Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Belief in Your Work

I got into a debate the other day with a writer who submitted a stack of queries for a manuscript she has not finished. This writer has NO publishing credits at all, but wants to write a novel. She wrote five or six chapters, and now she’s querying to see if it’s “worth continuing” or if she should drop it and work on something else instead.

I’ve posted numerous entries about the importance of finishing first and having your work in the best shape possible before querying as you build your track record. Once you have a proven publishing history and publishers know that you can meet deadlines and sell books, you’ll be able to approach them with an idea, get an advance, sit down and write the book.

But when you’re still unknown, it is rare. It does happen sometimes, but it is rare. There are thousands of other writers polishing their work first. Why should an agent or editor take a chance on an unfinished work by an unknown author? Many, many writers never finish projects they start. Why should agents and editors take a chance on you?

By giving you a contract, even for a finished work, they’re taking a risk. So you, as a writer, have to be up to the challenge, by having the work in the best possible shape to catch their attention, and then working with your agent and editor to make your book the best it can be, and then working with the marketing department to sell as many copies as possible, so that you get a better contract next time around. Thus builds a career.

If you do not have the materials ready when an agent or editor asks for them, no matter how polite they are when you ask for more time, you’ve labeled yourself as “unreliable” and that’s an enormous hurdle to overcome. If an agent wants to see a partial in response to the query, it should be on its way by return mail, or, at the latest, within forty-eight hours. The same with a full. Saying, “I need two more months to finish it” already sends warning signs.

The phrase “worth continuing” particularly caught my attention, because if you don’t believe in your work, why should an agent or editor who has never met you before believe in it? If you don’t think it is worthwhile, if you aren’t your work’s greatest champion, how can you possibly send it out into the world?

That doesn’t mean believing every word is sacrosanct and refusing agent and editor suggestions to improve the work. It also doesn’t mean holding on to it for years and years, and overdoing the revisions because you’re afraid to let it go.

One of the most important skills a writer needs to develop is the ability to look at the work with some level of objectivity. You will never be able to be completely objective. But you can put it aside between revisions and work on other pieces. That way, you come back to it and read it as though you were a regular person who bought it in a bookstore.

If you don’t believe a project is “worth continuing”, work on something in which you can believe. Early in your career, even if you’re unsure about a project, finishing becomes very important – unfinished projects will hang over you and drain your energy, so try to finish everything. Then put it aside, work on something else. Go back to the initial project and look at it with fresh eyes. If you still don’t like it, retire it. If it looks like it just needs a bit more work, take it out again and work on it.

As a writer, nothing is every wasted. Everything is useful. But you must put the craft into it as well as the art. And you can’t rely on strangers to give you a sense of worth in your work. It has to come from your belief in your work and expand outwards. And not from a place of ego, but from a place, deep in your soul, of conviction.


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