Tuesday, 14 June 2011


I recently read something about having the courage to publish. Yes, it's true: if we genuinely want our work to be as good as possible, good enough to grip the minds of our readers, then the moment of sending it to a publisher or clicking the various buttons to self-publish, takes courage indeed. If we have any level of intelligence at all, we must know that our book may well not be as good as we hope it is.

However, I'd like you to consider the courage needed to delay publication or even not to publish at all.

I'm thinking of two sets of people I regularly come across or hear about:
  • the ones who are convinced that their first draft is good enough and either haven't a clue that it isn't or else don't care because they believe that an editor will sort them out later
  • and the ones who, having failed to find a publisher, decide to self-publish without employing the services of:
1. an editor
2. a copy-editor and
3. a proof-reader
 And please note that I said "and", not "or".

I have some self-publishing plans of my own - for some of my previously published books which are not in ebook format and for some new non-fiction - which is why I'm currently reading and completely loving Self-Printed by Catherine Ryan Howard. But, despite the fact that I've had around ninety books published, I wouldn't dream of doing this without using all the above services from skilled professionals whom I had reason to trust.

And what about the courage not to publish at all?

Well, all I'll say is that in my bottom drawer is a heap of MSS that were never published. They were rejected and I am extremely glad of that now. If ebooks and self-publishing had been available, I might have been tempted to throw caution to the wind and chuck them at the unsuspecting public, who might even have bought them.

But I would regret it, because they weren't not good enough. Not good enough for whom? Not good enough for me. I wouldn't be proud of them now. (Not that I'm saying they are brilliant or I wouldn't change aspects.)

Would I have had the courage not to publish, to wait until I had written something good enough? I don't know. Proably not, because I knew sod all about publishing and not very much about readers. I hadn't practised enough.

I'm not saying that every multi-rejected book shouldn't be published. Nor am I saying that every rejected book isn't good enough or enjoyable enough - Catherine's Mousetrapped is very enjoyable and is well-written, but even she admits that publishers were right to reject it. But her book was something that she did absolutely the right thing in publishing. It found a market and established her as a good writer with an engaging personality.

Mine weren't right to be published. There were too many things wrong - things which I could quite easily put right now if I wanted to. So I'm glad my courage was never tested. But I won't be publishing them now either, even though they are there, waiting, staring at me. Those books were my practice books. They are part of the writer I became and that's enough for me.

Do you have to courage to walk away from your practice books and start another? Do you have the courage and patience to delay your planned self-publication until your book has been properly edited, copy-edited and proof-read?

Please say yes!
I'm about to go away again - to Coventry, to receive the Read it or Else award for Wasted, and then to London. Back on Thursday and I hope the train isn't delayed because I'm doing my Blackwell's event in the evening in Edinburgh...  (6.30pm, FREE, with WINE - book by phoning 0131 622 822. Or go here for more details.) Edited to add - I think this is now sold out but do try, in case they've had cancellations. And if you've booked but can't go, please tell them.

On Thursday I will bring you news of my Edinburgh International Book Festival events - the programme goes live at midday. Hooray!


catdownunder said...

It is really, really hard but I keep telling myself that if I write something that is really, really good then someone, somewhere might want to publish it.
Am I tempted to self-publish? No. I know I know nothing about the process and to pay those people would be a costly exercise too.
I do not want to be remembered for a bad book. I would rather be remembered for a good book - or nothing at all.

The Staff Wielder said...

This is a hard one... I'm still reasonably in-experienced, it may take years before I have the right insight. I'm sure that even well established authors look back at their early published work, and think it isn't as good as their later works. I'm not self published, but I still feel I'm having to be brave...

Nicola Morgan said...

Staff Wielder (Clare) - you are brave, don't worry! And now that you are published and see how difficult it is to do all the stuff that goes with it, you know just how brave you are. I sometimes think unpublished writers don't realise just how scary and difficult and often damn frustrating it is. Take care.

Cat - sometimes, though, self-publishing is right for some books. Catherine Ryan Howard is incredibly wise and realistic. Her understanding of why she wasn't taken by a publisher is a lesson to us all.

JO said...

Agree completely. I've entered short story competitions for a few years - and, until very recently, the stories sank without trace. This year I've made Highly Commended three times - and can look back at those old stories and know they weren't good enough. Maybe if I keep going I'll win one eventually.
And yes, I have a novel; it, too, isn't good enough - though I proud enough of having written it and can't bring myself to hit the delete button. Maybe the next one will be better . . . or the one after that . . .

Dan Holloway said...

Very very true. I have far more than one drawer full of the buggers sitting there grinning at me shouting "Kindle me, please". I think in almost all cases Gladwell's 10,000 hours is a good ruke of thumb - anything churned out in that apprenticeship period is useful practice and nothing more. Of course there are exceptions - one or two a generation, so the chances are I'm not one of them and nor is anyone else reading this.

catdownunder said...

Purrhaps I am not brave enough either. It is easy to brave on the internet but, in real life, I have to admit I am a scaredy-cat coward about all sorts of things.
I admire people who do things like Catherine did!

Paul Anthony Shortt said...

Definitely. I've scrapped so many books before that I've lost count. Sometimes the best way to learn is to set aside something that isn't working and move on to something new.

Ebony McKenna. said...

I have walked away from six complete manuscripts and a few that started but went nowhere.

Well-meaning people think I should self-pub them.

Um, no. They're nowhere near as good as my published books and they'd only muddy the "image", for want of a better word, that I'm trying to portray.

So now I'll send them here instead, so they can understand why those old mss that were rejected are right to stay in the bottom drawer.

HelenO said...

Writing a novel is one of the few activities where, as soon as you start, people assume you're on the brink of a professional career. If I took up football next week, no one would ask me when I'd expect to turn pro, let alone what my chances would be in the Premier League. If I took up painting neither I nor anyone else would expect to find Charles Saatchi at my door waving his cheque book. But start writing a novel, and people will ask, 'Is it being published?' or (worse) 'When's it being published?'

(That reminds me of Nicola's 'taxi-driver' anecdote - 'Anyone can write a book, can't they?' - but extended to 'And anyone can get published.')

I'm with Dan on this one, except in my case, the last decade has been my apprenticeship. In those ten years I've had work placed in national competitions but I'm only just reaching the stage when I think I'm ready to submit. Some people will be ready in a year, or two - but I wasn't. There's no shame in waiting.

Go away google said...

Ha! I have several of these things lurking in my virtual desk. My interesting spin on the subject is that one of them recently reanimated and turned into my new WIP.

BUT, that's after well over a decade in the drawer, and it's going to be rebuilt from the ground up - most of the same story with some of the same characters but told by a far more skilled writer.

If I'd had the technology to self-publish the original version in an incompetent fashion years ago, I might not want/be able to reuse the good parts of it now.

Anonymous said...

I've just put my most recent novel in a drawer, after two years' full-time and two years' part time work. It has a fundamental flaw, which isn't curable within the boundaries of what this book is. Better to write a new one, fresh and exciting, than struggle to bring new life to a new try at this old material, and maybe fail.

I blogged about it here: http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/2011/05/the-darkroom-and-the-double-helix.html

The first novel I had published was the seventh that I wrote, and I learn more with each one. I don't think I would have self-published them, even if the technology had made it as straightforward and inexpensive as it is now. As each one was being rejected I was writing a new one, and each new one showed me what wasn't good enough about its predecessor/s...

Ellen Brickley said...

I wrote a book whose characters seem the like real people to me, who seem to go on living even when I'm not paying attention. If I were a medieval craftsperson, it's the one I'd spend years perfecting in order to be admitted to the guild.

. . . but it's unpublishable. I know it's not good enough. It's too personal, it means too much to me. I can't evaluate it critically.

Maybe someday, I'll write a draft that's good enough, but not yet. And for now, I've laid it aside in favour of other things.

In my case, it didn't take courage. It just took a desire not to appear in public with egg on my face :)

An old friend of mine once told me that it isn't important to be published early, it's important to be published well. The right method, the right house (if you go with traditional publishing), the right consultants (if you self-publish), the right book. No sense in getting your dream and doing it wrong! :)

Nicola Morgan said...

Ebony, when you said you had unpublished manuscripts that people said you should s-pub and you said you were going to send them here, I thought you meant you were going to send the MSS here! *gulps*

HelenO - "If I took up football next week, no one would ask me when I'd expect to turn pro, let alone what my chances would be in the Premier League." Exactly! Why is it so hard for some to understand? Gah.

Anna - "If I'd had the technology to self-publish the original version in an incompetent fashion years ago, I might not want/be able to reuse the good parts of it now." Another very good point.

Thanks for everyone's comments. And you all agree with me! But I know there will be people out there saying, "How dare she shatter our dreams? Why should she be published and not us? Who does she think she is?"

Just call me Simon Cowell. But not as rich. And with less sparkly teeth.

Elizabeth Barry said...

I agree! There are a few older books of mine that I will be working on polishing for the pursuit of publication, but there are some that will continue to sit in the back of my computer files. They no longer represent who I am as a writer and what I want to be remember for in the future.

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

I think it depends on the book! If it's something you feel passionate about and feel it can be made good enough - you should continue to work on it. It doesn't matter whether it's your third bok, thirty third or three hundred and third book. You have to be cool headed and honest with yourself as to whether it will ever be good enough. I wonder what JK Rowling thought about her little tale of boys and wizards before it was finally taken on! It's all about belief!

sheilamcperry said...

I think the trouble is that each one seems good enough at the time, so it can be hard to let go of it, although I don't now regret having scrapped the computer that had some of my efforts of 10 years ago on it! No backups either, thank goodness.

Kath McGurl said...

Enjoy the award ceremony!

I think the problem with asking are you brave enough to walk away from your 'practice book' and write something else is that you don't know at the time it's your practice book. You think it might be your breakthrough book, the one that's going to get you published and noticed. It's only years on with hindsight you see it for what it was.

Shannon J. said...

I definitely have the courage to admit my book needs work. I don't think I'll ever admit that "the first novel should automatically be buried" like some have said. As many times as I've rewritten, it shouldn't count as the first! Thanks for this post.

BrightEyedJess said...

Brilliant advice, thank you so much!

Anonymous said...

I've discovered a new income of the back of the self-publishing phenomena. I get a pound every time somebody incumbent writes an article on why other people shouldn't publish. I'm on £50 per day at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

What about stories etc on ezines? I regretted submitting some of mine and even their acceptance. They are there forever, one or two remain, on websites abandoned by their previously enthusiastic hosts.

Except the works I'm proud of which were deleted by other hosts.

Writing communities urge us to sub, sub, sub but I'd personally recommend caution online.

Yes, a lot of my blog is nonsense but at least I hold the delete button.

Rebecca Bradley said...

I'm in the camp of wanting to be published through a publisher rather than self publish, so if this book doesn't make it, I won't be putting it out there. I will give it the best shot it can possibly have and I do actually believe in it, but if it's rejected multiple times, even after potential suggested edits, then yes, I have the courage not to publish and will write another one.

It would be lovely however if I manage to get this one out there!

Lexi said...

Of course there is an exception to this rule.

If you are a celebrity, preferably one who appears frequently on television, then anything you have managed to commit to paper will be welcomed by a canny publisher, no matter what its inadequacies.

Just thought I'd better add this for any famous fans of Nicola's blog who might be unnecessarily discouraged :o)

Crotchety Old Fan said...

Very nice and well-considered advice.

I'm a multi-book, non-fiction author (many, many magazine articles as well) but, with the exception of a couple of no-compensation flash pieces, I have not yet 'broken through' on the fiction side.
My work, when looked at by professionals (not ones being asked to buy) has received good responses, is noted as being of 'professional' quality, yada yada. I could probably successfully go the self-published route but won't. Pride, for all it's faults, supports my 'courage' to resist the temptation.
I've been wrestling with the self-pub thing for quite some time: I get tons of requests to review and after seeing the general quality of the offerings, I now have a blanket 'NO Self-Pubs' policy. But I did finally come to grips with the issue and at least one other commenter here touched on it. 'would people ask me when I'm going pro if I started playing football last week'.
Amateurs. I wrote it up if anyone is interested, though to be honest it isn't nearly as nice as Ms. Morgan's piece here. http://www.rimworlds.com/thecrotchetyoldfan/_wp/?p=7046

Anonymous said...

I can't afford to have my books edited and copy-edited and proof-read!

Nicola Morgan said...

Lexi - you are unfortunately completely correct and how bloody annoying is that whole celeb crapness, but I think we should just rise above all that tosh.

Writer Pat Newcombe - I disagree! It's not just about belief - it's about wanting our best words out there, words we can truly be proud of. :)

Thanks for comments, everyone. Glad you're setting high standards, whether self-publishing or being published. That's all that matters. I haven't a clue why Anon a) is anon and b) thinks I'm anti-self-publishing. Did you not read the bit where I said I'm planning to do it myself? This is about standards, that's all.

Anonymous said...

This is a important topic. I have two novels in a drawer and am working on another at the moment, the process of which is throwing up all the fears incumbent in writing, is this really any good? Will this book make sense to others? etc etc. I'm also overhauling a collection of short stories because I just knew that I wasn't happy with them and did not want them to be seen. The novel is more difficult to fathom. I don't know whether my difficulties with it are fundamental to the novel which should consequently be jettisoned or are they just related to a lack of skill in a certain element of novel writing that I can learn about and address. By continuing to wrestle with and hopefully finish the book I hope I will be able to still have the objectivity to decide it's quality at the end.

The other issue is more tricky though. Publishing is transforming & is understandably market driven. Publication acceptance might not always be a yardstick for the quality of your work where a publishing house has hardly any new slots or if your book is a little risky or is not in a perfectly definable genre. In the indie music model the consumer decides directly and has made massive successes of bands (such as the Arctic Monkeys) that did not go through the traditional channels.

If as Dan has said we have done our 10,000 hours, have received positive feedback or shortlists etc, we can begin to trust our own intuition whether to stick with a novel. Once we are happy with it, who then should decide if it's worthy?

Carol said...

After coming so close to a publishing deal I could almost smell it, but finally being turned down, I did self-publish my first novel. I now wish I hadn't.

The book was professionally proofread & well edited. With hindsight, almost certainly not well enough.

Writing a second book has taught me more than I could have imagined. Not least, that if I re-visted the first, I could make it a far better book. It's a good story, but deserved better.

My advice to anyone thinking of self-publishing is, think some more.

Nicola Morgan said...

Carol - that is a wonderfully honest and important comment. Thank you. Good luck and congratulations for your hard work, constructive perseverance and for all that you've learnt.

Alison - you make good points. the 10,000 hours thing, though - it's not the case that 10,000 hours are sufficient. Necessary probably but not sufficient. It's what we do with the hours and what talent and inspiration we add to them. It's not a simple recipe, I'm sure you agree. I wish you huge luck with your work, whatever decision you make. And self-publishing could work very well for you. I hope it works well for me, too!