Tuesday, June 16, 2015

How to Know When You're Ready to Publish

By Beth Revis, @bethrevis

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Writing is often filled with a heap of self doubt, and it's helpful to know you're not alone there. One common doubt, is knowing when to submit (or publish) that manuscript we've slaved over for so long. Please help me welcome back Beth Revis to the lecture hall today, to help answer a question every writer asks at some point in their writing career--is my book ready?

Beth is the NY Times bestselling author of the Across the Universe series. The complete trilogy is now available in more than 20 languages. Beth is also the author of The Body Electric and several short stories. A native of North Carolina, Beth is currently working on a new novel for teens, tentatively scheduled for 2016.

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Take it away Beth...

It’s often very hard to balance the art side of writing and the business side of publishing, whether you choose to self publish or traditionally publish. But before you even consider self or traditional publishing, we should address the most common question writers ask:

Is my book ready to be published?

Knowing when your book is done is…basically impossible. It’s hugely difficult for a writer to see her own work for what it is, because the writer carries around in her head everything that didn’t go into the book as well.

And if you’re like most people, you’ll never think your book is ready.

How you get to that finished product is up to you—writing is a personal and unique experience. But while writing is a creative art, publishing is business. Sure, there’s some creativity in publishing, but at the end of the day, it’s business. Not art.

Here’s my process in getting a book to…well, not complete, but as complete as it’s possible for a story to be. I don’t do this for every book, but particularly if I know there are problems, I put in the work on the book usually in this way.

Step 1: Finish a complete draft. If I think it’s close to what it should be, I go ahead and send to critique partners here, then use their notes to proceed in the following ways. If I know there are issues, I go straight to the following steps, then send to critique partners and repeat as necessary.

Step 2: Take at least a week off from that book to gain perspective and step back from the forest in an effort to see the trees. Meanwhile, print a copy of the manuscript. I edit better on paper than on screen—and if it’s a particularly difficult book, I will often swap fonts to help make the book look even more alien and make it easier to see it as a work rather than an extension of my mind.

Step 3: Make two columns on several pieces of paper. On the left side, I write down a very basic few lines of what happens in each chapter, summarizing it as I read through the novel.

Step 4: On the right column, in-line with each chapter, I write out what should happen. I don’t outline, so typically I wander off and lose my pacing or drop plotlines, etc. So the right column is really about getting the book to where it needs to be.

Step 5: Revise based on that, send to critique partners, repeat as necessary.

In extreme measures, I’ll reverse outline or otherwise work to shape the book together. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about my particular writing method, it’s that it’s never right the first time.

But there’s also a time when I start to realize that the thing is what it is, and there’s no going back. The warning signs of that are:

  • Critique partners aren’t presenting problems, but opinions. There comes a point where the only thing to suggest is not really an improvement to the book, but a difference of opinion. An example of this is: “The love interest for the heroine is hot, but I prefer blondes.” Changing hair color doesn’t change the story; the critique partner has nothing really to say substantive to the book other than throwing out a few irrelevant opinions.
Note: Don’t rely on this as the sole indicator that your book is perfect; sometimes you just don’t have a very discerning critique partner.
  • Critique partners are only suggesting changes that are fundamentally against what you’re trying to say with the book. If the whole point of your book is a bittersweet ending and they want a happily ever after, you’re not really getting to a point where the story needs work; it just doesn’t work for that specific reader.
Note: Not that you should entirely dismiss your critique partners. Their ideas may make your work more commercial, but you need to decide if you want to compromise your original vision for the work to be more marketable or keep it the way you want it.
  • Whenever you work on the book, you’re doing nothing substantial to edits. You may swap some sentences or change some grammar, but on a story-level, you’re really not changing anything. Let go. You’re just letting the story sit there and fester at that point—do something with it.

I think many people get to the point where, much like a pregnant woman in month nine, they’re just done. They’ve done everything they can, and they are done.

Because of that, I typically did rounds with querying agents. I had a list of about a hundred agents to query, but I only sent to the first twenty or so. I then weighed the response and submitted again—or revised again.

In self publishing, the onus of deciding whether or not the book is done is on you. But at the point where a traditional publisher is querying is the point where a self publisher is contacting editors, and a good editor will help you understand better whether or not the book is ready.

At some point, you have to bite the bullet and send your work out, or just be Emily Dickinson and stuff it in the floorboards. The choice is yours.

But I’m not confident! I can write this better, it’s not ready, I’m not ready!

Shhh. No one is. Do the best you can, and then take a chance on yourself.

But…I’m scared! Of rejection, of failure.

If you’re not scared, it’s probably not worth doing. So do it.

About The Body Electric

The future world is at peace.

Ella Shepherd has dedicated her life to using her unique gift--the ability to enter people's dreams and memories using technology developed by her mother--to help others relive their happy memories.

But not all is at it seems.

Ella starts seeing impossible things--images of her dead father, warnings of who she cannot trust. Her government recruits her to spy on a rebel group, using her ability to experience--and influence--the memories of traitors. But the leader of the rebels claims they used to be in love--even though Ella's never met him before in her life. Which can only mean one thing...

Someone's altered her memory.

Ella's gift is enough to overthrow a corrupt government or crush a growing rebel group. She is the key to stopping a war she didn't even know was happening. But if someone else has been inside Ella's head, she cannot trust her own memories, thoughts, or feelings.

So who can she trust?

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  1. Great advice! Thank you, Beth and Janice. It's always a delight to read Fiction University.
    Beth, I love the sound of your story, 'The Body Electric'. It's on my list to read. :)

  2. SO fun to see Beth Revis featured here--with great, concrete ideas of knowing when your ms. is ready. Thanks Janice for featuring her. And BTW--if you haven't read "Across the Universe" you must!