Getting Ahead of One’s Self

Justine Larbalestier takes some questions from an audience at a writers’ festival, quickly realizes that the questions are focused on getting the attention of publishers before a manuscript is even completed, and has an epiphany on how to address those questions. You should link through to see her solution.

I’m largely in agreement with her. I think it’s important new writers understand the state of publishing and get smart ideas on how to draw attention to their work — but I think before you worry about any of that, you need to finish your work, and get your work to the point where it is genuinely publishable. Otherwise, all the concern about how to market yourself is just the writer nerd equivalent of trying to decide which shoe endorsement deal you’ll have when you make the (W)NBA, based on the fact you once put a ball through a hoop on a playground. Getting ahead of one’s self may be fun, but it’s not really all that useful. And anyway, there’ll be plenty of time to worry about all that stuff, after you have a completed manuscript.

20 Comments on “Getting Ahead of One’s Self”

  1. I just had a similar conversation with a journalist who interviewed me. I was all, no no no, back up to where you talked about whether our Imaginary Writer hasn’t finished their manuscript and what they say to an agent or editor then.

    I think it’s okay for newer writers to be somewhat interested in the business end of things–it’s good to come to an early recognition that publishing is an actual industry with like, yanno, people trying to make a living. But I agree their foremost concern (and probably for always and everybody) should be craft.

  2. But I’m asking because I’m doing research for the novel I’m writing, which isn’t finished yet, which is about a beginning writer whose novel isn’t finished yet and he’s trying to get information about the business end of writing, and everyone keeps telling him to finish the novel first, but he’s asking because he’s doing research for the novel he’s writing, and so I’m stuck because everyone tells me to finish the novel before I ask the question, but I’m only asking because I’m doing research.

    Hey! I think I just wrote a toroid sentence centering around Justine’s epiphany!

  3. What I want to know is how Scott Westerfeld deals with her being so amazingly right all the time.

  4. See, now I’m different. I’m writing Stargate:Universe fanfic so I can get a sweet script writing gig.

    So how do I do that when the show hasn’t even aired?

    I’m very clever. The producers will see that and hire me in a second.

    And then, I will finally be able to pitch my remake of Buck Rogers. (Is Gil Gerard still fat?)

  5. So, a toroidal sentence is just a circular argument put into words? Glad that’s cleared up.

    I have some unfinished stories. The basic premise and framework are pretty good but the flow of the narrative sucks at the moment. I am NOT pursuing marketing theories at this time.
    I guess that I always realized shortcuts don’t exist even though the A I got in my last writing class would make me think I know what I’m doing.

    Even if I never publish, I’m having a good time with it and I guess that would be the point.

  6. Another of their favourites was a blogger who had sold a novel they had first posted on their website.

    Justine is just being coy here, right John?

    Brian, some years back I GMd a GURPS adventure in which the characters traveled to another world/universe called Earth, where the year was 2044 and where they appeared as characters in a fantasy novel written half a century earlier by a guy with my name.*

    They looked him up and he told them he based the novel on a GURPS adventure he’d run a few years before writing it, but he changed a lot of the events and gave it a more satisfying ending, and couldn’t really remember how it had turned out in the game.

    (Irrelevantly, the continual references to Beatles lyrics that characterized the campaign as a whole were also explained in this adventure.)

    I tried writing the novel for a while, but I couldn’t make it work. Too bad. I really wanted to have a novel that was self-referential in the proper sense of the term (as well as in the weaker sense of containing authorial insertions).
    *Lest you accuse this character of being a Marty Stu, I played up my worst personality traits, one of which turned out to be a clue, but in general he was whiny and annoying and unhelpful.

  7. Scalzi, I see that Summer passed you by. Don’t worry, I hear she is going to be on the next season of Dollhouse. Hakuna Matata!

  8. I’m reminded of Sharyn McCrumb’s great line from her novel “Bimbos of the Death Sun”:

    “Being a writer is kinda like being a hooker. You should figure out if you’re any good at it before you start trying to charge money for it.”

  9. Literary agent Miss Snark, whose blog is still up, but closed for lo these many years (sigh), got that question all the time. Her answer was the same: Finish the novel FIRST. Don’t bother me (or other agents) until you have a completed work. In fact, she said, write the novel, then put it away and write a second. THEN, you should contact her. Maybe.

    I miss Miss Snark…

  10. It’s not as if it’s any easier to draw attention to work that *has* been finished. I would recommend to new writers that they find some other route to sustaining their mental and emotional well-being, or have themselves committed. The latter choice has the potential for some decent drugs and as a bonus: meeting fun, fascinating new people in the process. It is saner to deal with their insanity.

  11. I suppose I can take some consolation in the fact that I have at least one complete novel to show for my efforts. (I’m still going back and forth on whether or not anybody who isn’t me would give a crap about it, but at least it’s out of my system.)

    Knowing a bit about How Publishing Works before completing a manuscript is not all bad, though, since it keeps one out of the snares of fee-charging ‘literary agents’ and vanity publishers.

  12. Hmh, in academic journal writing, you want to identify the journal you hope to publish in before you write the paper, so you can write something suitable to the standards/conventions of that journal. (Note that this step usually comes after developing and beginning the research itself.) You really don’t want to write the paper and then start thinking about what to do with it.

    This tells me that one of two things is happening:

    1) Your advice is completely wrong. The questions are wrong in their details, but not in their concept. If what you’re trying to write is an angsty teen novel written entirely in ancient Greek, then finding out early on that there is in fact no market for this type of writing might be a good idea. If there is such a market, but it’s dominated by one publisher, and that publisher never publishes books longer than 200 pages, then that’s worth knowing way in advance.

    2) Academic journal writing is a completely different beast than fiction.

  13. #16 Sheila, after reading all the blogs from the “professionals” your comments felt comfortable!
    As a counselor working families who had often experienced divorce and remarriage, I felt there was a need for a book that gave some examples of couples who were “making it” the second time around, thus, Successful Second Marriages. I knew this book would not be picked up by a publishing company- but, I did feel it had merit. I self-published, and hope, someday, to cover my costs for doing so. Your comment that at least your book is out of your system – is similar to my feelings, it is off my bucket list!

    #13 Patrick, you made me laugh – very witty.

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