12 Signs Your Novel isn't Ready to Publish

Self-publishing is the trending subject in Cyberia. Last week my post on self pubbing got over 2500 hits. And 60 comments. It not only made “Best of the Best” of Jane Friedman’s “Best Tweets for Writers,” but got a shout-out from publishing blog-god Nathan Bransford. (Thanks, Jane and Nathan!)

I’m amazed. Many thanks to all of you—with special nods to everybody who has taken the time to leave a comment. Lots of information and food for thought there. I think one of the reasons this blog is getting popular is the quality of the comments.

To recap what I said in that post: KINDLE NO BOOK BEFORE ITS TIME! Don’t throw your fledgling book out into the Kindleverse without some serious thought. 

I realize you feel pressure to join the e-book revolution. Stories of Kindle millionaires are everywhere. The e-book provides a magnificent way for established writers to monetize their backlist—or even their frontlist, if they decide to go indie all the way like Barry Eisler. It’s also worked magic for new novelists like Karen McQuestion and Amanda Hocking, and I’m reading more success stories every day. (There’s one from author Mark Williams at the bottom of the comment thread of the self-pub post that’s a must-read.) I LOVE stories like this.

But it’s important to keep in mind these were all seasoned writers before they self-published. They had inventory. They knew how to build platform and make sales.

So don't expect their results until you're a seasoned writer, too. Even if you don’t get pounded with bad reviews, you could be sabotaging your future career. If a reader finds bad grammar, misused words, and no plot—even in a 99-cent e-book—they’re not going to want to read that author again. Maybe only a handful of people will buy it, but if you become a literary darling some day, that bad book will always be lurking somewhere on somebody’s Kindle, waiting to destroy your reputation.

Writing has a learning curve like any other skill. You don’t get to play Carnegie Hall after a few piano lessons. You don’t join the PGA tour after a couple of afternoons on the golf course. Learning to write takes time. Way more time than you think.

It sure did for me. I cringe when I read some of my early work. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the rejections that kept the worst of it from seeing print.

But at the time, I thought that stuff was perfect. Jody Hedlund discussed this phenomenon in a great post last week. She pointed out: “Writers are blind to their own mistakes.”

All beginners make mistakes. Falling down and making a mess is part of any learning process. But you don’t have to display the mess to the world.

Here are some tell-tale signs that a writer is still in the learning phase of his/her career.

1)     Lots of writerly prose. Those long, gorgeous descriptions that got so much praise from your high school English teacher and your college girlfriend are a huge turn-off for the paying customer who’s searching for some kind of story in there.

2)     English-major showing off. It may feel incredibly clever to start every chapter with an epigraph from Finnegan’s Wake. But unless it’s really important to the plot, this will probably annoy rather than impress readers. Ditto oblique references to the Cavalier poets or anything by Thomas Mann. People want to be entertained, not worship at your self-erected literary altar.

3)     Episodic storytelling. I admit my own guilt on this one. I could never end my first novel, because it didn’t actually have a plot. It was a series of related episodes—like a TV series. (Many thanks to former agent Colleen Lindsay for reading the whole ms. and telling me this in a kind way. Because of her thoughtful comments, I could finally drop the book and move on.) Critique groups often don’t catch this problem, if each episode has a dramatic arc of its own.

4)     Hackneyed openings. I wrote a post on these a while back.The worst is the “alarm clock” opening—your protagonist waking up—the favorite cliché of all beginning storytellers. There’s a hilarious video on this from the comedians at Script Cops They say, “78 % of all student films start with an alarm clock going off.”

5)     Thinly disguised oh-poor-me memoirs and revenge fantasies. Having a terrible childhood does not make a great story. Neither does surviving a life-threatening disease. That kind of experience needs a lot of processing before it can be worked into entertaining fiction.

Also, readers probably won’t be enthralled by a 200,000 word description of a guy just like your toxic ex, even if he gets hacked up by his ax-murdering second wife in the final scene. (Yes, I know that was fun to write.)

6)     Semi-fictionalized religious/political screeds. You have to be really, really good (or Ayn Rand) to get away with political fiction. Carl Hiaasen manages to throw quite a bit of his politics into his comic mysteries, and Chris Moore gets in some digs in his hilarious horror tales. But if you aren’t as funny as those guys, save it for a letter to the editor.

And if you’ve written a novel just so you can send everybody who isn’t exactly like you to Hell, your reader will want to send you there, too.

7)     Dialogue info-dumps and desultory conversation. Another of my personal pitfalls. After 25 years in the theater, my brain’s natural habitat was the script. It took me years to learn characters don’t have to say all that stuff out loud. And “hello how are you fine and you nice weather” dialogue may be realistic, but it’s snoozifying. Readers don’t care about “authenticity” if it doesn’t further the plot.

8)     Tom Swifties. The writer who strains to avoid the word “said” can rapidly slip into bad pun territory, as in the archetypal example: “‘We must hurry,’ exclaimed Tom Swiftly.” Bad dialogue tags may have crept into your consciousness at an early age from Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books. They're great fun, but they were written by a stable of underpaid hacks and although the stories are classic, the prose is not.

9)     Mary Sues. A Mary Sue is a character who’s a stand-in for the writer’s idealized self. She’s beautiful. Everybody loves her. She always saves the day. She has no faults. Except she’s boring and completely unbelievable.

10) Imprecise word usage. This is what snagged the infamous unhappily-reviewed indie author of a couple of weeks back. If you don’t know the difference between lie and lay, aesthetic and ascetic, or why a woman can’t “carry her stocky build” down the stairs, you’ll get two-star reviews, too.

11) Incorrect spelling and grammar. The buying public isn’t your third grade teacher; they won’t give you a gold star just to boost your self-esteem. Spelling and grammar count. Words are your tools. Would you try out for professional baseball if you didn’t know how to hold a bat? Electronic grammar checks can only do so much. And they’re often wrong. Buy a grammar book. Take a course. Go to a writers conference. Seriously. Even a good editor can’t do everything.

12) Wordiness. There’s a reason agents are wary of long books. New writers tend to take 100 words to say what seasoned writers can say in 10. If your prose is weighty with adjectives and adverbs, or clogged with details and repetitive scenes, you’ll scare off readers as well. 

If you’re still doing any of these things, RELAX! Enjoy writing for its own sake a while longer. Read more books on craft.. Build inventory. You really do need at least two polished manuscripts in the hopper before you launch your career.

And hey, you don’t have to become a marketer just yet. Isn’t that good news?

How about you, scriveners? What mistakes did you make when you were starting out? As a reader, what amateurish red flags make you wish you hadn’t wasted your 99 cents?

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