Ask Alice: How do I know when my work is ready to submit?
Ask Alice is an online column produced by the #LoveOzYA team, and written by our Secretary, Alice Boer, who has published several young adult fantasy novels and a non-fiction essay under the name A.B Endacott.
Ask Alice is designed to unpack all aspects of the Australian young adult literary scene, so if you’ve got a question, go ahead and Ask Alice!
One of my favourite quotes of all time about the creative process is attributed to Leonardo da Vinci: “An artwork is never finished, only abandoned.”
In many ways, this is my guiding principle to knowing when exactly a piece is ready for public consumption. It’s a little existentially loaded, I realise. But then again, life is a little existentially loaded.
What underpins that philosophy, though, is the notion that you can indefinitely tweak a project. The subjectivity at the core of most creative work means you can always forever be rewording a sentence here, moving a paragraph there, and generally driving yourself insane.
Ideally, you need to know when to quit before that outcome manifests. But developing that creative self-awareness is a real skill. And if you don’t properly revise your work, you risk submitting a half-baked jumble of words and ideas – an outcome nobody wants.
In contemplating how best to answer the question ‘how do I know when my work is ready?’ the best answer I can give is a brief overview of my own editing and revising process, and hope that you can find some methods, approaches, or even attitudes within it which you can transfigure to suit your own style and approach
As always, this advice comes with the disclaimer: everybody writes differently, and everybody edits differently. What works for someone might not work for another, equally skilled writer, and what works for you now might not necessarily work for you in the future.
To help me answer the question, I also reached out to three publishers who run regular prizes specifically designed for young adult writers (Magabala Books, Text Publishing, and Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing).
Tip One: Develop – and listen to – your style
Spent too much time with the your manuscript, but still not sure if it’s good?
Print out a hardcopy version and edit it by hand. Take time to read sections (or the whole thing) out loud. It’s a good rule of thumb – or rule of ear? If something sounds good read aloud, it’s probably worthwhile.
Magabala Books, who hold the annual Daisy Utemorrah Award, have this to say on the topic of voice:
We encourage writers to feel confident writing in your own style and speaking your truth. Writing for young people has its own unique challenges and joys. Young people are very discerning and see through imitations easily, but if a story is true to your voice, you will go a long way.
Tip Two: Put yourself in the position of reader
If I’m reading back over something I’ve written and enjoying it, I take that as a good sign. Sure, nobody enjoys the process of editing because it’s literally finding every single thing you did wrong, but if the meta story is one that you’re enjoying unfold, then you know you’ve got something that someone else is probably going to enjoy discovering as well.
Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing, who hold the Ampersand Prize, say:
You don’t need to worry about trends, what other people are writing, or what’s selling in the market. We care about the story that only YOU can tell. Ideally it’s a story that you would have loved to read at the same age, or even now – a story that makes YOU laugh, makes YOU cry, makes YOU turn every page like you’re running out of time. Centre yourself in your storytelling and try to write for yourself before anyone else.
Tip Three: Seek clarity by capturing your story in one sentence
In addition to being a chronic planner, I also approach my work in a very cerebral manner. If I feel like something isn’t working, I’ll ask myself: how would I sum up the essence of the story in one sentence?
At the core of it is asking myself what I’m trying to say, and what the central action of the piece actually is. Arriving at that clarity can often inform the revision process, helping me to cull unnecessary elements, and to keep the narrative thread clean.
Tip Four: Follow the submission requirements – seriously
When it comes to the submission itself, one crucial point is to remember the basics. Fill in the form correctly, provide every extra piece of material in the requested format.
Text Publishing, who hold the annual Text Prize and the Steph Bowe Mentorship for Young Writers suggest that in addition to the manuscript itself, writers should ensure all the requested submission components are correct:
The biggest question we get is about what to include in the synopsis. The synopsis should include all of the major plot points, including spoilers! It’s not like a blurb on the back of the book in which you’re trying to hook the reader. Otherwise, read the submission guidelines and FAQ before you submit – most of your questions will be answered there. If not, you can always reach out!
In a broader sense, it’s also important to have some sense of things like genre conventions and typical word length. As Hardie Grant advises:
There are some conventions that it’s good to be aware of, particularly around word count (mainstream YA is generally around 60-80K words), having a strong hook, and understanding what else your audience is reading and what they might want in a book of your genre (ie. a rom com needs a happy ending of sorts!).
Unsurprisingly, Magabala Books agreed:
Often the content of submissions is not age appropriate or assumes too much for young readers. We encourage applicants to read a wide range of junior fiction and Young Adult books to familiarise yourself with the genres first. Think about your audience.
Tip Five: Push yourself, but also, take your time
That may sound like conflicting advice. In essence, it is. But one final piece of advice that Text suggested when we reached out to them for this column really stuck in my mind:
If you’re rushing to finish a first draft by the entry deadline, it might be best to hold off till next year when you’ve had the time to revise and polish.
While it may seem unbearable to wait another year for a publishing prize, or hold off on firing off queries, you should try to keep in mind that there are always new opportunities, always new prizes, always new ways for you to get your work out there.
Don’t compromise the quality of your work on the erroneous assumption that this one prize is your only chance to ‘make it’.
A final thought . . .
The final way I know something I’ve written is ready to submit, is if I feel as I’m looking over it (often for the fifth time) that I need to totally rewrite the story. That’s when I know it’s time. It means that I’ve written the piece well enough and completely enough that the only way to do it better would be to tell a different story with similar plot points.
Work hard, nourish your creative instincts, and then, when you know you’ve done everything in your power to make your story as strong as possible, hit submit.
Our sincere thanks to Magabala Books, Text Publishing, and Hardie Grant Children’s Publishing for their contribution to this piece.