Don’t Do What I Did – But If You Do. . . .

Don’t touch that – it’s hot.

I’ll bet your 3-year-old self didn’t listen. Mine didn’t. It hurt. And I cried.

Mom’s advice was based on experience. She learned the hard way that her mother was right. So did I. And I’ll bet you did, too.

That’s being human. Experience is our best teacher. No matter how often others try to help us learn from their mistakes, we’ll do the same thing. And then we tell others to learn from ours. And they don’t. The cycle continues.

The Book is Done! It’s Query Time!

You read it in every writer’s magazine. Every how-to-get-published book tells you the same thing. Agents warn us not to do it. Award-winning authors tell us they made this mistake with their first novels – many of which remain unpublished. Learn from us they say:

Don’t send queries until your book has been through so many rewrites and readers that your head is spinning. Then set it aside for a month or more and look at it with a fresh eye.

I took the advice to heart – most of it. I edited multiple drafts of Summer at the Crossroads. I had readers critique it, and I incorporated their comments. I’m lucky enough to know a professional editor. In addition to a thorough copy edit, she suggested dialogue revisions and plot points to consider. It was all good advice, and I did more rewrites.

As I did, I prepared my query letter and short synopsis. I researched agents who take mainstream novels with a “different” concept. And some of those agents accepted sample pages.

I took a deep breath and sent out some queries – twelve in all over the first few months of 2011. That’s not many, but it was enough to let me know something wasn’t right. No one asked to see more of the book. You could argue the problem was my “hook,” and it wasn’t working. Or I didn’t query the right agents, or enough of them. Maybe.

But through it all, I had a nagging feeling the book was too different for anyone to take a chance on it. So I set it aside and focused on completing a draft of Death Out of Time. When I sent that manuscript to my readers in October, I picked up Summer at the Crossroads and looked at it again.

And the colored pens came out. Why wasn’t there more action in my opening scene? Where did those passive sentences come from? Why were there so many adverbs and double adjectives?  [Note – this is my single-spaced working copy. The sample pages to agents were all double-spaced and formatted to specific guidelines.]

You see what happened, right? I never set it aside or looked at it with a fresh eye. I knew I was supposed to. But I had edited it so carefully and incorporated all those critiques. I’d done so many of the things we’re supposed to do. I didn’t need that “cooling off” period.

Don’t touch that. . . .

I have a new opening scene. Existing scenes have been revised and re-polished. Characters have had to open up more about their lives. The book is getting better. But it’s not done.

Will you learn from my mistake? Only time will tell. But before you query, put the book away for a month or more. Then read it again before you send it out.

But if you don’t wait, you’ll find time eases the sting of agents passing on your queries. When it does, look at your book again. Revise, edit again, but above all, if you do what I did – don’t give up on it or your writing. Learn from the experience. And keep going forward.

33 thoughts on “Don’t Do What I Did – But If You Do. . . .

  1. Even as I wait for my publisher’s editor to contact me, I pull up my manuscript, the one I thought I had tweaked for the last time, and find changes I want to make. I will wait until I hear from the editor, but I have come to believe a manuscript is really never finished. Improvements can always be made. Or at least they can in my case 🙂

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    • First things first – a belated congratulations on having your manuscript published! I think I can imagine how incredible that would feel.

      I believe one telling characteristic of good (and successful) writers is the recognition that a work is never perfect. There could have been a better word choice, a scene could have been tightened, someone should have caught that typo…. 😉

      I don’t think I’ll ever be fully satisfied with one of my stories, either. But I’m trying to make them as good as I humanly can.

      Can’t wait to see your book in print!

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  2. Excellent advice. It sounds like you have learned so much and there is light at the end of the tunnel! Best of luck to you. I can’t wait to brag about you!!

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    • Hope that day is coming before too long! Funny you should mention a tunnel – one will be in next Sunday’s post. It’ll definitely be lighter in tone : )

      PS – I have a Cindy in Death Out of Time. Don’t worry – she’s a nice character!

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  3. Hi JM,

    Thought I’d pop over and read your post on querying lit agents. You have obviously taken to heart all the advice that’s out there, and that is a really good thing. I especially love seeing what your page looks like after you went back to it!

    Very true about the wait period. It’s amazing what that distance and time off will show you about your work. I think you’re also mentally ready to admit there is more work that needs to be done after you take a break from it.

    Good luck with your publishing endeavors!

    Limebirdkate

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    • Hi Kate,

      Thanks for the visit and encouragement! I love the Limebird blog, and if I can find the time one of these days, I will spend it with your forum, too. If you all hadn’t won the Kreativ Blogger award before me, I would’ve nominated you 🙂 But I went with some folks who hadn’t received it yet.

      I think my sci-fi book, Death Out of Time, will be a more traditional sell. So maybe Crossroads can piggyback on it…. We’ll see. That page I used as illustration has probably got even more editing marks on it now….

      Best wishes again for your querying!

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  4. Great advice for everyone, whether it’s a novel, a short story or even an emotional letter – a cooling off period never hurts. My mum finished her first novel and got herself an agent and some feedback from publishers and now it’s finally ‘finished’ – 7 years later! Maybe that’s a bit TOO long, as a cooling off period, but neverthless it’s all the better for it…

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    • Congratulations to your mother! That must be a great feeling for her.

      Cooling off over the emotional letter is a great point, too, for everyone — not just writers. That’s one major disadvantage of email and instant messaging. It’s so easy to hit the ‘send’ key — and then regret it 5 seconds later.

      At least with the traditional post, you have to take the time to put the letter in an envelope, address it, put a stamp on it…. And in your case, who knows if the clerk at the post office will take it from you…. 😉

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  5. Great advice!Every manuscript needs cool off time. I would also add that every 6 months you should give it a revision because your writing skills make leaps every 6 months and you’ll catch things you’d never seen before.:)

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    • I like that revision advice! And I realize I’ve been practicing something like it. Writing “by the pants” as I do sometimes leads to an unexpected plot twist. So I’ll have to go back and tweak or revise existing scenes to incorporate it. And that usually leads to a full round of editing.

      Death Out of Time will definitely get some cool off time before I query it – hopefully to better results!

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      • It’s something I noticed with my writing. Each manuscript is better than the last one, which means I need to go back and revise that last one up to the new standard. And after six months, I can admit that maybe my novel isn’t as perfect as it once appeared to be.

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        • You’re learning with experience. I think that’s 90 percent of what goes into ultimately successful writers. Raw talent and good ideas can only take us so far. It’s learning how to improve (and doing it) and good work ethic that take us to higher levels.

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  6. Hmmm, good advice and difficult as well. The completion of that first novel must feel like such an achievement after all that hard work. You must want to give your brain-child a little nudge into the world and see how s/he fares. You’re not the first author to suggest a cooling period and won’t be the last! As someone nearing the end of their first draft, I’m bookmarking these posts and will come back to them later. Thanks!

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    • It is hard. When I had that feeling of “Yes! It’s ready!” this normally shy and modest girl did the unthinkable – she sent out queries. And to my amazement, I did it again, even after “passes” or non-replies.

      I want to wait for a quieter – maybe more mature – sense of completion for Death Out of Time.

      But through it all, I still enjoy the writing. And to me, that’s the most important thing!

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  7. Great advice. Your brain tends to get over-involved on a project and you need to step back and break that connection a bit (so you can see what’s actually there – not what you think is obviously there). Good luck with your quest (and yeah, stuff never seems completely “finished”)

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    • Very well-phrased! — see what’s actually there – not what you think is obviously there. We do get so involved with the story that we gloss over areas that aren’t as clear as we think. I’d bet all of us have had a reader either misinterpret something we wrote or be confused by something we thought was “obvious.”

      Our own brains need that step back so we can be more like a reader instead of the writer.

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  8. Wow, I’d never thought of a cooling off period. I am a very impatient person. Also, I hate editing. With a passion. Well, proper editing. The part where you reread and change I like. The checking grammar and punctuation and that? No fun. Partially because it isn’t my strength.

    Thanks for telling me about cooling things off, otherwise I may not have done it. 🙂

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    • I think cooling off is one of the hardest things for me to do. But when I’ve actually done it, and I’ve read over the manuscript later, I think, “Damn, all those people who say to do it were right!”

      Checking grammar and punctuation is a royal pain. I do it, but I also hired the editor I know to go through the manuscript, and I’ll do it again for the second novel. I don’t want to give an agent a reason to pass on the book.

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        • That’s a big consideration when you’re a student or new in the work force. One possibility would be finding a graduate student in English who would like to pick up some extra cash, but wouldn’t charge as much as a full-time freelancer.

          Or maybe you could swap for something you can do for them. I’ve got a friend who does great photo production for me, and I do genealogical research for her in exchange.

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          • That is a good idea! I think I may even know some grad students… A few even.

            I don’t think I have anything anyone would really want in exchange for such a huge job. 😦

            Thanks for the great idea!

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  9. I’m always impatient. I had a round of queries last year that gave me some really good feedback. I nixed many thousand words and the original first chapter. The result was a cleaner story. I’m getting ready to start my next round of agents, which includes two I pitched to at my last conference.

    To quote the best movie ever – ‘Never Surrender! Never Give Up!’ (Galaxy Quest – a must watch classic).

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    • Ah, the closest I got to agent feedback was “It sounds like an interesting idea, but not right for my list right now.” Hopefully things will be different when I shop the next novel — but not before it’s ready!

      Nixing those words and the original first chapter sure sounds familiar 🙂

      Fingers crossed for your next submissions! And I will never surrender or give up on these books!

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  10. it is always a good idea to set it aide for a time and have a fresh look. That’s how editors work. They are always looking at another’s work with fresh eyes. When we put aside a manuscript for sometime, I think we bring out our editor eyes…

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    • I think that’s a great way to look at the process – bringing out our editor eyes. Best for us to do it first (many, many times) before sending it out to an agent or editor.

      Congratulations on your upcoming publishing date!.

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  12. I am learning a lot from your experience. IMHO the fact you finished the book is a good thing! The tweaking–well, I agree we never think it is finished or quite done. Putting it aside for awhile works for me very well and I see the words with new eyes. I have not written a book and don’t know if I ever will but I think we can apply these basic insights to all we write. Good luck to you!!

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    • Hi Jeannie,

      Yes, that cooling off period is good for short stories, poetry, or anything we write. I’m amazed at times how what originally sounded like a fantastic sentence or paragraph when I wrote it later makes me wonder what I was thinking.

      Thanks for the follow!

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  15. Always a good reminder for a writer. I’m an impatient writer, wanting the first draft to be the “best.” I’m learning to take steps back from the work and then edit, edit, edit! I’m still plugging away on my first draft and needing a swift kick in the rear to keep going. A work is never finished. 🙂

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    • Hi, thanks for the follow! I’ll be checking out your blog, too, in the near future.

      I think even the most successful authors have that feeling about the first draft. But they’re successful (in part) because they know it isn’t the best. They step back, let others read it while they do something else, and then get back to it with round 2. Really good writers might be ready to publish after that. I’m not going to put myself in that category with my current works! I need more rounds than 2. But I am pushing myself to do as many as I need.

      But at some point, they are ready to publish. And every published authors finds things they would have changed…. 🙂 (At least the honest ones will admit it!)

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