Friday, February 5, 2016

When Are You Ready?

A popular post from July 2014

by Annette Lyon

Not long ago, I witnessed the following: 

A well-established, very successful writer, one who had moved from the traditional publishing world entirely to the indie side, was asked by a brand new, aspiring writer, when he would know his first book was ready to be published.

The veteran writer’s reply: “Put it up right away, as soon as you’re done with it. You’ll get better as time goes on, but why not earn money in the meantime?”

My reaction was pretty much stunned horror. I’ll explain why in a moment, but first, some back story:

I have been actively writing and seeking publication for two solid decades. In that time, my writing has improved by a huge amount, from the sheer number of words and books and articles and posts I’ve written as well as by the feedback I’ve received from others.

Some of those people have been other writers, such as critique group members. Others are beta readers, who may be writers or who may simply be avid readers. Some of those people are professional editors at a publishing house, people who have pushed me to take a good book and make it even better.

One such editor kept returning my manuscript—which was already under contract—and insisted I try again on this one section. It was almost there, but not quite. She wanted the motivation to be stronger here, or the characterization to be stronger there. I rewrote and rewrote and pulled my hair out. The experience was monumentally frustrating, because I already had confidence in that book. I knew it wasn’t garbage. It was good.

Besides, this wasn’t close to the first book I’d written, or even close to the first one I’d published.

For that matter, I had been part of an intense critique group for about a decade at that point. My skill level had increased a ton by that point. It was tempting to tell her to back off and just send the book to press already.

But in the end, I am so glad she didn’t do that. I’m immensely grateful that she pushed me to make the book the best I could possibly make it. She helped me see where my blind spots where so I could fix them. She helped me make that book shine. And it was a Whitney Awards finalist in the very first year of the program.

Many years later, I’m still very proud of that book instead of being embarrassed about it.

(I still hate the cover, though. Dear marketing and graphics departments: What were you thinking?)

Hypothetical question: 
What would have happened if the industry had shifted earlier, making the siren song of self-publishing whisper in my ear back in 2007? I might well have thought that hey, it’s good enough, and put it up myself before that book was truly ready.

My first book hit shelves after eight intense years of working my tail off on a lot of manuscripts. I learned an enormous amount in that time.

So I cringe to think what I would have put out into the world as a writer if I’d had the ability to self-publish back when I started in 1994 as easily as I can in 2014.

I simply wasn’t ready back then. I hadn’t paid my dues to learn and grow and seek enough outside feedback.

Today, I’m grateful for the chance to self-publish; I’ve used the technology for several books and projects, and I have every intention of doing so again. It’s a wonderful tool, one with many, many perks that traditional publishing lacks.

But I also know that I’m stepping into those waters with a whole lot of experience under my belt. I know how to avoid landmines (largely by still getting outside feedback).

And this is why I cringe at the type of advice this author gave the beginning writer. I am a big advocate of independent/self-published books and their authors. I’m a hybrid writer myself—I do both traditional and self-publishing. It works for me and many others.

And yet. A huge stigma still exists about self-published books, and it’s not entirely unearned.

The stigma is based on the fact that very few books that are thrown up onto digital platform have gone through the amount of beta readers, drafts, and rounds of edits (including a professional edit!) that it needs. A lot of indie books are written by writers who are a long ways away from investing the 10,000 hours required to master their craft (or 100,000 or half a million hours, or however long; every individual will be different).

There is a time when it’s too soon to put your work out there. I’ve seen some self-published books by authors I can tell are talented and have the potential to do fantastic, wonderful things, but the book wasn’t ready. I've wanted to say, "Get to a critique group! Find a good editor! Get it proofed!" It's what  might have been. 

Instead of incubating it, revising it (again and again!) until it shines, the author uploaded the manuscript to make money on a half-baked book.

And that right there is the travesty.

If you have plans to self-publish, more power to you! So do I. It’s a fabulous train to be riding.

Just remember:

·         Take your time; don’t rush it.

·         Consider the next few years your apprenticeship: write several books with no intention of publishing them, just to learn how to craft a full story and how to finish a book.

·         Read up on the craft. Voraciously.

·         Read books in your genre. Voraciously. Look for what works, what doesn’t work, and figure out why.

·         Attend writing conferences and attend lots of workshops on the craft. Don’t just go to the marketing classes. You need to know your craft, first and foremost.

·         Get outside eyes looking at your work. Lots of them. You won’t agree with everything they say, and that’s fine; chance are, they won’t all be right. But chances are, they’ll be more right than wrong. And even if they tell you to fix something in a way you know won’t work, pay attention to the underlying diagnosis of the problem; they may be on to something.

·         Pay for professional services. That means editing and proofing (two VERY different skill sets), formatting (for e-books) or typesetting (for paper books), and cover art. If you aren’t trained specifically in graphic design and in creating book covers, don’t attempt to make your own. It’ll be obvious. I want indie authors to have all the success they deserve, and they have the best shot of that if they, quite simply, ignore that writer’s advice altogether.

Do NOT put up the first thing you’ve ever written and then just shrug, figuring you’ll put up better stuff when you’ve improved. You will have already besmirched your name and tainted any potential audience.

Sure, you may make some money in the meantime, but will you be proud of your books? 

Or will you be a bit embarrassed about them? 

Will you lose potential readers because they now assume you’re not a pro and don't take the craft seriously?

Make your start out of the gate the strongest it can be. Waiting is hard, but it’s so, so worth it, and it’s crucial if you want to be a successful writer, regardless of the publishing path you choose.


antares said...

This is a sensitive topic.

On one hand, I believe there are many paths to success. From this stance I encourage writers to publish early and learn as they go.

On the other hand, I have seen a lot of dreck out there that was not ready for prime time. Just because you can put words on paper does not mean you should publish. I encourage writers to learn the craft.

Everyone starts out by writing crap. When you are green, you don't recognize it as crap. Find someone to educate you.

Write crap and learn the craft until you don't write crap. But do not publish crap.

Renae Mackley said...

Thank you for the encouragement. Waiting is hard. Good things not only come to those who wait, they happen while you wait--if we are working at it.
The best advice I am taking from this is to have many sets of eyes on my work.

Lu Ann Brobst Staheli said...

Excellent advice, Annette. Only one point I would modify a bit. SOME new writers will need a few years to really be ready to publish, but others may not. I've edited many books from first time authors that really just needed some tightening here, a little more there, etc. The length of time it takes to be ready really depends on how seriously the new author uses the time to complete all the other points you make.