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. Watch this in action as he tries to capture the depths of the fantasy genre on his YouTube channel, or as he seeks to express the meaning of life in just a short novelette. (Psst. It’s a popular little book called God of Manna and you can get it for free here.)