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A Writer’s Worst Enemy

Impatience is a writer’s worst enemy. To all those who are rushing rushing rushing to get your manuscript out the gate and into my hot little hands, think of it this way real quick: you’ve spent… what? A year of your life on this manuscript? Why not give it the best chance possible and spend as much hard work revising as it — honestly — needs?

There is a finite number of agents and editors. Once you query your project around to every agent who represents your genre or age group (or every smaller publisher that still accepts unsolicited submissions) and once they reject you, you can’t do anything else with that project other than a) self-publish it (a whole other bucket of fish, to be discussed later) or b) revise the hell out of it and submit again to people who might be open to seeing a drastically different version (your pool this time around will be much smaller). So… just take the time, revise the hell out of it from the get-go, and skip that whole nasty getting-rejected-first bit! In other words: be patient.

Sad truth alert! Not every manuscript you write will go somewhere, publication-wise. Far from it. Every manuscript you write is supremely useful, though. I think every time you sit down at the keys, you should be striving to improve. Everything you write this week should be better and more exciting to you than what you wrote last week. You hear people talking about starter cars and houses, maybe even starter spouses. Well, I think that almost every currently published writer has written at least one starter (or drawer) novel. MG and YA superstar Lauren Myracle wrote something like five books, she said once, before getting her first published. Some have many more than that. So will all the novels you write be published? Even eventually? Probably not. In fact, I think it should be a good and healthy thing to look at some of your starter novels and be horrified by the quality of the writing. That means you’ve come a long way since.

Everyone knows the story of the person who never once sat down at a computer before, wrote a first draft manuscript inspired by a dream they had, sold it for a million dollars and got six thousand movies made of their story, etc. etc. etc. You know why everyone knows the story of “the exception to the rule”? Because it’s news. It’s so rare that everyone talks about it and raises it to mythical status. The other 99.999999% of us mere mortals have to write plenty of dreary starter novels (and don’t forget about the Million Bad Words) before we can figure out how to draft a living character, create a compelling plot, achieve tension and humor and literary magic. That sort of stuff takes practice. And practice takes… patience.

For a lot of writers, or anyone working in the creative arts, our ego often compels us to think we’re “special.” What teen girl hasn’t heard stories of some chick at the mall getting discovered by a modeling scout and then immediately dressed up really cute and gone to the mall in hopes of scoring her one-in-a-million chance at stardom? It’s worse for writers, because they don’t actually have to get dressed and leave the house to indulge in such fantasies. Who among you hasn’t started in on a hot idea and thought, “This is a brilliant, undiscovered masterpiece that everyone will love the second they read it”? Who hasn’t let themselves boast, “Let all the other writers slog around in the trenches because I’m special“?

Well, talent is a huge piece of the puzzle, naturally. But hard work, I’ll argue, is a bigger piece. Because naturally talented people — especially the people who know they’re naturally talented — often get an entitled attitude and wait for the success to come to them. It’s the people who think “I might not be special enough yet but, damn it, I will be successful” who usually end up towering over their smug counterparts. Because the ordinary writers have to work for it and they know it. They have to put in the hours to see improvement, to witness the talent start to shine. They learn to work hard and never give up. And those are the people who make it, while some of the naturally talented people sit around on their couches, waiting for that model scout to come knocking.

In the writing game — and I’ll say it is one, on many levels — the qualities of patience, hard-work, humility and the eagerness to learn will get you much farther than striving to be the exception to the rule. The former you can control, the latter you can’t. Wouldn’t you rather be in control of your success and your career?

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  1. Shaun Hutchinson’s avatar

    This post is so true. Actually finishing a manuscript is a great feeling, an accomplishment worth treating yourself to a fancy night out, but the bulk of the work is still ahead. I spent six weeks writing The Deathday Letter and about nine months revising and rewriting it.

    I can’t wait to read your revision tips :)

  2. BJAnderson’s avatar

    I can’t wait for Revision-o-Rama!! And way to tell it like it is: “the qualities of patience, hard-work, humility and the eagerness to learn will get you much farther than striving to be the exception to the rule.” I think that should be a quote every writer prints out and sticks above their desk.

  3. Donna Gambale’s avatar

    Excellent, excellent advice! Can’t wait for Revision-o-Rama, too.
    Here’s my question — Is there such a thing as cutting too much? You’re supposed to kill your darlings and all for the sake of tight writing, but how do you know when you’ve crossed the line into killing the voice of your story?

  4. Bryan Bliss’s avatar

    Wait…wait…are you saying I’m NOT special?

    For me, as I’ve said before, the problem isn’t patience as much as knowing when to get it out there. Death by Revision (which might be my new band name…) is common in my writing.

  5. Lynn Rush’s avatar

    I’ve heard about this impatience thing a lot lately. Wonder if it’s that time of the year or something?

    It can be destructive, though, that’s for sure. It’s tough to wait, but waiting gives time to learn the craft, revise, get crits on your writing and offer crits on others, oh, and did I mention learn the craft? :-)

    I’ve heard it’s about the fifth, sixth or seventh novel that finally gets picked up by an agent or publisher. Probably because you grow and grow with each and every novel you write and they get better and better . . . .

  6. Martha Flynn’s avatar

    Agh! I hate your reasonableness. Can’t you just blow smoke up my ass??

    Onto revision questions – you’ve finished the manny. You’ve trucked it through crit group. You should probably combine two side characters, add in more backstory to bulk up motivation, move the event on pg 200 to pg 100, get rid of the overdone “magical diary” and change your MC’s ethnicity. How do you start?

  7. Jackee’s avatar

    I’m learning patience. I’m good with the tenacity and believe in writing more than just THE ONE, but I always want things done yesterday. So thanks for the post!

    For revision December, how about a post on fixing the all-illusive voice? For me, it’s the hardest to rewrite. Either it’s there or it’s not, though I know this isn’t always true with my writing in practice. So how do you revise voice issues?

  8. Jenny Martin’s avatar

    Boy, oh, boy. This post is just what I needed to read this morning. Read. Ask. Listen. Learn. Write. Repeat.

    Thanks for another therapeutic post!

  9. Anita’s avatar

    I’m so happy that you are talking about the patience thing so bluntly. I have a drawer of manuscripts that I have never submitted, nor will I ever. But when friends and family hear this they don’t understand. They think that anyone who takes the time to write a book automatically deserves the right to be published. Not true. So I tell them getting published is like putting on an ice skating show (I grew up as an ice skater so this analogy makes senses for my family and friends) only after infinite hours of rehearsing and planning does one finally put on a show- same with publication. The manuscripts in the drawer are rehearsals.

  10. Bane’s avatar

    Patience is one of those virtues I absolutely hate, but try to pretend I have :)

    To play a bit of the DA, too much revision can also be a writer’s worst enemy b/c you become paralyzed by the impossible pursuit of perfection (which might be possible in math, but never in writing).

  11. Julie Duck’s avatar

    Patience is a virtue when you’re an impatient patient person. :-)

    - Julie

  12. kellion’s avatar

    Mary, your posts make me realize I’m doing every thing wrong. Luckily, I’m starting my next WIP tomorrow — another chance to make (and correct) mistakes.

  13. Mary’s avatar

    Jackee — Gah! Darn it. Fine. I will tackle the all-elusive voice. Realize… it’s just as elusive to try and explain! :)

    Anita — For me, the ice skating analogy works too… “Writing is a lot like falling on your ass, complaining, and going inside for some hot cocoa.” Has a nice ring, doesn’t it?

    Bane — I will tackle the issue you raised when playing DA, it’s actually a very important one. (I predict at least two people will call me a hypocrite… oh well…)

    Kellion — Wow. I’m sorry to make you realize you’re doing EVERYTHING wrong. I probably owe you a drink.

    Martha — You don’t need to do ANY of that, your manuscript is PERFECT!!! (Was that the kind of smoke-up-ass you were looking for?)

  14. Karen Collum’s avatar

    I am a firm believer in the concept that nothing I’ve written is ever wasted. And I have quite a few of those ‘drawer’ novels lying around the place that I keep as a painful and somewhat embarrassing reminder of just how far I’ve come…but one look at a stellar book makes me realise just how far I still have to go!

    Revising/editing is a scary, unknown beast for me at this stage. I’ve got a full length, 85,000 words MS just waiting to be revised…and I haven’t got a clue where to start. I’ve enrolled in a “Year of the Edit” program next year at my Writer’s Centre and I can’t wait. I need someone to hold my hand through the process, at least for the first time.

    As for patience, it is not one of my strong points, but self-discipline and hard work are. Hide the envelopes! Don’t buy anymore stamps! I will NOT send the MS in until it’s ready.

  15. Stina’s avatar

    I challenged my writing since my last novel and my critique buddies noticed a huge difference in the level of writing this time.

    I love the revision process. I’ll be exercising or in the shower, dwelling on some scene or other and come up with all kinds of ideas to improve it. Sometimes it’s an smidgeon of dialogue. Sometimes it’s something bigger.

    My problem is knowing when to stop tweaking it and start querying it.

  16. Ashley  Cook’s avatar

    this post was exactly what i needed to hear right now! i finished my new novel last month and after meeting an agent who invited me to submit when it was finished, i was soo excited that i sped through my first revision. And, right now i’m dying to send it to her but i realize its a one shot thing even if the agent normally only accepts clients through referrals it still means i HAVE to impress her and i don’t want to send anything less than perfect her way.

  17. Chelle’s avatar

    I’ve really been enjoying your blog.

    Really good post. My question is are any of the first manuscripts you wrote worth saving (revising) and if so how would you know?

    can’t wait for Revision Dec.!!!

  18. Susan Quinn’s avatar

    Thanks for a fantastic post! The perfect capper to the mad dash of NaNo! You can find lots of revisions-strategies and ideas, and those are all necessary and good. What I would like to know: How do you know when you’ve revised enough? When the polish is shiny enough to fling that baby out to the wolves? Uh, so to speak.

    Thanks again for a great post!

  19. ChristaCarol’s avatar

    Well said. Kids have helped my patience, or at least help me realize my lack of it (hah!). I do tend to become the OCD reviser, as well, and am curious to see what you have to post about that. As always, great stuff! *goes to tweet it*

  20. Sheryl Gwyther’s avatar

    Sound advice, Mary. Thank you!
    Now to start culling 5000 words, sigh.
    Sheryl :)

  21. Jade’s avatar

    Accepting that many (if not most) of my stories may be retired to the manuscript retirement village (also known as Benny the laptop) has been one of the best lessons I’ve learnt. I still love all of my characters from all my stories but now I know that not all of them need to be shared with the world. In fact, some of them should never see the light of day in case someone thinks that I wrote it by randomly mashing my face into the keyboard. Alas, some of them are that bad.

    Bring on the revisions. I’ve got two stories that need to shed some kilos and an adjective or two.

  22. Maribeth’s avatar

    I agree completely. Patience is hard to master but worth it in the end.

    Maribeth:)

  23. Krist’s avatar

    Patience has never been one of my strengths. I finished several revisions of my YA ms after using initial beta readers and just this week sent the updated version to my awesome critique partners for their feedback. In the meantime, I’m reading industry blogs, researching agents (my favorite procrastination method), and working on a different YA (20K completed so far).

    I feel my ms is really close to the query stage – although I’m waiting until the NaNo’ers query before I send in mine – and I had a revision question. If after final revisions, someone feels that they are ready to begin the query process, are there any final tips you would give in terms of reviewing the ms before sending it out? Thanks!

  24. Jonathan Ball’s avatar

    In response to Martha: you begin by typing.

    I’m not being facile. You just start. If you need a trick, the trick I use is to print out the manuscript, open a new file, and retype the manuscript from the beginning. Since the words aren’t already there in the file, I feel more free to rewrite than I would otherwise (when I’ll just make changes). And it becomes easier to make large changes (like combining two characters into one) when retyping, since you have more room to move (without the next paragraph already sitting there in front of you on the screen).

  25. Mary’s avatar

    Jonathan — Sound advice indeed! But, just FYI, don’t take Martha too seriously. She’s one of my critique partners and, I believe, was just blowing off steam after a particularly vicious meeting. :)

  26. Martha Flynn’s avatar

    Retyping the whole manuscript is totally hard core! I may have to babystep by starting with one or two troublesome scenes. Thanks for the tip, Jonothan. (And yes, Mary is VICIOUS! But right. Damn her.)

  27. Melissa’s avatar

    Sorry, I posted this question under another post, but you specifically asked for questions here, so: could you talk about tension as a separate issue, if possible?

  28. Mary’s avatar

    Melissa — I’ve got a post on tension scheduled for December already, as it’s a very important manuscript element. Stay tuned!

  29. Rikke’s avatar

    Okay, I know a lot of other people have commented already, but this is just one of the best posts I’ve read on any blog about writing in a long time. SO many writers I know need to read this. I have one friend who is justified in being impatient. She’s 81 and worries she won’t be around to see her book published. She’s excused. Everyone else needs to get used to the idea that good writing takes time. A lot of time.

  30. Michaele Stoughton’s avatar

    Patience. That was a hard thing for me to grasp at first, but I’m so glad I didn’t rush my ms off a year ago, when I thought I was -almost- ready. Then I found sites like this one that offered great advice. And always when I needed it. I don’t know how many times I went looking for direction, and there just so happened to be a post on that very thing, that very day. Thanks Mary.

  31. DeAnn Campbell’s avatar

    Well said. Well said.

  32. Deb Marshall’s avatar

    Yep…this is so, so true. Looking back, I _know_ I rushed. Every now and then it sneaks back up on me, so it’s good to re-read and remember to take. it. slow. !

  33. Deborah Taylor-French’s avatar

    Fantastic post! I belong to a large writers’ club (nearly 250 members in our area) and 99% of all guest speakers talk about getting published. What happened to the goal of crafting a memorable story? What happened to the absolute drive to master the skills and craft?

    Many writers say that their first book took 5 to 10 years to write. And these are usually people who go on to write dozens of books.

    My question is, what are your suggestions to fine tune my mystery for middle grade readers? This is a wide span of skills and interests from readers who love simple chapter books to readers with nearly YA vocabulary (minus the adult subjects)?

  34. Thedesertrocks’s avatar

    I enjoyed your post and look forward to reading more.

  35. Rob’s avatar

    Mary,
    Thanks for tweeting this archived post today. I soooo needed it. The writing addiction (and studying that goes with it) consumes me now. I will get better every day. rob

  36. karen’s avatar

    “Many writers say that their first book took 5 to 10 years to write. And these are usually people who go on to write dozens of books.” Thanks, Deborah.
    I started my Upper MG in 2007!! And it’s taken two years of revising. I still love that baby. Betas do, too. Though, of course, while my hands were tied up with the ms being read. I started two other MSs.

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