Over the weekend I entered three of my photos in a national photography contest. I had been thinking about doing it for some time — in fact, I’ve considered entering one contest or another for a couple of years now, but this was the first time I actually did it. Today I’ll be submitting three pieces to a local art show that opens at the end of the week, and I’m currently framing and matting picture for a spring festival at which I’m to be the featured artist. I am incredibly intimidated by all of these and more than once have thought of canceling my appearance at the festival and skipping the exhibit. Why? Because showing my work to other people scares me. I’m not sure my photos are good enough. Sometimes I look at them and love what I see; other times I think they’re amateurish and cliched.
Does any of this sound familiar? I have to admit that there are still times when I feel exactly the same way about my writing, although it doesn’t happen very often any more. It used to happen with every book, every story. Nevertheless, I’m not above the stage fright that comes with letting others read my work. Faith mentioned a week or two ago that I had sent her the opening page or two of my newest book, hoping for a bit of feedback. This was back when she was doing posts on openings and various ways to approach them, and I emailed her to ask if I could send her a short passage. She was kind enough to say yes.
But I was terrified. Seriously. After she told me to send the pages I very nearly wrote her back to say that I’d changed my mind. She’s a wonderful friend, and I trust her judgment implicitly. She’s also a terrific writer and I was afraid that she’d read these rough pages and realize that I was a hopeless hack who had no business being published by the National Inquirer much less Tor Books.
We’ve talked about this before here at Magical Words, but I believe it’s worth repeating. That fear never really goes away; not entirely at least. I know that many writers who are just starting out grapple with it every day, and I’d love to tell you that you’ll get over it eventually, but that would be a lie. Our books, while clearly intended for a broader audience, are intensely personal. Given that we pour our emotions, our experiences, our passions into their creation, how could they be anything less? They are also works of art, and as such, are bound to be received differently by every person who reads them. Some people will love them; some will be unmoved; and still others might truly hate them. That’s to be expected, not that the expectation makes the reality of a bad reaction any easier to face.
So how do we overcome this fear? How do we know when it’s time to send a book out, lumps and all? I have no freakin’ idea. The answer is different for every writer. I feel more comfortable making that judgment about my own books now than I did ten years ago, but no one can help you reach that comfort zone; you have to get there on your own.
That said, let me offer a few pieces of what might pass for wisdom among the less discriminating…. The most important thing to keep in mind is that your book is never going to be perfect. I don’t care how good you are, no book is perfect. And the editors and agents who read it understand this. This is not to say that your manuscript shouldn’t be clean. Typos, misspelled words, and other errors of that nature indicate sloppiness and a lack of professionalism. But getting plot and character and worldbuilding perfect, particularly on a first draft and PARTICULARLY on a first novel is just not possible. So stop killing yourself with rewrites. Yes, revising and editing are important, and we talk about them quite a bit here at MW. You have to be careful, though, that you don’t overwork a manuscript. It’s possible for a book to be worked to death so that while it’s polished to a high gloss, it no longer has the passion and the raw emotion that a book sometimes needs.
My second piece of advice is a bit more difficult to convey. Basically it’s this: Rejection hurts, but it can also be incredibly helpful. No one likes to hear bad news from an agent or editor. “Acceptance good, rejection bad” seems like a pretty good rule of thumb. But a rejection that includes even brief comments about what didn’t work can be enormously helpful in fixing the book and then selling the manuscript to the next editor or agent on your list. And perhaps more important, sometimes rejection of one piece allows us to move on to the next. I have mentioned before that I have a novel that I love that’s been rejected again and again. After its last rejection, I finally said to myself (and to my agent), “Enough.” I love this book, but it’s not working for others who read it and I have to earn a living. So I put that book aside, fully intent on returning to it eventually for extensive rewrites and then resubmission. And I got to work on my New Shiny, which I love, and which I believe will sell, quite possibly in the next month or two. I wouldn’t have been able to do that without that last rejection. The editor who said no doesn’t know this, but he/she did me a great favor.
Finally, let me offer this little tidbit: No one ever sold a first novel without sending it out. It would be nice if the lead editor at Roc or Daw or Tor were to show up at your door and ask if you happen to have a book to sell, but it ain’t going to happen. You want to sell your book? Then send it out. I want to see my photos in print in a major photography magazine. It probably will never happen for me, but it definitely wouldn’t happen if I kept the images hidden on my computer or in my house. So I pushed past my fear and I sent them out. You can do the same with your current novel or with that short story that you’ve had lying around for a couple of months but have been afraid to send out. It’s not ready, you say? Fine. Give yourself until the end of this month to rework the rougher spots, and then send it. The worst that can happen is that it comes back to you and have to try again. It might come back with comments that help you improve it. Or it might not come back at all. You might get a contract and a check instead. Now wouldn’t that be cool? Of course it would. But it can’t happen until you take that first step. What are you waiting for?
David B. Coe