Discussing Work in Progress

When you seek publication, one of the first steps to finding a publisher is convincing an agent to represent you.  In order to do that, you have to pitch your work to the agents.  They choose you from your pitch which comes in a one-page letter called a query or from your sample pages which usually includes a synopsis and up to 50 pages of the completed manuscript.  Jessica Faust has a great dictionary of publishing terms, if you’re interested, by the way.

Whether we’re talking about a query or a full proposal with pages, I pitch projects too soon.  I’m not the most patient person.  I blame it on the fact that I was born premature.  I blame it on whatever movie my mother was watching when I announced my early coming.

But I decided recently to restrict myself from submissions for a while.  It’s an exercise in building patience, in reading the work-in-progress better, in critiquing myself harder, and in gathering useful information to enhance my voice.  I’ve made some version of this decision several times since I started writing fiction a few years ago, making the early switch from nonfiction about all things spiritual.  But I tend to release the unrealistic goal of waiting, and I submit submit submit. 

I don’t have an agent currently.  I used to, when I was pitching a particular nonfiction manuscript that we “just couldn’t sell” at the time.  But right now, I’m agentless.  So, even though I don’t have an agent, I have a manuscript, well two of them.  But we’re talking about one of them.  One I was told to get professionally edited–by an agent who read the full (the abbreviated way of saying the full manuscript). 

Somewhere between ending one year with its records and papers and making room for the new tenant who pays no rent, I filed the rejection letter along with its advice.  I had already started working on another project when I got that feedback.  Since then, I’ve finished that historical–which I’m told I can’t expect to break into publishing with since it’s historical–and started work on something else.  Writing, for me, is non-linear as you can tell. 

I’m at the point now where I am decided to have the work edited.  It’s been read by a few members of my team.  I’ve read and revised it six times since the first draft.  I started by being in love with the story.  I’ve gone the route of hating it, cutting it, changing it, breaking it and returning to the love I once had.  And it’s time to send it off to some professional person who will give me feedback, who will check my plot, characterization, and execution, who will tell me that I am, in fact, out of my mind for thinking I could write good fiction for publication or that I am on the right path and how to strengthen the work.

I’m told that many published authors have editors review and critique their work.  Since I didn’t study writing in college, I’m looking forward to this level of feedback.  I’m choosing that editor carefully over the next weeks.

So, I wanted to share a few scattered ramblings about editing this WIP.  Things that have occurred to me as I prepare to send it to someone else.

1) Giving my work away hasn’t gotten easier.  I’ve had helpful readers give me great feedback.  Each time I’ve sent my file, it’s been difficult.  The patience I’ve exercised in the waiting period from “send” to “receive” has been nothing less than divine because it took God and all God’s angels to keep me from pestering my readers with daily reminders to read and email me.  Patience comes slowly when I’m waiting for a response.  But so does my ability to send something I’ve written.  It feels a bit like taking an unflattering picture of myself–and most of them from one angle or another are unflattering–and sending it to my the guy whose girl left him for me in second grade and asking for a compliment on the photo.  Second-graders don’t forgive.

2) Rejection has left me dancing between hope and cynicism.  If I told you how many rejection letters I’ve received since I started pursuing publication, you would likely tell me that I’ve invested much time in getting negative responses–in getting noes.  I have a friend, an inspiring woman, who says to me often, “All it takes is one.”  That’s her answer to my at-times well deserved lapses in whining and lamenting of my blessed rejections.  She is correct.  She’s wise.  That’s why we’re friends.  It only takes one.  But the truth is every rejection builds two feelings, distrust in one’s self and one’s vision for a writing life and determination to keep going.  On my best days or weeks or months, the second feeling wins more than the first.  But I live between those streets.  I recognize the emotional neighbors of fear and faith, and nothing keeps me walking the block between them like waiting for that one yes.

3) There’s nothing more beautiful than a love story.  This WIP is a romance, historical romance.  That’s about all I can tell you frankly.  Again for emotional reasons.  Or for mental reasons.  Reading through the story reminds me of plain human need for love.  We seek it.  We require it, even when our experiences of love have been painful.  Sometimes loving again is the hardest and most helpful thing we can do.  I know this character and I know more about his history than what gets in the story.  In the end, aren’t we all characters who have been handled in ways that prevent us from loving?  When we do give love, it’s a miracle.  Giving it consistently is godly.

4) Point of view must be chosen carefully.  You can always hear a story, see a scene, experience a conversation in a new way.  And the storyteller’s point of view can shift the meaning.  I read that in selecting a viewpoint, the writer must ask the question, “Who’s interest is most important?”  Which character has the strongest interest in what’s happening?  Whether the POV is from a marginal character or from an essential one, the reader’s experience will be colored by the narrator.  In good writing, that’s the point.  I wonder how much better life would be if I learned to see myself from a marginal view.  If I took the view that comes from the smallest voice in me, the one I ignore.  I wonder how much richer I’d be if I changed the story because I changed that inner editor.

Richard Wright wrote that an artist “‘must be guided by the tyranny of what troubles and concerns him personally; and that he must learn to trust the impulse, vague and compulsive as it may be, which moves him in the first instance toward expression.  There is no other true path, and the artist owes it to himself and to those who live and breathe with him to render unto reality that which is reality’s.”

I hope editing this work, and others that follow, will help me trust the impulse and walk the path that Wright discusses.

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2 thoughts on “Discussing Work in Progress

  1. Thanks for your thoughts on your publishing process. I am very glad you are persevering, Michael. Look at the lessons listed in this post that you are learning while in this process. I don’t believe it will always look like this–that acceptance letter is going to come for you. You write too well and have too much to say for it not to come. I also admire your courage to face the possibility of rejection, your stamina in receiving them and still putting yourself out there, and your ability to hope–because every time you send your work to someone, you are hoping.

    What amazing strength God has given you to engage fully in this process. We are to use all of the gifts God has given us for the tasks He has given us to do. You seem compelled to write–a sign of a true calling. You are gifted to write–a gift you are determined to use. And, I hope we can keep you encouraged to write–cause that letter will come someday–hopefully soon!

    • Linda, you always are encouraging. I have a feeling that you’ll very much be in my ears when the next nasty letter comes! Thank you. And, it’s true, that I haven’t found the ability to take “no” inside for too long. Actually whenever I get one, my reaction or coping mechanism is to write another query. I trust you, too, are staying the course.

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