You’ve been working on a novel for a long time in solitude, a year, two, maybe more, and at last you’ve completed a draft. You’ve shown chapters to a few trusted friends, and they loved it, but you know they’re soft critics. Questions percolate in the back of your head. How good is it really? Is it publishable?
You have no idea. Some days you read it and it’s total crap; others, it’s spun gold. However secure you are in other areas of life, this writing business feels like crossing a bottomless chasm on a bridge of words. Better not to look down; but sooner or later you’ve got to. You need to know where you stand.
You start thinking about submitting, seeking an agent as the first step toward publication. You know what to do; you’ve read up on the publishing business, and you have a list of dream agents. A small voice inside objects: “The novel’s not perfect; it still needs work.” But that’s what editors are for, you tell yourself. Why not let the professionals judge it and hope they come out on the side of spun gold? So you cross your fingers and send out queries.
And just like that, you’ve succumbed to the writerly affliction I call Premature Submission.
DIAGNOSIS: Though it’s not yet listed in the diagnostic manuals, Premature Submission is very real. Writing is a lonely business; loneliness is stressful; and stress erodes the immune system: hence the particular susceptibility of novelists. Finding an agent or publisher represents the purest form of validation. It means someone besides you, someone with publishing experience and a track record, thinks you’re the real thing.
My first encounter with the malady came as a literary agent. Most unsolicited submissions aren’t close to publishable, but there was a sizable subcategory of promising, close-but-no-cigar submissions: books that, in my opinion, had been sent out a draft or two too soon.
Agents are always strapped for time. They don’t have time to teach writers, even talented ones, how to write. And they don’t need to; there are plenty of excellent writers, many with publishing credits, vying for their attention. The same is true of editors. And once they say no to a project, there’s usually no going back. If the writers of those promising submissions had had the patience to go hard at the draft novel with energy and an open mind, to revise, not just by changing a word or two and running spell-check, but in the expansive sense of honing theme, deepening characters, pruning abortive subplots, and polishing the novel’s language, a very different novel might have emerged. It might have; there are no guarantees. What’s certain is that revision is an essential part of the writing process, and writers who skip or skimp on it short-change their own work.
VARIANTS: There are several variants of the syndrome, notably the failure to vet agents and publishers thoroughly prior to submitting. This can result in a parasitic attack by sham agents and publishers who feed on writers’ dreams.
TRANSMISSION: As Premature Submission is not known to be contagious, quarantine is contraindicated. Chicken soup may or may not bolster immunity. As a precaution, firearms and sharp objects may be removed from the sickroom.
PROGNOSIS: Sadly, Premature Submission often leads to Premature Rejection, which in turn may lead to Premature Self-Publishing.
TREATMENT: If you have symptoms of Premature Submission, don’t be embarrassed; most writers have caught it at one time or another. Fortunately, the malady is both curable and preventable through homeopathic remedies. Patience and pride are the antidotes: patience to go back over the novel time and time again until it is as close to perfect as you can make it, and pride to prevent you from ever submitting anything but your best work.
Have you ever succumbed to Premature Submission, or encountered it in others? Let’s talk about it here. And I hope you’ll all share this medicalert with other writers and join me in a campaign to wipe out, once and for all, the scourge of Premature Submission.
LOL! That’s wonderful! I’ll join your campaign to wipe out PS by continuing to write and rewrite and rewrite and… ; )
Oh dear oh dear. I truly hope I’m not suffering from this…
Brava, Zan Marie! Deniz, didn’t mean to add fraughtness to an already…well, you know. Anyway, I’m quite sure you’re not.
Oh Barbara, what I’d give to have found you about fifteen queries sooner! I fell to the illness, but I think I’m recovering now, thanks to your Revising Fiction class!
Thanks, Susan. The responses you’ve been getting from agents is a sure sign of recovery!
This is very entertaining! I think I suffered from this with my first novel, mainly because I didn’t have enough people look at it before submitting. There’s a limit to how far you can judge your own work, IMO.
Hi Nick—thanks for stopping by! It is hard to see our own work clearly, you’re absolutely right. Any agent will tell you that writers are usually bad judges of their own writing. But there are a couple of things that can help.
Experience is the first. When you revise your first novel, you may vaguely sense, say, that there’s a dead spot in the middle of it, but you can’t quite figure out why. By the time you’re on your fourth book, you know why and can fix it. In a first novel, you toss characters out there and expect readers to love or hate them as you do. By the fourth book, you know how to craft characters whose own behavior and speech evokes those emotions.
The second lies is studying the craft. True, many published writers never actually studied writing; they learned through trial and error. But a good course can shorten the path. It’s an odd thing—everyone expects that aspiring painters will study art, and aspiring musicians study music. There’s a lot to master and you can’t learn it all from books. But writers often feel (and are told) that they have to go it alone, that no one can teach writing. Absolute nonsense, IMO. No one can convey talent, but a good, rigorous teacher can convey technique and tools that allow for much more effective writing and revision . I’m not pushing my own Next Level workshops in particular (although I happen to think immodestly that they’re quite good and certainly rigorous) but rather the idea that there actually is something to learn about writing.
It’s good to warn writers agst early submission, but even experienced writers can be blind when judging their own work. Given that agents are not going to be much help, you might want to point writers who don’t already have an agent to ways they can get valuable feedback from objective–if not always expert–readers, namely websites where writers can submit stories and novel chapters for critiquing. One such site is youwriteon.com; another is critters.com. Critique groups comprised of other writers can also be very helpful. The bottom line is that writers don’t have to labor in the dark, waiting for the publishing establishment to spare them a little light.
Thanks for your comment. You make a great point, one I actually refrained from making because I didn’t want to tout my own services. It’s really hard for writers who aren’t yet published to get editorial feedback good enough to elevate the work; yet without that help, it’s hard to attract an agent or publisher, so it’s the perfect Catch 22. Except, as you point out, there are services available to writers that can help. Crit groups are one way to go, IF you can find one rigorous and smart enough. Then there are paid services. I don’t know the two you mentioned, but I myself do ms. evaluations that go into great detail and tell writers what agents and editors would likely say about the work, if they had the time to critique work they’re not taking on. I also offer what I immodestly think may be the best deal on the internet: I read and critique the first 5000 words of a novel for a very nominal fee.
Writers need to be careful about where they invest their money, though. If you scroll down on this page, you’ll see a list of criteria for choosing a writing teacher or an editor.
I may take you up on that 5,000 word critique. Send me your rates please.