Is Your Novel Ready to Publish? 12 Signs You’re Still in the Learning Phase of Your Writing Career

From Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris:

If you’ve used the pandemic lockdown as a time to write that novel you always knew you had in you, congratulations! You’ve taken the depressing, horrific lemon that was 2020 and turned it into literary lemonade.

You deserve a great big “Congrats!” and several pats on the back. You are awesome.

But if you’re thinking of publishing that novel now that you’ve finished it, you might want to hold off for a bit. Especially if you’re hoping to make some money from it.

Even though you’ve typed that satisfying “the end” on that book, chances are good that it’s not ready to publish. Or even to go to an editor. 

Self-publishing has freed up a lot of writers and allowed them to express themselves without the restraints of corporate publishing. But just because you CAN publish that magnum opus with a minimum of fuss doesn’t mean you should—yet.

The truth is it takes a long time to learn to write well. Even if you were an English major. If you’ve only written one novel or memoir, you’re still in the learning phase. Keep writing and start something new. Write some short pieces and start sending them out to journals and contests. Work on your next book. Start a blog and learn to write for an online audience.

And read, read, read. Read books on craft and marketing as well as novels in your genre.

. . . .

Signs You Aren’t Ready to Publish

Here are some tell-tale signs that writers are still in the learning phase of their careers.

1) Wordiness

There’s a reason why 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.

2) Writerly Prose

This was a hard lesson for me to learn. It turns out those long, gorgeous descriptions that got so much praise from your English teacher and your college boyfriend can actually be a huge turn-off for the paying customer who’s searching for some kind of story in there.

We need to learn to use description to help the reader get oriented in the scene, not to show off.

3) Episodic Storytelling

I admit my own guilt on this one too. 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. I will always be grateful to the agent who read my whole manuscript and told me I’d written a fine sitcom, but a novel needs one big, over-arching plot.

Learning to plot and pace a novel is way harder than it seems. Seasoned novelists make it seem effortless. You’ll learn, too. It took me a longer time than most, but I got it eventually.

Critique groups often don’t catch this problem, if each episode has a dramatic arc of its own.

4) A Hackneyed Opener

Beware overdone opening scenes. The most clichéd opener is the “alarm clock” scene—the one where your protagonist wakes up and gets ready for his day. Film teachers say, “78 % of all student films start with an alarm clock going off.”

Why? Because it’s an obvious place to start.

But obvious is not what we want. That’s what makes something into a cliché—a whole lot of people have used a phrase or situation before you. So if your opener is similar to one you’ve seen in a ton of movies, and read in lots of books, you’re probably going to want to change it. Try moving your story ahead a few scenes. Or behind. Do something new and different and creative.

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog… with Ruth Harris

6 thoughts on “Is Your Novel Ready to Publish? 12 Signs You’re Still in the Learning Phase of Your Writing Career”

    • Or David Weber.
      Or George R.R. Martin.
      Or Frank Herbert, James Michener, Tolkien, Rowling, John Jakes…

      I was actually moved to check: she writes romcoms, apparently.
      So for *her* genre, those *might* be true.

      For other genres, not so much.
      Genre and style matter. Not everybody wants a quickie read.
      Many want to stay in the narrative’s world as long as possible; giving it to them has proven successful in many genres.

  1. Better to say “Use enough words to tell your story. No more, no less.”

    Enough is a variable with a wide range – it depends on the complexity of your story. I would note that at least two on your list wrote fewer words for a less complex story; e.g., the early Harrington novels, or many works by JRRT (not only ones like “Farmer Giles of Ham,” but also the Silmarillion – while it is a large and complex story in toto, it is mostly composed of smaller, less “wordy” pieces).

    The Rom-Com genre is, indeed, one of low complexity stories. Not a bad thing, mind – stories where you know how it will develop, once you have sorted out the characters in the first chapter, can be quite relaxing when the brain has been overtaxed by the events of the day.

    Personal note here – reading the OP was quite satisfying to me. I commit none of the listed sins in my writing. Plenty of others, but at least not those…

    • Yes, one of the best features of ebooks is a story can be as long, or as short, as required and no longer. No word count straightjacket. But even in the days of print, *enough* was the rule for the best of stories.

      Still, “enough” does vary by genre. ON BASILISK STATION might be shorter than WAR OF HONOR but both are longer than a typical romcom. Different genre, different mission. And even within a given genre, different stories evolve to different lengths, hence the beauty of word count freedom.

      My issue with word count mania is that it leads to skeletal stories or, worse, “trilogies” with artificial breakpoints, often unsatisfying ones. The flag bearer for this is Roger Zelazny’s first five AMBER VOLUMES. By any measure the five consitute a single novel of robust but not inmense size. It could have, and has been, published as a single volume. But it was released in an age where SF was held to strong word count constraints and chopped up, probably to maximize revenue. Fortunately, LORD OF LIGHT didn’t suffer the same fate.

      So yes, instead of fretting over length the best stories are simply, “long enough”. And how long is enough is determined by the story itself as it plays out.

      My own suggestion, if I had any right to make one, would be to go section by section and ask “why is this here?”. That should suffice.

      • On Amber, I would start reading the first five books on a Friday afternoon, then finish Sunday before supper. When I would read the books that way, the massive repetitions from book to book stood out. I think that one book was him simply analyzing events in the prior books before he went on to solve the “case”.

        When I would read one book-a-week, then the illusion that they were one big novel worked. You would have him end one book by getting on a sailboat, then begin the next book by getting off the sailboat. Having a week pass before reading the next book gave time for the story to sink in and the repetitions fit.

        Think of the first five books as five, 300 manuscript page, books, so about 1,500 pages. I always wanted to take the five books, scan and OCR them and assemble the story as a whole and eliminate the repetitions. I think that would cut it down to 1,000 pages.

        Then I wanted to write the parts from each family member’s viewpoint and put it all together. I suspect that would end up a 2,000 page book.

        I scanned the whole series decades ago, but never did the OCR because of the limits on computers at the time. Your comment reminded me that I have those scans sitting in a folder, ready for me to OCR and then play with the story.


        BTW, I scanned the Silmarillion as well to start expanding that. But now that I think of it, that’s just crazy talk. HA!

        • What you describe is exactly what happens when a large narrative is broken into “publishable” blocks. Each chunk has to pretend to be a standalone and offer it’s own “beginning” and “end”.

          It’s hard to blame Zelazny since he most likely needed to monetize each segment as quickly as possible and had to deal with the publisher’s word count restriction and release slots. Plus in those days there wasn’t today’s backlist management so it was actually common for readers to encounter a series through the third or fourth part and not be able to (easily or at all) find the previous parts. A different age we’ve luckily left behind.

          What you’re planning to do is what Zelazny should have done before embarking on the second arc. (There was actually supposed to be a third arc he never got around to, other than a couple of shorts.) We’ll likely never find out what Merle found in Corwin’s universe. Our loss.

          Anyway, Doc Smith handled the same problem differently twenty years before by making *his* mega novel an onion, with the reader and protagonist discovering layer beneath layer of the cosmic threat as the chunks were published (each with an “ending”) only to discover at the end what was truly going on. And then, unfortunately, the whole saga got broken into book sized volumes (instead of a single LENSMEN series serialized over several years) and got both a prequel and a precursor story grafted upfront, spoiling the impact of the finale.

          I dream someday somebody does LENSMEN properly, starting with GALACTIC PATROL through SECOND STAGE LENSMAN and does the other two volumes as flashbacks during an extended CHILDREN OF THE LENS endcap.

          We finally have both the tech to do the story properly and a venue that can afford to finance it. ‘Cause it ain’t cheap when space fleets throw planets at each other. 😀

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