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.