Being an unpublished novelist poses all sorts of dilemmas. Writing is entrepreneurial in nature, more than most people realize, and it is fraught with make or break decisions. Which side of the political spectrum do you show yourself? Do you embellish this or that social issue, perhaps the one most fashionable, or do you hide from them all?
If your goal is publication for its own sake, and you’ve decided to write, say, Gothic romance number 214,386, then you do need to follow the Gothic template. But you also need to make it stand out from most of the 214,385 Gothics that came before. The burden to distinguish is higher for unpublished writers because they have no track record to give their work advanced credibility or benefit of the doubt. Yet if the novice distinguishes herself too well, then her originality may be viewed as too risky in itself.
This need to balance risks even extends to things that look simple and straightforward on paper. Take the question of how good your manuscript should be before you query it. The reference books are all unanimous in urging that your manuscript should simply be the best you can make it before submitting it. But it’s not that simple in real life. First off, many amateur writers don’t know how good their writing is relative to their own potential. This is especially true if you are trying to achieve a literary end that’s new or different, say, push a new frontier in poetry, or achieve new levels of fright in horror.
In my own case, in writing Coinage of Commitment, I was bent on writing a love story unlike any other, a mainstream tale of love at a higher level. That made this project so different that even the style I adopted needed to be distinctive, a vivid way of expression that leads readers through the characters’ souls to glimpse romantic love at breathtaking heights. That’s not exactly stock stuff, making it risky to submit and hard to know when it was good enough to send out.
Not realizing what I was getting into, I polished the manuscript as best I could, then sent it out. Two months of querying later, when on a whim I sat down to reread it, I was shocked to discover that it was not the greatest love story ever written, something I suddenly discovered was important for me to achieve. Important enough that I pulled the ms off the market and sent it to not one but two independent editors in series. Three rewrites and seven months later, I resumed the query campaign. But by then, I wondered about the stability of my improvement progress.
Sure enough, despite best intentions, my writing ability kept jumping ahead of itself. I simply couldn’t keep my hands off the ms for wanting to make it better. That meant that the sample chapters I sent out kept changing. Even after the ms was accepted for publication, I could not quench my hunger for better prose. My publisher, Saga Books, in a fit of artistic benevolence, held the presses for the extra weeks it took me to equilibrate at deciding, finally, that I could not improve a single word.
Yes, I realize that this is an unusual account. But it shows that every publishing journey is bound to be unique. So when you read simple instructions like: submit only your best work, don’t be surprised if the path in execution is more tortuous than you ever dreamed it could be.