How do you know?

JK Rowling was an amateur. Twelve Rejections? Twelve? Ha! I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been turned away at the door. Twelve? No offence, Ms R, but that’s not even trying.

I’m the first (actually, probably the second or third) person to admit that I have an arrogant side, especially when it comes to my writing. When I complete a piece I’m damn excited. I lose all sense of perspective. Okay, I know it ain’t perfect, but I’ve got the bones down. And what bones – the bones of a colossus, a juggernaut, a god. Rational thought – sure, it gets a look-in, but excitement, even tempered with experience, is a heady brew. Writers are notoriously bad at self-evaluation.

This, in and of itself, doesn’t matter. As long as you have a strong enough support network – a writing group is ideal – you’ll get feedback and can improve your work over successive drafts. But how do you know when it’s ready to send out to publishers/agents or to self-publish?

I’ve got this wrong. I realise that now. I started sending my work out far too soon, maybe even years before I should’ve been thinking about publication. Occasionally it was for good reasons – publishers running open submission periods, for example – but mostly it was just down to impatience and arrogance. Plus the unwitting encouragement given to me by beta-readers. How do you know? How do you know when you and your work are ready?

The problem (one of them, at least) with the publishing industry is that it’s a one-shot affair. You send out your material and you either succeed or fail. And then you can cross your target off your list. Done. For that project, at least.

Actually, I’m not sure if that’s true. Can you resend the same material – or at least material from the same project – to a publisher? Can you go back? Is there a sort of statute of limitations?

Still, I’m pretty sure it’s bad form to go back to the same place once rejection has been established. And that’s where literary consultants come in. How do you know when your work’s ready to go out? You ask a professional for their opinion. Most, these days, at least claim to be ‘talent scouts’ for agencies, so if your work’s ready you stand to get a leg-up. If it’s not you get valuable advice on where you’re going wrong.

I get it now. I didn’t before. In my arrogance I didn’t see the point. After all, my writing is technically pretty good – I enjoy punctuating and, with (free) help can vanquish most typos. My flaws are slowly being eradicated as they’re pointed out to me.

But now that I’ve had my work critiqued by a professional I can finally see where I’ve been going wrong all these years. Where my plots are falling down. Where my characters are behaving – well, out of character.

I’ve got this far (pretty much nowhere) without paying a penny. I guess that’s something to be proud of, but I’ve cost myself a lot of opportunities on the way. If I’d paid for assessment a year or so ago I’d have stood a much greater chance of having an agent/publisher by now. Yeah, I get it now. I finally see the point.

Which is not to say that I regret doing it my way. I have learnt. Learnt a great deal along the way. Maybe it was best for me to make the mistakes as I went along: 2013 was, for me, The Year Of Learning How To Be Professional. Maybe I had to go through that (not in a predestination type of way – balls to all that) in order to accept the lessons. I just wish I’d been a little more patient before sending my writing out to publishers and agents.

Of course, I know I should finish by saying that I’ll never be so impetuous again. But I know myself. Even though I (think I) know what it’s cost me, I don’t think I’d change. That’s just the way I am. And if you’re in the same position then don’t be too hard on yourself. Be accepting. Be Zen. Keep on swimming.

By the way, why is it that consultants only seem to exist in the world of writing? I know of no comparable services for the music industry, or in art. All rely on interpretations of taste and of technical ability. I tend to think of all the arts as similar in structure, but maybe I’m wrong.

What do you think?

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6 thoughts on “How do you know?

  1. I think there are consultants in areas like music, it just looks different. When bands record they pay at least 1000 per song. And that is on the lower end of the scale. They are also paying for the sound engineers ideas to make the song better. There are also band managers that can be considered a consultant. I’m currently on my third rewrite of my memoir and don’t think I will ever get to a place where I say “yes, this is done.” But hopefully I will say “this could be changed, but says what is needed to be said.” Great post and look forward to reading more 🙂

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    • Thanks for the kind words!

      Yes, after I posted it occurred to me that producers could be thought of in that way. Sound engineers too, you’re right. I always considered managers to be more like agents, but, again, you’re right. I see the way you pay them to be an important distinction: if you pay up-front for a service, they’re like consultants. If they take a cut they’re more like agents. I think a lot depends on the individual you’re working with, and whether they see themselves as part of the creative process. I’ve recorded a few EPs in my time (for significantly less than a grand a song, which probably tells you all you need to know) and the producer was simply taking direction in each case. I guess that people you work with higher up the scale would give you more positive feedback (possibly literally, if you’re in that kind of band) and be making artistic suggestions. I wonder if this is the same with literary consultants. Pay more, get more?

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      • Interesting stuff. I see what you both mean about sound engineers, producers, managers etc could be considered consultants for the music industry, however in my experience, they are offering consultation on the sound of the music. How it is recorded as opposed to any comments on the songwriting or arrangement itself.

        A direct comparison with writing literature would suggest sound engineers etc are offering the equivalent of advice on the aesthetics; fonts, size of text, front cover etc. I think you have identified a slight gap in the market there. While in music once your song is written and you take it to a studio, lots of advice is offered on how to improve the crispness of the guitar or the dirge of the organ. The songwriting is seemingly sacrosanct.

        There are some songwriting courses and the like (one ran by the wonderful Richard Thompson indeed), but these are few and far between. There is also the magic of music to consider, how a semi-improvised bash through a song can become the best and only version worth holding onto, even after a hundred re-writes and re-records. A novel simply cannot be produced in this way, I presume!

        The fact that a novel simply has to be edited and reworked perhaps forces the author to consider this as a matter of course. The songwriter is not forced by his choice of genre to constantly re-evaluate and this in turn perhaps makes the songwriter less inclined to focus on the actual important bit (the song) and (in many cases) spend much more time worrying about the less crucial extras such as string gauge or bass drum tone. As somebody who has attempted to write a fair few songs in my time, this leaves me feeling like an author who has spent his entire working life worrying and arguing over fonts and text size without actually bothering to work out if his book is worth reading!

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      • Excellent thoughts. That’s the unknown question though, isn’t it? To what extent do producers higher up the scale – Quincy Adams, say, or Steve Albini – influence the actual music? It’s interesting that people are very picky about songwriting credits, I guess because it matters so much. But literary consultants, agents and editors are never listed as co-authors in novels, even though their contributions can be massive. And then there’s the whole field of ghost-writing. A guess the analogy would be with Milli Vanilli.

        So that’s your future then – being ghost-songwriter and masterminding a succession of young rock stars to success? Go for it!

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  2. I think writing is a unique, creative, animal. I have noticed the culture within writing, is a lot more supportive than areas like music. When any of my friends get a book published I literally jump with joy. I think part of it, is understanding the struggle that you mentioned in your post. It takes a LOT of encouragement to get to the point of having your book published. Great post and I look forward to reading more posts from you 🙂

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  3. Pingback: Plans | A Writer's Life

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