Beginning writers enjoy the unappreciated luxury of time. They can work without submission deadlines and crash and burn editorial demands. There’s an undeniable glee in such deadlines; they are the mark of a professional author, aren’t they? They demonstrate our commitment to our writing careers, and that our publishers take us seriously. Deadlines, especially short ones, imply an editor’s trust in our ability to work competently, even brilliantly, at speed. Surely, that’s proof of a high degree of Expertise, not to mention Importance.
If you haven’t picked up the sarcasm in the opening paragraph, please insert it now. Bleary eyes, aching shoulder muscles, unwashed laundry, family eating frozen dinners, and kids running amok from neglect are nobody’s idea of good working conditions. For many published and publishing authors, these things happen from time to time as a part of the publishing industry’s inherent chaos. If we can’t change them and don’t feel we have the option to refuse, then we make them more acceptable by glamorization of suffering. To be sure, when we were beginning writers, we may well have regarded the necessity of dropping everything to proofread a book that should have been done two months ago as a good thing. We wanted to see our work in print, the sooner the better, and too many of us jumped at the chance of being published anywhere.
The time during when we are writing seriously but not (yet) on contract offers its own gifts, and one of them is freedom from publisher- (or editor- or agent-) induced overwork frenzy. We may be overworking in a different way, juggling day jobs, families, and other responsibilities. Our friends and families may regard our writing as a hobby, no matter how seriously we take it, because we have yet made any money at it. (And when we do, the bar escalates: we haven’t sold a novel, we don’t earn enough to support ourselves entirely from our writing, we haven’t won a national award, etc., and with the achievement of each goal, we are subjected to another, even more difficult one.)
A beginning writer has the flexibility to accept external deadlines, like for submission to an anthology or contest, or to ignore them. He may choose a time-defined goal, like writing a novel in a month for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), but he is not contractually obligated to do so. If he realizes the project is headed in the wrong direction and needs to be taken apart and put back together in a completely different way, and to do that, he must acquire new literary skills, he is free to do that. In fact, it’s an excellent thing for a beginning writer to have the awareness he is creating and learning at the same time. During this time, we have all had ideas that were beyond our technical abilities to execute. Even when they failed abysmally, tackling these stories made us stronger writers. Once we are selling on contract and working to deadline, we may no longer have the time to experiment with different techniques, to try various solutions and critically analyze why some worked and others didn’t, and so forth. It is assumed we already have the necessary professional skills to do the job. For many writers, those contracts result in a stagnation of learning. As a result, we run off and write novels “on spec” to keep our creative muses nourished with a sense of adventure and play.
Beginning writers face the daunting reality that over the decades it has become increasingly difficult to sell a first novel. Not only are they in competition with other debut novelists, their editors are also considering manuscripts from seasoned professionals who, for one reason or another, are changing their bylines and perhaps genres, and being published as if they were new authors. Therefore, it’s even more important that first novels be the very best crafted, most original, fully developed, and polished books possible. This takes time, whether it’s your first book or your hundredth. Beginning writers can afford to take the time; indeed, it is incumbent upon them to do so.
New writers aim to make that first novel as good as they can, not only to attract the interest of an agent or make a sale to an editor, but because the quality of a debut novel has a disproportionate influence over their writing careers. Writers can and do recover from a mediocre debut novel with consequent lackluster sales, but it’s a lot harder to sell a second novel. This is why I think that most of the time, self-publishing an otherwise unpublishable (and hence, unedited) first novel is a mistake in terms of a long-term career.
The advice to take the time to master basic literary craft and then apply it is often difficult to accept, let alone follow. When we’re still figuring out how to write well (and how to write this story well), we so often don’t know what we don’t know. Finding trustworthy feedback and then following it slows down the process. I can’t tell you how many times I thought a story was ready for submission and been wrong. Some of us pick up skills easily; others of us need the concepts explained to us in words of one syllable. And all of us want to be able to write perfectly right now.
The stage of late-beginner, when a writer has e sold a few short fiction pieces and is working on a novel, is a particularly hazardous passage. His stories may have attracted positive reviews; he had readers and even fans. His editors know his name. Then an editor asks to see that novel, the one that’s not finished. The rough draft may be complete, or even a revision or several, but it’s not the very best the writer can make it. The request creates the illusion that the sale is halfway accomplished. The writer has leap-frogged over the slush pile! Exhilaration feeds blindness: that novel still has to be competitive and capable of launching a career, but now it’s all too tempting to send it out before the editor forgets the conversation.
To make matters worse, sometimes rushing through writing the rest of the book or skimming through a quick polish does work. More often, though, it doesn’t, and then the best outcome then is that the writer picks up his shattered hopes and is able to return to the novel with renewed dedication. That necessary perspective can be hard when the project has been the source of disappointment. The mere act of submitting an unready manuscript creates the illusion that it is finished, and illusions are notoriously difficult to dispel. Often the best strategy in this circumstance is to set that project aside, go off and do something else — write another novel or a handful of short stories, anything that refreshes the mind and sharpens the critical eye — and then return to it.
Just as it is never too late to begin a writing career, it is worth the time to launch that career. True writing friends, as opposed to those who pressure or sabotage our best interests, help us with patience and long-term perspective. That smashing debut novel is worth it!