Creative writing, to earn a living, is a somewhat worse prospect than trying to earn a living doing professional philosophy or high stakes badminton. The odds aren’t just stacked against you, they’re actually built in such a way that you are more likely to die as a direct result of your pursuit of publication than you are to earn a year’s wages. Sort of the way you are statistically more likely to die in a car accident on the way to buy a lottery ticket than you are of actually winning the lottery.
But the lie we tell ourselves, as writers, is something I read in a magazine(remember those?) many years ago: I just read X and X is crap, therefore if I write something better than X, I will be published. Well, no. The assumption that lie is based on is that what is preventing you from being successful is quality. Sure, if your writing is crap, you are less likely to get accepted by a publisher or agent. But I tell my writer friends, pretty consistently, that agents and publishers reject perfect writing on a daily basis.
Let me repeat that for emphasis: work that is better than yours gets rejected each and every day.
“But you don’t know how good I am!” you protest. No, I definitely don’t, but I know what the industry demands. Beyond that, I know what the process involves and what it produces. Perfect isn’t good enough, therefore, good enough is actually much worse. What is preventing your pitch perfect manuscript from rising from the slush pile isn’t a typo on page 83 or the fact that your plot revolves mostly around the plight of the avocado farmer or that your protagonist is a middle-aged housewife. (If anything, those last two might be points to your advantage.) No, you have to think in broader strokes than that. Your tale about dragons who are in reality aliens isn’t selling because… wait for it… it won’t sell.
An old Marketing 101 trick professors would pull to demonstrate value to their students was to ask, “How much is this pencil worth?” Of course hands were raised by the best and brightest to say the actual dollar amount a pencil might cost. And then, like some kind of twisted anti-Price is Right, the prof would tell them all they were wrong; the pencil was worth whatever the market would allow. If that was a dollar, it was a dollar. If that was a million dollars, then it was a million dollars.
The reason slush piles are as deep and wide as they are isn’t that the vast numbers of authors aren’t very good writers. The reason is that the majority of publishers can’t sell the majority of written work. At least, not with the market in its current state. Publishers have to publish what will sell or they will go out of business. Agents have to represent what they can realistically represent. If the market you are writing in, say speculative stream of consciousness poetry about cats, isn’t a thriving market, your work has to be cross-marketable. It has to appeal to a market that is thriving. This is why YA is hot. This is why Romance has never stopped being hot.
And I actually say this to encourage you. You may have the single greatest stream of consciousness cat poetry in existence. It might be amazing, in fact. Just because it won’t ever pay your house payment doesn’t mean you’re not a great writer. Work hard on building your audience while you build your craft. If you can build an audience of a hundred thousand loyal fans, you can name your price to any publisher… or perhaps just skip the publisher completely.