You did it. You finished that freakin’ novel. Now it’s time to show it off to the world and rake in billions of dollars when it becomes the next mega-hit, right? Wrong! The end of the writing process is only the beginning.
1. The first draft of anything is shit. ~Hemingway
Some of you will be shocked, some saw this coming a mile away. There are still authors out there who finish their story and rush it right off to publication, failing to pause for even a minute to consider typos, broken plots, and other nonsense that manages to creep into a first draft. While this advice is well known to some, it’s important to point out that you should never, ever, publish a first draft, ever! At least when it comes to putting things up for sale.
If you’ve just finished your novel, regardless of your writing history, or how carefully you crafted every word, you will need to take a breather and then go back for an editing pass. By the time you finish, you will be a better writer than when you started, and this will become obvious when you look back at your first page. The story may have changed a little. Your writing style has changed. Everything has changed. When I looked back at Chapter one of my first novel, I said, “Who the hell wrote this?”
In the month and a half it took to pound out that draft, my writing had improved, and I was shocked to see how poorly written the first chapter was. This has happened repeatedly, with EVERY novel I’ve written. Even my beta readers have noticed a subtle transition from Viral Spark to the soon-to-be-released Viral Ember, and this is after crafting four and a half novels and countless short stories, not to mention the thousands of pages of other mindless dribble I’ve written. Chances are, if you don’t see any problem with your words, then you are doing something wrong. Let it sit for a while and then go back over it with fresh eyes.
2. You have more to write.
What do you do while taking that break from your novel? Write some other stuff. Short stories, start on another novel or a sequel, whatever. If you think you can go and buy a jumbo jet when the sales from your first book come rolling in, you are sadly deluding yourself. Most writers don’t make a lot of money, those who make anything at all. The fundamental key to making it in the writing industry is to keep writing.
Most people won’t write a book. So be proud that you finished, for sure, but don’t let that pride go to your head. Being a career author means writing, a lot. It means continuing to refine your process, polish your work, hone your craft, and keep putting out new work. What’s the good of getting your first novel published if there’s nothing to follow it with?
3. You haven’t considered all the options.
The quickest way to get published, by far, is to push your work to Amazon and get it out there. You might also start querying publishers and be surprised when you get a contract from one that asks you for some money to get the ball rolling (like a vanity press). Research everything. Take time during the editing process to familiarize yourself with the publishing industry, and what it takes to get on the shelves at the local store. Learn which promotion campaigns are working for other authors, and come up with a plan. And most of all, how to write a query letter.
The traditional scheme is this. Query agents, one of them requests a manuscript, wait for months, get a letter back saying that they want to sign you, work with them on your publishing proposal, wait, negotiate, wait, etc. Even after they sign you (if you get that far), there’s still a lot of stuff to do before you ever see your book in print. The process can take YEARS.
Self-pubbing is much more work than most people think. If you don’t have an awesome cover and professionally edited content, you might as well shoot your manuscript in the face, because you aren’t giving it a chance.
In both cases, you should be familiar with the whole process. Learn what an editor does. Learn about cover design before you commission an artist. Learn what agents do, and why they don’t often respond to queries. Learn what book printers do. Figure out the whole process, no matter how you want to proceed, and give the traditional method a chance. The things you learn are all valuable in the long run. And you should still be working on that next book while all of this is going on.
4. You haven’t gotten a professional edit.
Whether your publisher takes care of this for you, or you find your own editor, your work needs to be looked over by a professional. Preferably someone who is familiar with your genre and can offer input. Proofreading and editing are not the same thing, and you’d be amazed what you can still learn, regardless of your perceived skill level, when you start working with an editor. There’s a reason they get paid for what they do, trust me. If you’re book hasn’t bled from this step, then you aren’t ready to publish.
5. Have a plan.
Do the market research. Figure out where your book would fit on a shelf, and what genre it falls under. Figure out your target audience. Build a social platform. Don’t rely on a publisher to sell the book for you. The difference between a writer and a published author, is that the author understands these things. It makes the whole process easier, even if you get picked up by one of the big publishing houses. If you don’t have a promotion plan, you aren’t ready to publish.
6. You’re still whining.
If you haven’t suffered critter attacks, chances are your skin isn’t thick enough for when the reviews will start coming in, and they will. Not everyone is going to like your book. Someone will think it’s shit, and feel the need to tell you all about it. Be prepared to sit and listen with grace. For ten years, I let strangers chew on my query letters and tell me exactly why they thought an agent would toss them in the trash. I let people read over my work and insisted that they criticized it with conviction. And yes, I occasionally waxed emotional over it.
You might not have a seasoned shell built over your skin when you first publish, but you should at least harden the leather. Someone could go off on my work right now, and I could take it. (see the comments)The trick is this…
Learn to filter everything said, good or bad, into categories of importance. “It’s awesome” is just as useless as “why would you bother with that genre?” Those two filter into the same category. The stuff that is important needs further examination. Is this advice that I can use without crippling the plot? Is this one person’s opinion or does it keep cropping up? Is that even something I should worry about? These are important questions to put to every piece of analysis, positive or negative.
In short, get every negative response that you can, at whatever rate you can handle, until you can view anything said about your writing objectively. Then, when someone blasts your book on Goodreads later on, you’re ready for it, and can politely thank them for their worthless piece of criticism that doesn’t even refer to your book. I’ve been pretty lucky in this regard, but bad reviews are out there, waiting for me. And I’ll be ready when they show up.
7. You are the only person who’s read your work.
If you are the only person who’s read the MS, then you definitely aren’t ready to publish. And I’m not talking about your mom or your sister. Find beta readers. Find people that aren’t afraid to tell you about the parts they didn’t like. Ask them specific questions, and get their opinions on how it could be improved. These don’t need to be English professors, just ordinary people that are representative of your future readers. If two people comment negatively on the same thing, it might be something that has to change. If someone who’s a relative expert in a field represented by your novel tells you that you’ve written rubbish, listen to them and get their advice. Advance readers can be an amazing resource.
8. It has no cover!
Don’t scribble out a crayon drawing and paste it on the front of your book with a lousy title. Talk to people, read blogs, get advice, and most of all, get your butt down to the local Barnes and Noble, and scan other books in your genre. Take pictures of the ones you like. Take note of titles that catch your attention. Note the first book that catches your eye when you look at a shelf. Don’t worry about the “why,” just keep snapping photos with your phone until you have about 20 or 30 titles that stand out in the way you want your book to. Often, on Amazon, people browse through covers, and won’t stop unless there is something telling them, “this one looks interesting.” Take time with cover design. Talk about it with your publisher, your agent, and other writers. If you are going indie, unless you are a graphic design and marketing wizard, throw down some cash and hire a professional.
I need to cut it off there, because this post is getting way too long, but the take-away is this: If you haven’t gone through the entire process three times, then the book probably isn’t ready yet. Nitpick the interior and exterior to death. Do research. Learn every bit of the publishing industry that you can, and what to look out for. Find a reliable source of information about vanity press companies to avoid (some are actually helpful, and their rates are comparable to hiring your own editor, cover designer, etc.) Learn. Write. Learn. Write. This is the process.