“You’ll always miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
I decided when I was about five years old that I was going to be a famous author when I grew up. And throughout my public school years, I wrote fearlessly, proudly displaying my stories (some of which were much better than others) for all the world to see. I entered Young Author’s competitions, submitted stories to the local college’s literary journal, read my stories aloud in class whenever the teacher asked for volunteers. And although I received some harsh criticism from some of my classmates, I focused on the praise and encouragement I received from others. I took the constructive (as well as the more hurtful) criticism to heart, and my writing steadily improved. I was right on track toward achieving my dreams.
But then I went off to college. And I met many, many brilliant writers. Classmates and professors who obviously knew what they were talking about. Some of whom had even been published “for real,” and not just in the college literary magazine. And I started to compare myself with everyone else. I held my weaknesses up against their strengths and convinced myself that I’d never measure up. And fear of failure took over.
Years later, a chance meeting with a New York Times’ bestselling author (who turned out to be a regular person, just like me!) convinced me to pick up my story pencils and take another stab at my dream. I wrote my first novel for NaNoWriMo in 2008, and it was pretty awful, but I loved it. Full of newly remembered confidence, I entered this manuscript in two different writing contests, both of which promised feedback from professional writers and editors.
The feedback was devastating. One judge went so far as to tell me “I don’t believe your main character would have so many friends. She doesn’t deserve even one friend. No one in his right mind would ever care about a character like this.” Ouch! – In retrospect, my character was rather flat, and I’d done such a poor job of showing her inner conflicts that her actions did make her quite unlikable. But at the time, the criticism stung like crazy. And I decided that I would never again show my writing to anyone until it was totally, completely, 100% flawless.
This is a good thing. You want to send only your most polished, perfected manuscripts out into the world. But somehow, I got it into my mind that a rejection from an agent or an editor on one manuscript would be an eternal “no” on all future work. I was afraid of burning bridges and having doors slam in my face if I queried too soon. So I revised and polished and edited, got critique from talented writers and editors, revised and edited some more. Then, I got more critiques from a brand-new bunch of people and kept going. Again, and again, and again.
When a well-known editor I met at a conference read a sample of my manuscript and told me, “You can keep revising for twenty years and never fix everything. This manuscript is ready. You’re ready. Don’t be afraid to send it out there,” I determined to swallow my fears and start submitting queries.
And I did. One or two at a time, revising the manuscript frantically with a whole new group of critique partners every time I received a rejection. And approximately two years after I sent my first query, I finally gave up on that novel. I’d received several very encouraging, personal rejections from agents and editors (including the editor I’d met at the conference, who sent one of the most encouraging letters I’ve ever received, even though she had insisted she never sent personalized rejections, because she didn’t want to encourage people to keep sending manuscripts she wasn’t interested in), but no offers. Obviously, if it was going to happen, it would have, right? I mean, two years is a really long time in the query trenches. Obviously, it was time to move on.
Except, in that two years, I’d only sent a total of 21 queries. Less than one a month, on average. I hadn’t even worked my way through all of my top agent choices before giving up. I didn’t really give my story a chance.
In January, with a brand-new, polished and shiny manuscript in hand, I joined Sub It Club, determined to recapture the fearlessness I used to have and give myself a chance to shine. My critique partners made me promise that I wouldn’t give up on this manuscript until I’d reached at least 200 rejections. And the only way to get to there was by sending my queries out into the world.
I entered WriteOnCon’s Luck of the Irish Pitch Fest, where I received my first-ever full request, and Pitch Madness, where my pitch was not only one of the lucky entries to make it past the slush pile, but I received several requests! I sent off the requested pages to all who asked for them, and then I sat back and waited. One agent loved the voice but didn’t care for the story. Another loved the story but wasn’t a fan of the voice. One thought the main character was amazing and hilarious, while another didn’t like her one bit.
Armed with loads of conflicting feedback, and a tip from a super-agent who suggested a small tweak to the story, I revised again. And I entered The Write Voice, where Team Cupid helped me to hone my pitch and my manuscript. Again, I received a few requests, and I happily sent off the manuscript.
Without sending off a single query, I’d managed to achieve 10 or 11 requests from super-awesome agents. And although many of the requests had already ended in rejection, the feedback was encouraging. I really had something here, and I just had to keep going. But I couldn’t keep entering my manuscript into online pitch contests as my only submission strategy. After a while, agents start to get tired of seeing the same manuscript over and over again. And most of the agents on my “Agent Rockstar Wishlist” hadn’t participated in any of the contests I entered. I had to send some queries too. I compiled a list and sent a few emails. (I sent more queries in two weeks than I had sent in the two years I’d been querying my previous manuscript!)
Then, the folks at Aussie Owned and Read announced a new online pitch contest: Pitcharama, a pitch contest judged by editors of small presses. When I saw that one of my favorite new small publishers was on the list of participating judges, I was sorely tempted to enter. But I’d promised myself: three contests and no more. And I was determined to stick with that promise. Until Sharon Johnston (one of the fabulous authors behind Aussie Owned and Read) sent me a message on Twitter and asked if I was going to participate.
I joined Sub It Club in January to remind myself that, as that wise editor pointed out a few years ago, I would never get anywhere if I didn’t let go of the fear and start putting my story out into the world.
So I entered one last contest.
And I received two requests.
Which turned into two offers of publication.
The journey of this particular manuscript was a little bit unconventional, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to make entering online pitch contests the sole strategy for submitting a manuscript. But the encouragement and support I received from Sub It Club (and a handful of super-awesome critique partners) gave me the courage to try.
And that is what made all the difference.