I get it. I really do. Writing your very first* novel, travel guide, collection of short stories**, how-to text, or any other long form work is exciting. You think ahead to how it will be received, how much money you’ll make, and it’s tempting to jump forward to the good parts… especially when the act of writing it can sometimes be slow. Or painful. Or, impossible, at that particular moment.
So much more fun to talk about it as if it’s a real thing, with potential!
But there are 10 things you should never let yourself say out loud, online, or to other humans, before at least a solid first draft of the project is complete. Some are cardinal sins, some are merely pointless, but all should be avoided (caveats noted):
1. How do I get my book published?
Variations include: Do you have any advice on how to make my book sell? What do think I need to do to make my book popular?
The shortest, truest, answer is: “How would I know?”
Authors, editors, agents — none of us can tell you the “secret” to getting published because there isn’t one. “Write the best book you can” is standard advice, because it’s true, and because each book is different. If you’re writing exactly the same novel as I did, sure, maybe I can tell you who loved mine and wanted to buy it, but why would you want to write a book that’s already been published? Unless it’s the same all the way down into its bones, I couldn’t tell you for certain who would buy it. Acquiring editors base their decisions on the quality of the work, but also on marketing trends, what’s selling now, what’s already been bought but isn’t yet published, how long it will take to get your book out compared to how current/trendy it is, and so on. Generally, a book takes a year or more to see the light of day, and if you’re offering a work “just like that new book that’s selling so well!” by the time a buyer accepts it, gets it edited, laid out, proofed, printed, and distributed, you’re too late. Readers will have moved on.
Once a book is finished, edited, revised, and ready to be shopped around, then you can ask for advice. Once you have a tangible item that your mentor can actually read, it’s so much easier for them to say, “I think XYZ House would love a book like this because their editor was just telling me she wanted the [specific bits] I see here” or “I’ve seen two or three of these exact books out last year, but none of them had your chapter 11 — I’d expand that section to make your work stand out”.
Until then, you’re basically saying: “I’m going to make cookies with lemon juice and ginger in them. Can you tell me if they’ll be delicious? How many people will buy them? I don’t have any for you to taste, but can you tell me what I need to do to make them better?”
Exception: Certain types of non-fiction publishers will hire writers to create books that fit a pre-established line (like the “For Dummies” series). If you want to write specifically for them, you need to first contact them and pitch your idea. This isn’t true for most types of publishing, and if you’re planning to write the book your way, and find a publisher who won’t want to have strict control over every single aspect of it, you need to write it before you worry about publishing.
2. How do I get an agent?
Variations include: Will your agent read my book? Hey, agent, my book isn’t finished yet but do you want to read it?
You get an agent by submitting a cover letter about your book. Sometimes they’ll want a sample as well, but mostly it’s the cover letter. Sure, you can write that before your book is finished, but if the agent likes the letter, they’ll want to see a sample. If they like the sample (often a complete outline and the first 3 chapters), they’ll want to read the whole book. This process could take months, giving you time to finish the project — or it could take a week. What do you think will happen when the agent finds out you don’t even have a first draft done yet?
3. How much will I make from this book, do you think?
Variations: Do you think this will get made into a movie? Is it likely to be a bestseller? What kind of advance should I expect?
This depends on so many factors it is impossible to tell. Published authors, watching their initial sales numbers carefully, can’t always guess where they will end up. There’s no way to predict what will happen with a project not yet completed, agented, sold, or published.
4. Can you tell me which publisher would publish my book without changing anything?
Variations include: Which publishers will buy my book, including the illustrations I did for it/cover art/special way I want it to be printed (deckle paper, colored pages, etc)? and Will you blurb my book for me when it’s done?
Unless you’re paying a vanity press to publish it for you, or self-publishing, you’ll have no guarantee that you can control the way your book looks when it is published. You may or may not get some say in the cover art. You might get to include illustrations, depending on the type of book it is, and whether the publisher likes your art as much as your prose. You may be able to have all kinds of special details included in your contract — or you might not get any of them at all. Even at the same publisher, the books they produce might be printed in an assortment of ways, depending on the retail price of the finished book, the expected audience, and much more.
It’s impossible to determine in advance what the physical object you hold in your hands will look like. You might not even have a print version of your book, unless it sells well. Many smaller imprints are ebook only, or ebook-first, now.
5. I don’t need to hire an editor to help me. I know how to write, and an editor is just throwing money away on something I can do myself.
Variations include: I don’t need an agent. Publishers are going to love my book, and I don’t want to waste money on paying an agent’s commission.
I know it’s difficult to think about spending money on a project which hasn’t made you any money yet. Writers often spend hundreds, or thousands of hours on a novel or non-fiction work, without pay, and without any guarantee their book will ever be published. Even if you work as a writer in another field, as a teacher, a journalist — even if you are an editor in your day job — your book still needs an editor to make it the best version of itself. There is no way that you can spot every flaw, down to the smallest typo. Our brains don’t work that way.
The reason you can read that even though it’s largely made up of numbers is that our brains fill in missing information all of the time. We make assumptions we’re not aware of. Navigate a dark room based on our memories instead of what we can see. Useful trick most of the time — but not when you’re trying to edit your own work.
Then, you literally can’t see all of your errors because there’s a part of your brain which says, “Oh, you know what you meant to say.” You need someone else to read it so they see what you’ve missed, with that lizard brain getting in the way. A trained editor can spot the common errors, and knows to do things like count your most commonly used words, read tricky sections aloud, and break grammar/punctuation rules appropriately.
As for an agent? If your book is the sort to do well with with mainstream, midlist, publishers, you’re going to want someone to introduce you to them who knows the lay of the land. More importantly, a good agent won’t just get you a deal — they’ll help you make sure that it’s a fair one. Agents will review your contract, suggest changes, explain terms… this requires experience and knowledge the average person isn’t going to have. Unless you worked in contract law at some point in your life, don’t even think about going through this phase without someone you can trust at your side.
6. I’m writing this book as a YA novel because I know that kind of book sells well, and is easier to write than if you write for adults.
Variations include: I want to write erotica because no one cares if you have a plot when there’s sex in it and I thought I’d write a book for lay people to begin with because the book I really want to write for people who’d get it would be too hard right now.
Chances are very good that if you diminish another writer’s work or chosen genre, they’ll hear about it. Maybe Charlaine Harris will never know that you wrote 1/2 a vampire novel because True Blood seemed (to you) to have such simple dialogue, but the guy sitting next to your friend at the bar will turn out to be Alan Ball. Or you’ll mention your not-technical tech book in an elevator to a woman who looked interested, who would have taken your number and passed it on to her friend who buys that sort of thing for Macmillan, until you said it was easier to write for people who didn’t have science degrees. Since she didn’t go to college, even though she loves new tech enough to talk about it with random strangers, you’ve inadvertently insulted someone who would have been your target audience.
I’ve seen people talking about a how easy it is to write/sell in a certain genre or age range, to someone who’s working in that area, without noticing the dawning hate in the other author’s eyes. You might think it’s “obvious” that one apple is better than one orange, or one lemon is easier to use than one pineapple, but not everyone feels the same.
7. It’s not all written yet, but I know what it’s about.
So? Lots of people have ideas. There’s no guarantee that knowing the whole story or the vast expanse of your subject matter will equal actually completing the book.
8. At the rate I’m writing, I can have it finished and start submitting to publishers by X date.
Unless that date is scheduled out far enough in advance to include the time it takes you to write the number of words you still need, plus a cushion for emergencies, plus time to have it read by your crit group or betas, and time for you to revise with those notes in mind, and the time you’ll spend going over it with a professional editor… no. You may have typed “the end” by that date, but it isn’t ready to submit.
9. I meant which ones, specifically.
Variations include: I was looking for information I didn’t already know or lol I knew that! I mean real publishing secrets or thanks, but that’s not actually giving me what I was looking for.
Why would you ask someone for advice and then complain that it wasn’t good enough? If they suggest you submit to LMN Publishing, and you can honestly reply, “Thanks! I thought so too, but their editor said he thought my book was better for a MG audience instead of a YA one. Do you have any experience with those kind of publishers?” then do that. That’s politely clarifying and explaining exactly what you need.
But no matter how sweet you dress it up, if your response is essentially “thanks for nothing”, you’re better off not replying at all.
10. I’m writing this book because want to be famous.
Exception: At a convention or dinner or hanging out with other writers, after a drink (but not too many), when you’re all sitting around joking about who’s going to cut off the head of Ted Chiang to steal his essence. Because you know what? In some way, almost all of us do.
But if that’s your main motivation for writing your book, keep that shit to yourself.
Honestly, if you find yourself saying any of these things to anyone but yourself, chances are — your writing is terrible. You’re focused on the end goal instead of actually doing a great job along the way. If you don’t admit to that, beta readers and helpful professionals might think you’re just new. Someone might even put in the work to teach you how to be better.
Once you’ve said these phrases aloud, we know you don’t care about us, your potential reader/editor/publisher, as much as you care about the idea of being a published author, with all of the money, fame, or respect, you assume that will bring you. In that case, why should we care about you?
WHAT YOU SHOULD ASK INSTEAD:
1. If I tell you my pitch, could you tell me if you’ve seen or read anything like it lately?
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with making sure you’re not reinventing the wheel before you start. Never assume that you’re the only one working on, or having written, a book on the same topic. You also can’t assume you’d have heard of it if there was another project already out in the world which covered what yours does. Ask your friends, your author buddies, editors/publishers/agents you know well, even post it on your website.
Also, asking up front if you can discuss your pitch before throwing it at people gives them a chance to gracefully decline.
2. My novel has X, Y, and Z fictional characters. They are X, Y, and Z types, which I am also. How can I make them more diverse? (or, they’re X, Y, and Z, all of which I am not — how can I be sure they’re not stereotypes?)
Writing someone unlike yourself can seem daunting to people who don’t have a lot of experience. New authors often avoid it entirely, or write in characters built from their ideas of other people as a group, instead of on individuals they actually know. Asking for advice about writing a range of realistic characters is always a good idea, and most people will be happy you’re making the effort.
Exceptions: Do not argue with the people who take the time to reply to you. If they tell you not to bother because you won’t do it well, understand that they mean they haven’t seen it done well before, don’t want to see it done badly, and you’ve got to do more work to get it right. If they suggest that you tone down or eliminate what you consider to be “markers” of that group, it’s because to them, that’s not a description, it’s a stereotype. Or worse, a slur.
3. Could you tell me about your specific experience with your specific agent/publisher/editor/publicist?
Asking for a review of one, named, person or company, from someone that you know has worked with them, is often a good way to find out a little more than you would from researching the same person/group online. Be clear, concise, and limit your questions to one or two before thanking the person you’ve asked, and moving on. More, and you’re risking boring or overwhelming the person who’s taken the time to give you the information you asked for.
Remember that no one owes you anything. Published people do not owe you a detailed map to getting published. Publishers do not have to buy your book or be labeled “idiots”. Readers do not have to love you and catapult you into bestseller lists and fame. Writing — even selling — one book is very likely not the key to anything other than a chance to write a second.
It’s a start. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot at the very beginning. You still have a long way to go.
* When you have more than one book published, a pre-existing deal with a publisher, an agent — many times your next book will be sold on the basis of the idea, or a short outline/sample. With very few exceptions, this is not true of your first book. Before you’ve published anything, no one knows who you are. The stories you hear about people’s first novel getting bought before they’re even written are almost always about people who’d published other things first: stories in literary journals, poetry, plays, newspaper articles… something associated with their name and writing that had already generated buzz. Maybe they’re actors, sports figures, victims of great tragedy, or serial killers. Are you a serial killer? Because if so, you might not need to have been an author before you got your book deal.
Everyone else? Write your damn book first.
** A collection of short stories can sometimes be sold before they’re all written, if the author has published some of the shorts in advance, and gotten rave reviews, won awards, etc. Like above, the publisher/agent isn’t taking on a complete unknown. They’re banking on getting more of the same type of work which already got the author’s name out in front of their readers in the first place.