Don’t Be Too Eager to Publish

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My son gave me a mystery the other day. He’d encountered the author at Barnes and Nobles and, having chatted with the man, he felt bound to buy a copy of his book. We’ll call the writer Author X.

Under the attractive dust jacket, the sturdy binding is stamped with the title and author’s name in gilt letters. The book could have been produced by a major publisher.

As soon as I read the first paragraph, however, I knew that the book had been self-published.

With a bit of disguise, here’s the first paragraph:

The phone jingled on Butch Grand’s desk and jolted him out of his daydream. He had been thinking about how hot and dry the last two years had been and was hoping this year would be better. As Police Chief of Philadelphia, Mississippi, things just went better for him when it was cooler and they got some rain. The phone rang again and he took the receiver off the hook.

What’s the first clue that Author X is not a professional?

He tells the reader that the character is having a daydream, and then he tells what the daydream was about. An experienced writer would have placed the reader in the daydream with sensory details, and then jolted him out of it to answer the phone.

An experienced writer would probably have had him “answer” or “pick up” or perhaps just start talking, and not have told us that the man “took the receiver off the hook.”

See if you can identify any other marks of too little revision.

This opening paragraph is followed by a lengthy conversation with a woman who is reporting the discovery of a body at the town dump:

No, she didn’t discover it, some boys did.

And then she puts a boy on the phone and the police chief asks how he spells his name

and then he talks to the woman again and wants to know what time she cooks supper

and then he tells her that he might not be able to get to the dump right away

and then he drifts off again thinking about the fact that the town hasn’t had a murder in seven years

and then a “Hello?” at the other end of the line jars him back to business

and then he hangs up the receiver and sets the phone back on the desk

All this has taken us to page 3. Now we learn that he warned the woman that he might be late because his department has only two patrol cars and both are out with other drivers so…

he goes to the cafe and gets the Sheriff to drive him to the dump

and on the way he thinks about how the dump originated and what the town was like in the 1800s

and then they get to the dump where the two men exchange introductions with the boys who found the body

and then, finally, on page 8, we see the body.

Mysteries can open in various ways. Established authors like Elizabeth George and Sara Paretsky can afford to begin with descriptions of weather and the thoughts of their characters because their readers are confident they are entering a fictional world that has entertained them in the past.

First-time authors have to work harder at drawing the reader in with the first paragraph.

The body does not have to appear in Chapter One, but if you decide to put it there, get on with it!

Consider this opening paragraph:

The bodies were discovered at eight forty-five on the morning of Wednesday 18 September by Miss Emily Wharton, a sixty-five-year-old spinster of the parish of St. Mathhew’s in Paddington, London and Darren Wilkes, aged ten, of no particular parish as far as he knew or cared. –P.D. James, A Taste for Death.

Like Author X, James delays our first look at the bodies until several pages later. We don’t see them until page 9. But where Author X rambles about, talking about this and that, throwing in lengthy conversation and irrelevant detail, James uses the intervening pages to build suspense and horror in the reader.

The existence of the bodies is established in the first sentence, but then James makes us wait as she reveals the relationship between the woman and the boy. The more we know about them, the more we want to know what kind of circumstances could have led them to discover dead bodies. When we finally do see the bodies, our horror is greater because we see them through gentle Miss Wharton’s eyes.

The main problem with Author X’s story is that he was too eager to publish. He was not willing to do the revision necessary to turn a draft into a (professionally) publishable manuscript.

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27 thoughts on “Don’t Be Too Eager to Publish”

  1. I have to agree.
    I would have been terribly disappointed to part with money for a book that reads like that all the way through. I do believe that editing and revising your work is as important as having the original idea in the first place.

  2. Garth Brook’s song about “Unanswered Prayers” comes to mind.

    Writing is the obvious part of creating a book. I imagine that even the best authors benefit from feedback. And feedback is tough to generate for yourself, it almost has to come from others.

    Almost any reader can identify “this is an unhappy experience for me.” But reading critically is a skill at least as tough to master as writing well. An author needs both the detail level (tactics – grammar, spelling) and composition (strategy – characterization, world building, story line) feedback about what is amazing and what is distracting or disappointing.

    Presenting the product can affect how well a book is received. The physical dimensions of the book, to selection of cover and paper used, typography and illustration, to binding techniques and cover design – and, of course, the all-important distribution (and collection!) details all come into play. It isn’t enough to choose “the best” paper, or binder. They all work best when chosen to work together.

    Many of my favorite authors, in their 10th or 20th published book, acknowledge the manuscript readers, the editors and publishers that the feel contributed to making the book a rich reading experience.

    Many people believe that proofreading as a desirable step or skill has been automated by OpenOffice.org Writer or Microsoft Word. Yet there are still a few places that hire proofreaders. I just haven’t come across many free-lance editors.. Maybe that means there is a void begging for freelance editor trainers and self-published editorial services.

  3. I’ve thought about self-publishing but have hesitated and still haven’t finished my book(s) because of it. I definitely want my first book to be polished and professional!

    I’m glad I read this post…

  4. I guess the best way is to have someone take a look at the draft, then have someone professional to look again, edit whatever that is necessary then go to printing. I wonder if the Author X will be able to sell many copies of his work.

  5. Sarah,
    I’m thinking about a post on this subject of feedback. A writer needs it. Professional help is very pricey. Belonging to a writers’ group can be very helpful, all depending on the group.

    I’ll try to find out how many books Author X has sold. He’s very energetic about marketing them.

  6. Michele, I recall reading that Tolkien re-wrote his epic trilogy, “Lord of the Rings” three complete times, over the years he spent fighting in WWII. This is a distinct contrast with today’s “What do you mean, it takes 55 days to get this printed and bound?!” quick turnaround culture. (“But the car payment for this month is already due!”)

    There are many good sources of instruction for making your writing more effective. Almost homilies, we are told to “put nothing in that doesn’t have to be there to tell the story” and “don’t use the passive voice.” (ouch!) And practice. Practice with feedback can make a lot of difference. There are author blogs, where a book develops with chapter or subchapter “posts”, and criticism is invited.

    Just commenting on blogs can be tremendous – return, each time, and see how many times your comment was misunderstood (hint: your point or writing was unclear, you lost the focus of what you wanted to impart, you didn’t understand your audience, etc.). Or maybe commenting helps you get a feel for when you are rambling on – and when you actually have something you need to say. And then you can learn to re-read your comment (or post, or guest post) before hitting “submit” to check for clarity, for grammar, for punctuation, for communicating in a thoughtful and well-laid out manner. (It is important to distinguish between polished prose without content, and something worth saying in a clear and effective manner.)

    Fanzines and amateur press groups, before the Internet, existed in many cities – I think many communicated through college or used bookstores. They may still exist for all I know – I stumbled over one (FurVersion – about anthropomorphic fiction with humanistic squirrels and rabbits, ranging from erotic to adventure to romantic) at SiliCon in the late 1990’s, another from a co-worker in Minneapolis in the 1980’s. Each was monthly, members had to pay dues to cover distribution to each member, and had to contribute 9 or 10 stories each year. An article might be a comment on someone else’s article, or a new piece of fiction. If you can’t find an APA you might look for other budding writers to consider starting one. The practice writing, the deadline, the writing guidelines, seeing your work in print, and feedback all contribute to growth as an author.


  7. Wow, Brad, thank you for the comment. I’m going to read it again and try to digest it all! And… three complete times. Wow!

    (I keep telling myself patience is a virtue.) 😉

  8. Great post!

    I can totally relate to it. Recently I finished writing a story and got it reviewed three times. (I bow to an extremely patient friend *winks*) And I still feel that there are things that I need to change in the story.

  9. Absolutely the presentation of a product influences what people think of the content.

    Proofing (and editing) is such a necessary process and should never be done solely by the writer. The brain is a tricky thing – since the brain knows what ‘should’ be on the page, it often supplies that for the eyes, whether it’s there or not.

    It’s amazing how many times a missing or wrong word in a paragraph can be missed in the proofing….

  10. OUCH!! This is a bit of an eye-opener for me! I am a “self-publisher” author or “self-printed”…Whatever. I go through lulu.com and I try to be careful with the way I describe things.

    My book hasn’t appeared any bookshelves and probably won’t but that is fine with me. I writing my stories to be read and enjoyed and I’m not going after the fame and fortune.

  11. I love this article, though it did make me embarrassed and self-conscious, I was able to go back into the work-in-progress and scan for a bunch of ugly writing I had left in there.

    I realized that most of the bad writing in the work comes from me thinking through the story as I type; a habit that is not necessarily bad for a first draft, but one that I need to be conscientious of, and hopefully eliminate or reduce with time!

  12. The best book I have read on this topic is “Self Editing for Fiction Writers.” Highly recommended.

    I am usually quite skeptical of books like this, but I found the advice and strategies in this book to be very good.

    For those who are not yet ready for professional editing, this book provides a great start on the editing process.

  13. While we are bantering about this fellows’ mistake, he’s out selling books.

    For money.

    To strangers.

    Most of us would probably like to write the next “Beowulf” or “Hawaii”; but the main goal is to actually create something worth buying and then sell it for its fair market value. This fellow is doing just that and, in the process, he is realizing his dream.


    All those who have yet to sell their work profitably take one step backward.

    All those whose initial sale netted less than minimum wage would have, take one step backward.

    This place looks like an audition for Riverdance.

    Case dismissed. Go sell a book.

  14. Bill in Detroit, we use examples for good examples, and for things to avoid.

    e. e. cummings was known for lack of capital letters. Bad grammar, and punctuation, but the work was strong enough to carry that outre burden.

    This snippet shows a problem with storytelling – graceful sentence structure, well-written paragraphs, character development, and constructing the story line. I have seen work like this in middle and high school – but I can remember some fine writing in those grades, too.

    You are right, the author is selling his work. And that is not to sneer at. There are more tasks and skills involved in selling a product than actually creating the book and selling it.

    While he is selling his book, how many people are reading it – and looking for another of his? Has he / will he sell enough books to cover the cost of publishing them? Selling a book isn’t the same thing as making money.

    The cover design apparently worked. The binding and presentation was acceptable. And his book signing worked to sell copies of the book. These are only a few of the lessons we should be learning from this author.

    But if the manner of writing irritates even one reader enough to create this post, we need to be aware of that problem, too, and consider ways to avoid putting that kind of issue into our finished product.

    Unless we deliberately intend to use a ‘bad English’ gimmick.

  15. Dear Maeve

    Not long after reading our last article, I heard some DJ say “Have you heard these?” sic…..It should be: have you heard them, as he was speaking about a new group of singers. Another slide into universal acceptance. How about your comments on : Didn’t they do good……. THe boy did good.

    I always find your articles interesting, as they make me think more about my own language and maybe some inpreceivable errors I make without realising them.

  16. It’s tricky to decide when to bring in an editor/reviewer/friend in during the writing process. Certainly before publication!

    I’m working on a novel and trying to decide at what point to run what I have past my peers. While I believe my plot is well structured and the prose engaging, a father isn’t always the most objective judge of his offspring. Since I’m only beginning, though, I don’t want to get caught up with addressing problems best left until draft two.

    I suppose finding a trusted editor, professional or non, is the key.

    Interesting site. Thanks.

  17. I have to disagree with your premise that a self-published work is somehow inferior. I have self published several books and have just signed a publishing contract with a major publisher for my latest work. I was graduated with a degree in Journalism 30 years ago. My writing skills have nothing to do with who my publisher is. You make an illogical conclusion. I do agree that many self-published books are terrible and riddled with all kinds of problems and mistakes. But this is a reflection on the writer and not the method of publishing. I have also read several books that are terrible and have been published through a “real” publisher. Read some of Dickens’ works. He was paid by the word, so he tended to be verbose. He’s widely published by respectable publishers. Anyway, I don’t want to belabor the point. I appreciate your newsletters, but just had to comment on this one.

  18. Zack Kushner,

    While everyone preferences differ, I find the best time to “run” a text by my peers is after I am happy with it. I believe if you let your peers influence your opinions before you’ve fully made your own, in regards to compositions, the text will never be quite right.

    I do, however, sometimes make an exception to this rule after the first chapter is complete. I like to let multiple people read this chapter to gauge their reactions. Do they seem to get lost? Can they predict the storyline? How strong is their desire to continue reading? Is there a sense of feigned indifference that generally means dislike, but with a fear of admittance? In the long run you may change your first chapter, but I personally think it is the only chapter you should let others read before you have completed your text.

    Also, as far as the comment that was made regarding freelance editors, the lack seems to be in their…”findability,” shall we say. There are many freelance editors that I have come across; they are just sometimes hard to find on the internet, given that they are editors and not always SEO experts. 🙂

    Keep Writing,

  19. Vic,
    I didn’t mean to imply that all self-published works are terrible–although that is what I did in this post.

    Please see today’s post in which I try to clarify my position:

    I’ve read many excellent and well-written books that were self-published.

  20. I didn’t see anything about all self-publishing. This article seem clearly targeted to those that skip the quality control, especially those authors that are over-eager to publish.

  21. Thanks Jessica,

    As someone who normally writes non-fiction, I will admit that I find novel writing intimidating. I think waiting until I’m happy with it is a good benchmark; my concerns about reader comprehension can be addressed then.

    I may try to find one reader before then to help me course-correct on any missed major issues, but we’ll see how it goes.


  22. A friend of mine has self-pub’d a book of poetry and is preparing his second, and in both cases he asked me for assistance in proofreading, commenting on the poems themselves, and getting the manuscripts print-ready. I think he is following a good formula for that genre — write most of the work, then give it to a critiquer (is that a real word?) for vetting while you finish more poems — but not necessarily for other genres.

    When I’ve written a story or poem I read it several times to myself before letting anyone else see it. This is my polishing phase, where I’m trying to get the work as finished and complete as I can; after I’m satisfied with it I’ll present it to others and ask for their input.

    On the subject of self-publishing (SPing), I guess it all depends on what you’re trying to get out of the experience. SPing is a good way to see your work on paper and maybe get other people to look at it too, but that can turn into a narcissistic masturbatory exercise if you’re not careful. I don’t think anyone really makes a profit at SPing — certainly not like they would at some job like schlepping trash cans or digging ditches — but money isn’t the only motivator around, after all. Traditional publishing (wherein a publisher pays YOU for your work instead of you paying for it) validates your work in ways that SPing cannot, plus it has the aura of respectability to which SPing aspires but doesn’t quite achieve.

    Just my two cents.

  23. I have enjoyed perusing your web site immensely. I am a new writer seeking to become a great writer. I find that your tips and suggestions are both helpful and inspiring.

    I have a question regarding the professional writing of novels:

    In reading “A Movable Feast,”” by Hemingway, I find that his writing is lacking many of the marks of a professional writer that you espouse. I am wondering how a author like e Hemingway, with a clear lack of professional writing skills, has become so popular? He has won the highest honors in literature, yet he is not really a greater writer. How is this possible?

    Personally, I find it difficult to read his works my wife is also having the same struggle. I would appreciate your thoughts on this subject. It seems to me that people who buy books, do not always care about many of the “professional” attributes that you describe on your website. I do not agree with this, but as I observe the results of Hemingway, I am curious.

    Kind Regards,


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