As I start re-writing this article to put on my web site, I have nineteen novels in print with ten more accepted and in the pipeline. Before that I had ten non-fiction books published, and I have two how-to books about writing published and going into several editions. I’m not boasting, just trying to establish my credentials, because I want to share with you my best piece of advice to unpublished fiction writers.
When I talk about self-control, I’m not asking you to stop writing, or even to slow down. I’m not saying your writing stinks, either. I’m just saying that most of the unpublished writers I meet are making the same fundamental mistake. They are submitting their manuscripts far too soon – and quite often too soon by a matter of years. In fact, they are still at the enthusiastic amateur stage.
Getting a novel published by a reputable commercial publisher is at least as hard as getting on your country’s Olympic team. And just as athletes take years to train themselves up to peak form, it takes years to train a writer. In fact, I wonder if anyone can train writers or whether they have to train themselves – by actually writing a lot.
WHY I DEVELOPED THIS THEORY
I run quite a few workshops for writers and enjoy them very much. When my students tell me about their story ideas, I can honestly say that most of them sound great. Clearly, it’s not the ideas which are letting people down.
A few years ago I revamped an old synopsis to sell a new novel to my publisher. The synopsis was based on an old manuscript which I’d written a decade previously and I remembered the story clearly. This manuscript only needed, I thought smugly, a bit of re-writing and some professional polish. When I started re-read it, however, my heart sank. My basic tale was still good, but it was placidly written, overloaded with telling about instead of showing events, and often had basic information repeated several times. In short it was an amateur piece of work.
I spent four months re-writing it. What I ended up with (my Anna Jacobs novel JESSIE) was the same story with the same characters, but it had more sub-plots and a whole lot more pace and excitement! It was now of a professional standard.
That made me think long and hard about what I had done wrong in the years I was getting rejected. Quite simply, I had fired my gun too soon. I wasn’t polished enough as a writer and shouldn’t have been submitting yet. Oh, there were good patches here and there, and my story ideas were good, but there was not the necessary quality from start to finish.
Here it comes, then, the advice which makes my students gasp and shake their heads and say no, no, no, they couldn’t possibly do that.
Complete your first novel (or your current novel if you’ve been writing for a while), revise and polish it madly, then set it aside for at least a year. In the meantime, write another novel, preferably two, then pull your first novel out of the cupboard and re-read it. You’ll immediately see how to improve it and you’ll probably be amazed you ever thought it ready to submit. Repeat this prescription until publication occurs.
PROOF OF THE PUDDING
This is what happened when I passed on that advice to a friend just after I’d worked out my theory. First, it took the combined persuasive power of myself, my eloquent husband, and her loving and supportive husband to persuade her not to send off her manuscript straight away.
Her rationale was ‘But it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.’ It was indeed her best effort, but it still wasn’t good enough.
With much grumbling she set it aside and started on another story. After three months, she positively could not wait another minute to re-read her manuscript, so she sneaked a peek without telling us. A couple of days later, I got an excited phone call. ‘How did I ever think that manuscript was ready to submit?’ she asked.
She began re-writing. Two months later, she finished the rewrite and felt really proud of what she had done. ‘I’m going to submit it now,’ she said. ‘Thank you so much for holding me back.’ We three supporters got together and forced her to hold back for another three months.
Bursting to send it off, she lasted only one month. She had a quick read through the last two chapters, convinced she was right and we were wrong – and she was so horrified she read through the whole manuscript. ‘It’s not ready,’ she moaned. ‘I can see all sorts of things I can improve.’
I wish I could tell you that the manuscript has now been published, but she started up her own business soon after that and life became too hectic for her to work on her story. However, she kept producing training notes, put them together and made them into a management resource book, which has been published.
While it was being written, she kept saying to me with a grin, ‘It’s all right. You don’t need to nag me. I’m going to put it aside for a while now and revise it later!’
THAT VITAL UNDERSTANDING
One of the hardest things for writers to do is get enough distance from their work to judge it objectively. But self-control leads to quality control, and this is an overstocked market you’re trying to break into, my friends. So you have to find a way to do it.
Published writers continue to refine that vital understanding about quality with the help of their editors. But for new writers it’s the chicken and the egg situation. How do you develop that ability to assess quality before you’re published?
That’s where my advice comes in. Try it and see. After all, you don’t want to waste those gorgeous ideas of yours, do you? You do want to do them justice, don’t you? And you do want to get published! I’ll confess that in my early days I did many things wrongly myself – except for doing a great deal of writing and rewriting. But I had no one to offer me any advice and at first I didn’t even know that how-to books existed. I can still remember the supreme joy of completing my first novel – and I remember how sure I was that the publishers were going to snap me up and I was going to become famous overnight. (Yeah, yeah, I know! How na’ve can you get?)
And actually, it is a big achievement to finish a novel, so any writers who have got that far can congratulate themselves. But for the vast majority of writers, that’s only the first step towards becoming a professional writer.
FINALLY . . .
Go and try out my theory! Gather up all your self-control and hold back. I dare you!