Let Your Writing Marinate for a While

Dear writers,

Did you miss me last month?

I learned two important things while I was off-blog. One is that I missed doing this blog, even though I have two others to keep me busy. I like talking about writing, teaching it, and editing it. I just like playing with words.

Last month, I did some teaching at the Willamette Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon, but I did even more learning. The big thing that I learned is the value of setting a project aside for a while. I’m talking about my novel, Being PD, which does not yet have a publisher. At the conference, I pitched it to a couple of agents who were interested but made no promises. I also attended a “First Page Gong Show” in which actors read the opening pages of participants’ novels. A panel of agents and editors “gonged” them as soon as they lost interest or heard something they didn’t like. Only about four first pages made it to the end. I was number 38, and they never got to my page. Thank God. Most important, I took several classes from Jennifer Lauck, author of four memoirs and a fantastic teacher. Her workshops on structuring one’s novel or memoir blew my mind.

While struggling with a memoir, I’ve been marketing my novel. I was sure the novel was finished, that I could not make it any better, and that even though 105,000 words is a little long for a novel, the editors would just have to live with it. I did not plan to look at it again until an editor from a publishing house demanded changes for the final version. I’ll bet you can see where this is going. After talking to agents and editors, attending the Gong Show and inhaling the wisdom of Jennifer’s classes, I came home and started tearing PD apart.

I was working on a deadline. I had assured the agents I would send the book to them within two weeks. So I cranked into high gear and got it done. Suddenly I could see exactly what I needed to do with this book, none of which had occurred to me before the conference. The first thing I did was ditch not only my first page but the whole first chapter. I didn’t need it. I needed to start closer to the action. Plus the gong panel was universally turned off by certain bodily functions. So, bye-bye. Cutting that chapter meant I needed to figure out how to include certain necessary details later, but it was not difficult.

The agents said I needed more romance. That was easy to add. And most surprising, I found oodles of words I just didn’t need. Excess verbiage. As I cut, the word count went down painlessly. Another big chunk went out toward the end of the book because I could see the ending went on too long. I trimmed approximately 9,000 words in all. Now I’m in the ballpark. And now I know this novel is the best one I’ve ever written. I was certain it was perfect before. I was wrong. It was good but not quite cooked. To read a brief excerpt from the new and improved opening, click on the Being PD link at the top of the page.

I couldn’t have done this revision if I hadn’t set the book aside for months while I worked on the memoir. Sometimes the hardest thing to do is nothing. We all want our books out in the world as quickly as possible. But we need to let them marinate for a while, then throw away the excess sauce to make them the best they can possibly be.

It also helps to bring in someone with a fresh set of eyes, whether it’s a critique group, a teacher, an editor, or an agent. Take classes, read good books, never say “good enough” just because you’re tired. Set it aside and come back to it later. It will be so much easier than if you didn’t wait.

Jennifer Lauck teaches online as well as in-person in Portland. You might want to check out her classes. She strongly recommends Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel, Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, and Robert Olen Butler’s From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction.

The annual Willamette Writers Conference takes place in Portland, Oregon the first weekend in August.

Now, let’s go write.

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Simultaneous submissions—yes or no?

One of the most common questions asked by new writers is whether or not they should submit their work to more than one publication, agent or editor at a time. This is known as simultaneous submissions. Is it allowed, is it legal, is it wise?

Back in the days when I was typing my poems on a manual typewriter and sending them out by snail mail, the answer was nearly always no. Bad form. Bad idea. Don’t do it. With all that typing and retyping, it was just too much work anyway.

Now, when one can submit everything from a poem to an entire book with the click of a couple computer keys, things have changed. A glance at Writer’s Market shows that most editors accept simultaneous submissions. They understand that it can take months to get a decision on a submission and expect that writers will be shopping their work to more than one place. It makes sense. If you were selling shoes, would you only allow one customer at a time to look at them, especially when that one customer probably won’t buy them?

So yes, you can submit your work to more than one place at a time. It’s allowed—unless their guidelines state otherwise. Some editors still bristle at simultaneous submissions. If they say no, don’t do it. But most editors just ask that you let them know if your work has been accepted elsewhere.

But here’s the thing. Although most of the time you’ll be lucky if you get one acceptance, it is possible that more than one editor will say yes. And then you will have to withdraw your submission from one of them. That might piss them off or at least cause them not to trust you in the future. It’s awkward at best. Also the one who said yes first might not offer the best deal. It’s a gamble.

Each writer has to decide what works best in his or her own situation. What genre are you writing and to whom are you submitting? For example, I have no problem sending book queries to 10 agents at a time, but I’d rather send article queries to just one editor at a time because the odds for acceptance are so much higher with the latter. Plus article queries need to be carefully aimed at each market. I’d rather have 10 different queries out to 10 different editors.

Submitting work to several markets at a time obviously increases the likelihood and speed of publication. But it does have its risks. What do you think? Do you submit to more than one place at a time? Why or why not? Comment here and then . . .

Go write something.