I’ve had a pretty good month.
Firstly, I discovered that four of my stories got longlisted for the Oh Zoe rising talent award. Considering that Oh Zoe were looking for books that could be personalised and my stories only kind of fit this criteria at best – I only entered at the urging of my critique group – it was a bit of a surprise. Apparently they liked my style….
Secondly, I was runner up in the latest SCBWI Slushpile Challenge. Again this came as a surprise – I started my month’s mentoring with a children’s book editor right after the competition entry date closed, and that particular story has since been edited considerably. I was convinced the older version that I’d entered into the competition wouldn’t place anywhere.
So, before you roll your eyes at my crowing about my ‘successes’, I’m going to move right along on to my point. Which is – how edited does a story need to be before submitting it? I know I’ve discussed this before – edit, edit, edit again, get feedback, edit, be one hundred percent sure your story is ready before you submit. But what I’ve found is no matter how perfect you think something is there is always room for improvement.
My month’s mentoring was fabulous. I chose to go with Natascha Biebow of Blue Elephant Story-shaping as she was recommended to me by an agent, and I’d also attended a SCBWI workshop with her which had included feedback on one of my stories. After the initial shock of seeing she didn’t love my story as much as I thought she would (if at all!), once I’d considered her comments a while I could see everything she said was spot on. So I signed up and sent off my three strongest rhyming stories and my latest prose story which I thought it was still a bit weak. Turns out the only story she seemed to like was the prose!
Receiving critique on your work is never easy, and I will confess that I was crushed when I read Natascha’s first lot of comments. Not original enough was the main issue, but the real knife in heart was the comment that ‘you shouldn’t write in rhyme unless you’re really good at it’. (Errr, hang on! What? I AM good at it!!!) There were tears…. but, once I’d got past my ego and sat and processed her comments, I could see what she was trying to say. Taking her comments and using them resulted in significantly better stories. She is the experienced one after all, and really knows her stuff.
So great, right? I should feel confident submitting these stories knowing that they are now definitely in tip top shape! Except I’m even more nervous now. Those stories were the ones I’d been told were my best. They’d previously caught the eye of both editors and agents. They were supposed to be ‘close’, yet they weren’t. So what if someone likes my work and asks to see more, but everything else I’ve got is still far from ready?
What is important to keep in mind is even the most recognised names in the business go through the process of editing. The story that is published is probably far removed from the version originally sent to agents and publishers. A well-known children’s author told me she often feels like crying and throwing her stories in the bin when the first lot of notes come back from the editor! I guess this means I shouldn’t be afraid. Having the determination to succeed, being open to suggestion, and being willing to work on your manuscripts to improve them are all very important things.
I think it is harder for those of us without agents and who are still unpublished. Agents don’t really need new clients most of the time, so to stand out from the pile it is worth having something perfectly polished to submit. An experienced editor will see things you won’t see on your own, and they should be able to steer you and push you into producing something even better than what you started with. My time with Natascha not only helped me produce much better work, but she also showed me things I can use going forward. Hopefully my standard of work will have jumped a few notches when I write something new.