Monday, March 28, 2011

Top 10 Mistakes a Writer Should Avoid: #10

#10: Query before you're ready

We've all heard of the panic stories: "OMG, the agent requests a full. What do I do now?"  The logical reply is, of course, "Send the thing immediately." Except the writer immediately tells you, "But it's not ready..." Whether the manuscript isn't finished, or it's still a first draft, or there are still many problems and errors to fix. Whatever it is, it's not "ready" yet and the writer knows it.

So why the heck did the writer query? Was it just for fun? Or did the writer have that self-defeating idea that "no one is going to want it, anyway"?

I see that happening a lot, and I wasn't an exception. When I first queried The Pacific Between, it wasn't ready either. It was at least 15,000 words too long, started in the wrong place, and needed at least another pass or two of copyediting. And what happened? I got a request for full. And a nice, plump rejection soon followed.

I learned my lesson, though. I just hope other writers don't have to go through that in order to learn the lesson. Make sure whatever you send out, whether it's a query letter, a synopsis, the first three chapters, or the entire manuscript, it's READY and you won't be embarrassed to let anyone see it. By "ready" I mean publication-ready.

But how can we tell if something is publication-ready? It is indeed difficult to tell because we're all so close to our own work. But if we are willing to spend months, if not years, working on the manuscript, shouldn't we spend at least a few months just to make sure everything is ready? Your beautiful baby deserves the attention before you present it to the world, don't you think? You wouldn't take your sick, naked, cranky baby to your boss's house, would you?

There are many ways to make sure your work is as ready as it can be:

a. Put it away for a few weeks, maybe even a month or two. Put some distance between you and your work, so that new euphoria and "I just wrote a masterpiece" feeling can subside. By then, hopefully you would have started a new project, or life is full of new adventures, and you wouldn't be so obsessed with the book.

b. After a few weeks or a month or two, you can now dust it off and read it again as objectively as you can. Pretend that someone else had written it. Read it from page 1 to the end with a critical eye. Examine every word choice and sentence structure. Plot. Characters. Conflict. Pace. Is it something you would buy and read if it were written by someone else? Can you see the flaws now? Does the story still make sense to you? Are you back in love with the characters as you were a few weeks ago? Can you see the grammatical and spelling errors? Can you rephrase a sentence to make it clearer or more vivid and interesting? Hopefully the little time off would make you see it in a whole new light, instead of being obsessed over how perfect it is. It's kind of like dating, actually.  Cool things down a bit. Take some time off and see if you still miss each other. There's no need to jump into marriage immediately.

c. Get some beta readers. No matter how objective you think you are, you still aren't. It's still your baby. You're still too close to it. You can read between the lines because you know the entire story. You may have missed something because it makes perfect sense in your mind. But does it all translate onto the page? The test isn't what the writer thinks, but what the readers think. At this point, it's about the readers, and you're as far from objective as it can be as a reader. You need fresh eyes. You need someone who is not madly in love with you, or someone who will lie to get you in bed with them, or someone who loves you no matter what... meaning, no Moms or Dads. A good beta readers is one whom the writer can trust, who will give honest, impartial, and objective opinions. Someone who would say, "This doesn't work whether it's written by Stephen King or JK Rowling or you. I just don't buy it." It shouldn't be someone who owes you a favor, or vice versa. It should be someone who enjoys reading a good book, and has no patience for a bad one. It should be someone who would give you "tough love" but you'd still go to dinner with him or her afterwards, because you know he or she is right, is just trying to help and not destroy you.

d. Do another draft/rewrite or two. Yeah, you thought you were done two months ago? Think again. It's not about being anal retentive or self-doubting. These are sanity checks. To go through the manuscript once or twice more with a new perspective is important. It helps you see things more clearly. Read the manuscript aloud. Read it backwards. Anything to distract you from the visuals in your own mind. Keep it real. Keep it fresh, as if you're reading it for the first time, and that you're doing brain surgery on it. Use the feedback your beta readers give you as a guide, but it doesn't mean you have to accept everything they mention. You're still the writer. The final decision is still yours. But it helps to consider EVERYTHING. Do another draft. Proof-read it again. Leave no stones unturned.

The truth is, after you've done all of the above, there would still be errors and mistakes. Nobody is perfect... or else editors and publishers would have nothing to do. But at this point, you should have a manuscript that has gone through bootcamp and intensive training. You've given it the attention it deserves. It's ready to fly.

But now you'll have to write that damn query letter. Oh dear...

3 comments:

cindystubbs said...

Great advice and I'm so happy I get your blog sent to my e-mail.

Ray Wong said...

Thanks Cindy!

Daniel Kent said...

Hi Ray,

I love your comments on AW. I've been writing on & off for a couple of years now. Haven't really gotten serious until a year ago. Still, of all the experts on AW, you're one of my favorites. I like your refer. to your Dad's past - that same era haunts me - the other side of the world, thou. Did you know there were German (for US citizens) interment camps too? Still, a lot of pain - need to move on.

Anyways, I'm looking for a beta reader for my MS. I'd say it's about 60% complete, but I'd love to get one or two chapters reviewed. It doesn't have to be right away. Recommendations welcomed.

Thanks,

DKM