It’s conference season, the time of year writers force themselves out of their hidey-holes to network, attend classes on the craft and business of writing, and to pitch their brilliant Great American Novel to eager agents. At these conferences you are surrounded by People Who Get It. By people who don’t think it’s weird to spend hours talking about the difference between New Adult and Young Adult, ponder the strange phenomena of the counter-correlation between editorial oversight and author success, and debate what exactly is the perfect query letter.
I don’t know if I’ve ever heard of a writing conference attendee who hasn’t recaptured the motivation and inspiration that made him or her turn on the computer and type the first sentence of a story. But, how do you channel the avalanche of information you’ve received? How in the world do you choose what to do first? Should you do it all? Do you spiral into self-doubt and second-guesses?
Oh my God. My manuscript stinks. I should probably just chuck it all and start over.
Hold on there. Take a deep breath and keep reading.
Make a copy of your WIP
You want to make changes, lots of changes! Maybe you should, maybe you shouldn’t. But, the very first thing you should do is make a duplicate copy of your manuscript as the pre-conference version. Why? I know you learned so much your manuscript will be loads better if you put every single suggestion you learned into action. Right now! But, there’s the chance, probably very slim, that you will start this rewrite and suddenly realize this new version isn’t working, that what you had before wasn’t so bad, that you’ve made too many changes and have lost the thread of your original story. Then where are you? Fifty thousand words into an ill-conceived rewrite without the original version to go back to. Trust me when I say, this is not a place you want to be.
Not all good advice is the right advice.
Every week at workshop, I receive critiques on my work. The majority of the critiques are good, but that doesn’t mean they are right for the story, the genre or my writing style. I process the critiques, evaluate them, then choose what I will use. The same considered approach should be used for conference advice. I know you want to put what you learned to practice, yesterday. Resist the temptation. Take a few days to let what you’ve learned sink in. Type, or retype, your notes. Highlight the “lightbulb moments,” those comments the presenters made that sparked an idea, or illuminated a weakness in your writing you want to address. Your MS, and the weakness in your writing, isn’t going anywhere. You have plenty of time to address the problems in your MS.
Finish what you started. Then polish it. Then start something else.
If you are 80,000 words into a planned 90,000 word MS, resist the urge to chunk it all and start over (but if you do, make a separate copy!). You are already 80,000 words into a crappy first draft. Why in the world would you chunk it to start a second crappy first draft? Finish the MS how you started and implement the suggestions you learned in the rewrite. You will probably find what you wrote after the conference needs less reworking than what came before. But, at least you aren’t starting from zero. Once you’ve rewritten and polished the MS, send it to the agent who was so excited for your pitch, or start querying the agents and editors whom you met. But, most importantly, start working on something new. Put the polished MS in a drawer and forget about it. True growth as a writer doesn’t come from rewriting the same MS over and over. It comes from creating, editing, and polishing; creating, editing, and polishing. Over and over and over and over…
“What’s going to get you to your publication goal? Getting done sooner or getting done better?” Donald Maass, DFW Writers' Conference, May 2014
A very hard lesson I’ve learned in the past year is the publishing industry is slow. Ridiculously, laughably slow. As much as you want to think the agent you pitched to is eagerly waiting for your MS, the reality is she is swamped with queries and reading queries isn’t even the biggest part of her job. Respect the agent enough to send the very best version of your MS. It’s better to send a polished MS to an agent in August, than one riddled with errors in June. The former will get you an agent, the latter will make you an expert on query letters.
Though if you play your cards right, you can teach a class on query letters next year.
-- Melissa Lenhardt, DFWWW member since 2012
photo credit: Unhindered by Talent