Recognising a Diamond in the Rough by Sensei Ruby Barnes

A few weeks ago I attended a session at the Irish Writers' Centre in Dublin (many thanks to Valerie Ryan for organising) with some of my writing colleagues from our Kilkenny writers' group. We spent several fascinating hours in the company of acclaimed novelist Mia Gallagher who kindly shared her knowledge of writing and editing, and the varying experiences of being published by large (Penguin) and small (Little Island) publishing houses. Mia herself offers editing services and was able to clearly articulate both sides of the author / editor equation.

We listened, asked questions and made the occasional furtive attempt to grasp the elusive goal of writing a manuscript that agents and publishers will want. Or, as was freely admitted for those who might dare to venture into the modern world of self-publishing, the goal of writing a novel that readers will want to read. I felt confused for the first hour or so as my feeble brain struggled with which hat to wear. As an "independent author" I have self-published seven novels and that escapade has morphed into micro-publishing with twenty-eight titles (from four individual authors plus three multi-author anthologies) under the Marble City Publishing banner. Editing and formatting is what I do for sedentary fun when I'm not writing or fighting. My perspective during that workshop was flip-flopping from author to editor to publisher.

Mia continued to talk, telling us about the publishing process with her first novel, Hellfire, and how the manuscript changed substantially between Penguin's acceptance of the book and eventual publication. Then it struck me. Penguin had seen Hellfire for the raw diamond that it was and were prepared to invest in structural editing to get the novel to become the multi-faceted jewel they believed it could be. I thought about the nineteen submissions received by Marble City in the previous twelve months, all of which we had rejected. Did we lack the imagination or ability to spot a diamond in the rough? Had we passed over work which deserved more attention? I have to be honest and say I’m very quick to take against a manuscript if it exhibits unrealistic dialogue, excessive word echo, unbelievable plot twists and turns, etc. I’m not saying Hellfire had any of those faults when Penguin accepted it. Having listened to Mia’s advice on editing and her track record in script writing, I very much doubt she had any such authorly ticks. What Penguin most likely did was to add to the pot with their developmental editing skills and turn a very good novel into a great novel. Hellfire did receive critical acclaim although, by Mia’s own admission, the book wasn’t a commercial success. It took Mia another nine years to produce her next novel, Beautiful Pictures of the Lost Homeland, by which time the publisher with interest had changed to the smaller Irish house of Little Island.

As soon as I arrived home from the workshop I went about snagging a copy of Hellfire. provided a second-hand copy for a couple of quid. It soon arrived and I dived in. The novel was nothing like I had expected. It was written in vernacular Dublin language, a stream of consciousness life account from a narrator with a complex personality and substance abuse issues. A kind of mix between The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks and Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. I really enjoyed Hellfire but I could understand why Mia hadn’t become a prodigious name for Penguin. Hellfire is a standalone tome, the like of which cannot be easily repeated. The narrative voice is unique and the character’s story has been told with the conclusion of the book. Hellfire was a long time in the making, having started life as a short story / play. Mia, during the workshop, mentioned her long journey with the book and compared the experience to another Irish writer – John Boyne, who wrote The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (commercially successful as both book and film) in just a weekend.

But I digress. The point I’m pondering is not how long it takes to write a bestseller. Rather, what is it that defines a publisher’s ability to spot a nugget of gold, and is their capacity and willingness to work that manuscript into something truly praiseworthy a feature of the publisher’s critical mass? Are micro-publishers capable of seeing the potential in a manuscript and willing and able to invest enough time, effort and skill to produce a result? Or are micro-publishers only good for copy editing?


I sometimes wonder if "a manuscript publishers and agents will want" and "a book readers will want to read" are two entirely different things. They shouldn't be, but in my experience so much more than the quality of the writing comes into the first. The author's past sales record, how easy the book will be to market, whether the Americans will love it... the list of excuses for turning down a manuscript seems endless.

Of course, recognising the book everyone wants to read while it is still in raw manuscript form is easier said than done... and writing that book is even trickier! And if everyone is after the next magical bestseller, does that mean all those other books that not everyone wants to read, and all the manuscripts publishers reject for commercial reasons, are pointless? And so, by extension, are their authors? I really struggle with this.
Bill Kirton said…
Good questions, Ruby. And they imply many more once you get down to specifics. I've experienced insights from editors at micro and macro level which have made my stuff significantly better, but is that because while writing, one is inside the experience, sharing it with the characters and thus not seeing it from the reader's perspective? I always stress with students the need to make writing and editing two separate processes, calling for different skills, but apart from the purely grammatical and stylistic discipline one has to apply, it's difficult to be objective about something which has effectively been a 'lived-through' experience.
I doubt if a big publisher would take that same time and trouble now - I think it's significant that this was some years ago. Even ten to fifteen years ago, I was told by my then London agent that the big corporates wanted an 'oven ready product' and would not be prepared to work with a writer unless they had other attractions. Now, I suspect those other attractions would include success in another sphere, significant social media presence, personal youth and beauty etc. My experience has been that the smaller publishers will spot potential and spend more time - although they sometimes lack the resources. Also, I think numbers of submissions might have something to do with it as well. Penguin's submissions must run to many thousands.
Elizabeth Kay said…
I was told that any experience on tv and radio was important - this is marketing, rather than anything else, and never used to be an issue. And then we're back to the same old thing - publishers want something original, but they want to know which shelf to put it on. It sounds as though Hellfire was very much a standalone novel. That's a hard one to do these days, when everyone wants something that will carry on selling as a series.
madwippitt said…
In my experience, I've found that books don't get properly edited these days ... with the two notable exceptions of my lovely editors at Transworld and Crowood Press, it has either been non-existent or consisted solely of proof-reading, apparently using a computer spellchecker with no regard to context (excerpt getting changed to exert still chafes after all these years)

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