I'm going to attempt to answer the impossible today. Hey, I like a challenge, what can I say? But I'm probably going to fail in some measure, so I'm counting on you guys to fill in the gaps.
In my post, My Book Is "Good Enough," I talked about some of my regrets over submitting my work too soon and the mentality that led me to do that. I never put in as much work as I knew I should have. This led to some very awesome questions.
Corinne Bowen asked: How and what were you thinking/feeling when you knew you were ready?
This probably sounds lame, but my thought was very simple, "Oh, I'm ready to do this for real." It was actually after a month of not writing. I opened Word again—now having time to distance myself from my work. I read the first page of the book I thought was perfect, and to my horror it really wasn't even close.
I stared at the screen, completely mortified. I'd sent this project to over 70 agents. This was my best book—it was going to be my debut! I had worked the hardest I'd ever worked, and it wasn't enough. I knew in my gut it wasn't enough. I didn't know how to fix it, but I definitely knew that I didn't have the skill yet as much as I might have had talent.
I'd always hoped raw talent might be enough, but in my gut I knew it wouldn't be. After looking at this once-perfect project, I was finally ready to learn. Instead of pursuing publication like that was the most important thing, I decided I needed time to become a better writer. More practice and critique and experience. So I opened a new document and started a new book (Sealed).
And when I finished the book, it was the first time I didn't feel the need to get my book "out there." I knew it needed work. I was okay with that. I wanted to take the time to make it incredible. It was fine if that meant a year or two or three.
It was only after this change in mindset that opportunities opened up for me, ones that would teach me what I so wanted to learn: how to be a better writer.
Some people don't need all that drama to figure this out. I'm sure a lot of you are already there. I've met some writers who are completely honest with themselves—they know they aren't ready and they pace themselves accordingly. They haven't queried a soul, and yet they trust that voice inside that says they still have a lot to learn. Then one day they know, and they go for it.
It seems like a small thing, this whole being open to learning and change, but it's an essential mindset for a future published writer. You have to be okay cutting things, working with others on your story, seriously taking advice from professionals. You gotta quell the inner diva (if you have one). At least that's what made me mentally ready for publication.
Susan Quinn asked: I'm eager for the learning and the edits and the revisions. My problem is I'm not sure I can see the difference between "good enough" and "great".
I know it when I see it in others, but it's so hard to be objective about your own work (which, of course, is why we have critiquers).
So, how do you know?
This is where it gets hard, Susan, because it sounds like you've hit that "mental readiness" I just talked about. But being mentally ready doesn't mean you are there yet! I'm not gonna lie, it's frustrating. It IS hard to know where you're at. And as you see serious improvement in yourself, that desire to join the query war grows stronger. You run the risk of jumping the gun yet again.
Seriously, if I wasn't doing revisions with a prospective agent during that "growing period," I am positive I would have jumped the gun yet again. I knew I needed to improve, but I really had no clue just how much.
But there were some things that helped me stay focused:
The Gut Feeling
Be super honest with yourself—you know where you're at as a writer. You don't have to tear yourself up about it either, because like I said yesterday skill has no bearing on talent.
Deep in your gut there's this feeling about your skill level. When you read a spot in your book and feel that glimmer of "I'm a GENIUS," that's a gut feeling. When you read another part and feel that "Wow, this is epically BAD," that's a gut feeling.
It's best if you have distance from your work—gut feeling works better then.
Every time I revised a project, I would feel proud of what I'd done. I was truly happy about the improvements I'd made. But then there was this...feeling.
"It's not done yet."
I didn't know what else I could do, but I could just feel there was something still not completely right. So I was never very surprised when I had to edit more. As frustrating as it was at times, I was okay with it because the book always got better. And the edits always got me excited about the project all over again.
I think many writers are afraid to trust their gut—especially when their gut is saying it needs more work and they don't yet know what that work is. This is when you must go outside yourself.
The Crit Group
No aspiring writer is complete without a crit group. I'll try and do a whole post on finding a good one (since I've had that question asked several times), but today I'll just say FIND ONE. You need writers to read your work. Sure, family and friends are fun too, but they might not have the skill to really help you.
Having your work evaluated sucks, but it's necessary for improvement. We are so close to our books sometimes we don't see what's missing. In our heads the story is complete and perfect, but the execution may not be effective and we don't even know it.
The major thing to remember about crits is that you don't have to take the advice. Crit is to get YOU thinking differently about your work. There have been many times where my crit partners have brought up issues and suggested things I didn't think worked. BUT. It made me realize that there was an issue—and I figured out how I wanted to fix it.
Your crit partners can also give you a good idea about how close you're getting to "finished." I only do a couple betas at a time, so I can gauge how well I've fixed things in further drafts. I'm a firm believer in several beta rounds, not just one.
But ultimately, your crit partners don't really know when you're "ready." If you're hoping they'll tell you, don't. Especially if no one in your crit group is published, how would they really know? It's a little different if you have a few honest, published friends, but it still isn't a guarantee.
This is usually when people start querying, and it might be time, but be honest with yourself and that gut feeling. There are other ways to snag professional/stranger opinion without going on a query spree. It wouldn't hurt to see if you could get some preliminary opinions, just in case you're not quite there yet.
Evil Editor posts first pages and asks people to finish them off. He also offers to heckle your query. It's a good opportunity to see what unbiased strangers think of your work.
Authoress Anonymous holds Secret Agent contests, where a real live agent comments on your first 250 words and says if they're hooked or not. Others offer up their crits as well.
Keep your eyes out for other agents holding contests—there is always so much to learn even if you don't win. There are also conference workshops, I'm told. And there are surely opportunities in your community, perhaps taking a writing class at a community college.
But if you feel it is time to query, take it in chunks. Don't send 20 the first week. Send a smaller number and see what the feedback is. If partials are requested, wait for the feedback on those. If it's not favorable, that might mean you still have issues to resolve. Eventually you will find a place where you are happy with your work, not just satisfied.
For me, the first time that ever happened wasn't that long ago—September 2009. I'd finished yet another revision. When I sat back and shut the laptop, I didn't think "Hmm, there might be something else I missed." That time, deep in my bones, I knew.
It was done.
Of course there are probably typos. Of course there are little things I can tweak. But when I think of that book, the story is exactly how I originally pictured the idea. The words aren't a vague representation of the vision in my head—they say precisely what I want them to, create the picture I was trying to paint all along.
And that's how I know the book is more than good enough. I know it's great, and now I just have to wait for others to see that.