May 12, 2011

No, don’t push yet! OK, now, push: How You Know When Your Novel Is Ready To Be Born

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 10:16 pm

We talk a lot here on Suspense Your Disbelief about how to publish a novel, but a few recent emails have me thinking about a whole other side to things.

How do you know when to publish your novel?

“Saleable” is a term bandied about in the industry, but the fact that this word is never approved by my spell check should’ve given me some clue as to its iffy, nebulous nature.

What the heck does saleable mean?

Bad books sell–we’ve all read them. Good books fail to sell–we’ve all heard about them. Maybe you’ve even written one of them.

So let’s say right at the outset that whatever saleable refers to, it’s no sure thing. There are no guarantees, as my first agent cautioned me. (Man, was she right).

So what is there instead?

Well, there are guidelines. And in this post I intend to offer a few I feel confident about. I’d love it if you offered more of your own in the comments.

So, cuing the spectral tone from David Letterman, the top 10 things you can do to make your novel saleable are:

10. Let the ms sit after you’ve finished it. For at least two weeks. Preferably for two months.

9. Read the ms over after that and, once you’ve gotten over the shock of all the work it still needs (two weeks/two months ago you called it done!) do the work.

8. Now it’s time to find independent readers. As many of ‘em as possible. Contrary to popular wisdom, I don’t believe these “trusty readers” can’t be friends or family. By all means rely on friends and family–just so long as they are a) voracious readers b) articulate¬† about what they do and don’t like and c) willing to criticize the ms you are now sure is utterly perfect. Or if you believe it sucks–it’s considerably harder to criticize you then.

7. Consider hiring an independent editor. Unless you’re getting help from industry professionals (agents, editors at presses/houses, authors, writing teachers) you will need people from the biz to recognize how this work is going to strike industry professionals. Does this advice change if you intend to independently publish? Yes. Sort of. But that’s for another post. In any event, if you can afford it, having a professional editor will never hurt you. I know of some if you go looking.

6. Take all the responses you have gotten and divide them into three categories A) This is the best piece of feedback I’ve ever gotten–thank Something I didn’t publish my book already B) This feedback sucks, you suck, especially because you’re right C) This feedback sucks, no really, it does suck.¬† B) takes at least a few days to arrive at. C) is negated if more than three or four of your trustys said the same thing. Switch that baby over to A) and get on with being thankful. Now start revising. I know, again.

5. We’re only at 5?!?! Hey, don’t blame me. Who ever said this thing was easy? But just to give you a break I’ll make this tip the simple recognition that this business isn’t easy–and it’s not supposed to be. You don’t want your book coming into the world easily. Yesterday on the Kindle boards, a very wise writer named Monya Clayton quoted Ernest Hemingway: “If it reads easy, it was writ hard.”

4. Start querying or submitting in small batches. If you’re lucky enough to get personal responses, you might very well get feedback that sends you running back to the ms again. (Yes, I know, but novels, particularly first novels, often run into the double digits for drafts). And trust me, there’s little to make a writer more itchy than the feeling that this is the version you wish you were sending around.

3. If you get twenty form rejections–not so much as one encouraging extra line–know that either your query isn’t working or your partial isn’t. You could (and should) be participating in online forums to help hone your query–such as Query Shark. You might want to consider taking an online or in person writing class. (Hey! In the fall I’ll be teaching “Polished & Published: Readying a Book for a Changing Industry” for NYWW). Or maybe now is the time to look for that freelancer. Either way, 20 form rejections are either a stellar run of bad luck or worthwhile information.

2. Reach out to authors whose work you admire. Go to their readings. Buy their books. Gift their books. Be a fan. Some may have contests offering to look at sample pages. Some may agree to do so because they’re saints. And sometimes you will build real and lasting friendships, and friends do things for each other. However it may happen, if an author whose book has kept you up late into the night says that yours left her gasping–or didn’t–this is very important information to have about whether it’s saleable yet. Not everyone can do this for you, of course–in fact, almost no one can. But occasionally you might get lucky and it will make all the difference.

And–the number 1 way you can know if your novel is saleable is–

1. Try to sell it. Now clearly, this tip isn’t for everyone. If your heart is set on traditional publishing, then tips 10-2 are more applicable. But if you are willing to go the indie route, and you have faith that your book is in good shape, this tip can prove or disprove it. Good novels, like cream, will rise. If your book is out there, and you do a little effective marketing (say 1-2 hours/day), you will have an awful lot of digital readers (the people, not the device) there to say if you’re on the right track. I’m not saying to use e publishing as a proving ground–I’m saying it can prove saleability, either to you, or potential publishers, if you still want one once you’ve begun selling.

Well, there they are. Ten Tips to Top. Or argue with. Or even follow.

Good luck! Be sure to let me know when your baby is born!


  1. Excellent column – I’m going to print this one out. Awesome, Jenny!

    Comment by Alison DeLuca — May 13, 2011 @ 8:27 am

  2. Thanks, Alison :)

    Comment by jenny — May 13, 2011 @ 8:52 am

  3. I totally agree with your Hemingway quote. Some writers start out thinking all that needs to be done is to type it up or put it on paper. Hopefully with this list, their awakening won’t be so rude.

    Comment by Lindsey Gray — May 13, 2011 @ 9:35 am

  4. Welcome, Lindsey! And thanks!

    Comment by jenny — May 13, 2011 @ 9:45 am

  5. Awesome suggestions. I think you pegged ‘em all. I just have one question….what is this “small” batch you speak of?? ;D

    Comment by Savvy — May 13, 2011 @ 10:34 am

  6. Great post Jenny, I think the only thing left out was in between writing keep reading books by authors you admire. It will help to shape your work and inspire you to keep doing items 1-10.

    Comment by Johanna — May 13, 2011 @ 12:14 pm

  7. Great add, Johanna! Absolutely on that–I would say always, except that I don’t read fiction during the initial first draft heat–I know some writers do so depending on that…

    Ha ha, Sav. Right…

    Comment by jenny — May 13, 2011 @ 12:26 pm

  8. Great stuff, especially for someone just getting ready to put her first mystery on Kindle. I agree about getting an editor. I thought my novel was clean and ready, but when I had an editor go over it, she found many typos and plain old mistakes, worth every penny. Thanks for all the good encouragement and advice.

    Comment by eileenhamer — May 13, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

  9. I would add:

    I think it’s the rare writer whose parents, siblings, etc.can be objective in their feedback. I beg people to find more objective readers. Jenny, I know you’ve had a positive experience using your family as some of your readers, but I really think most people need other writers and/or other readers of their type to get better quality feedback.(This isn’t to imply it doesn’t really work for you, because obviously,it does.:)

    Give your query letter the same intense look as you do your novel. It really is vitalthat it reads beautifully, cleanly, etc. And DO embed the first ten pages of your ms at the end of your query letter,DO NOT attach, when you submit your query. Nearly all angets will start reading them. A query letter isn’t enough.

    Comment by Judy — May 13, 2011 @ 5:23 pm

  10. I was with you until you said good novels rise like cream. I really believe “sale ability” is not strongly correlated with writing ability. Novels–good, bad, ugly–rise because (1) authors are pushing them up with hours of hard work at PR and (2) luck.

    Comment by Sara — May 13, 2011 @ 7:38 pm

  11. Excellent points, Judy. And I’m sure you’re right about f/f. So let me amend–if your mom/best friend is prone to oohing and ahhing over those pants that really do make you look fat, don’t hand ‘em your ms. My mom, love that she is, would wrinkle her nose and say, Sweetheart, buying the right size actually makes us look thinner. :)

    Comment by jenny — May 13, 2011 @ 9:12 pm

  12. I agree, Sara–people have to know a novel (good or bad) is out there to try it. Hence the 1-2 hours/day of marketing, which I have found so far to be sufficient, if tight. (Would that there were forty-two hours in a day). But I do think people respond to quality in a book. It’s not a one-to-one correspondence. Some novels which by all accounts rot will gain an enormous readership. But I think there’s something to be learned from those–the authors are doing *something* to captivate readers. And I see time and time again readers noticing when a book is really special. It doesn’t mean that some special ones don’t get missed, of course. This certainly happens.

    Comment by jenny — May 13, 2011 @ 9:15 pm

  13. So glad to see you here, Eileen! And best of luck with your first mystery! Please think of coming back to this blog if you’re going to be doing any appearances–I’d love you to write a Made It Moment :)

    Comment by jenny — May 13, 2011 @ 9:17 pm

  14. Great column and could be used as a step by step checklist. From my experiences with publishing my first book, I would like to add one comment to # 8–similar to #s 9 and 10. It may be a good idea to let your feedback sit for a week or two also. At first, negative comments feel like a slap in the face. But once the sting wears off and you gain some perspective, you may see that the suggestions are right on target. Let the feedback sink in, get over the hurt, and get back to work to make it better. Thanks, Jenny.

    Comment by Katie Roberta Stevens — May 13, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

  15. Perfect, Katie, I totally agree. Thanks–and welcome to the blog!

    Comment by jenny — May 14, 2011 @ 8:23 am

  16. Great advice Jenny! Two of the hardest things I’ve ever done: give birth to a baby and give birth to a book :)

    Thank you for visiting my blog and your nice comments :)

    Comment by Danielle Raver — May 15, 2011 @ 8:15 pm

  17. Welcome, Danielle :) So glad you stopped by! I’m following your blog–looks great!

    As for birth…at least you know for sure the baby will come out, ha ha.

    Comment by jenny — May 15, 2011 @ 8:32 pm

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