January 11th, 2012


Sharing Your Work

It's a new year and time to get back to the every-other-week writing posts. For those who are new here, every other Wednesday I tackle writing topics. (You can also subscribe to these posts via e-mail.) I'm open to questions or topics you'd like to see me address.

I have a reader question this week: How do you bring yourself to show your work to others or even submit it to editors and agents?

Letting others see your work can be scary. Writing is intensely personal. You've poured your heart and soul onto those pages, and that can make you feel like you're giving the world a window into your inner being that makes you very vulnerable. With a first book, in particular, there's a real high that comes with finishing. In that moment, your book has limitless possibilities. You imagine agents fighting to represent it, publishers throwing huge sums of money at it, you see the book cover, and you then see piles of copies at bookstores. You imagine the bestseller lists and the crowds at your booksignings. You dream about the movie deal and meeting your current Hollywood heartthrob (who's starring in the film) at the red-carpet premiere, then starting a hot romance and walking the red carpet together at the Oscars, where the movie based on your book is up for all the awards. But there's a lot of fear under those fantasies because you know that you can only maintain that perfect fantasy world if no one else sees the book. The moment you get feedback, reality will intrude. Someone might not like it. Agents and editors may reject it. It may not even get published, and if it does, it might bomb. Reviewers and readers may hate it.

So don't let anyone see it -- not at first, anyway. It's only in TV, movies and comic strips where an author types "The End," rips the page out of the typewriter or off the printer, sticks the manuscript in a box, puts it in the mail and then gets a contract and a check while he's still at the mailbox. When you've first finished a book, you can't be at all objective about it. So put it aside for a while -- at least a month -- and go do something else. Work on that Inconvenient Midpoint Idea that popped into your brain to distract you when you were in the middle of this book. Write a short story or an article. Catch up on your reading, TV shows and movies. Read how-to books on the aspects of writing that you found challenging with this book. Catch up with the things you may have let slide while you were writing, like housework, hobbies or your friends and family. In short, try to forget about your book and fill your head with other stuff. Then take another look at it. If you still think it's the most brilliant thing ever, put it away again because you're not yet ready. Not that you have to hate the whole book, but at this point you should be able to spot things that need to be fixed.

After you've done another draft, then you can start showing it to people. If this is really, really scary to you, start with someone who is likely to love everything you do, like your mom or a good friend. You're not looking for real feedback, just getting over the fear of someone else reading your work by starting with something safe. Then you may be able to branch out. Show it to a friend you can trust to be honest with you -- the kind of friend who'll tell you that those pants you're trying on make your butt look big when you go shopping together. You don't necessarily need a detailed critique from this friend, just an honest opinion about whether or not it works and what your friend likes or dislikes about it. Depending on how you work, you may want to find a writing group that does critiques, look for a critique partner or find an online writing community where you can submit work for critique. This kind of feedback not only helps your writing improve, but it also helps you toughen up and get used to hearing negative things about your work. You also learn to discern which suggestions to take and which to ignore, which will come into play when you're dealing with an editor. Another good way to get feedback is to enter manuscript contests, where your entry is anonymous and judged by published authors and industry professionals. Be careful with these, though, because there are a lot of scams out there. Look for contests run by writing organizations and be wary of contests where publication is the prize because that often sticks you with unfavorable contract terms.

Then it's time to put it out there into the world. These days, there are a lot more options than the traditional route of trying to find an agent or taking your chances with a publisher's slushpile. You can now publish your work yourself online, but check your motives about that. If you're doing that because you want to avoid rejection from publishers, then you're setting yourself up for a meltdown when the reader reviews start coming in. If you're doing that because you don't want any mean old editor to change one word of your precious manuscript, then your'e setting yourself up for failure. A self-published book still needs to be edited by a professional because you'll be competing against a lot of other books of professional quality.

I may be a dinosaur, but I would still recommend at least testing the waters of traditional publishing before you self publish. You never know what reception you'll get unless you try, and going through the submission and rejection process helps you develop the perspective and the thicker skin that will prevent those author meltdowns that tend to go viral, when the author can't believe a reviewer would dare say anything negative. Submitting to agents and editors can also help give you a sense of where your book fits into the market. If you get form rejections, then it's possible that there's nothing too special about your book that would allow it to stand out even as self-published book. If rejections criticize your writing or specific aspects of the story, it may not be ready for publication. If you get the "I love this but don't know what to do with it" kind of rejections, where the problem is more with the market than with your book, then self publishing may be viable.

And if all this still sounds utterly terrifying, there's nothing wrong with writing for your own enjoyment. You only have to let other people read your work if you want to make a living at it.