One problem with trying to write a novel, you can never really say you’re done. There is always something that can be improved or revisited, shortened, lengthened, de-emphasized or removed entirely. Viewed another way, I suppose this can be seen as an opportunity to keep on searching for that perfect ending that you’ll never find. There is an intimation of mortality in finishing anything, even a sandwich.
But all the same, I need this story to end. I need to find an agent; fail to find an agent; decide to self-publish; decide I’ve just wasted the last five years and ceremoniously burn the manuscript pace Bulgakov; abandon myself to despair and Bushmills; start a new novel, take up a new hobby; be hit on the head by a falling cornice, get amnesia and start a new life. Something, for the love of god. Something.
After investigating the matter a little, I realized the world looks coldly on unknown novelists who have never published anything or attended M.F.A. school. I decided it would be a good idea to somehow turn my first chapter into a short story and try to publish it. By the time this succeeded in attracting attention and respect, I would have improved the rest of the manuscript enough that it, too would be worthy of admiration and love. (Insert sarcastic exclamation points as needed.)
Armed with this notion, I went online for leads about where and how to find places that might be interested in publishing a lively and amusing short story about some time travelers from the future in search of Jane Austen’s letters. Is it science fiction? Is it Jane Austen fanfiction? Is it, heaven forfend, literary? And before I knew it, I was down the rabbit hole, with a million windows open in Firefox, in the kind of lost morning when it’s lunchtime before you remember you never brushed your teeth.
Which was how I accidentally discovered the 13th Free “Lucky Agent” contest. Passing silently over the lucky 13th part as too cheap a shot, I will observe this contest, open until Jan. 31 and organized by Writer’s Digest, is open to anyone who has written a YA or science fiction novel. (Is THE JANE AUSTEN PROJECT science fiction? Today it is, you betcha.)
The three winners get a critique of the first 10 pages of their novel and a year’s free subscription to WritersMarket.com, which is better than a sharp stick in the eye. The contest requirements themselves are a source of fascination. One, you must publicize this contest in two forms of social media (thus opening yourself up to more competition, but I admire the self-perpetuating genius of the idea).
Two, you can submit only the first 200 words. I pause, too at the genius of this, which saves the judge an amazing amount of time. Can you really judge the worth of anything by its first page? People do it all the time, of course, in library new-fiction shelves, in airport bookstores. I do it with the forlorn review copies that litter my workplace. It’s harsh, brutal and probably not accurate. But it does force you to think about your work in a whole new way. The question is, though, is it a helpful way?