You came up with a great idea, you worked hard to punch our chapter after chapter, you agonised over the ending, you reworked and rewrote and edited it, you paid for a manuscript assessment, you reworked and rewrote and edited it again, you asked your family and friends for feedback, then reworked and rewrote and edited it a few more times. The final step is to publish… so why might you choose not to go ahead and do it?
These days anyone can publish – self-publishing has seen to that. A monkey might not yet be able to write the complete works of Shakespeare but self-publishing is so easy I’m convinced the monkey would be able to self-publish them. So it’s not a matter of not being able to. It’s a matter of whether you should. It’s a hard decision because it requires as much objectivity as you can muster and absolute honesty. And that’s because the simple fact that something creative exists is not a good enough reason for it be released to the general public.
Singers and musicians record hundreds, sometimes thousands, of songs that aren’t included on released albums. Painters, even the most famous from centuries past, have painted over earlier efforts to save on the cost of purchasing a new canvas when the painting isn’t quite what they had hoped it would be. It’s safe to assume – in fact we know – that all writers on occasion write things that aren’t worthy of being read.
Isn’t it strange then that when I used Google to search for advice on this topic, it gave me thousands of results on how to publish and not one on how to know when or if a writer should? If you’re anything like me (and so few people are), you’ll read through the first ten to twenty pages of results. Some will give up around page five. Most will only look at the first and second pages.
So what should you look out for in your own writing when making the final decision on whether or not to publish?
Very few writers undertaking their first effort to write a book write something so good that it’s worth publishing. Because writing requires practice. Nobody is good at it when they first decide to start writing.
What about those writers who land book deals on their first novels? you ask. Well, those writers say it’s their first novel and that might be true. But how many short stories have they written first? How many character studies? How many other pieces of shorter fiction and non-fiction have they honed their skills on? Usually, the answer to that question is, “A lot.”
For those writers who haven’t, who’ve taken on the herculean task of making their first piece of writing a lengthy novel, first (and sometimes second and third) novels should more often than not be considered practise novels. I wrote three practise novels, two of which I wrote before the age of twenty and before I decided I needed to go and studying writing at the tertiary level in order to get better at it.
I’m about to post one of them, Liberty’s Secret, chapter by chapter on my blog as one of my exercises in humility and as an example of the publishing path not taken (see below for more on this). It’s okay. Better than the two before it, although that’s not saying much. Not as good as the three that came after it and that’s the point. It was a stepping stone. They all are. But writers need to be able to recognise which stepping stones aren’t worth being read and which are.
Just Okay Novels
Sometimes, no matter how much work a writer puts in, no matter how long they hunch over a keyboard, no matter how many times they modify the plot, no matter how often they revise their dialogue, no matter how they agonise over individual words, no matter how seriously they think about how to make their novel better, the book remains just okay.
There are plenty of just okay novels out there. On Goodreads, they get a 2 star rating, which literally means, “It was okay”. But if you can recognise that the novel you’ve written is just okay, why would you want to put it out into the world? Wouldn’t you want to wait until you can make it a good or even great novel? Or wouldn’t you want to wait until you’ve written something else that’s better?
Spending all that time and effort on a novel for what seems like no reward can be deflating but, trust me, it’s nowhere near as deflating as reading all those two star reviews that confirm what you already knew about your book. And because every book is an advertisement for your next book, it’s worthwhile remembering that few readers will be eager to read another book by an author they previously rated two stars.
The thing about a just okay novel is that in one, two or five years, you might finally have developed the skills or had the eureka moment that enables you to turn it into a good or great novel. Or you might be able to use elements from it in a later different novel. But if you’ve already published it, it’s harder – if not impossible – to do these things. Sometimes patience is its own virtue in publishing.
My first novel (more like a novella) was a combination of mystery and thriller. I wrote it when I was sixteen and it wasn’t very good. After I finished writing it, I began reading a lot of shorter romance fiction, mostly Mills & Boon. A lot of it left me with a “meh” feeling. It wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t good either. It followed a very strict formula and never deviated from it, meaning I was never surprised. So I decided I was going to be the next queen of romance fiction, modelling myself on Emma Darcy, Australia’s greatest shorter romance author (in my opinion) and one of the very few who managed to sneak twist endings into her formula and get it past the gatekeepers.
So my next two novels were straight from the romance genre. Boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love with each other but are kept apart by whatever contrived circumstances I could come up with, boy and girl eventually get past them, boy and girl admit their feelings to each other and live happily ever after. The first novel was terrible. The second was better (you can read it for yourself in the upcoming fifteen blog posts).
But I finished writing the second romance novel right around the time I decided to build on my previous writing studies by enrolling in a master’s degree. Within months of beginning those studies and meeting new people, particularly other writers, I knew I didn’t want to write romance fiction for the rest of my life. I wanted to write more serious stories, dramas, thrillers, action, adventure, mysteries, crime. And I didn’t want to be trapped in just one genre. But I was sure that publishing that romance novel would do just that.
And so I shelved it. Self-publishing wasn’t as simple back then but I could have submitted it to traditional romance publishers. But I didn’t. And I’ve never regretted that decision. My first novel instead ended up being an action adventure, which in and of itself told the limited reading public I’ve been able to reach that I didn’t want to be pigeonholed (a woman writing action adventure says this quite effectively). Since then I’ve written literary crime, young adult, mysteries and non-fiction. Reading that romance novel now, I can see the solid base for much of my other writing in it. The quality of my writing was improving significantly. But the genre wasn’t where I wanted to go or how I wanted to be perceived.
If you’ve written one book and you’re not likely to write any more, then publishing might not even be a question. But when you want to make a career out of your writing, the decision requires a little more thought. In marketing terms, you need to consider your brand. Does what you are considering publishing support your brand or does it detract from it? It’s not always an easy question to answer.
The great thing about the choice not to publish is that you can always change your mind and publish later on. But it’s much harder to publish and then unpublish afterwards because if you’ve made sales, then those buyers won’t be giving your book back, not without some serious effort on your part. (Just ask Matthew Reilly, whose first book was self-published before it was acquired and republished by Pan Macmillan after he rewrote it. Those first editions are worth a bit now, I suspect mostly because Matthew Reilly has – not completely successfully – tried to get those first one thousand books back, despite the fact that they are the reason he has a multimillion book career.)
The important thing to remember is that it is a choice. You don’t have to publish. And sometimes you shouldn’t. Being able to recognise those times is just one more skill you need as a writer.