Wednesday, June 4, 2008
Writing vs. publication
On a message board where I post, someone said their writing group suggested that they write the first three chapters of a book and submit that to agents (along with a synopsis). This would save them the trouble of writing the entire book and then not being able to find representation.
This would work for nonfiction, which is typically queried with proposals, or for established novelists. For aspiring fiction writers, it’s not good advice. It implies that the priority is representation and publication, and writing is just the means to the end to get there. And even then, the means is short-changed by not being completed. If I’ve written three chapters of a good book, I would have to finish it; the fun would be in telling the story, watching events unfold and things get blowed up real good at the end. I can’t control whether or not an editor accepts the book, but I can control just how good I make my writing, so I can’t imagine truncating the latter stage in favor of hurrying on to the former. Someone who thinks of writing a book as trouble or labor - unpleasant but sadly necessary for publication – may be in the wrong line of work.
Not everything written may be saleable, but that’s par for the course. I’ll bet that Michelle Kwan didn’t get a medal each time she stepped on the rink in front of an audience. But if she had decided to save herself the trouble of skating a program and then not being able to stand on the podium, she would never have ended up there at all. Even an unsaleable book is a learning experience, and it can be revised if the writer knows what didn’t work about it – though it can’t be rewritten if it was never written in the first place.
Another danger of following the writing group’s advice would be that an agent might like the partial and request the full manuscript. The writer would have to buckle down then, completing and editing the book as fast as possible, and the agent may not be willing to wait three or six months or however long it takes. Some writers believe that an agent’s request will give them the incentive to finish the book, but personally, I write because I enjoy writing, not because I have a full request breathing down my neck. This thread is a great example of a worst case scenario – the writer sent out a manuscript which "wasn't polished or at least even a solid first draft" (his words). The agent asked for the full, and when that didn’t arrive, called to follow up. Panicked by the pressure, the writer avoided the calls and didn’t return them.
Keeping publication a priority is an excellent thing. I just don't believe it should be a writer's first priority - such that writing itself takes second place (at best).