Jay Lake (jaylake) wrote,
Jay Lake

[process] On competence and mediocrity

Responding to a few things here, here, and here (among other places), I wanted to say a few more words.

First of all, I think I took jeffvandermeer's original post in the spirit in which he intended. On the other hand, I know him reasonably well professionally and personally, and as I said to swan_tower, I bring a lot of extratextual context to reading Jeff's words. I also think people are feeling challenged, even stung, by the allegations of competence.

Competence is the death of art. Like the children of Lake Wobegone, we all must be above average.

My slush pile experience leads to some thoughts here. Understand first of all that I'm not a developmental editor, never have been. Of all the stories I've bought, either working alone or in editorial collaboration, I've sent less than a handful back for rewrite without first committing to buy them. It's not my job to develop new writers within my editorial projects. If I were editing a recurring market — monthly or quarterly, for example — I might well take a different view of this. Certainly many editors do, and rightly so. (For what it's worth, where I do pay forward and try to develop new writers is within my frequent convention workshopping, and on a one-on-one basis.) My job is to put together the best anthology I can, via the art and science of acquisitions editing.

I figured out this morning that I've read approaching 3,000 stories in slush piles over the past five or six years. While we tell each other tall tales about slush pile horror in convention bars and on panels, the reality is that the slush pile is a bell curve. The left hand tail is the laughable crap, the rising curve is mediocrity, the tall center is competence, the falling curve is quality and the right hand tail is excellence.

Competence sometimes sells. Books have been bought because a hole in the publisher's line needs to be filled right then. Stories have been bought because there was a certain sized slot left over in the anthology or magazine, and the story was "good enough." I think Jeff's point was that "good enough" isn't good enough. You want to be all the wait out on the Long Tail of excellence, at the far right of the bell curve.

Is that possible for every story, every time, with every editor? Hell no. Tastes vary, even within the same person's mind depending on their mood. But as someone else recently said to me in a different context, shoot for the stars and hit the moon. Don't be as good as someone else, or even your own most recent work. Be better.

I fail at this a whole lot more often than I succeed, even in my own writing. But I try. And I don't ever plan to die of comptence.

As always, write more.
Tags: links, process, writing

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