Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Sound of Failure Calls Her Name

One prevailing sentiment among writing forums is to hold off submitting until your book represents the best that it can be.
But what does that mean when there is no objective standard by which to measure your book?

1. TIME
Set the damn thing aside for awhile.  It is SO easy to be SO excited about something you've just finished, or SO tired of working on it that you just want to start submitting.  Give it a little time in the cask to age, and then look at it and see if it's still exciting... or still tiresome.  Most likely, you'll notice a few things that need tweaking, and then it'll be ready. 

2. CRITIQUE
A crit group--a good one--lets you see your manuscript the way your reader will.  A crit group will point out that an important bit was unclear in chapter 1, and you'll be able to avoid the confusion that might make an editor give up on your book too soon.  A crit group will tell you your spelling isn't terribly consistent.  A crit group will nudge you to develop your characters more, or to cut the chapter in which nothing happens.  A good crit group saves the editor the large and time-consuming broad-strokes editing that may make the difference between something she can commit to and something that is just too rough.

3. SELF KNOWLEDGE
Is your spelling crap? Do you tend to confuse homophones? If you can't trust yourself to clean the manuscript up, get someone else to do it who can. Lots of little mistakes like that make you seem kind of illiterate, when in fact you may simply be dyslexic.  Unless you sometimes lose your hairbrush in your hair, you know that first impressions make a difference.  The best writers to work with are the ones who know their weaknesses and their strengths, and work to ameliorate the one as much as they work to showcase the other.

Once you have checked these things off, it is time to remind yourself that:

4. POSITIVITY and ACTION
It's time to try the book out on people and submit it.  Maybe it's not PERFECT.  So what.  Keep working on other things, and keep learning. If you let yourself be the kind of person to fuss over one manuscript for ages without working on anything else or submitting anything, (a) editors are going to hate you, and (b) you're going to hate yourself.  Failure to be published is not nearly as soul-crushing as failure to even try.

40 comments:

Chris said...

Very helpful advice, but I'm mostly posting to give you props for the Flaming Lips reference. ;-)

In regard to your last point, sometimes walking away is definitely the right solution. I spent years revising and re-revising my first novel, shopping it and trying to find a buyer. Frustrated, I finally put it in a drawer, started a new novel, and wrote a few short stories - one of which has become my first published work.

There are plenty of short story markets, and though these days many of them can't afford to pay, the enormous ego boost that comes from publication is fuel to keep a writer going - and hopefully keep us from all becoming bitter old prunes who blame "the gatekeepers" for holding down our careers.

Oh, and in regard to your second: test readers and critique groups are INVALUABLE.

Gina W. said...

This is awesome advice. I'm having an issue right now where I am stuck 45,000 words in. My brain has literally stopped working. I'm fighting with either pushing through the muck or setting it aside for a few days...ugh! Why did I decide to write!? WHY?
Thank you so much for this post!

wonderer said...

Gina - 45,000 is one of the hardest places to be in a story, at least for me. The Dreaded Middle can be killer, but the climax comes along eventually. Take a breather if you need one, but don't give up!

Victoria Dixon said...

Yes, thank you for this post. I needed the kick in the pants (will probably need a few more if you want to come over) to help me find my next novel.

Melinda Szymanik said...

An overworked story is as bad (if not worse) than one that has not been titivated enough.

Alice said...

I don't agree with Melinda at all...I don't think I've ever read a book and thought, "Hey, this is overworked."

I don't even know what that would look like.

Ishta Mercurio said...

I can think of a number of times when I've "finished" a manuscript, submitted it, then thought of a way to make it ten times better on my way back home from the mailbox. TIME is my number one.

Not submitting is the other trap, but I'm working on that one. Setting daily research goals (which houses will want this?), and weekly submission goals, for a completed manuscript helps a lot with that.

Melinda Szymanik said...

Hi Alice - i didn't mean overworked books, I meant overworked manuscripts (which don't tend to become books). Sometimes I have worked so hard on a story that it has become a hot mess. No amount of polishing will make that story a diamond. My best results have usually been from stories that I worked on quickly and fussed over the least. I've submitted underworked and overworked stories and learnt from experience what to aim for. If you are always waiting for a manuscript to be perfect you might never submit anything.

Alice said...

@Melinda

I agree that sometimes you just have to archive a manuscript and move on.

To my mind, this scenario happens when:
a) It's been rejected by like, everyone. It even gets sent back by the postman. Despite infinity edits.
b) There are some definite hints on the horizon that it's a load of ahem, AND I'm also bored silly by it.

But when you said, "Sometimes I have worked so hard on a story that it has become a hot mess," that's what got me shaking my head and thinking, "How?" because I love editing and in the long run editing always improves a manuscript.

Let's say you make an edit and it just doesn't work. It might even add major suck to your manuscript. No worries, just change it back! No big deal. You DO have all your previous drafts, right?

I think what's bothering me is that, IMO, there are only three things an ms can be:

1) good enough (or better if you're lucky)
2) underworked
3) not workable

If something's overworked, all you have to do is revert to previous edits, no?

R.e. when to submit: I don't know. IMO, the easiest part of editing an ms is making sure there aren't any genuine errors i.e. things that are objectively wrong with the manuscript (like typos, contextual spelling, grammar and syntax, simple logical errors). So I guess I'd say the right time to submit is definitely after those things are fixed. At some point.

I can't comment on when an ms is ready where plot, characters, etc. is concerned. It's too specific a subject to give a general opinion.

Pramod Negi said...

EA, when you speak of the "Commonwealth model" are you referring to the Canadian practice as well of Lending rights payments to publishers, authors and illustrators by Library and Schools? I can see this working very well for the US when it comes to ebooks. I think more Countries then not have had this practice in place for a while now and it will transition well for ebooks as they become more and more popular. I see our local library offers ebooks now that you download and it then expires after the lend time.
The Library itself has an app that allows you to check on new books coming in to the Library, your borrowing history, fines etc. I am, admittedly, becoming app mad!:)
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