I self-published my first novel before it was ready to be shared with the public. The story had merit, so I assumed it was publishable. Wrong. Looking back, I’m embarrassed.
The inability to judge your own writing can cause other problems, such as despair that you’ll never be good enough. How do you find the line between self-doubt and overconfidence?
If you develop habits that will bring you to a professional level, and you can identify the signs that you have (or haven’t) reached it, you’ll avoid my mistake. But first you need to beware of false mindsets that could trip you up.
The Three Misconceptions That Drove Me to Publish Prematurely
1. If people like my book, it must be publishable. Makes sense, right? Unfortunately, even honest praise can be misleading. Though I received mostly positive feedback, I got criticism too. I attempted to correct the problems, but unbeknownst to me, that task was beyond my skill. Since I wasn’t working with a professional editor (which you should always do if you plan to publish), I didn’t have someone with enough experience to authoritatively step in, flag my book’s weaknesses, and show me how to improve. I had to sort through opposing opinions on whether I should move forward or wait, and I bungled the decision.
2. I understand writing theory, so I must be a solid writer. If pressed, I would have admitted that this wasn’t a reliable indicator, but I clung to it to bolster my self-esteem. At the time, I was better than average at critiquing and providing writing advice. I grasped the concept of “show, don’t tell” before I ever became a writer or realized it had been around for eternity. But even to this day, I catch myself telling instead of showing and breaking other writing rules. Theory needs to be repeatedly and consistently put into practice.
3. I need to build my writing career as quickly as possible. I longed to change the world and write full time. I didn’t want to turn twenty-one without a big accomplishment to boast about. While I still cherish those goals and am progressing toward them, I now try to give myself grace. Real men and women are rarely formed overnight. Neither are writers. I needed time to mature—and so do you.
But you’re probably wondering, how much time?
The 3,500-Hour and 1,000,000-Word Rules
Recently, I listened to a free series of writing lectures by Brandon Sanderson. In one of the lessons, he recommended that aspiring authors spend ten years writing six hours a week. I grabbed my calculator and found that this added up to 3,120 hours.
A few months ago, I released a fairy-tale novella, which was the first work I felt comfortable publishing after wrestling with doubts over my previous hastiness. The book garnered positive reviews, and at that time I’d been writing twenty hours a week for more than four years (4,160 hours total). Averaging out Sanderson’s numbers with mine, 3,500 hours minimum would be a reasonable target to aim for.
However, this is just a generalization. Also, I’ve never heard anyone besides Sanderson predict how many hours of experience a writer needs to become publishable, although a foray into Quora and a Facebook writers group increased my confidence that 3,500 hours is a decent figure. The more common advice is to write one million words, which may seem unachievable, but if you knock off a thousand words per day for six days a week, you could hit that mark within four years!
The Flaws in These Rules
The 3,500-hour rule accommodates procrastinators. Maybe you sit at your computer for two hours, but in between pecking at the keyboard, you either daydream or browse social media. If you set 3,500 hours as your goal, be careful to only count actual writing.
On the other hand, the 1,000,000-word rule favors speed, which can sometimes produce sloppiness. A slow and meticulous writer might reach the same level as a fast writer in a comparable time frame but with half the words.
Practice doesn’t make perfect unless you’re a wise steward of the talents, time, and tools God has blessed you with.
Applying the Rules
You’re not a statistic. You may rise to professional status earlier or later. So how do you implement these strategies while maintaining your individuality?
First, go easy on yourself. If your manuscript contains giant plot holes, but you’re short of 3,500 hours or one million words, remember that no one expects you to be an instant Charles Dickens. Hang onto the hope that once you’ve met your quota, your writing will be publishable or nearly there.
Second, don’t obsess over one story as if it’s your only masterpiece. That could stunt your growth. You brainstormed one brilliant idea, so you’re capable of more. If you write a few (or multiple) books to exercise your imagination, that’s okay. Skill shapes rough material into an exceptional story, and once you’ve seasoned yourself through practice, you can always return to revise old drafts.
Lastly, these word and hour tallies are actually guidelines, not rules. You and the experts you team up with will have to evaluate your writing quality. Let’s explore how to navigate that labyrinth.
In Search of an Objective Formula
Ultimately, determining whether a book is publishable or not comes down to instinct. The 3,500-hour and 1,000,000-word “rules” stop you from trusting your gut when it claims you’re a master after pounding out one novel over the course of a year.
You can, however, confirm that your book is probably fit to publish by looking for certain signs:
1. A publisher, agent, or editor of good repute approves the book. These people are familiar with industry trends and what will attract or repel readers, so heed their counsel carefully.
2. Readers can follow the story. It doesn’t matter if your characters are complex, you invented fifty plot twists, and your prose makes Fitzgerald, Zusak, and Rothfuss seem like amateurs. If readers can’t understand the information they need to know, they’ll become frustrated and shut the book. Many mediocre novels are bestsellers simply because they read smoothly.
Confusion may occasionally be inevitable, though. For example, a detailed description of an alien society could overwhelm a reader who’s never cracked open sci-fi before. Or a symbolic and philosophically dense tale similar to The Man Who Was Thursday might take readers longer to digest. Even readability is slightly subjective.
3. You sought feedback at each stage of the process. People will generally be encouraging when you start a project. “Keep going! Your name will be in print someday!” But when your manuscript is nearing completion, ask people (preferably at least ten) questions like: Is the narrative fluid? Can you connect with the characters? How confident (or unconfident) are you that this book is publishable?
I considered publishing my second novel, but after getting last-minute feedback that the characters were difficult to relate to, I polled my earlier reviewers and discovered that they all agreed with that assessment. These people have my everlasting thanks for keeping me from releasing another novel prematurely.
4. You gathered specialized input. Not all books require this, but if an inaccuracy or misrepresentation has the potential to humiliate you, you’ll need to verify your facts. Every historical fiction novel should be checked by someone who has studied the era. For a touchy social issue, you’ll want to talk to people with different perspectives to ensure you don’t enrage readers unnecessarily.
5. You set the book aside for a month or more. While not essential, a reprieve will help you view your manuscript more objectively. I especially recommend this if you’re indecisive about publication or getting negative feedback.
6. The book reflects your standards. You’ve probably been told that you’ll never satisfy your inner critic and must learn to let go. This is true—to a point. Writers can and do waste valuable time being nitpicky. You will never be perfect, and even legendary writers had moments when their stories fell short. But I’d argue that perfectionism can prevent your book from landing on the overstuffed grade-B shelf.
You may feel pressured to publish because people love your book. But your reputation is at risk, and protecting it is wise. Tolkien spent twelve years writing and rewriting Lord of the Rings (in addition to developing background lore and language). That’s crazy. Most of us don’t have that much patience and dedication! But it paid off. The book has sold more than 150,000,000 copies and was nominated “book of the millennium.” Though you should be wary of perfectionism, it can be beneficial too.
Writing is grueling, but so is any deed worth daring. Set a realistic goal, persevere at it, and in the end you can expect favorable results. You’ll never finish learning, but you can reach a point where you’re happy with your skill.
Many moons ago, a series of suspiciously providential events led Daeus to cast his lot among the worldwide community of Christian storytellers. Since then, no reports indicate that he has come back out. Perhaps he is lost among those fine gallivanters forever. Rest in peace, Daeus Lamb.
Daeus dreams impossibly large (which doesn’t bother him a bit) and tends to bite off more than he can chew. To read his books, including one free one, follow him at daeuslamb.com
Beautiful! Thank you, Daeus. Hearing all of this is helpful to me, as I relate with so much of it… only, outside of the ‘having published’ field.
*nods* I agree with all of this. The fact that we get positive feedback can be pretty dangerous. In March/April/May I wrote a novella and shared it with some friends, and I instantly got a ton of positive feedback. If not for the fact that I’d rather be traditionally published, I probably would have rushed head on into trying to self-publish the book.
UGH THIS IS SO GOOD! I needed this; it definitely helped answer some of my questions.
Very true. Get the story right––making sure that it reflects your standards (and that your ‘standards’ are competent), and THEN you can consider publishing––whether that’s traditional or by yourself. First impressions are often the difference-makers when one decides whether to read your stories or not, and your work will reflect back on YOU. You want to sell? Then be doubly certain that the product you’re ‘selling’ to others would be something you would want to purchase.
I’m like the opposite of this that I’m afraid I’ll never publish cuz my writing is never good enough, and certain people assumed my writing should be alot better than it is. (Like why my friends(all writers) said my story Stuck in the Repeat for the short story contest turned out really good, the certain people said it’s too dirmatic and feelinf, bad writing, and i shouldn’t have even entered it into the contest. But i did, and obviously didn’t place. And that was actually a piece i thought was pretty good) I’m about to be past the publishing as a young writer because i turn 18 in less than a month, so flunked that. And i have plenty of friends my age who are publishing and thier books are amazing, and ik ik you all say ‘well we all grow at different speeds’ but its been 5 and a half years, i should be better than this. Even the certain people think i should be better than this, so If i want to enter the contest next year im probably gonna get told not to until I’m good enough. *sighs. Headdesk times a million* It’s just frustrating. Am i allowed to get critiques on here in the forums for the story i entered into the contest? Ik your probably busy, but if you had any time you could maybe look over a Lil bit of it and tell me what’s so horrible about it? And maybe what i can do to fix it? See it’s super frustrating, cuz they just tell me it’s not good, but not how to fix it cuz they’re not writers. Its fine if not. You have a million other more important things to be doing. Sorry this was really long and unrealated.
“But i did, and obviously didn’t place. And that was actually a piece i thought was pretty good”
If it makes you feel any better, I was in the same boat! I was feeling pretty confident (read: arrogant) in my submission, and my pride hurt a lot when I didn’t even make the honorable mention. I’ve been writing a lot longer than you have, and even I wasn’t ready. Everyone does grow at different speeds, but everyone also aims for different goals. Literally anyone can publish. I published at the age of twelve—a poetry anthology scam got me to pay ten bucks to have a garbage poem put in a print-on-demand anthology. I’m not proud, today, that it was by debut publish, but I technically did it =P Your friends might all be publishing at your age, but that doesn’t mean they should be publishing either, or that their publishing is terribly good quality—which is altogether different to their book being a great story.
“Am i allowed to get critiques on here in the forums for the story i entered into the contest?”
I would personally be happy to, and I’m 99% sure you may ask people for critiques for the contest. I did in my guild, and I didn’t get yelled at by my guild leader. If you want to send it to me privately (or anything you want critiqued) you can do so at itaylorclogston at gmail dot com.
Know that I, and lots of other people, feel your frustration! It can be really hard to know in which direction to grow. Have you looked at the resources page on SE?
I truly appreciate your unique perspective on this, Daeus. There aren’t a ton of people who have come to the point you’re at and can share perspective on what they learned from it.
I think Tolkien’s a great example of the obvious danger of perfectionism, though. LotR was not his strongest work, and because of his perfectionism we never got proper versions of Tolkien’s greater works before he died. Thanks to the late Christopher Tolkien, we have a great idea what much of that might have looked like, but not everyone has a brilliant son willing to take over their life’s work.
Look at Martin and Rothfuss, whatever you might think of the morality of their work. They are people who likewise might never finish their epics before they die. It’s not fair to compare any random person’s work style to the work of those two, and they are cherry-picked perfect examples (a good counter is Sanderson, who seems to practically sweat fully realized epic fantasies) but I think a different counter-example is Stephen King. Again, content, morality, etc. He writes a ton more than most fiction authors, and while he releases a ton of stories which are garbage in need of more work, he has released a few brilliant gems in the midst of it all. If not for his insane productivity, I don’t think we would have seen so many truly brilliant stories from him. More would have probably been good, but he wouldn’t have explored all the corners of his soul that he has today.
It’s cliche, but perfect is the enemy of good. I have a friend who has redrafted the same okay story for about six years now. He is not learning anything about the craft because he never applies theory to more than one manuscript. I don’t think he’ll ever start making good work until he lets himself fail, and he can never do that until he finishes a thing.
Yes, that’s extreme. I doubt many people on SE, outside of fantasy writers, have worked on one story for literal years. To an extent I’m trying to kick myself in the pants to stop obsessing over perfecting something I wrote years ago and move on to something that I can make from the ground up with my somewhat more developed skills =P
You raise some good points. I guess it comes down to what you want as an author. You think Tolkien should have gotten LOTR out sooner so he could have focused on his other masterpieces. But what did /Tolkien/ think was worth his time?
Or Rothfuss. I’ve only read his first book, but I liked it so much that I would rather read that one book than 10 that were 90% as good.
Yeah, I don’t think 99% of authors need to take more than 5 years max polishing a book, but where would we be without that one percent?
The important thing really is getting perspective. You can wrap up your identity in a book, that can lead to an unhealthy obsession. But if you take a break and try another book or three, but still find that first book is special, it’s okay to go back and polish it.
I don’t so much wish he’d gotten LotR out sooner as I wish he’d been more focused and not left a hundred things half-formed because he was too much a perfectionist to call any project done. I would have liked to see a finished *Fall of Gondolin.*
Neither do I know if I think it matters what the individual author thinks is worth their time. From a critical perspective, the author’s intention is only one large piece of the pie. The text itself stands on its own, and it cannot stand at all if it doesn’t exist.
Frankly, I don’t believe that you or I could really discern much difference between a book that was 90% as good as another. I believe strongly in diminishing returns in recursive editing, and think a reader gets out of a book pretty much all that they put in.
That said, I wholeheartedly agree with your last point. I think the way you describe it, being willing to go back to a project that still touches your heart, is a great one. I just think that’s not the way most people on SE will look at it. I think instead they’ll treat perfectionism as an excuse to spend forever on what they believe to be their magnum opus at the age of fifteen instead of making that wiser decision to shelve a special thing for a later time and give themselves room to flourish in other ways.
Super awesome article, Daeus, and very helpful! Thanks. 🙂
Just what I was looking for. Somehow SE always seems to know when I’m needing help with something and they link to or release an article right up my alley. XD Definitely bookmarking this one!