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Motivating the Submission Process - The Motive Center
November 19th, 2005
10:58 am

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Motivating the Submission Process
Loupnoir dropped me a note, as follows:

How'd you like to tackle keeping motivated during the submission process on your LJ? I'm at that phase and am having a lot of trouble keeping motivated. Once the editing process was done (and getting myself through that was difficult), it was as if a switch had been flipped and I couldn't get myself going. If that had freed me up to go on to my next project, it would have been merely annoying, but it didn't. What's a good carrot for these sorts of situations?


Good question. The joys of writing are very different from the joys of sending out piles of pitch letters. It's also scarier for some people--until then, the only people who see your work are you and maybe a group of friends. Now you are putting your baby up for sale! The good news is that there are ways to motivate yourself.

Some of this depends on whether you write incrementally or in bursts. Some people (and I am not one of them) enjoy working steadily; others go for booms and busts. It doesn't matter which you are, though it does change what you may want to do.

A note first on the submission process for those who don't know it.
* For a short story, you typically send to one magazine at a time. Multiple submissions are frowned upon, because they all ask for exclusive rights for the first printing, so it is awkward if more than one accept you.
* For a novel, assuming you don't have an agent to handle this for you, then you need to get an agent. Yes, it is barely possible to sell a novel direct to a publisher, especially small presses or e-presses, but for a larger-scale publisher it is highly unlikely unless you know one of the editors personally. So you submit to agents, not publishers.
* For nonfiction, an agent can be helpful depending on your target audience. I didn't have one for Motivate Your Writing!, but it was a specialty item I sold to a university press. I tried to get an agent, but that's another story. I have one now, on the strength of having published and having a more "upscale" idea.)

I strongly recommend getting an agent for novelists, if only because they are motivated to submit your book when you aren't! Then you can get back to writing your next book while you wait for the agent, who is typically far more knowledgeable about who to submit to and what they want, and therefore much faster. Case in point: my wife Toni's first book, Down Home Murder, was sold to a publisher that had already declined her twice when she was sending on her own, directly to publishers (we didn't know any better). She got an agent, who knew that one particular editor at that house was looking for regional mysteries with female leads, and bingo! (www.tonilpkelner.com)

But back to you, assuming you are trying to get someone first. The trick, as always, is to make the process satisfying or at least find ways to make it as easy as possible. You can and indeed should send out multiple proposal letters to agents, which means you can turn it into a project instead of waiting around. The rule of thumb is when they ask for your whole book, that you should only do for one person at a time, because now they are investing serious time. But proposal letters are no problem. Send them out by the score!

(And in case you didn't know, there are books and websites that list agents and what they want. You can also scroll through acknowledgment pages of writers you like, to try and find their agents' names, who might like you, too.)

DO NOT send to agents who charge a fee. They are in the business of editing, not selling your book. What are they getting rewarded for? This is not just my recommendation, but that of numerous publishers, editors, and big-name agents.

So: now that we have defined the task, what are the carrots? Two kinds: intrinsic, and extrinsic. Intrinsic is hooking into your motives, extrinsic is finding ways to reward yourself "from the outside," as it were.

Intrinsic:
1. You get to go back to writing after sending out a batch, assuming the writing is the fun part.
2. Find ways to make the process fun, e.g., you have a preset list of agents, and you check off how many you have sent to. I tracked how many letters I sent, and how many came back. Note that even rejections can work to reinforce. My wife had a neat trick: every time she got a rejection, she had to send out another letter that day. That meant she always had something out there, and the rejection mobilized her to make sure there was more out there. For her, it was satisfying that her proposal was always in someone's hands. Salespeople, who may approach 100 people before getting a sale (or more! I know one consulting sales role where they only sell 12 projects a year, and approach 50-100 people a day looking for meetings!), think of it this way: "Typically I sell one project in 100 pitches. Each rejection is therefore making it that much more likely that I hit! One down, 99 to go. Two down, 98 to go." And so forth. Same principle: I have 50 agents to try out; odds are decent that one will want to read my book! Note that Toni's approach works better if you are a steady-as-you-go person.
3. If you are a boom-and-bust person, like me, might want to send out 20 and then wait until 10 come back before sending out another 20. Note the idea is to send out more than you were rejected from--this becomes perpetual motion, as well as a way to thumb your nose at fate--First you send 20, you have 20 out there. 10 rejections come back, you send out another 20, and that means you have 30 out there. 10 more come back, you send 20, you have 40 out there! You might want to take a break after 50, and let it go down a bit more...
4. Another person to reinforce you for taking action, e.g., spouse or writing group. It is helpful to have an objective perspective, and this can engage other motives.

Another side note: be sure to reward yourself for steps in the process--not just the final goal. Getting someone to read the "first three chapters and outline" (most agents will ask for something like that if they like your letter), is a victory. It's a funnel: send to a 100 agents, maybe 10 want to read your outline, then maybe 1 of those want to read your full manuscript. Getting to second-stage is a big deal.

Furthermore, you should also feel happy about approaching that level. Here are stages of improving rejection:
1. Form letter or your letter with a scribbled note "no thanks:" the lowest level.
2. Personal note of any description
3. Note referring to some aspect of your idea as positive "nice idea, but not for us" or "great concept, but story doesn't make sense."
4. Asking for your outline
5. Rejecting outline with no comment (unlikely, but it happens)
6. Rejecting outline with specific comment, even if negative
7. Rejecting outline with positive comment
8. Rejecting outline, but open to getting it again if rewritten in a specific way
9. Asking for the full manuscript
10. Rejection with no comment
11. Rejection with specific comment
12. Rejection with positive comment
13. Rejection with positive comment and openness to getting it again if fixed
14. Acceptance with reservations
15. ACCEPTANCE!

See that? Fifteen steps! Track how far up the chain you have gone. "I'm up to rung 10!" "I skipped rungs 5-8!" For some people this is overwhelming, but if you like incremental improvement, this is for you.

Another general thought:

Set a strict goal of how many you want to send. For myself, once I had a proposal letter for my book, I searched through the book alphabetically and pulled out five or ten at a time who suited me. (Actually, I went through the book and noted people first, so that was a few hours of preliminary work.) Then I sent out batches of five.

Extrinsic
1. M&Ms or whatever reward works for you strictly attached to actions taken, preferably something unique or rare, so you don't use them all the time. One per letter. Or five per letter. This is the Skinnerian approach! I knew a guy who kept track of the cigarettes he smoked and coffee he drank while writing his Great American Novel. But he smoked and drank coffee most of the time, so it had no reinforcing effect. Do be sure to set realistic reward patterns as well--for five submissions, for example.

I'm not sure I have any others, having stated the general principle! I suppose you could also block periods of time when you have nothing else to do but write your submission letters.

Hope that's a start...

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