for some reason haven’t made it through the slush pile or have had bad experiences and choose the self published route. But you, the reader, can’t tell that by the cover. There is no way to know if the story is tight, the characters convincing, especially if you are choosing an ebook. There is no gatekeeper.

So, I have developed a strategy for picking authors new to me. I look at who is publishing the book. If I know, and respect the publishing house, or the person giving the blurb on the back cover I am more willing to take a chance. Then I go back to my favorite method. I go to my convenient and friendly local book store and ask the bookseller what’s new and what’s good. She’s usually right. Besides, she carries my books.