So I made it to Round 2 of the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge. I got my assignment this past Friday and submitted a 2,000 word story on Sunday — less than three-day turnaround. If I make it to Round 3, it means I’ll be writing a short story in 24 hours on the day of my wedding. So… fingers crossed?
Anyway, when you only have three days to write and submit a story, you don’t have much time to revise or get feedback. That’s part of the challenge, I suppose. But normally, when you’re not participating in a speed-writing competition, you want to wait a good long while after completing the first draft before you send your story anywhere.
One of the biggest mistakes I made when I was starting out as a writer was to submit my work too soon. I’d finish a story and be so excited about it I just couldn’t wait to share it with the world. I got a lot of rejections on stories that had potential they just hadn’t reached yet.
The same thing happened with my first novels. I contacted agents way too soon. My work at that point wasn’t ready to be seen by industry professionals. I still had a lot to learn about how to write and rewrite a novel. I’m embarrassed now to think of some of the queries and manuscripts I sent and how agents (or more likely their assistants) must have rolled their eyes. By the time my work was actually ready to be seen by agents, I’d burned a lot of bridges by sending my top choices less-than-great stuff.
Learn from my mistakes. Here are my recommendations — what I wish I had done….
WHAT TO DO AFTER COMPLETING THE 1st DRAFT OF A SHORT STORY…
Step 1: Do NOT immediately submit it to every literary magazine you can think of. If you must share it with people right away, email it to some trusted friends for feedback.
Step 2: Leave it alone for anywhere from a week to a couple of months. Come back to it and do a revision. Incorporate any feedback you got from trusted writer friends. STILL do not submit it. If you haven’t gotten feedback yet, perhaps elicit some now.
Step 3: Wait anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of weeks. Spend this time researching literary journals that might be interested in your story. When you can’t bear to wait any longer, reread the story. See if you’re happy with it. If not, do another revision.
Step 4: When you are happy with the story and think it can’t possibly get any better, print it out and/or read it out loud. Look for spelling errors, out-of-place commas, sentences without periods, etc. Or, get someone else to copyedit for you.
Step 5: And NOW you’re ready to submit! Submit it to your top 5 to 10 mags (as long as they allow simultaneous submissions). Then forget about the story completely and work on something else. Because it’s likely going to be months before you hear from anyone.
TOTAL WAIT TIME FROM 1ST DRAFT TO SUBMISSION: At least: 4 months.
WHAT TO DO AFTER COMPLETING THE 1ST DRAFT OF A NOVEL…
Step 1: Pat yourself on the back. Relax. Do NOT start querying agents. Instead, put the novel away and don’t look at it for a few months.
Step 2: In this waiting period, you can start on a new writing project and/or research agents who might be interested in your work. Read novels that are similar to yours to get an idea of what’s already out there. Stop thinking that you have to get your novel out there right now before someone else writes the same book. No one else is going to write your book, and it’s better to query an agent with a polished novel than the first draft of a supposedly great idea.
Step 3: After a nice long while, come back to your novel and read it through. Take notes on what works and what doesn’t. If you’ve waited long enough, you will see it with fresh eyes, and you will see that the novel needs a lot of work. Maybe the plot needs restructuring. Maybe you need to rewrite it from a different character’s perspective. Maybe the story actually starts on page 100 you and you need to delete the first five chapters. So, get to work. Write an outline. Grind your teeth. Spend a few days taking walks and just thinking. Cry a little. Write new scenes you may never use. These are all acceptable components of doing a major novel revision.
Step 4: At some point in your revision process, get feedback from trusted writer friends. Take a workshop class or join a writing group. When you’ve completed one or two major revisions (and this may take a long time), put the novel away for another couple of months. If you’re excited about it and you want to share it with the world, resist the urge to query agents. I repeat, DO NOT query agents if your novel is less than 8 months old or if you’ve just finished a major revision. Sometimes making big changes can cause more problems that are difficult to see right away. If you have to share the novel with someone, read it out loud to your roommate or your husband or your cat.
Step 5: During this waiting period, work on something else. Continue researching agents. Write a novel synopsis. Write practice query letters — study query shark like it’s your job. Maybe go on vacation. Resist the urge to query. An agent may respond right away and request your manuscript, and your manuscript is not ready yet. Believe me. You may think it’s ready, but it’s not. If you have to do something with your novel, do this: using the find function, search for throw-away words like “just,” “really,” “that” and “suddenly.” Delete most of them.
Step 6: When you’ve waited a good, long while, print out the manuscript. Go through it with a fine tooth comb, looking for errors. You may also want to read it on your Kindle or ipad to see if it reads like a real book.
Step 7: When you’re pleased and think your novel is ready, query a few of the agents you’ve been researching. And be prepared that if you get an agent, you may be in for many more rounds of revisions and edits. It takes a long time to get a manuscript ready for the real world.
TOTAL WAIT TIME FROM 1ST DRAFT TO SUBMISSION: At the very, very least: 9 months. But, more likely, a year or two.