Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Facing the Fear of Wasting Opportunities

One of the writing fears that was brought up on the Go Teen Writers Facebook page is of blowing opportunities - a request to send a full manuscript, fumbling a verbal pitch with an editor - and not receiving a second chance.

I always get nervous before pitching or teaching, and it's because I recognize that it's an opportunity and that there's a chance I'll blow it.

This is no fun to say or think, but let's be honest. Sometimes I have completely failed. I have received requests for a full manuscript that is still full of first draft ickiness. I once gave a talk in front of 200 high school students that I completely botched. I've walked away from editor appointments and thought, "That didn't go well at all."

I have completely failed, and if you're human, I'm guessing you will to sometimes. It sucks, but it's the way things are.

Some pep talk, huh?

Here are a couple things I've learned from my failures:

Before you start knocking on doors, make sure you've done your research

When I was 16 and had finished my first full-length manuscript (or so I thought - the "book" is actually 17k, which I think is somewhere between a short story and a novella) I hopped on the websites of some publishing houses to find their address.

I discovered an odd phrase during my address hunt - "unsolicited manuscripts." The big houses did not accept unsolicited manuscripts. But some smaller ones did.

So without any regards for what quality these houses were or what books they published, I jotted down their address. I printed my manuscript, filled out an SASE (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope - also a new term to me), and dropped her in the mail. I think I submitted to four. Two of them ignored me, one jotted some kind of "no thanks" on the first page of my manuscript and mailed it back to me. The fourth wrote an incredibly nice note to me saying I seemed very talented for my age but my manuscript didn't fit in with their current needs. They even offered advice about my poor ending. (The further in this business I go, the more I'm amazed they even read it.)

After that experience, I decided - gasp! - maybe I should do a little research and figure out how exactly one goes from being an aspiring writer to a novelist.

Wait until the manuscript is "done" before sending out queries

This was the next big mistake I made. So I had discovered there were these people called "literary agents," and that I needed one of them first if I wanted a shot with a big publishing house. And that I should determine what "genre" I wrote. And that instead of printing off my manuscript and just mailing it to people, I should instead write a "query letter" and include an SASE. I think discovering all that took me about 10 minutes.

The book listing literary agents suggested I pick out five, send them my query letter, and then wait for my rejections before sending out more. It sounded like the whole process might take some serious time. So, practically the moment I typed The End, I perfected my query letter and mailed it to 5 agents.

Shockingly, within a week two of them requested full manuscripts.

I was at least smart enough to realize that my manuscript (this time a respectable 61k) was in serious need of revisions. I also knew I should get back to those agents as quick as possible.

I allowed myself a week to revise and take care of the other strange requests the agents had (what should go in a n author bio? And what's a synopsis???) and then I put everything in the mail and just hoped for the best.

They were rejections, as you might guess. But I learned I did not want to experience that particular brand of stress again. Before I sent out query letters next time - I vowed - that manuscript would be pristine.

Accept where you are writing-wise

This was hard for me. Because I wanted to be publishable, and I wanted to be publishable now. Here I'd had two agents ask for my full manuscript, and if only I had been smarter about when I sent my query letter, I might already be published! I definitely viewed it as a blown opportunity.

But I still had so much to learn. I wasn't even close to being ready to be published. I didn't know about POV or action beats or showing rather than telling. AND THERE WAS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. Every writer starts somewhere. It's okay to not be ready yet.

I didn't get second chances with those agents. But everything has still worked out just fine.

Be prepared

As I'm typing this it seems obvious, yet it's advice I  tend to neglect. If you have an opportunity on the horizon - a writer's conference, a chance to pitch your novel, a request for a book proposal - be as prepared as you can.

If we're talking about something written, like a book proposal or back cover copy, the good thing is you don't have to get it right the first time, you can edit. Just make sure you're not putting off edits, that you're giving yourself plenty of time to polish your prose.

But if it's something verbal, sadly there's no editor. Freaked out about your "elevator pitch," the 30 second spiel that will hopefully entice an agent or editor to ask to hear more? Then practice it! Fine tune it on paper and recite it whenever you can. Practice it on anyone who is willing to listen and give constructive feedback. Recite it when you're driving or showering. 

If you've been given a fifteen minute appointment with an editor, make the most of it. At a conference, I had pitched my project and the editor had requested I submit it to her ... and we still had ten minutes left before my time was up. Fortunately I had prepared a list of questions about the writing market. We chatted casually about writing and publishing for the next 10 minutes. I learned a lot about her house's views and needs, plus we developed a deeper relationship.

We all tend to put off tasks that are unpleasant, or at least I do. But whatever it is I'm nervous about - that class I agreed to teach or that dreaded question "what's your book about?" - is gonna happen whether or not I'm prepared.

Know your limits

There are some parts of my job that I don't like but that must be done. Like elevator pitches.

But after failing a few times at some publicity opportunities, I have learned a lot about what I can handle and what I can't. Like that vague motivational speeches to 200+ teenagers is not a good scenario for me. Nor should I agree to six 45-minute classes (back to back) in which I talk to English classes about my life as a writer. Turns out my mind gets mushy around class number four, my voice gives out in the middle of class five, and my stress headache lasts until the next morning.

It's great to say yes to opportunities that come your way. It's also okay to say no if you figure out something isn't your thing.

So those are my thoughts. Be prepared for the opportunities you can predict and learn from your mistakes. 

This is me headed to my first real writer's conference. I am unprepared, terrified, and wearing jeans. But I learned a lot!
Tomorrow Rachel Coker is here talking about earning respect from adults and then on Friday I'm going to attempt to answer a question about plots that unfold too quickly or too slowly. Yikes.

Have a great Wednesday!


  1. Wow! Thank you so much for the tips! Everyday I'm learning more about how to be a better fictional writer. And you are helping tremendously.
    Thanks again!
    -Rosie W.

  2. What a great post! I absolutely love reading this blog! You are so encouraging, and your advice is stellar. Haha that is so cool that that publishing house wrote you such a nice letter. It's good to know that editors/agents/publishers know that writers have fragile egos, and are usually surprisingly nice about rejections...hopefully. Haha, and I like how you're going to that writing conference with bare feet ;P

    1. Laurapoet, let the record show I _did_ wear shoes! I think they're shoved over to the right in that picture :)

      And, yes, there are some grouches in the business, but many kind hearts as well.

  3. So what should you wear to a writers conference? And you said to practice a pitch for your book...but how can you practice it if you don't know what they will ask? (As you can see, I haven't done much research in this area)

    1. Most conferences are "business casual." For a girl, slacks or a skirt, a cute top, and you're good to go. For a guy, a polo or oxford shirt, slacks. Of course, I wore said style to a conference in Oregon and was the dressiest person there, LOL.

      And the pitch is what you lead with--that quick blurb to tell them what your book's about, which should be short and punchy and grab their attention. Common questions they might then ask are: What authors do you write like? What books are out now that are similar? What's your genre? (Which should have been obvious by your pitch, but if it's not, have an answer.) Who's your target audience?

    2. I echo Roseanna's comment. Some conferences are extremely casual. So, yeah, I wore jeans to my first conference, but so did a lot of other people. However, if you're serious about getting published, you should treat it like a job. Which means sitting down with an agent or editor is the equivalent of a job interview. So dressing business casual is one more way that you can show you take writing seriously. And that's an especially important message to send if you're young.

    3. Also, Anonymous, in a way YOU are in charge of the meeting. Roseanna was right on with her run down of questions you will likely get asked about your story. But also YOU can ask questions.

    4. Thank you so much!

  4. I really liked this post, Stephanie. I'm going to be attending a writer's conference this summer, and I'm not going to lie, I am slightly, a little bit, most certainly freaked out about it. I took your advice about writers conferences and got a nice dress(that was the really fun part. :D), and have been frantically trying to finish my manuscript in time to let it rest then edit it properly, but I still feel really insecure. This is the first thing I've really ever done on my own to establish myself as a writer and all the things that I COULD do wrong are plaguing me. This advice was a nice confidence boost. :)

    I have one question though. My WIP is Christian YA Fictional Romance, and I'm shooting for between 65k-75k(I'm almost to 50k! Woo hoo!) for my total word count. Is that an okay size for YA book? I really don't want it to be too small, but I also don't want to keep dragging my plot on forever for a few more thousands words, you know? :) Thanks for your help!

    1. First conference! How exciting! Can I ask which one?

      Being insecure is completely normal. And good, actually, because if you show up to your first conference acting like you know all there is to know, you're going to really annoy some people! So don't be afraid to say you're new and eager to learn. I know you'll do great!

      Every manuscript is different and has its own needs. For a Christian YA manuscript, I think your target length is great.

    2. I'm going to a conference by American Christian Writers. One of the presenters is Shelly Beach, and I see her books at the place I work at sometimes, so I'm really excited to meet her! :)
      And I've been wondering about my word count for awhile now, so thanks for clearing that up. :)

  5. Great post! This info is really helping me out on my journey as a writer. Your posts about the black moment and having a hook at the beginning of a novel have really given my book a better overall quality. I can't wait for tomorrow's post, sounds awesome!

  6. Thanks, Annika! Black moments and the concept of hooking a reader were two big light bulb moments for me a few years ago. They make a big impact on a story!

  7. This is a great post, thanks Stephanie!
    I want to go go a confeence this year, but we'll have to wait till it gets closer to see it's feasible. Its amazing how panicked if feel at just thought of going.
    Part of me is bummed that you have to have a complete MS. I understand why but I don't know if mine will be ready. I keep wondering will bringing them something hand knitted will work as a bribe?? Somehow I doubt it.

    1. To do a "real" pitch, you're right. The manuscript should be complete.

      But having an incomplete manuscript doesn't mean you can't benefit from an appointment, just be honest about the status of your manuscript. An unpublished friend of mine did that and asked for the agent's advice about word count and maybe something else. They had a wonderful conversation and the agent had some great thoughts about the manuscript - thought the story was more appropriate for a historical, wanted a bigger word count than my friend had first thought, and in general had a bigger, deeper vision for the story.

      I think this productive appointment happened partially because the agent is kind (Rachelle Gardner) but also because my friend was sweet and honest.

    2. that could be really fun! I'll have to watch to see who the mentor appointments are with. Oh I so hope I'm able to go?!!

  8. Hi! Okay, so I know this post is old, but I have some questions. I'm writing a middle grade fantasy novel, and I don't know what conference I should go to. Can you please help? Thanks! :D