Don’t Scare the Newbies

In her autobiography Sex and Shopping, the novelist Judith Krantz talks about a professor from her college days. In the anecdote, he’d reduced her grade from an A to a B on account of her spelling. That incident put her off writing for more than 30 years.

Rationally, it seems like an overreaction: one comment by one person on one day set her career back three decades. Yet negativity is a powerful weapon.

Some years ago, I had a job where I spoke to the public by phone for 37 hours a week. On any given day, the interactions that I remembered most vividly were not from the friendly and co-operative callers, but from the rude and obstructive ones. And it works in reverse: one disrespectful sales assistant on one day can mean a shop losing a customer.

There is research to suggest that it takes five positive events to cancel out a negative one. In the case of Krantz, she was also of college age at the time and therefore in learning mode, so it’s likely she would have taken this more personally than if she’d already been producing work.

Last week, a friend finally showed me some of her poetry after we’d talked about it for weeks. She hadn’t shown anyone before, so I’d promised to take it seriously and to provide constructive feedback.

Dismissing someone’s work without good reason is at best unproductive and at worst unprofessional. If a writer hasn’t received feedback before, how can they improve? I’ve never seen a piece that couldn’t be improved by restructuring the narrative or removing words.

After our discussion, I hope the aforementioned friend will feel encouraged to show future work to me and to others.

The Initial Hurdles

As I’ve been writing for so long, I sometimes forget that less experienced writers still struggle with the initial hurdles that I overcame a long time ago.

Earlier this month, my partner sent me a poem she’d written, after we’d spoken about her interest in developing her craft. She’d always been reluctant to revisit and redraft her work, yet that’s arguably the first step to improving your writing. When you’ve just placed something on the page, you’re not reading it fresh like the next person will.

Probably the most important task to undertake before showing someone is to learn how to edit your own writing.

We discussed the sent poem, in which I suggested trimming many words and restructuring the stanzas. It’s not unrecognisably different from the first draft, but it now flows significantly better.

And now a friend has asked me for help. She has no problem redrafting her work, but is reluctant to show it to anyone. It’s a real fear among some people that their work will be disrespected. I’m currently working with this person to encourage her to open up a little.

When I’m asked to look over someone else’s piece, I sometimes ask whether there’s a particular aspect I should focus on; for example, grammar, structure, themes, &c. I also make it clear that whatever suggestions I make are optional. This sometimes means letting go of aspects that break convention: a couple of poets, for instance, like to capitalise the beginning of each line, even though the widespread practice died out a century ago.

When someone has asked me to look over a piece I might not understand it, or it might not be to my taste. But what I won’t do is sneer at, ridicule or dismiss someone’s work when they’ve taken the time to request constructive feedback.

Keeping on Track

It’s great having a polished story or poem ready to be sent to a publisher or entered into a competition, but then comes the difficult part: waiting for a response. Often it takes months, sometimes it takes weeks, and a select bunch answer in a few days. This is unavoidable.

But here’s what separates a beginner from a seasoned pro: the former often sits and waits for a response, while the latter almost always uses the time to work on another piece. It’s desirable to build up a portfolio because many publishers, and almost all competitions, say you can’t send the same piece to two or more different places simultaneously.

Novel submissions are different in this respect. Most agents recognise that a book is an all-consuming work, and that it could be sent to a number of other places. It’s good practice to inform the other agents if one takes it on.

Whichever situation you’re in, it’s important to keep track of what you’ve submitted to where. It might be a simple as keeping a list if you’ve only a few pieces, but I have dozens in different places, so I use a spreadsheet to record the details:

Submissions tracker

I’ve edited out the names of the publishers and the links to their submission guidelines as I might want to resubmit in the future. The last column keeps track of how many pieces I’ve sent out during the year. My target is at least one piece per week on average; I have a poet friend whose target is an average of at least one piece per day. Otherwise, the tracker is self-explanatory.

 

It’s also important to keep track of what you’ve had published. These appear on another spreadsheet, and I keep the manuscripts in their own directory.

In many cases, the rights revert back to the author after a period of around six months to a year, so the same piece could potentially be sent to another publisher further down the line. If you’re unsure, ask the editor.