wrote your article on upcycling kitchen recyclables with a particular market in mind. Your target market, a magazine on green living, didn’t want the piece. Now it sits on your drive with dozens upon dozens of other articles and stories.
You aren’t alone. A lot of us live for the thrill that comes with a new project. Once we’ve played with that idea, found our sources, and created a motivational call-to-action, we are ready to send it to the market we had in mind.
By the time the magazine about green living rejects your upcycling article, you’ve been struck with another great idea. You can now either spend your time exploring handmade wedding decorations or try to market the rejected upcycling piece. What would you choose? The drudgery of marketing or the rush of something new? When faced with marketing, even multi-published authors often choose to work on their latest piece, especially if they don’t have a second market in mind for the rejected work.
Even writers who consistently sell their work choose to work on new pieces often enough that we have stories and articles filling our drives. There are the pieces we wrote for a proposed column that never came into being. Sample chapters languish. Drafts pile up.
To sell more of your work and get these existing pieces into circulation, follow these five steps.
Step 1: Evaluate
Before you pick a project to submit, take stock. Look through your filing cabinets, the piles on your desk, and the material on your disk drive. What is waiting for a home? Some manuscripts are fully written. Others are sample chapters.
At this point, don’t list only what’s perfect. List everything you would be willing to work on again. If you loved the idea on upcycling recyclables, put it on the list. Perhaps you can find a new market or reslant it for a different market.
Once you have a list of possible projects, consider these points:
- Some material is seasonal. Holiday material, summer fun pieces, and back-to-school topics all have a slot on the calendar. Print markets usually work six to nine months in advance. Online markets don’t wait until the last minute either—they often work three months in advance. Do you have anything that would fit within the seasons that either online or print publishers are considering? Put anything that is time sensitive and will only be of interest for a brief time near the top of your list.
- Now that you have a list of manuscripts to work on, look for potential markets. As you find possible markets, check their submissions guidelines. Markets that aren’t currently reading should be noted but won’t help you sell a piece right now. If the information is available, also note how many pieces they buy each year. Few purchases mean fewer opportunities. Pieces with multiple potential markets should move up your list. Those with fewer markets should move down.
- How close is a particular piece to being done? Your piece on handmade wedding decorations is complete. So is your piece on upcycling, but you wrote it over a year ago. You’ll have to make sure it isn’t dated. If you can’t find other green living markets, you’ll have to re-vision it and decide how to reslant it for a different market. Your novel, at this point, is only three chapters long because that’s all you needed to enter the contest sponsored by your local writer’s guild. Finished pieces move up the list. Material that could be quickly updated belongs somewhere in the middle. Unfinished manuscripts? Those go near the bottom of the list. Why? Because a finished manuscript will take less work to get out the door.
Take a look at these various issues and decide which piece to work on first. Once you’ve picked this piece out, you need to . . .
Step 2: Summarize
A summary is a distillation of your story, article, or essay. It shows the strengths in a top-notch piece, but also highlights the problems in a weaker piece. The shorter the summary, the more obvious both strengths and weaknesses become.
We are going to focus on elevator pitches. This incredibly brief summary is short enough to present on an elevator ride. One sentence is best, but three are acceptable.
Before you write your pitch, think about your manuscript. Why did you write it? What story did you want to tell? What excites you about it? Your elevator pitch is a sales tool. It needs to convey your enthusiasm.
“Your elevator pitch is a sales tool. It needs to convey your enthusiasm.”
A nonfiction elevator pitch should include four things:
- What gripping question/situation will be resolved by this manuscript?
- Why does it need to be resolved right this minute?
- How you plan to resolve it.
- Why you are the one and only author who should tackle this project.
An elevator pitch for Russell Freedman’s nonfiction picture book The Boston Tea Party might read:
Commonly considered a spur of the moment event, the Boston Tea Party was carefully planned not only to make a statement, but also to protect the identities of those involved. I’m well-known for my ability to make history fascinating, while tackling the truth behind key historical events.
With fiction, there are three things you need to cover:
- Character – Who is this story about? The reader needs to know whom this person is and what about them is key to this story.
- Launch into adventure – What is the point of no return that sets this story in motion? This might include a disaster, meeting the antagonist, or a personal failure.
- The big risk – What is at risk if the situation isn’t resolved?
Stress whatever is pivotal and unique about your story. In Life of Pi, this was the setting: a lifeboat, which limits Pi’s ability to distance himself from the tiger. The tiger, which early in the story acts as the antagonist, also deserves mention as his ability to eat everyone else on the lifeboat is critical to the story.
A summary of this novel might read:
When a shipwreck strands Pi Patel in a lifeboat with various zoo animals, including a tiger, the sixteen-year-old needs his knowledge of animals, as well as his own cunning, to survive. Rescuers who miss the tiger because of his disappearance into the jungle refuse to believe Pi’s tale until he relates a more mundane story that leaves readers asking which is the truth.
Summarizing a nearly complete manuscript may seem like a waste of time; but if nothing else, you will need this summary for your cover or query letter. A summary can also bring to light the fact that the stakes in your novel aren’t high enough or that you don’t know why your nonfiction topic is vital to your intended audience. These problems will need to be addressed before the manuscript goes out the door.
Finally, a solid summary will also help you . . .
Step 3: Take Stock of the Manuscript
Even if you think your manuscript is ready to go, take stock of your manuscript. Your elevator pitch is advertising copy for your manuscript. Before you send your work out, you need to make sure it lives up to this copy.
As you read through your nonfiction manuscript, examine each paragraph with an eye toward your summary. Does the information in this paragraph either describe the problem or solve it? Is it presented in a way that is both interesting and clear?
If you write narrative nonfiction, using scene building techniques and dialogue to pull the reader in, mark up a copy of your manuscript, highlighting scenes in one color and narrative in another. How do they balance? You might also highlight dialogue or quotes to see how often you use them. Mark your most important “scenes” or sections of the manuscript. How far apart are they? Are they long or short? Too much space given to less important material may indicate a need to tighten your text.
If you are evaluating a fiction manuscript, again, start with your summary. Who is the story about? Does each scene tell her story? Is the conflict gripping? Are the stakes high enough? A scene that doesn’t accomplish any of these things may need to be cut.
Your fiction manuscript needs to have the same kind of balance I described for a nonfiction manuscript. You might examine dialogue vs action vs narrative for overall balance. Mark your best scenes. Are they spaced throughout the manuscript? Do they carry enough weight in terms of length? When do you reveal the main plot question to your readers? When does your character leave on her big adventure?
Your summary can help you define the story you meant to write. Taking stock of the manuscript helps you see what you actually got down on paper. What will it take to change your current manuscript into the story you meant to tell?
Once you have a plan in hand, you are ready to begin the rewrite process.
“Getting back into a long abandoned project takes time. Don’t lose your momentum by taking another lengthy break.”
Step 4: Write it Right
Didn’t I make that sound easy? Unfortunately, after a long absence, it can be difficult to get back into a project. Here are some tips to get you started.
What initially sparked your energy for this particular project? What made you think that this was something you simply had to write? If it was seeing a particular movie, watch that movie. If you leapt into the manuscript after you read about the plight of a certain group of people, look for new information on them and their situation.
It can be especially difficult to get back into a fictional character’s head after a long absence. Fortunately, there are things you can do to reintroduce yourself to this character and her world. Start with various elements of her world that you can experience. Listen to her music. Fix her favorite meal. Peruse scenic photos of her part of the world. Take in her world through as many senses as possible.
You can also encourage your character to speak to you by journaling. Each time you sit down to work on this manuscript, invite your character to write you a letter. How does your character feel about the long separation or at your current inability to get going on her story? What is it that you need to know more than anything else about this particular point in the story?
Getting back into a long abandoned project takes time. Don’t lose your momentum by taking another lengthy break. Try to work on the piece every day, and your momentum will build.
Step 5: How to Fix Writing that Doesn’t Flow
In step three, I talked about evaluating your writing and looking for places that you needed to cut. Sometimes you have to cut because an article or story exceeds the word limit. Other times, one portion of a story or article is too long—its length disproportionate to its importance to the whole.
Reworking a piece too often or cutting too much can leave you with a clunky manuscript. It seems rough or awkward. No matter how many times you rework it, it gets worse.
The solution? Close your current document. Open a new document. Start from scratch.
Create a Marketing List
With multiple manuscripts under submission, when one comes back, you’ll be tempted to just let it sit.
Instead of doing this, evaluate multiple markets when you are doing your initial market research. Don’t discard those that simply aren’t your first choice. Keep track of them and make a list. Soon you’ll have not only choices one, two, and three, but perhaps also eight, nine, and ten.
If a rejection comes in on a certain piece, take a look at the next market on your list. Does the piece need to be reworked at all before you can submit to this market? Perhaps you need to add a sidebar, cut 100 words, or reslant it slightly. If so, put it at the top of your project list, so that you can get to it and get it back out.
If it doesn’t need an update, send it out now.
Keep your work circulating; and soon your numbers of pieces in submission will drop, not because of rejections, but because of sales.
No, I mean it. Start from scratch.
The current document is clunky and awkward because you’ve fiddled with it too much. It’s like when you were a new cook making muffins and overworked the batter. Instead of delicate muffins, they were tough. You couldn’t un-overwork them. Fortunately, you learned from your mistake, and the second batch was perfect.
The same holds true with your story. It’s overwritten and you can’t un-overwrite it. Things will go better if you start from scratch. You know where the piece is going. You’ve also identified the bits that don’t fit. You’ve spotted the false starts and wrong turns. Instead of having to back up and try again, you can simply avoid going the wrong way in the first place.
Start from scratch, and you’ll be surprised at how smoothly the words flow and how quickly it all comes together.
Writers write. Unfortunately, rewriting is hard work, and sometimes we avoid it for the thrill of a new project. Because of this, manuscripts that are almost ready languish on our hard drives.
Instead of letting them gather electronic dust, why not take some of them to final? It will mean taking stock of the manuscript and possibly updating or re-visioning it before you make it the story you meant to write all along.
Do this, and you’ll find an editor who agrees. This is a story that needs to be told, and you are the best writer for the job.
Sue Bradford Edwards is a writer and book reviewer who creates scenes in her home office in St. Louis, Missouri. Read her work at Education.com and Prayables.com. To find out more about her or her writing, visit her blog, One Writer’s Journey, her book review blog, The Bookshelf, or her website.
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