These classic bits are still available on the Internet: Marion Zimmer Bradley's discussion of why a story is rejected.
"In order to sell a story it is not necessary to learn to write well. Once one learns to write a literate English sentence, the ability to sell a story is based on only one talent: the ability to give an editor what her readers want.
A story may be bad in all kinds of ways, and still be salable, it if has some things the editor finds important (because he knows from experience that this is what his readers want.) But a story may be good in all kinds of ways, excellently written, with warm, lovable characters and wonderful style, plus a philosophical outlook which would make you the new Mark Twain or Jane Austen, and it is still going to get rejected if it doesn't give the editor those few things the editor wants and needs."
This whole thing just drove me nuts "back in the day." I couldn't understand why Marion Zimmer Bradley seemed to be emphasizing "bad writing," and encouraging people to commit it. I thought her statements were extreme, but if one reads carefully -- the points are all very well-taken.
To this day, I still think the only thing I'd quibble with in "Marion Zimmer Bradley's Writing Advice" is the over-emphasis that one can write horribly, and still "sell." Yes, it's provably true that this is the case. But why would one want to write badly? Who is to say that a writer can't write well, at the same time as "giving the editor what she wants?" Ten years in, I can fairly reliably say that, if Marion were alive, I could write a story that would please her very well, be one well-received by her readers (the Sword & Sorcery 22 anthology is under way right now, so that tradition continues) and "write well." So, it only took me a decade to figure out both sides of the equation.
The interesting thing is this statement:
"So the writer who wants to make a living as a writer of commercial fiction, by SELLING what he writes (and I cannot emphasize enough that this has NOTHING WHATEVER to do with "talent", "literary ability" or "quality creativity", and even less with "self expression" or "creative writing") must learn to give the editor what he wants, or at least what he THINKS he wants. If you want to "be a good writer" resign yourself to writing for little literary journals, and maybe when you have been dead for fifty years there will be a posthumous collection of your works and somebody will write a doctoral thesis about them. If you want to SELL, learn to give the editor what he wants. That done, you can be a good writer if you want to. But if you can't do that FIRST, the public will never have the chance to judge your work unless you publish it yourself."
I think there's an emphasis on equating "good writing" with "little literary journals" and "doctoral theses" and this is not the case. I can understand the perspective Marion was coming from. But I'd be the first to tell her: little literary journals and "good writing" aren't any more closely related than genre publications and "good writing." Writing in the style of a "little literary journal" is approximately the same thing as Marion is suggesting in her writing advice article. It consists of "giving the editor what he or she wants."
Which brings me to my point. Good writing and good storytelling are anything but mutually exclusive. They are so closely-linked that for me, they can't be extricated from one another. Now, instead of "good writing," Marion may be referring to writing that draws attention to itself in some manner, beyond the story. She was writing from a mid- to late-20th Century perspective, when there had been all types of discussion attempting to make what I call nonstories into stories. All types of justification for typographical experiment being some type of satisfying fictional reading experience. I know how this worked in art, because that's right there in front of your face. People were told that nonpictures were visual images of great resonance, whereas representational art was heavily downgraded for years. Today, I know few professional artists, even those in elite gallery circles, who are doing wholly nonrepresentational art. And artists possessed of real skill are making tremendous money in illustration, in print sales, and in licensed images. Money in that world means that the work is of value. People like to look at the art, they want to buy it, and the more in-demand, the more money there is to be made.
Talent - well, what is that? A facility that allows one to work more quickly and effectively than others? Perhaps. Is it the desire? Well, there are all kinds of people who desperately want to "be writers." Not all are going to be able to do that. Persistence? Yes, applied to all aspects - creatively and in marketing. I'm fairly certain anyone who knows me could say in what area I am most lacking, and where I have to work the hardest.
I would venture to say that "learning to give the editor what he wants" is in itself, a form of skill and talent. Others may find fault in many aspects of a work - but one has to say, that if the work was chosen and published, the author did at least a few things right. If it's something a significant number of people really like, then it's a certainty that the author put his or her time to good effect in that one, simple job: writing something readers could relate to. This is not to say that, from time to time, concerns other than what's on the page come up. Sometimes it's somebody's friend, somebody's cousin, somebody's "significant other." But I can't think of one of those situations where the work has become genuinely popular. In the immortal phrase, "It's always something." Something maybe "we" don't understand, but the readers certainly do. And that's a form of art, discerning that, is it not?