Periodically, I go back and reread some of the articles/posts/websites that have helped me the most in my quest to improve my writing. Today, I clicked on Holly Lisle's A Baker's Dozen Antidotes to Meh Writing. Don't know what meh writing is? Here's an explanation from an editor at Red Pen Diaries:
The meh. This is the category where I receive the most submissions. This person has done their homework. The cover letter is pristine, the synopsis excellent, nary a typo to be found in the submission as a whole. Just one problem. While the author wasn't looking, someone sucked the immortal soul out of the book. The voice is non-existent. The plot? Blah and bland with a side of meh. Outwardly, there is nothing wrong with the submission, it is spit n' polished to a glossy sheen. Inwardly? A cold gelid, slimy piece of bologna on slightly doughy, moist Wonder bread.
A little known secret? Meh's are often published. Meh's often get picked by new or inexperienced publishers, or even established ones in a moment of weakness. Why? Meh's know their craft. The book seems to need little or no work, and the meh's are pleasant and easy to deal with. Of course, the editor doesn't often realize they have signed a meh, until they begin the editing process. Then, the passion they have for editing doesn't seem as strong for this particular title — they dilly-dally around with other things instead of completing their edit. The realization is often gradual — but sooner or later, the editorial light bulb will go off. Dammit! I signed a meh!
Luckily, I got my meh experience veery early on in my editing career (with an author I no longer edit — so calm down everyone!) through a “present” bequeathed me from another editor (who I still want to kick most fiercely whenever I see her!). This editor quickly realized she had a meh on her hands and passed her on to the new kid. I had the misfortune to accept her next heartbreaking work of meh genius. Never. Again. I am glad I learned my meh lesson early, because meh's are hard to get rid of. Rejecting a meh is like kicking a puppy. These people are genuinely trying — they have learned their craft inside and out. Unfortunately they were either born with voice imodulation disorder, or they had their unique author's voice beaten out of them by the endless speakers, critique groups, books, or conventions they went to in search of the magic bullet to publishing. There is almost nothing constructive you can say to a meh — they ARE doing most everything right, and the one thing they are not doing is virtually unteachable. I feel sorry for the meh's. But now all they will get from me is a kind (is there such a thing?) yet bland and non-descript rejection letter.
Oh dear, right? And you know what is the scariest part? “…they had their unique author's voice beaten out of them by the endless speakers, critique groups, books, or conventions they went to in search of the magic bullet to publishing.” Sort of like the discussion on some of the lit blogs about MFAs and the deadening of Voice. Having your voice beat out of you is a real danger. How do you avoid it? Damned if I know.
All I know is that you have to be careful when listening to others tell you how to write, even when those others are multi-published. Their way isn't necessarily your way. Of course you should listen to them on many things, because they've been in the trenches and they know what they're talking about. But don't let it mess with your unique voice. Don't let someone tell you that you can't have a werewolf/shapeshifter/cop hero because those don't sell if that's what you REALLY want to write. Write it and give it a shot, being fully aware they may be right.
Setting is one I used to hear all the time. Don't set your historical in ancient Rome or medieval Germany, etc. I've also heard not to use Hawaii as a setting, though Carol Burnside (hi, Carol!) recently won the Maggie Award for her unpublished short contemporary set in Hawaii. Like Miss Snark says, writing trumps everything. If you do it well enough, maybe you'll convince an editor to take a chance on you. You might even start a trend.
Local author Morag McKendrick Pippin is having great success with a trilogy of romance thrillers set in the early 20th century (India, Britain, and Germany for pete's sake!). The first book, Blood Moon Over Bengal, won the Holt Medallion for Best First Book last year. (Go look at the cover, and then go look at Blood Moon Over Britain–they are gorgeous!) It can be done.
So learn what meh writing is and go read Holly's tips for fixing it.