In the Line of Fire: Surviving Submissions
The Muse and the Marketplace, with its infamous Manuscript Mart (almost sold out already) is just around the corner. New writers are always being told to get out and about, solicit expert feedback, practice their pitches, and make connections. But how do you know when you're ready? How can you be sure submitting your work for critique--whether in a formal one-on-one or by chatting with an editor as you ride the elevator--will be a positive experience?
Sharing new work is always agonizing. There's just no way around it. But here are some ideas so you don't find yourself in the line of fire, coming out of the process with a great big hole in your heart:
1. Articulate your goal
Freelance editors, like me, typically see work that is in need of deep revisions (even when it's coming from a publisher). This is to be expected--the point of my work is to make sure writers have found their story and then told it the best way possible, both according to their personal vision and their professional aspirations and/or responsibilities. When people submit work to me, it is with the goal of improving their writing.
But when you submit to an agent or an editor at a conference you most likely have a somewhat different goal. Maybe you want them to ask for more pages. Maybe you want them to give you an insight on the viability of a new genre. Maybe you want to be signed, then and there. Figure out what your goal is before your conversation. That way, you can be armed with specific questions and ask for specific follow up.
You can only advocate for yourself when you know what it is you want from the interaction.
2. Don't jump the gun
When you're submitting at these conferences, if your goal is to impress the agent/editor and perhaps even have them ask for a full or partial, then make sure you are not jumping the gun: Do not submit your work before it's ready.
Now, this is obviously easier said than done. How are you supposed to know when it's "ready" and what does being "ready" actually mean?
- You have read it as a reader not as a writer. You are not thinking about the clever wording, or the great anecdotes, or the spot-on analysis, instead you are asking yourself: Does this make sense? Is my point clear? What is my point, exactly? Am I engaging the reader's interest?
- Time has passed. You did not just finish the draft yesterday. You have slept on it. Preferably, you have worked on something else before returning to your piece in order to edit it again, with fresh eyes.
- The copy is totally clean. You have read it a thousand times and there are no spelling or formatting errors. Do not underestimate how badly minor errors undermine your work. (This may seem obvious, but you would not believe...)
3. Dream on, but stay realistic
When you submit your work it's natural to hope that the agent/editor will be bowled over. If and when this happens: Yay! You are extraordinary! Go celebrate!
Most of the time, however, new writers still have some (or a lot of) work to do. Sometimes the expert reader can be very blunt. After all, they spend their days looking through queries and manuscripts trying to find the hidden gem; they're accustomed to getting to the point so they can move on. Sometimes they lack finesse. One lovely but sloppy writer I know sat with an agent at a conference who started by blurting out, "Before you write another word, you need to take a basic grammar class!"
Dreaming is what fuels creative fires. But understand that blind dates don't always result in good chemistry, and the submission experience is a lot like going on a blind date. Everyone is hoping things will work out and that you'll end up on someone's doorstep being asked in for "coffee," but you can't expect it to happen.
If you go in prepared for an emotional and informative experience, you are likely to get much more out of the session. Hope and pray they love your work, but don't expect it.
4. Be proactive--but don't be defensive
By all means, engage your reader with thoughtful questions and ask for clarification about advice that you don't quite understand. It makes sense for you to make the best use of this opportunity, so don't come away with a foggy understanding of the reaction to your work.
However, don't use this session as an opportunity to push back. It's often tempting for new writers to try to persuade agents/editors of their point of view. But your goal is not to convince the reader that you are right, it's to get a good understanding of a professional's opinion of your writing. The reader is giving you his/her subjective--and seasoned--feedback. You don't have to agree with what is said (and you certainly have a right to keep your piece as is), but you've asked for this person's opinion, so respect it.
5. Take copious notes
Believe me, after the session is over you won't remember half of what was said. It's not impolite to take notes while listening to feedback, in fact it shows seriousness of purpose and a willingness to learn. Write everything you can down, and then read through your notes carefully afterwards.
6. Keep your chin up
If the feedback isn't what you were hoping for, don't be too discouraged. Writing can be a long journey. Are you learning and enjoying yourself along the way? Then keep at it.
Also remember that sometimes the reactions will be positive but you still won't close a deal (ie. the agent/editor doesn't ask to see more). In this case, don't be afraid to address the issue directly. "So, you think this has merit, but it's not the kind of work you usually represent/ take on. Do you have any suggestions about who might like it, or next steps I should take?"
7. End on a positive note
Whatever the reaction to your work, even if the feedback seems overwhelming or unconstructive, express your appreciation for the advice. Your reader put time and energy into forming an opinion, and you may want to contact him or her again sometime down the line.
If it seems appropriate, suggest a next step, such as, "If I make some of the changes we've been discussing, would you be open to considering this material again?"
And then say thanks, smile warmly, leave--and head for the nearest bar. You survived the firing line and you deserve a drink.
Good luck. May the Force be with you,
Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.See other articles by Katrin Schumann