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