College Applications, Manuscript Submissions, and Lessons Learned

There was a big College Information Night at my son’s high school. There are still years to go before he’s ready, but he’s a planner.

auditorium benches chairs class

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So we went.

Approximately 50 reps from colleges all over the country were there. They ran from big and big name schools (UCLA–the most-applied to school in the entire Unite States) to so small I don’t know how else we would have heard of them (Holy Cross–921 students, total).

We talked to lots of them, asking most of the same questions about GPA needed, acceptance rate, majors offered, class size, etc. The school my son most wants to go to had one of the biggest lines (guess others want to go there too). We waited quite a while to talk to the rep, who patiently repeated the same information over and over. (Seriously, why weren’t the parents just listening in while they were in line? But I digress.) While we waited, we grabbed their college brochure and started flipping through it. We noticed some more obscure majors listed for the school, ones my son was sorta interested in, and wondered if applying for one of those would make sense, instead of those which were sure to be the most popular/crowded/competitive. So we asked the rep, if our son were to major in, say Japanese, would that up his odds of getting accepted, as opposed to him majoring in engineering.

The rep waited not even half a second before answering flatly: “Major what you want to major in. Don’t apply to something you aren’t interested in.” And we felt stupid for considering it, or even asking about it. I did, at least.

blur business close up composition

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Now bear with me as I cut over to Manuscript Wishlist, an amazing resource where editors and agents tell you EXACTLY what they are looking for. And I mean exactly. It’s a website as well as a “hashtag” (which means you can do an internet search for “#mswl” and up will pop the most recent posts about it). It’s fantastic because if you are working on a book, say, about kids and frogs you can type in “#mswl kids frogs” and see if there is an editorial match. If so, you know who you should add to your sub list! The more specific the less likely you’ll get a hit, but hey it’s worth a shot. One recent post from an editor, I swear, read “High-tech elves with internet while everyone else is trying to figure out the Iron Age.” It’s that specific.

Scanning the posts or website can be a fount of inspiration. Even if you don’t find a perfect match for your current work-in-progress, it can give you manuscript ideas. Knowing there is someone waiting for that topic/character/etc means you’re one step closer to acceptance! I’ve found myself creating and re-creating all kinds of story ideas from trolling around. Sometimes, I’ll see an element an editor shares about him or herself, and I’ll add that character tag to one of my main characters just so I can add in the cover letter, “Emma loves jelly beans just like you.” I’ve raced to complete a final product since I can almost taste the sweet reward of publication from an already-ready editor. Any edge helps, right?

But here’s the rub. It’s never panned out. The problem is, those stories I was working stories weren’t really my stories. The ideas weren’t my ideas. Even if I can run with a concept, my heart isn’t in someone else’s idea of what makes a great plotline. Just like picking a major just to get accepted at the school you might want to get into, a school you might not otherwise have a chance at, writing a story just to get published at a house that might not otherwise notice you is a waste of time. No one wins. Not you, not the editor or agent, and not the story.

The reader suffers too.

In that moment back at the college fair, I was struck by the similarities of the college app and manuscript submission process. We both search and search for the best fit, then send our submission package after years and years of hard work. (We also fret and fret after hitting the send button, having no control and no idea when we’ll hear back…)

All the time I spent creating those MSWL story ideas? It took me away from MY stories, the ones in my soul, the ones I WANT to write. I’ve wasted my time. I thought I was being clever. But I screwed myself. (Is it OK for me to be frank?)

I hope I haven’t been wasting your time with this analogy.  All this is to say: write the story you want to write. Write the story you need to write. Don’t waste your time writing the story that you think will get you a leg up in the industry.

Write the right one.

Yours.

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Shopping at IKEA

Image result for image ikea warehouse

I dreamt that I was in IKEA, looking for a replacement piece for something from my kid’s room. I look all over the warehouse, up and down every aisle. You know how big that place is! Had people helping, looking part numbers up on the computer, nothing. Two hours. I’m out of options, on the ground floor near the register, when I decide to look a little closer, turn it upside down…and… It’s a Lego piece.

Isn’t that how writing is sometimes? You exhaust every option trying to figure out a story arc or plot point or character tic, get nowhere, only to one day–usually in the middle of the night when you have no pen and paper nearby–look at it from a different angle, and realize all this time you’ve been shopping at IKEA for a Lego piece.

Image result for image blank lego face

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is STEP AWAY. We think we need to WORK THRU IT. We can do this. MARCH ON. We got this. MAKE IT WORK, DANG IT. We won’t be defeated!

And yet, by powering on, we might be getting in our own way. We are so focused on fixing the problem–the FIX–that we aren’t examining THE PROBLEM. We aren’t holding it in our hands, placing it up to the light, looking at it from different angles. If our eyes are only set on the finish line, we can’t see the road we’re on, or we forget WHY we’re on the road in the first place. And we’ll stumble and fall and make all kinds of messes, not to mention waste all that time (ours as well as other people’s).

So how about this: the next time you’re struggling with something, set it down. Don’t think about it.

Go for a walk. Nietzsche said “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking.” A Stanford University study confirmed it. Walking boosts the creative formation of ideas, both in real time and shortly after (“Give Your Ideas Some Legs: The Positive Effect of Walking on Creative Thinking” by Marily Oppezzo and Daniel L. Schwartz, American Psychological Association, 2014). Neuroscientists say exercise, even mild forms like a walk around the block, releases dopamine, which helps us feel relaxed and all around in a better mood. That makes the chances of having great ideas more likely. Ditto for taking a shower, hopping on a bike, or going for a drive.

Work on something else. Set your work down for a while. Literally place it in a file and don’t plan to look at it for two months. OK, fine, six weeks. What’s the rush? Ben Baldwin, who created a company that helps predict who will succeed at which job and why, points to the benefits of freeing your mind for a bit. “The subconscious mind runs in the background, silently affecting the outcome of many thoughts. So, take a break and smell the flowers, because while you’re out doing that, your mind may very well solve the problem that you are trying to solve or spark a solution to a problem you hadn’t considered before,” he said in a WSJ article packed with advice from entrepreneurs about creating ideas.

Force connections. Just for fun, force your main character to do something, well, out of character. Place them in a situation they shouldn’t be in, in a predicament they would hate, or trapped in a room with the person they dislike the most. Writer’s Digest suggests “forcing your character into a corner,” among other creative tips. See what happens. You don’t have to keep the scene, but you may find a side of the character you didn’t notice before. Maybe there is a descriptive part of the location–a balcony or city–that you can keep and use elsewhere. Even if you use none of it, you’ve forced your own creative brain out of its comfort zone. Odds are, your brain needed that push!

The point is, when faced with a challenge, the answer isn’t always to power through. Sometime it’s better to let go, just for a little while, to get a better look at the situation. Maybe you’ve been barking up the wrong tree.

Don’t waste your time at IKEA when what you really need is a Lego piece.