By Jeffrey S Savage
WIP Update: Currently I am a little more than halfway done with my national Young Adult manuscript, Demon Spawn. I’ve been hung up a little on a scene where a character turns on her friend. I was struggling to find a way to make the scene both believable to the reader, hurtful to the protagonist, but not make you hate the friend. I finally nailed it at about midnight. I have both the next Farworld book plotted and expect to start Air Keep soon. Shandra is currently in the simmering stage, but I can say most of it will take place in New York, and this book will NOT end with a cliff hanger of any kind.
As I’ve mentioned previously, I am doing a lot of travel lately. Recently I noticed something that happens in every airport. You see someone obviously racing for a flight. It could be a man, a woman, a couple, younger, older, heavy, thin. It doesn’t matter. They are in a hurry. As they get to the moving walkway, they see the line of people getting on and decide to go past it. If they run the whole way, they can make better time. But most of them are pulling suitcases or lugging bags. They skip the walkway to make better time, but instead—although they are walking more quickly than the people on the walkway—they fall behind, because even a reasonable walking speed on the moving conveyor is faster than a hurried walk off of it.
This reminds me of what I see so often in writing—and in the rest of the world too. People mistake action for progress. You hear things like, “I sent out my query letter to a hundred agents.” Or “I finished that entire novel in two months.” Yes, it’s good to finish your novel. Yes it’s good to contact a bunch of agents. But are you walking on the moving walkway? Are you talking advantage of the things that are there to help you succeed? Or are you skipping them because they appear too slow? Here are a few things I suggest.
1) Listen to people who know what they are talking about. I’ve almost entirely stopped reading people’s manuscripts—even from friends—because they don’t want to hear that their story needs work. They want to hear that their book is wonderful as it is. These same authors ignore critique groups, skip conferences, and avoid classes. They wouldn’t dream of sitting down to a piano for the first time and playing a complete song, but they are sure their first attempt at writing will sell for a million dollars. If you are serious about anything, talk to people who have succeeded at it, and make sure that you spend less time talking about what you are doing and more time listening to what they tell you.
2) Choosing quantity over quality. There used to be a guy in a New York train station who sold wallets to people who got off the train. They weren’t great wallets, but they were cheap. And he had hundreds of thousands of people walk by every day. Just by shouting, “Want to buy a wallet?” he managed to make sales. The same thing could work in finding a spouse. Just ask everyone you meet until someone says yes. I’m sure it would work. And I know a couple of guys who seemed to be doing just that at the dances I went to when I was younger. But would you want the spouse you would end up with that way?
Don’t try to get an agent the same way that guy sold wallets. For one thing, it usually doesn’t work that way with agents. For another thing, you probably won’t be happy with the agent you get. I know it gets said a lot, but you should spend MUCH more time researching agents, studying web sites about writing query letters, and polishing your approach than you spend sending out letters. Once you think you have it right, send out somewhere between 5 and 10 letters at a time. If you don’t get any requests. Rework the letter.
3) Do not send out your first draft. Or your second draft. It’s that simple. Yet people ignore this advice all the time. I know you are excited to get your book finished. And you should be. Go out to dinner. Call all your friends at 2 in the morning and scream, “I’m done!” Then explain you are not ending your life, just your book. You just finished writing a single project of x thousand words. Celebrate! You deserve it. But do not send it out to agents. I promise you that no matter how good of a writer you are, the story is not done. Sending out your story after the first draft is like waking up from a night’s sleep, sweaty, hair messed up, bad breath, and immediate going on a first date with the person of your dreams. I’m sure it works occasionally, but do you really want to chance ruining the perfect match because you stink? Do you want to turn off the agent of your dreams because part of your story stinks?
The month or two, or more, after finishing a story is the time to get as much feedback as possible. Find everyone who is saintly enough to read your work, send it to them along with some questions like: Are the characters believable? Did you follow the plot? Were you hooked by the first chapter? List any scenes or motivations that were unclear. Mark any sections where you felt tempted to skim with a red pen.
Get as much feedback as you can—setting your ego aside. This is not the time to explain yourself. This is the time to gather all the comments—good and bad—that you can.
Once you have all your feedback together, compare notes. Notice common threads. Come up with and editing plan. Yes, it may feel like you’ve slowed down the whole process. But trust me, you are on the moving sidewalk. Those people who are gloating over finishing their WIP in a month and sending it out to a hundred agents, will have received all of their rejections when you send out a polished manuscript and query letter that will generate interest.
I’m sure the people who skip the moving walkway get some benefit out of it. They definitely get more exercise. Maybe they get to the plane a second or two earlier. But most times not. And when they do get to their gate, they are tired, sweaty, (trust me I know, I usually end up sitting by them) and grumpy. By contrast, the people who study the gates, take the trains, walkways, and other tools designed to make getting from one part of the airport to another faster and less hassle, are happier, more rested, and far more likely to enjoy the flight ahead of them. Just remember that in the long run everyone ends up on the same plane. Be the passenger who does so wisely.