Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ready For Publication: How Do You Know?

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.


  1. Natalie - Thanks for tackling my question!

    I think learning to trust your gut is a fine art, like writing itself. I've had critiquers along the way encouraging me to publish and my gut reaction has always been "yes, but not yet". I know I still have a lot of polishing and learning to do, and I my gut is still saying "not yet", eventhough I'm getting closer.

    I guess I need to trust that the gut will sing a different tune when the time is right. Meanwhile, work work work.

    I think I'll be there when I can imagine my friends pulling my book off the shelf, and can know I won't have to cringe when they open it.

    Is that too much to ask? :)

    Thanks again for a great post!

  2. Awesome post, Natalie.

    I'm curious, once you started working w/Nathan, did you feel the guidance he provided was the icing on the cake, so to speak, of your figuring out what was missing in your feeling "done?"

  3. You have some really great posts Natalie! I will definitely be coming back to this one as I progress through my revisions.

    I think I'm going to create a link list on my blog of great posts on writing. Would it be okay if I link to this post?

  4. Gut feeling is so, so important. It's a very quick kiss of death to ignore the gut feeling. Even if that scene you're writing is structurally awesome and the lines of dialogue make you chuckle, but you know deep, deep down it isn't the least bit necessary, CUT IT. Or if you're writing for 30+ pages and feel the entire time that it just isn't right, that the story just doesn't flow like it should be flowing, STOP WRITING IT. I can't tell you how many times I've ignored my gut because I "wanted to get this part done" or I "knew what would be best for the characters." That always ends in frustration, because it always ends with me wondering why my story sucks. My gut was trying to tell me all along!

  5. Susan, no problem, thanks for asking:)

    Debra, all I can say is that Nathan helped me grow more than I can really describe. Of course it helped that he was an agent, but like any crit partner it was important that we "clicked." He got my stuff just like my crit group, but he had the experience to help more. That was why I trusted him—not because he was an agent.

    Valerie, go ahead:) I don't mind at all.

    Sara, soooo been there, hehe.

  6. I reread my last hundred pages for the first time in a few months, and WOW. It really stunk. So I pouted for a few days, and I'm back to editing. I had a very serious talk with the manuscript, and we're working together again.

  7. Great post, it's really all about following your gut and being patient. What I've learned is that this is a long process, so much longer than I thought 5 years ago.

    I also agree with taking a vacation from your work. Clean the house, play with the kids, or write something else. I think getting away from what you've been working on for a long time is the only way to go.

  8. Thanks for the answers! "Am I ready?" will be a burning question for me. From what I'm getting, it sounds like it might be better not to query your ohmygod #1 agent in the first round, just to see what the initial feedback is. Does that sound about right?

  9. I know I'm not ready yet. I know I have work still to do and I'm trying to pace myself that way. I think my current biggest hurdle is that I don't have the patience for myself to "be bad." I'm trying to get over it but when you know you can do better, it's hard to let a first draft BE a first draft.

  10. Natalie, oh how I know the feeling of thinking something is ready, then returning to it and staring in disbelief. :) This sure is a brutal process at times. But it also helps to hear that others go through the same grueling process -- and that it gets (sort of) easier at some point. Thanks for the inspiration. You're on a roll with these posts! Guess answering questions is a pretty good method for you. You did great!

  11. Fantabulous post!

    I'm finally at the "good enough" point and am working on climbing to the "great" level. It's a long process, but when it's done I want to be able to close the laptop and know that there's nothing more I can do with it than move commas.

  12. I agree that crit groups/betas are an important part of being ready to finally send queries. In the movie industry, the film editor never steps foot on set. This way, when the producer whines "You can't cut that! It took seven hours to get that crane into the cave!" the editor can unbiasedly tell him that it doesn't add to the story.

  13. "Crit is to get YOU thinking differently about your work."

    This is fantastic advice. I've never heard anyone put it this way, but it's absolutely true.

    It makes me feel better about your Air Pirates' crits, too, btw. I knew I wasn't going to go with your proposed resolution, but I also knew that the problem you had was a real one. It forced me to think of how to I wanted to fix it.

  14. Thank you so much for answering my question, Natalie! I'm printing out a few copies of my manuscript this weekend for beta readers. It's exciting (and scary) moving into this phase. I'm also looking forward to reading my manuscript from beginning to end and holding it in my hands!

  15. Oh, I'm excited for that moment I can shut my laptop and know it is how I want it.

  16. I SWEAR by my crit partner and my crit group. Do I always take their advice? No. Do I listen, and think about how I can make my books better? Absolutely.

    This came at just the right time--I haven't submitted in a year and a half because I didn't feel I had anything ready. I now have one novel that's as ready as it'll ever be (as in, if it's not accepted this time, I'm putting it away and moving on), one that still needs some work before I can even think of querying, and one that I'm working on for NaNoWriMo and therefore is just in the "get it down on paper, don't worry about quality!" stage.

    Your blog is a balm to this aspiring YA writer's soul. Thank you, Natalie!

  17. Great series of posts, Natalie!

    I hope you don't mind, but I linked them in my blog post yesterday.


  18. Thank you. This is exactly what I needed to hear.

  19. Thank you for this, too.

  20. Knowing when I'm really done has been difficult for me. You offer great advice and links. Thanks.

  21. I agree that crit groups/betas are an important part of being ready to finally send queries. In the movie industry, the film editor never steps foot on set. This way, when the producer whines "You can't cut that! It took seven hours to get that crane into the cave!" the editor can unbiasedly tell him that it doesn't add to the story.

  22. Natalie-

    I've been debating about whether or not my upcoming query deadline is realistic. I feel as though this post was MADE for me. I really needed this and truly appreciate you sharing your insights. Thank you! :)