Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Knowing When You're Ready

Hi, it’s Myra here. While I was browsing my Seekerville buds’ earlier posts trying to decide what to blog about today, I happened upon Patricia’s comment on Janet’s post yesterday. Patricia asks: “How does a relative newbie know when she's ready to submit? . . . At some point, don't you have to just get out there?”

We’ve all been there, wondering if our work is ready for editorial scrutiny (and hopefully a sale). I remember when I first decided to get serious about writing . . . and learned how much I didn’t know!

Brief history here: That was back in 1983, after I’d enrolled in the Writing for Children and Teenagers course at The Institute of Children’s Literature. I sent in my first lesson feeling super-confident. My story was great! My instructor was about to discover the next Judy Blume!

Then I got the assignment back and found out I’d done just about everything wrong. The biggest mistake? Multiple POV, with the mother as the main character (this was supposed to be a children’s story). Then there was the clichéd plot: new kid in town trying to fit in at her new school. The list went on and on.

But then I applied those lessons. I learned. I practiced. I improved. Pretty soon I realized my instructor was editing my stories with a lot more blue ink (which she used to mark the good stuff) than red ink (for the weak areas). And before the end of the course I had sold not one but two of my course assignments.

The short answer, Patricia (and anyone else grappling with this question), is that I don’t think we are the best judges of when our work is ready for prime time. Have you taken any writing courses? Do you have a critique group? Have you entered any contests yet? If so, what kinds of responses are you getting?

If not, investigate opportunities to get feedback on your work. Join professional organizations. ACFW. RWA. Connect with a strong critique partner. Enter a few contests--not necessarily with the expectation of winning or placing, but of getting two or three in-depth critiques from published or nearly published authors. Yes, judges’ opinions vary (often widely!), but wherever you see consistency, you can feel fairly confident the critiques are on target. And if even one judge’s opinion confirms a nagging suspicion you just didn’t want to admit to yourself, take it seriously.

Next, tear apart those critiques. Make charts of the strengths and weaknesses your judges noted. See what stands out. Then study books on craft that address your weaknesses, while you continue to practice and build on your strengths.

Eventually those critiques will start coming back with more “blue” than “red.” Your strengths will clearly outweigh the weak areas. But don’t expect to ever feel 100% ready, because a real writer never stops learning and growing. No matter how many times I rewrite and revise, I can always find something I can improve upon.

Still . . . with time, and practice, and perseverance . . . you’ll know. You’ll sense deep inside yourself when it’s time to kiss that “baby” goodbye and send it on its way to a (hopefully receptive) editor’s or agent’s desk.

And then start waiting and wondering all over again!


Janet Dean said...

Excellent advice, Myra! Bottom line each of us has to decide how we'll know when to send. That'll depend on who we are. If we at least think about whether our stories are ready and have the courage to put our work out there for feedback, we'll have a step up.

The rejections I got from editors rarely gave me much insight. And I didn't understand what the little they said meant. By reading craft books and entering contests, I learned the terms, the lingo, of writing.

Right now I'm revamping my second sold book per my editor's instructions. It's changing plenty. Is that easy to do? No. But, I'd better get used to it. Revision is a writer's reality.

Myra Johnson said...

That is so true, Janet. Writing is really all about revising! The thing is, you can't even start "getting it right" until you have those words on the page. And once you do, that's when (for me anyway) the real fun begins!

Melanie Dickerson said...

Good advice, Myra. You listed lots of great ways to get feedback and to improve your work. I think we all look back on things we wrote that we wish we hadn't sent in so early, but it's better to send it than to be paralyzed with fear. If I have a submission out, then there's always hope.

Mary Connealy said...

Okay, I've got to give credit where it's due.
I posted on a blog written by Christy Smith called F.A.I.T.H. and won a Starbucks card.
Remember me telling you ladies I'd never been to Starbucks? But now there's one near me...45 miles.
And I won a Yankee Candle too.
So here's her site:
Just so you know, there's a post today about an escaped RAT. My favorite. Okay a hamster, but still.
But it's a nice blog.
Perhaps I'll write my next blog post while lingering over fancy schmancy coffee, huh? Or be inspired by the beautiful aroma of the candle.
I can't wait.

Mary Connealy said...

Adn besides, Melanie, you have to get started growing that rhino hide. How can you do that without piles of rejections.
Best to get on with it. :)

You know, I may not know what I'm talking about. Take that into consideration.

Myra Johnson said...

Mary??? Doesn't know what she's talking about??? Never stopped her from saying it anyway. Gotta love that gal! But seriously. Rhino hide. Alligator skin. Whatever you want to call it, if you don't grow it quickly in this business, you'll never survive. That's why I recommend baby steps--submitting your work to supportive crit partners and gentle judges first (obviously not Mary). Build your strengths, and your confidence, before subjecting yourself to editorial rejection.

Melanie Dickerson said...

Well, I may not have your rhino hide, Mary, but I started growing my tough skin a few years ago. I've lost count of how many rejections I've gotten on the same ms. that has now finaled in two contests. Probably about 12 or 13 rejections. Though none of them were mean. I have gotten a few rough judges this past year (none of you guys, I'm sure) and I once had a critique group member tell me my chapter read like a travel log. Then I got accused by a judge of not knowing what my setting looked like, since I hadn't described it much. She suggested I go rent a movie in the same setting, so I could describe it better. Grr.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Melanie, I love the travelogue thing! That's great!

LOL at how that one must have felt, but only because it's been awhile. I wouldn't have laughed initially. I would have sympathized and empathized and strategized and all the 'izeds' you can possibly think of...

Then I'd have laughed behind your back...


And you know (though this WASN'T me, Connealy, I double-dog swear it) it's not bad advice. I've been to plenty of workshops that explain how to examine plot and setting and characterization via movie plots and devices.

Of course once you do that the next judge tells you that you weighed the entry down with senseless description and watered down your story line.

Judges are people with likes and dislikes. I love some description. I love to feel the setting in my bones, through emotions stirred by the characters.

But too much and you skip the page (s) and too little, you lose out.

And since I liked your stuff, Melanie, it's obviously got potential.

(She said with deep modesty and humility)


Patricia W. said...

Thanks Myra for answering my question. And for letting me know I'm heading down the right path. I've joined a critique group and have taken a number of writing workshops. I'm looking at contests as a way to get some good solid feedback to help me improve. (Of course, a win would be great and a sale would be even better!)

The biggest challenge for me right now is the revision process. I'm trying to find my revision rhythm, so to speak.

Janet Dean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Janet Dean said...

Patricia, revision rhythm has a nice ring to it. I'm trying to get into that right now. I shot some ideas back at you yesterday, too. Use whatever works for you.

Myra Johnson said...

A really interesting book I read on the revision process is called Revision: A Creative Approach to Writing and Revising Fiction, by David Michael Kaplan. I took his weekend workshop at the Iowa Summer Writers Festival several years ago. I like the way he stresses re-vision -- literally looking at your ms. with fresh eyes.

Deb Raney also gave an online workshop for ACFW on the revision process awhile back. Don't know if it's still in the archives or not.

Other helpful books are Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and Stein on Writing

Shirley Jump said...

Great advice!

I'd like to add to that--one of the best things I learned to do was to tear apart the work of published books. NOT the books written by the mega successful authors. They could write out their grocery list and have it published. Study the newer authors and debut authors -- essentially, your competition. Tear apart their work for construction, pacing, conflict, back story, characterization (I have a highlighter method I used way back when to analyze theirs). Then compare that to your work. Did you have WAY too much back story early on? Too little conflict? Did you take ten pages to get to the hero? Or is your pacing so slow, a turtle could run faster than your storyline? You have to be ruthless and honest with your own work.

Analyzing other people's work and being really clear headed about your own will teach you so much. And it's the last thing I did before I sold :-)


Myra Johnson said...

Thanks for popping over, Shirley. I'd love to know more about your highlighting method for analyzing published novels. At this stage, I'm willing to try anything to increase my chances of a sale!

Julie Lessman said...

Thanks for running with the baton on Patricia's question, Myra--great response! And for a second day in a row, I concur completely and am basically speechless. I guess I'm all talked out after having lunch with Camy and Cheryl on their stopover in St. Louis today! :)

Janet Dean said...

Hi Shirley! Looking at published books is a great suggestion.

Julie, What are Cheryl and Camy up to? How fun to have lunch together!

Sandra Leesmith said...

Hey Julie, How fun to have lunch with Camy and Cheryl. It is always so fun to connect with a fellow Seeker.

Myra, what a great topic. It is tough to know when you're ready. I'm glad you spoke about that because you gave good sound advice. Wish I'd received it when I started writing. I made so many mistakes. But you're right in saying that each day we write is another day of learning. Thanks.

Shirley Jump said...

Hi Myra (I think Blogger ate my comment the first time I posted back),

I don't have the Highlighter handout on my website (I can e-mail it to you if you want to e-mail me) but I do have a lot of other ones:


I was a slow learner myself -- I wrote 10 books in 8 years before I sold. But in the end, it was all worth it! :-)


Myra Johnson said...

One last thought on self-editing: Randy Ingermanson has been posting a series of blogs on the subject over at http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/blog/

ScrollSquirrel said...


I didn't know you were in The Institute of Children's Literature...I did that course too! Sounds like your first assignments were better than mine though. LOL!

Cheryl Wyatt aka Squirrel

ScrollSquirrel said...


My husband and I took Camy to the airport. We met Julie for lunch and eeked some prayers out of her. Had a wonderful visit.

I highly recommend writers' retreats like we did this weekend. Nice time of bonding and brainstorming.