Something New and Fantastic from the Shoebox
If you ever want to impress an agent or editor, offer them something new and fantastic by the end of the month, and then, most importantly, deliver on that promise. Here's how to do it...
Every author should have a folder or directory called "shoebox" where partially-finished books can sit and simmer. Every author should also have at least one project that can be referred to as "The Work." This is a book or series that's so ambitious, revolutionary, complex, original, and/or research-intensive that it can't possibly be finished...yet. The third thing every author should do is aim for continual improvement in the art and craft of writing. The moment you think of yourself as a "good enough writer" is the moment you start losing your edge. Instead, if you're comfortable with the self image of a "continually improving writer," you will be able to go on to ever more challenging projects that require a higher and higher level of skill.
Years ago I poured a huge amount of time and effort into a certain project. It had an epic plot, innovative story world, and original narrative voice combined with elements I'd never seen in any other book. The early manuscript was a hit among test-readers including my then-girlfriend, who is now my wife (I'm not claiming she married me because of this book, but it certainly didn't hurt). This was "The Work." I took this project as far as I could go with it, and then as far as my critique group could push me, and I still didn't have the skills to write this particular book to the level I thought it deserved. So I put it into the shoebox for what I intended to be just a little while. That was in 2003.
For the last six years, I have worked on other projects--including The Penguins of Doom (Blooming Tree Press, 2007)--always refining my skills in the process. I have also picked up tips and tricks from other authors through their books, blogs, and conference workshop presentations. And you can't discount the bits and pieces picked up from six years of life experience that include getting married, being published, hanging with the Class of 2k7, becoming a father, and switching careers from law to education. When I dug into the shoebox last week and opened "The Work.doc" for the first time since 2003, I saw the story with the eyes of a continually improving writer. I could identify flaws in the story, places where the manuscript fell short of my original vision, and--this is the exciting part--I could now figure out ways to address those issues.
By the end of August I will have a hugely-improved version of The Work to present as "something new and fantastic, just as I promised." I'm confident it will be good enough to submit, although out of my hands as to whether other people will take a chance on its publication. If there's no interest, the story will go back into the shoebox until I am able to bring it to an even higher level.
In the meantime, I wanted to write this post to encourage anybody who feels frustrated with the gap between their grand vision of "The Work" and the rough manuscript that represents their current level of writing. Don't get discouraged. Put that manuscript into an electronic or paper file, move on to other things, and continue to sharpen your skills. There will come a time in some months or years when you will be able to close that gap. And as a bonus, when you're looking for something new and fantastic to submit, you won't have to start from scratch.