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Pre-published

by Michael

When I was at an SCBWI conference recently, I said something that the entire audience (only about 800 people) thought was hilarious. I first asked how many of the people in attendance were unpublished. A vast majority raised their hands. I looked at them very seriously and said, “Enjoy it. This is a very special time in your career.” That’s when they laughed.

But I meant it, and I mean it. The time before you’re published is the most important part of an author’s career. My thinking about this started in a conversation with an author of mine. (I won’t reveal her name, but she can out herself in the comments if she likes.) When I asked her if she had any advice for the conference goers, she said it was to enjoy the years spent before publication. In the ten years it took her to get her first book published, she said said she never realized how free she was. She meant creatively free. Before publication, when she sat down to write, she could do whatever she wanted. There were no expectations about what she’d write, no deadlines to write to, and no promotional commitments to take her away from her creative time. So she wrote, and revised, and developed her craft on her own, at conferences and with other writers. She’s done very well for herself in her career, and she wouldn’t give any of it up, but she felt that she lost a little something when she became a published writer, and she wished that other authors would stop and enjoy the process.

It’s not easy advice to follow, I know. For anyone with the goal of being published, it’s hard to imagine that life before publication holds anything special. There’s all the butt-in-chair hours spent writing and revising, the query letters to agents, the conferences, the workshops, the critique groups, the rejections, the hopes and hopes dashed. Writing isn’t for the faint of heart. But getting published isn’t the end of much of that, and there are added pressures once you’ve achieved your first goal. Once you’ve successfully sold and published your first book, the question of your second book is right around the corner. The process of selling that book is different, but may be just as agonizing. Often, you’ll be expected to write an outline and sample pages, instead of a whole book. Great, right? You don’t have to write the whole thing! Not so fast — is that how you started your first novel? Many authors don’t approach writing their first book in that way, and they enjoy the time they spent figuring things out on the page; the characters that they didn’t know existed until they started writing, the plot twist they couldn’t have imagined when they began. I had a very successful author ask me yesterday if she could just write the whole book again — she missed the freedom she experience she had writing her first book, which just flowed out of her and took shape as she wrote it. While it sounds fantastic creatively, it doesn’t make as much sense practically. We’d like to have a good idea from her publisher if they’re interested in the book before she goes through all of that work!

Then there’s the pressure to promote and sell your book. The hours spent online social networking, the time spent at conferences and workshops presenting, and if you’re lucky enough to be very successful, the tours, appearances, video chats, book club appearances, media, stock signings (I have an author flying several hours, for only a day, to sign 5,000 books), and whatever else the publisher throws at you. As the author above said to me, when you’re an author, sometimes it’s hard to find time to be a writer.

I know, I know. At this point you’re thinking, “Can these published writers just stop whining? They have the life they always wanted!” It’s true that in many ways they’ve achieved their goals, and I can assure you that none of the authors I’m referencing here are whiners in the least. In fact, they’re unbelievably hard workers who take their jobs quite seriously. But they were all pre-published (as SCBWI is fond of saying) at some point, and I know that they all wish they’d enjoyed that time period more. They wish they’d relished the time when being an author meant only writing. So for those of you who aren’t published yet, remember to enjoy this part of the journey, too.

60 Responses to Pre-published

  1. mpeters5 says:

    Thank you, Michael, for enlightening so many of us. I have recently sold in e-publishing, and while thrilled, feel a difference in my excitement level for writing. For months I've contemplated this phenomenon. Imagine my relief when you put it into words for me.

    Now my goal is to retrieve the organic process of writing I loved before working ms's with publication only in mind. The balance is essential to my creative flow. Thanks again.

  2. Susan says:

    Wow – helpful, sobering, daunting (hello – muttering – maybe discouraging but really very helpful). I think I got just as much insight from the comments as the original post – and I loved the original post. Thank you to you all. I do wonder how to describe myself sometimes. I don't want to say "I'm a writer" because I have not even finished anything yet – much less tried to get published. "I want to write" (but I am writing). Not enough – but I am writing. "I want to be published someday" (?) does that work best? Thanks again.

  3. Julie Lindsey says:

    Thank you for this. I needed this. I have been pouring stories onto paper. The genres are all over the place. Whichever voices demand the loudest to be heard, get my time. Its fun and exasperating, and I've been fretting about who I am as a writer. What is my voice? Who is it? Who do I write for? Ahh! It has been frustrating, not liberating…until now. Thank you for saying that it is more than OK to write just to write and love the journey.

  4. Katie says:

    Oh gracious. Some of these peeps are getting all in a tizzy. I Loved this post, Michael. And as an agented, "pre-pubbed" author, I can totally relate. I know, for example, that once my book (that's on sub) sells, I have to refocus on the edits, and put away the really creative fun one I'm working on now. AND, if I happen to sell the creative mess that is my WIP, I will have to suddenly explain the storyline to my new editor, in hopes of selling it, and I'm not even sure where it's going right now. There will be a new feeling of pressure to work fast, and figure things out quickly when *right now* I can take things slower and really think out of the box, etc…

    So, yes, it is frustrating at times to be pre-pubbed, but just yesterday I was thanking God that I hadn't sold my novel yet because I had a fabulous idea of how to revise and improve it, and if it had sold, I might not have read the book that gave it to me. And now I can change it and make it better before it sells.

    So, tra la la. I loved this post. Thanks you :)

  5. jrmcclarren says:

    I fully agree with this being a great posting. I never really thought of being "pre-pubbed". I am definitely a writer. I have finished two nonfiction mss, one a memoir, and a humor wip. Nothing has been published as yet; so, I can not call myself an author (unpublished author?). Whatever I am, I too enjoy the process, but have very high hopes of being on the shelves of B&N. If it does not happen, and I am planning to keep at it for another forty years (I am only 65 at this point), then I will have given it a very good shot. I still love what I do, and I do hope that others will enjoy what I do half as much. I am also not remaining with the same genre. After I have completed that humor book, I am thinking seriously about several novel ideas. Maybe that will be my nitche. Meanwhile, back to querying for my memoir. John M.

  6. Roland D. Yeomans says:

    In essence, all of us should just enjoy the moment. No time in an author's life is free of angst. Different stages contain different woes … and blessings.

    Don't live in the past … can't go back. Don't live in the future, you may not have much of one left. Live now. Enjoy the pleasures each task brings. Roland

  7. Victoria Dixon says:

    This is a great point – especially since I tend to focus more on my arrivals than my journeys anyway. ;/

  8. Anonymous says:

    Then you are in the wrong business. You should be a financial professional or a construction manager. Because if time was money we would live in a vaccum of space or a black hole. That is the author's point. If you don't cherish the process then don't bother. Because being published isn't the joy… the process is the joy. I agree.

  9. Susan Schreyer says:

    I have no quibble with you in regards to the pressures and stresses put on published authors. However, I'd like to point out that as unpublished authors we are quite busy doing many of the things your author attributes to only the published. We build and maintain websites, participate in professional organizations, blog, social network, write articles–in essence, build platforms and identify and reach our future audience so when we finally do have a book to offer there will be people to buy them. And this is in addition to improving our craft and trying to write that book that will catch the agent's eye. First time authors (and wannabes) are being cautioned continually of the lack of publisher promotion available to us, and how much we will have to do ourselves. We are strongly advised to get busy right now or when our ship finally arrives it won't stick around long enough for us to pack our suitcases.

    Yes, a published author's life is not stress free, but neither is the unpublished author's.

  10. AchingHope says:

    I totally agree! Thanks so much for the encouargement and the reminder :)

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