I listen to lots of writing podcasts. It’s the only thing that makes laundry sorting bearable, and it’s also a nice paring to pushing kids on the swing for extended periods. Many of these podcasts ask their writer guest for writing advice they want to give to aspiring authors. And probably like all other listeners, I take great pleasure in imagining being interviewed one day, and wondering what I might answer to that question.
But lately, I’m been thinking about it more seriously. Over the last year I’ve been watching dear writing friends struggling away, and I’ve wondered what I can say to help. Do I have any answers or tips that might make the journey easier? That might help them with direction and focus? I’ve seen struggles that seem to be related but haven’t quite been able to put my finger on the problem. But I think I’ve figured out my big tip.
Publishing is not a race.
I suspect most writers know it. I suspect they’ve heard it. I suspect they would nod their heads and wait for me to move onto tip number 2. But as much as we all know it’s not a race, we sometimes act like it is. There are real, practical dangers when we are feeling a need to get to the top of the mountain as fast as we]] can. We end up burning out or making bad choices on the way up that mean we never get there.
We need to remember. Because here are some of the problems I think can happen, when you think Publishing is a race.
If you think it’s a race, you will feel overwhelmed with stress
Stress and motivation are tricky things when it comes to creative pursuits. We all need motivators to get us cracking, and I’m not above deciding “I will complete this draft by X date.” Self-motivation and dedication are a must if you are planning to get published
My observation is the moment it becomes “I must be published by X or…” then it gets messy. Friends who hate their jobs and think “I have to get this published by X so I can quit my job.” Friends who say: “I have to get this book published by the time I’m thirty because…I just do.” This is almost always followed by a period of procrastination and stress because suddenly this thing they love becomes something they must do.
Now, once you are a published author with contracts, then that thing you love does become something you must do! But in these early stages of writing, when you are still learning and working out your own motivations, it can be crippling.
So don’t give yourself an artificial finish-line that actually makes the run harder for yourself.
If you think it’s a race, you will compromise or not realise what matters
This one is a bit of a tricky one, because it has two aspects.
The first is that if you think of publishing as a race, you’ll be so keen to move forward with things that you might sign with predatory agent, or you might self-publish without doing due diligence. Because speed becomes more important than getting it right.
But I also worry that if people think it’s a race, they won’t take the chance to work out what they really want.
We all have different things we want. Some of us want a paper book we can place in the hands of our relatives. Some of us want to write for a living. Some want world-wide reach, some want the chance to influence people to read. The list goes on. But if we are in a rushed to get published, we can make decisions without asking two very important questions: What do I really want to get out of publishing? And what is the WISEST way to get there?
A big example is what you want published. I have a friend who has a particular book and series that is their passion, and their dream is tied up in that particular book. They don’t just want to be an author, they want to see THAT book published. And that’s great! It’s great to know what you want. They might be willing to rewrite the whole thing multiple times, or wait until the market shifts towards it, or self-publish. Because their goal is THAT book.
Whereas for others, their aim might be to be traditionally published. They might try writing a few different books, or try different styles or stories, because the specific book is not as important as getting there in the end.
There is no right or wrong. But if you are so focused on ticking “be published” off your to do list, you might end up on a trajectory that doesn’t actually lead you to what you want.
If you think it’s a race, you will not get your work to the level it needs to be
I finished the first draft of my book “The Librex” on Dec 31st, 2016. I am now starting my fifth draft. You might be wondering what took me three years to get it to that point.
When I finished it, I realised that I didn’t know enough to know if it was good. I didn’t have other writing friends who could read it and give feedback. And I hadn’t done any craft-related writing courses.
So in 2017 I did a course, wrote another book, and began to get feedback from other writers. And I realised how much work I needed to do.
In 2018 I began a rewrite of The Librex. I started another course, picked up some regular critique partners, and did another project for Nano.
And this year I finished my re-write, and did two extra drafts. Ten different people have read the whole thing, including eight who are writers themselves.
I think of that first draft lovingly. It’s full of happy memories of a new world bursting to life under my fingertips. But it wasn’t good enough. If I’d thought of writing like a race, I might have sent it out too early and been rejected. I still might be rejected with my newer drafts. But at least I know I’ve given my book and my story the time it needed to get the best I could make it.
Now, if you are a perfectionist, this might seem like an excuse to spend five years crafting the perfect opening paragraph. You won’t ever achieve that. This is where feedback is so good. If you show your work to people, then they can tell you where you are at, and help you get it to the right stage to move it on.
If you think it is a race, you will be disappointed.
Imagine you write and edit a book in a year. Chances are, even if you immediately get a publisher who loves it, you will still be waiting at least a year, probably two, before that book ends up in your hands. Publishing is slow business. If you are impatient, that is something to get out of your system now.
My Own Reminder
This really hit home for me a month or so ago when I’d just received feedback on The Librex. I was trying to work out whether it was ready to be sent out to agents to try and find representation. I received back some very positive feedback, but also suggestions as to how I could make it better. This was after finishing three drafts in very quick succession. Deep down, I’d been hoping everyone would come back to me raving about how perfect it was. Instead I was faced with more work and I felt discouraged. I didn’t want to wait. I wanted it to be ready now.
Feeling miserable and with a long car drive that day, I was scrolling down through podcast episodes when I found an interview with Amie Kaufman and Megan Spooner that I hadn’t heard before. So I put it on. It was a fabulous interview. And several times they both said the same words: “It’s not a race”. They applied it in a few contexts: in regards to finding the right Literary Agent, in writing your book, and in your author career. I nearly started crying in the car. Because in my own impatience to finish, I’d been tempted to send out my book when it still wasn’t ready. But publishing isn’t a race. With more time, and one more edit, I could give this story the best chance. It was the reminder I needed. And I suspect, it might be the reminder other writers need too.
This week, I have started that edit. Yes it will be hard work. Yes, even after this edit it might not be published. I might need to keep trying with other stories.
But that is okay.
It’s not a race.
I have time.