What Are You Waiting For?


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





19 comments to What Are You Waiting For?

  • First — YEA (boots stomping, pompoms shaking) DAVID!
    I am so excited for you! Your photos add so much to this site, and you are far more talented than you give yourself credit for. Whoowhoo!

    Ahem…((Stepping back into my writer persona. Smooths writerly suit jacket and pats hair. [Not really. I’m still in my PJs, but it reads better.]))

    David said:
    >You have to be careful, though, that you don’t overwork a manuscript.

    That is so easy to do.
    Like you, I have a msctp under the bed. It’s been there for 20+ years. My first novel. It’s been rewritten what feels like 100 times over the years. When I finish my current WIP rewrite I’ll pull it back out and see what it looks like. I may rework it yet another time from where I am now and what I now know. Maybe I’ll submit it my fantasy agent and try to sell it to a large house. (My mystery agent poo-poo’d it long ago.) Or maybe I’ll let a small house have a go at it. I’ve rewritten it so many times. But I’ll do something with it even if I just read it and shove it back in the dark. It’s worse than the size 5 jeans I took a decade to toss. I just can’t let it go.

  • Heh! Yeah, I’m reminded of something on TV I watched recently where someone was talking to rock musicians about stage fright and whether you ever get over it and all of the people they talked to, including Ozzy Osborne, said it never goes away. They had asked him if he still gets stage fright and he pretty much said, every f’n time. Even he said, and I’m very loosely paraphrasing because he used a lot more F words in it, that if you’re truly great, the stage fright will never go away, because it’s the stage fright that pushes you to do the best job you can. Stage fright is basically your own mind worrying about whether people are going to think you suck. It makes you try your best to keep that from happening. Sort of the same thing with the writing fears. It’s just pushing past them and taking the leap that can be the tough.

    I do have some fears that I’ll get rejected, that an editor won’t like my writing as much as other people do, but I think I’ve gotten past the paralyzing fear of sending something out. I actually did send a couple shorts out, but one came back undeliverable and another never came back because the companies I’d sent to evidently fell apart just at the same time I’d sent the short stories out. How’s that for ill luck?

  • Heh. I have a short piece of fiction that’s just about ready to go out. I’ve published nonfiction in two entirely different areas, but fiction is much harder to release. (I write this while procrastinating on a nonfiction piece that’s a year overdue, so I could have that backwards.)

  • I’m waiting for my internal editor stop saying add more descriptions to the settings. lol

  • Good luck on the photos, David! *crosses fingers*

    The most important thing to keep in mind is that your book is never going to be perfect.

    So true. My book went through two rewrites before Tor accepted it. Should have been perfect. And yet, the morning of the day it came out, I was lying in my bed wide awake, wishing I could change a couple of scenes. Yikes!

  • Oops, I hit “submit” before I meant to…

    Nevertheless, I’m not above the stage fright that comes with letting others read my work…That fear never really goes away; not entirely at least.

    It doesn’t. I’ve been dancing for seven years for audiences of all kinds, and I know exactly what I’m doing when I step onto a stage. It doesn’t matter though; in the moments before I go on, every single time, I panic. I can’t remember the steps, can’t even remember what dance I’m supposed to perform. But then the music starts and I stop thinking and just dance the dance, and somehow it all turns out fine. 😀

  • Thanks, Faith. I appreciate the support. I’m looking forward to getting my pics up on my website so that I can show everyone what I’ve been taking recently. Yes, overworking is too easy to do. I’m afraid that the book I’ve been trying to sell for so long, which is in its fourth or fifth incarnation now is getting there. Better to start from scratch than keep on going over it. It’s like a piece of wood furniture that has been refinished too many times. After a while you lose the good grain that made you love the thing in the first place.

    That stage fright is a valuable thing, Daniel. The fear that maybe this book will be the one that proves to everyone that I can’t actually write is a great motivator to make this book better than everything that’s come before. I used to perform music, and that fear, along with the adrenalin rush that came with it, made every performance special.

    Phiala, I agree that fiction is different. There’s often more emotion in it, more passion, and therefore more vulnerability. I never worried about letting people read my dissertation (perhaps because I knew that no one in his or her right mind would choose to) the way I have about letting people read my novels and my short fiction.

    Wade, you should definitely listen to your internal editor to a point, but if yours is anything like mine, he’s a fickle SOB who will lead you astray as often as not….

    Misty, thanks for the good wishes. Now uncross your fingers, dear. You need to type… Perfection ought to be an aspiration, but not an expectation. We’re human after all, and our humanity, which prevents us from being perfect, also gives the charm and the emotional weight to what we write. And yes, I’ve had that on-stage experience, too. I’d forget how a song went right up until the moment I stopped thinking and just started playing.

  • Maybe it’s not a good sign that I have no problems posting my photos on my blog without being worried about the quality. 😉

    I spend more time polishing my writing and I even go back to the snippets I have online and edit them sometimes, and there are days I think I’m a hack who writes tripe and no one will ever publish anything I’ve written (which isn’t true, I have sold a short story). On better days I think I’ll manage to produce something readable, and I suppose those will be the days I’m going to send novel queries out.

    And then lie awake and worry that the agent will laugh at the crap I sent him. 😉

  • David, I think with dissertations and suchlike, the difference in surroundings makes a huge difference. There’s a cohort of grad students, all writing, all sharing their work. It just _is_, and everyone does it. There’s some agony, but by and large the process of writing, reviewing, submitting is unremarkable in its familiarity. Fiction, in contrast, is more often done without that kind of support group and expectation of completion. Grad students are abnormal if they don’t write and present their work; the rest of the world is abnormal if they do write fiction, let alone share it.

    And you are so right – the 24″ iMac rocks!

  • Gabriele, I know that so some extent you were being funny, but there’s a lot of truth in what you wrote. There are days when we’re confident and days when we’re not, and its a great idea to take advantage of those good days. And yes, even after the manuscript goes out, the doubts might linger and you’ll entertain thoughts of breaking into your local post office.

    Phiala, good point about grad school and the differences. That’s where having a writing group can be so helpful, not only for the writing process, but also in urging one another to submit and overcome the fear. And yeah, I love my new ‘puter….

  • Very cool, David. I wish you lots of luck with your exhibit. I like to think I’m fairly humble when if comes to my writing. I don’t believe my writing sucks, but it’s another matter to believe it’s publishable and good enough for other folks to want to read. I have no real issue with putting my work out there for people to read. I value the feedback. I know I can always be better, and I can’t do that in a vacuum. When I send out my queries, I expect to get rejected. Not because I don’t believe in my story. I like my stories. No point in writing them really if you don’t. But I realize how tough this industry is and just how absurdly difficult it is to get your foot in the door. Most of the time it has little to do with the writing at all. So many other factors contribute to rejection that you can’t take it personally. I never take rejection from agents as a rejection of my writing. They have to love what you write in order to sell it, and finding that connection, no matter how good you are, is just plain hard. I think writers in general would be better off if they took a more realistically pessimistic view on the whole process. The simple fact of the matter is that 99 point whatever percent of the time, agents/editors aren’t going to request. You can only keep writing and trying to get better and hope you hit that serendipitous intersection of talent, timing, and luck that one needs in order to see their book hit the shelves.

  • Thanks, Jim. I think you’ve given voice to a good philosophy here. You’re being realistic without being overly pessimistic. “That serendipitous intersection of talent, timing, and luck that one needs….” Yes indeed. I believe that any pro who doesn’t point to at least a bit of luck in explaining his or her success is lying to him/herself and everyone else. Of course talent plays a role. But I know that I was incredibly lucky to get my first book published. I’d like to think that I’ve made the most of the opportunity, and that once I got in the door, my book sold itself. But it’s all about getting that opening, and my opening had everything to do with timing and luck. Great comment.

  • mikaela

    I haven’t started submitting yet, since I am not sure if I should aim at magazines or e-book publishers.. I have the policy that the worst I can get is a rejection.

  • That’s absolutely right, Mikaela. A rejection is the worst that can happen. I won’t lie and say that they don’t hurt at all, because they do hurt, even for us seasoned veterans. But it’s a small hurt and well worth it when the acceptances start coming in. Good luck!!

  • Once we do get to the point of sending out our Heart & Soul… oops, I mean our book. Should we try sending it to a small publisher/magazine/anthology first? Or should we aim high first with submission to major publishers, and then if all else fails, submit to the small publishers last?

  • Lol, Mark. And a great question. My advice would be to aim high first. When I send out a short story, I usually send it to the best market first, though I’ve never managed to sell a story to that particularly magazine. Usually I then work my way down a list to other markets that are slightly less exclusive. There’s nothing wrong with going to the smaller market first, but it does limit you, and you may always wonder if you could have sold it to a major house. So aim high. As Mikaela said, the worst that can happen is that you’ll get a rejection letter.

  • Mark, there are great reasons for submitting to the smaller mags – more chance of an acceptance since there’s less competition, good practice for working with an editor, and depending on the mag, possible good attention from critics who read the smaller ‘zines. On the other hand, the pay is minimal (or nonexistent) and possibly only fourteen people will ever read your story.

    I’ve published stories in several very small mags, and the thrill of seeing my work in print far outweighed the lack of payment. But I was submitting to the big names at the same time.

    And I just realized you’re talking about your book, not a short story. *headdesk* So in THAT case, I’d say submit to an agent first. Impress him or her, score their representation and let him or her send your book to the major publishers. Sure, you can sell a book without an agent’s help, but it’s soooo much easier with one.

  • Errr… I meant short stories too. Sorry Misty! Thanks for the adivce anywho.

    Thanks for great advice, David. (as usual) *grin* I think aiming high is a good idea. The first story I EVER submitted went straight to Asimov’s. It got shot down, and crashed and burned on impact; but I figured that if I was going to get rejected, then it best be by a high end publisher. *laugh*

  • I think that was definitely the right way to go, Mark. Next time Azimov’s might just buy your story. Misty has a point — I certainly had no intention of denigrating the smaller markets. They publish great work and they’re often more willing to take a chance on a controversial or unconventional story than the bigger markets would be. But if you’re ambitious, they might not be the way to go, at least at first.