Yesterday at a webinar, I was asked – How do you know when a story is ready to submit?
I thought I’ll share some of my learning here – I’ve known to be trigger-happy, sending a manuscript out to editors or agents way before they are ready. As I matured as a writer, I learnt to control my excitement about a new story.
A new story is like a sand storm. It sweeps you up in a dust of ideas. When you are inside the storm, you can’t see through it. You don’t know how good it is – your eyes are closed, your ears are full of dust and you’re wandering into the story like someone lost in that storm.
As I became a seasoned sand storm enthusiast, I learnt to let the dust settle. These are my usual steps nowadays to get a feel for the idea not just from within its spiral but from outside it.
STEP 1: PUT THEM INTO WORDS ON PAPER OR DISK
A new idea is always fun to write because that writing process is a discovery. Enjoy that discovery. Sometimes I start with lines, words or even titles. Sometimes I start with an idea that I need to flesh out and storyboard first. Either way I’m either typing or writing in my notebook. I stay with it until the excitement abates. That could be a day or a week.
STEP 2: LET THE STORY SLEEP.
A new idea is energetic and bouncy. After exhausting its initial spurts, let it rest. Leave it for a week or two. Go and find another idea to be excited about.
STEP 3 – RELIVE THE EXCITEMENT
After a cooling-off period, take out that story again and look at it. Does it still look exciting? Are the words drawing you into the story? Are you relaxing into a read as if you’re reading the story for the first time. Good! Then read it a few times and grab that pencil.
STEP 4 – EVALUATE THE STORY
Now that you’ve a cooler head, and some distance, check the story against your checklist. Don’t have a checklist? Check out mine. Redraw the storyboard and note down things you can improve – the language, the plot, the twist at the end, the cliff-hangers and page-turns. Is this a unique and untold story or is it a new take on an old story? Imagine this being a book in a bookshop. Would you buy it?
STEP 5 – EDIT
Rewrite as many times as it takes to get all of the good stuff in. Try a different tense, a different character, a different beginning or ending? What little sparkles can you bring into the story? How many layers can you add?
STEP 6 – SHOW IT TO YOUR CRITIQUE GROUP
Critique groups are trusted peers who are also writing in a similar space – say all picture book writers or all of you are writing a novel for a 9-10 year old. Making someone else read it will give you a fresh perspective. Five people might give you five different feedback or often more than a majority might see a fault line that you haven’t seen or you’ve been avoiding.
For example, I’ve been working on a story using metaphors for a long time. And then a few months after I showed it to my critique group, they saw a pattern in my story that I hadn’t and then also showed me which paragraph was breaking the pattern and was jarring. That is valuable advice.
STEP 7 – BACK TO THE EDITS
Don’t ignore all of the feedback from your critique group. Don’t take all of them either. Consider each with respect to your story.
Sometimes the reader might say X is the problem. But you as the writer must look for problem Y which is causing X – or manifesting as X.
For example, an often repeated mistake in new picture book stories – the adults solve the problem. The fix could be: (a) removing the adult in the story (b) making the child character more active (c) Making the adult character more child-like.
So how you solve the problem is the writer’s problem. But what critique groups can do is to alert you to them. Remember, if an untrained eye of a writer-friend can spot the issue, the professional eye of the editor is not going to miss them.
STEP 8 – Repeat Step 6 and 7 as often as it is practical to do. I wouldn’t go back to my critique group with minor changes or just a few fixes. If you do an honest rewrite, if you’re willing to do the grunt work of figuring out the issues and rewriting, then it’s worth your critique group spending a bit more time to read the revisions.
STEP 9 – After all this, when the story is ready, start the research to find out whom to submit to.