As I cleared off bookshelves over the holiday break, I uncovered a lot of books of the do-it-yourself variety. At one time, all of them had looked promising to me, but the cold, hard reality was that I didn't have enough shelf space to keep all of them.
And so I needed to devise a plan for tackling this pile that would enable me to determine which books would prove themselves worthy of returning to the limited shelf space in my living room.
Since most of the books were non- fiction, I gave each book ten minutes - enough time to peruse the table of contents and, since I was on a time schedule, dive into whatever looked most interesting, rather than whatever came first. The books that sated my appetite in ten minutes or less would be donated. Those that merely whetted my appetite in that time frame would go back onto the shelf, a bookmark inserted where I had left off.
It occurred to me belatedly that an agent or editor approaches our lovingly created manuscripts in much the same fashion. As writers, we are sometimes offended by this, wondering how anyone can possibly make a decision based on only the first few pages of our cherished manuscripts. But as readers, we do much the same thing. Perusing the stacks in a well-stocked bookstore or library, we give each title only a few moments of attention before deciding whether or not to invest our time in it. If we miss, choosing a book that does not live up to our expectations, we have invested only our time. An editor or agent, however, stakes his or her reputation - as well as the reputation of his or her employer - on every title he or she backs. Talk about pressure.
So what's an aspiring writer to do? Exactly what the writing magazines tell you. Put your best work on the page, no matter how many tries it takes. Before sending your work to any publishing professional, make sure it is read - and critiqued - by fellow writers, and then revise it again. Only after you have completed this process should it land on a publishing professional's desk.
Anything less puts your reputation at stake, and jeopardizes any chance you may have at that coveted shelf space.