Jumping The Gun: Suicide by Submission
by John Robert Marlow
FORGIVENESS AND DAMNATION
When it comes to writing, most mistakes are—in and of themselves—forgivable. No professional is going to round-file your manuscript or screenplay because of a few isolated mistakes. Unless, of course, they’re Really Big Mistakes. This post is about one of those Really Big Mistakes…
JUMPING THE GUN
This Really Big Mistake probably takes down more aspiring writers than any other. The phrase doesn’t mean jumping someone with a gun and getting shot for your trouble, though the effect can be no less lethal.
In foot races, anyone who starts running before the starter’s pistol has fired is said to have “jumped the gun.” This does not mean they get a head start on the competition and go on to win the race. What happens is this: they’re disqualified. Out of the race, with no chance to win or even place.
It doesn’t matter whether they jumped the gun intentionally, contracted a bad case of nerves, or simply didn’t know any better. They’re gone, because they have shown a complete disregard for the most basic rule of the game. And unless they somehow get themselves in another race, no one will ever know how good they might have been. The same applies to writing.
Ask any agent, manager, acquisitions editor or script reader: the single biggest mistake any new writer can make—and the one most new writers do make—is jumping the gun. Disregarding the most basic rule of the writing game by jumping across the starting line with something that isn’t ready. I see writers doing this all the time. I did it myself, when I was starting out—and I’m here to tell you, it’s not a mistake you want to make.
Jumping the gun happens in one of two ways. The first is…
LACK OF PROFESSIONAL FEEDBACK
The writer is working in a vacuum, with little or no feedback from others. Or the writer does have feedback, but all of it comes from friends, family, and other writers at more or less the same level of ability—which is to say, not yet good enough to sell.
Friends and family are fine, as far as they go. As are writers groups. The problem (aside from soft-peddling criticism to spare your feelings) is that while both mean well, they lack two critical qualities: professional experience and commercial judgment. In most cases, your friends can only tell you what they like and dislike. This can be helpful, to be sure—but remains in the realm of personal rather than professional opinion.
What friends can’t do is tell you whether your work meets professional standards, and whether it’s likely to sell in today’s market. Another thing they can’t do is tell you how to tweak it until it is both professional and commercial.
Relying on the market (agents, managers, publishers, production companies) to critique your writing is at best unrewarding (they simply don’t have the time) and at worst, disastrous (poor work burns bridges—see below).
For that, you need to consult with someone who’s playing the game at a higher level than you are. Because being stuck in a room with ten, a hundred or a thousand other writers at the same level will get you only so far. You want to move to the next level—and you need someone who’s already there to show you the way.
That could be a friend who’s sold, or a successful writer you happen to know or—more likely—a professional consultant or editor. Yes, these last cost money—but good ones can save you years by showing you how to apply storytelling principles, professional standards and commercial sensibilities to your particular work.
If you can’t afford that right now, there’s a wealth of more general information to be gleaned from the successful works of others, and from interviews with working professionals—in print, online, and via DVD special features. (Always, always get the best special edition DVD.) You may even find the occasional pro blogging free advice.
The other reason many writers jump the gun is…
Let’s face it: the expression “starving writer” is not entirely figurative. Creative types are often bad fits for conventional (and conventionally-paying) jobs. Many live on the edge, financially, because they devote time to writing that might otherwise be spent in pursuit of a more conventional living.
Simply put, and with few exceptions: you can’t write and give your all to [fill in your job here] at the same time. So until your writing starts to pay and becomes a career, it’s a hobby. (Just ask the IRS.)
Eventually, many unsold writers wind up in a serious financial pickle of one sort or another. Naturally, we start thinking that maybe writing is our ticket out of this mess. Nothing wrong with that, as far as it goes. And maybe we’re right.
Trouble is, our financial pickle has a timeline, and it’s usually a short one. So now we start thinking that, if we can just finish writing our favorite book/screenplay/whatever—and then sell it—by such-and-such a date, our financial worries will be over. This may also be true. But here’s the thing…
Priorities start changing. Instead of trying to make your story the best it can possibly be, you try to make your story get you out of a jam. Because the jam is urgent, you’re no longer focused on the story. You’re focused on the jam. Your writing turns from an act of creation and inspiration, to one of desperation. And it shows. You may think it doesn’t, but—take my word for it—you are wrong.
Maybe your story needs another six months of work. But your pickle-deadline is only two months off. So you force the writing to conform to a deadline that has nothing to do with whether the story is actually ready, and everything to do with a completely unrelated problem.
Whether you realize it or not, you start taking shortcuts. You write too fast, and your style suffers. Inconsistencies crop up in characters and plot, because you haven’t taken the time to read and reread and then read again. You impose quick solutions for your own convenience, when they don’t serve the story. You leave things in that should be cut, and leave things out that should be in. Mechanical errors breed like rabbits. The list goes on.
One of the writers I’m working with now—call him Ben—is a textbook example of this. His writing is, in places, brilliant—and in many places where it isn’t brilliant, it’s not far off. Most of what he writes is interesting, and much of it fascinating. With proper guidance and a bit of patience, he could be magnificent. If the cards fall right, he could also be rich. But…
Ben recently married, has a new baby girl, and had to move into a bigger place. His old salary isn’t paying his new expenses, and the family is living off savings. So he’s in a pickle. As a result, he’s making every one of the errors mentioned above.
The more I point this out, the more frustrated he becomes. He’s in a tough spot. That’s understandable. But he’s trying to make the writing, editing, agent-finding and selling process fit into a timeline determined by how long his savings are going to last.
And the more he tries to force the writing to fix his problem, the less likely it becomes that the writing he produces will be good enough to actually fix the problem. It’s like telling Michelangelo to complete the Sistine Chapel in a week. It might get painted—but not in a way that anyone’s going to remember.
FIRST AND LAST IMPRESSIONS
There’s no telling how long it will take to get an agent or interest a buyer. Your personal timetable is not part of their reality. The industry moves at its own pace. You will not alter that pace, and trying to do so will damage you. What is certain is that the less ready your work is, the less likely you are to find an agent or buyer at all, let alone soon.
And that’s not all. If you go out with something that’s not ready, the first impression you make on the people you need—to get you paid and put your story before the public—is going to be a bad one. If and when you approach them again—with a revised version of that work, or with something new—you’re going to walk a much harder road.
Because you only get one chance to make a first impression. That very first time you show up at an agent, publisher or script buyer’s door, you could be anything–from a clueless hack to the next J.K. Rowling or Shane Black.
To find out where you fit in the scheme of things, you will be read. (Unless you’re submitting to Hollywood without a rep—in which case, go with God.) If what you have to say seems intriguing and commercial, you’ll move up the ladder. If not, you won’t.
Second impressions are different. The next time you come knocking, a different dynamic kicks in. If your last submission wasn’t very good, you may be rejected out of hand, without a read. Or, your submission may be handed to the lowest reader on the totem pole, the one who gets the bad stuff.
If you are read, the read may be biased by the negative reaction to your earlier submission—and if you’re coming back with a revised version of something that’s already been rejected, you can count on it. (Unless you’ve been encouraged to revise and resubmit, which means they found the first submission promising.)
In Hollywood, every script that’s covered is entered into the company’s computer and indexed by author, title, plot, and main character names. New York may be less fanatical about this, but publishers employ a similar system. It prevents duplicate reads, helps track promising (and unpromising) writers, and also comes in handy when some crackpot claims the studio ripped off his unsold script. (Which almost never happens, for the simple and depressing reason that it’s cheaper to buy your script than rip you off and face an unrestrained lawsuit.)
Like the oracle at Delphi, the computer is consulted every time a new manuscript or screenplay—or query—comes through the door. If the submission has already been read, it’s typically trashed (Hollywood) or kicked back at the writer (New York).
If the property is new, but the writer’s last submission was poorly received, chances are good this one will be too (or so goes the reasoning), and it often gets short shrift. Ditto for revisions of previously rejected works. And if it looks like you’re trying to game the system and sneak a new version of an old dog past the doorman, that goes double. Maybe triple.
The upshot of all of this is simple: your first impression must be your best—or it may be your last.
copyright © by John Robert Marlow
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