Don’t Do It! An Argument Against Submitting Too Soon

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On Saturday I went up to The King’s English, an independent bookstore here in Salt Lake City, to hear Bree Despain talk about the process leading up to holding her published book in her hands: The Dark Divine.

Bree is awesome. As Ann Cannon said when she was introducing her, Bree is the sort of author who will cheer on all other writers, and her spiel was about finding your right path and following it. She talked about knowing she wanted to be a writer but letting that get put aside for a while; about her first “practice” novel that she submitted but soon learned she had to shelve; about getting the idea for The Dark Divine and writing it and submitting it but getting “like it, don’t love it” responses; about moving on to a third manuscript and then finding inspiration for how to turn The Dark Divine into something readers would love.

Here’s the part that I think is critical about what Bree said. Once she revised the manuscript to make it amazing, and confirmed with her writing group that she really had something, she got an agent within a week and an editor within two.

I know that’s not the way it happens for most people. I know the chances of catching agents’ and editors’ attention that fast are slim. But the part that is in a writer’s control is how soon to submit, and I think Bree’s story has a great lesson in it:

There’s no reason to submit a manuscript that’s not amazing yet.

Any time I hear that a writer friend of mine is submitting, I can’t help wondering if s/he’s really ready. And I’ve been there, too. I submitted queries and even a couple full manuscripts of my first novel — even though I knew it wasn’t amazing. I knew it had problems. I just had this delusional hope that an agent or editor would see the potential of it and help me fix it.

From what I hear from other writers, that’s not an uncommon sentiment. I think we all have that hope.

But this time around, I’m going for amazing, and I can feel the manuscript inching its way there. I can feel how much somebody — some agent and later some editor — is going to fall in love with it. And I can’t imagine submitting it before it gets all the way there.

So here’s my argument for today: Lighten the slush pile for those poor agents and editors who get swamped with submissions that honestly aren’t ready yet. It’ll be a favor to yourself, too, sparing you a lot of needless anxiety.

  1. Commit yourself to only sending manuscripts that are amazing. Don’t be impatient like I was with my first novel. 
  2. Give the whole manuscript to a critique group and get their feedback before you even consider submitting. 
  3. Input their feedback and give it to them again, and repeat that process until they agree with you that it’s amazing.
  4. Write a query letter worthy of your amazing manuscript. Nail the synopsis.
  5. Then submit. 

Sure, there’s something to be said for just sending it out there and seeing who bites. But here’s another true story that was instructive for me. I talked to a woman in my church congregation who got her PhD at Penn State, and she told me that the first year she applied to doctoral programs, she applied to three and got denied to all three. She spent the next year prepping herself, talking to people from the schools who rejected her, finding out what made a good candidate and making herself into one. And then she applied to all three again.

Guess what happened? She told me that the first time around, she was nervous. She had absolutely no idea whether or not she’d get in. But that second time around, after she’d really worked to stand out as an applicant, she didn’t even wonder. She already knew she was golden. And at least two of the three schools offered her fellowships — the same schools who denied her a year before.

That’s how I want to be, not just as a PhD applicant a year from now (fall 2011, here I come!) but as a writer. I want to be so confident in my manuscript that when I submit I’ll know I’m golden.

What do you think? Have you heard other stories that confirm or contradict all my advice here? I’m curious what other people’s opinions are.

Leave a comment!

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11 responses »

  1. I both agree and disagree. For a long time I was running into the problem of taking too much of the advice I was given and the story wasn’t working. What’s more, it wasn’t my story anymore. In fact, some of the members of my critique group finally told me to stop taking advice. So I think there’s a point where you have to stop taking the advice of others and only please yourself as a reader. Everyone has different taste and ultimately, with your story, yours is the most important.

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    • That’s a great point. Shannon told me about how with River Secrets her editor wanted her to take out the prince character, but Shannon felt like he needed to be there. What she ended up doing was strengthening his character and making him more integral to the plot! I think it’s a compromise between listening to critique suggestions and intuiting what your story needs. It’s a balance. I try to ask myself what the suggestions point to as the underlying problem, and then I work to solve that problem in the way I think is best. That means I don’t always take the exact suggestions of critiquers, but I do listen to figure out what their concern means about weaknesses in my story.

      I like how Bree talked about turning down the editor who wanted her to take out the prodigal-son angle. You’re right that you have to stay true to your story. But if the advice points to things that still need to be worked out, I guess that’s what I mean by working everything out before you submit. 🙂

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      • I’m so glad Bree left that part in her book! That was my favorite bit.

        Also, on query letters, queryshark.blogspot.com taught me a lot about writing them. The site is run by an agent and she dissects the letters into what works and what doesn’t. I found it informative.

        My sister got her Ph.D in rhetoric and comp at Penn State. I wonder if she knows your friend.

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        • Thanks for the link! I’ll have to check that out when I’m ready to query.

          And actually rhet comp was my friend’s program, too! I don’t know what years she was there, though. Ask your sister if she knew a Dawn.

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  2. Why was I not invited to this? PAY ATTENTION NIKKI! I want to be involved in this stuff! To quote your brother, “Gall!”

    Also, I know you are farther away, but do you have any advice for locating a reading group and a writing group? I am desperate for them!

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  3. Oh and I agree with the “amazing” sentiment. It is actually what propelled me to rip up and delete endless beginnings to all sorts of stories. My lesson is more along the lines of “don’t submit until it’s amazing but don’t destroy without giving it a spruce.” I am glad I learned that lesson. I started my current WIP (yeah, I stole that from you) at least 10 times because I had two beginnings that I couldn’t get right and then couldn’t decide between! But each attempt added to what is there now and I love what is there now.

    Yea writing!

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    • Yes! Here’s my system:

      (1) Save everything. Any tiny scrap of an idea I have goes into a computer file.
      (2) Write out a first chapter for any idea that feels solid enough to put in scene.
      (3) Let those chapters simmer. They often simmer for years before I decide to commit to them. I want to be absolutely sure that I’m in love with an idea enough to spend months and years on it.
      (4) Write a full draft without letting myself care too much about how good it is. I have to tell myself constantly, “It’s okay. I’ll fix that on the next draft.”
      (5) Continually fall in love. Sometimes before I start working on a hard part I’ll go back and read my favorite parts, just to remind myself that I do love this WIP, I am committed, and it’ll be worth fixing all the stuff that sucks.

      Ha! Maybe I’ll have to write a post about that, since this comment got a little out of hand. 😉

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