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I'm Glad I'm Not A Published Author Yet. Here's Why
I felt frustrated for years that I wasn't getting anywhere in my publishing journey. This is the story of what changed.
Hey friends! I’ve been on hiatus from this newsletter for a few months because I was busy graduating college, and then I was busy decompressing from college on my parents’ couch. I also sort of accidentally became a Doctor Who TikTok influencer. Long story. (If you have a TikTok account and you like Doctor Who and/or books, you can follow me here!)
My life is changing in a lot of big ways. Because of the aforementioned college graduation, I have to find a career or whatever, and I’m ecstatic that I have a start on that by being a communications intern at FREAKING NASA this fall!
What hasn’t changed is my desire to be a writer. Ever since I was a little kid, my dream career has been an author, and I still have a tiny secret hope of writing full time someday. But even if I never do that, I would freaking love to write novels that Actually Get Published while working a day job.
One small hitch: despite having written five complete novels, I am nowhere near being published. No literary agent, no publishing deal, no nothing. For a while, I had a massive chip on my shoulder about that, but this year, I’ve actually become glad for it.
Before I can explain why, I need to fill in the background of why I despaired about not being published in the first place. Starting with …
The Young Author Urgency Complex
Maybe it’s former gifted kid syndrome, or maybe it’s the youthful desire to be taken seriously, or maybe it’s simple impatience, but I find there’s a unique kind of desperation to be published that occurs in younger writers. It certainly doesn’t help that there’s a perception of young, attractive writers being “easier to market.”
I definitely felt that pressure. I’ve been making up stories since I was a kid, but I wrote my first novel that I wanted to publish at the age of 15 (I’m 23 now and revising my sixth novel). That first manuscript still makes me cringe like hell, but it was necessary to write that one so I could write better later.
Looking back, I believe my third manuscript, which I finished at the age of 19, was my first publishable one. At least, the first one where I wouldn’t be cringing into oblivion if it had been my debut. Given that it took until adulthood for me to get to that point, I’ve long made peace with the fact that I’m not a child prodigy. But I still retained an unhealthy sense of desperation to be published young that I’ve only recently unpacked.
But whether an author started writing young or not, everyone is prone to …
The Deep Dark Pit of Aspiring Author Despair
Querying literary agents and publishers is extremely challenging to your mental health. To get traditionally published, it’s not enough to write a publishable book. You also have to be lucky. The uncontrollable variables of agent taste and editor taste and the whims of the market all have to align in your favor.
This means you can write publishable book after publishable book and throw them all into the querying void and not get anywhere.
I used to think querying would get easier after a couple of books. It actually turned out to be the opposite.
At least with my first manuscripts, I could tell myself they didn’t get picked up because they weren’t all that good yet. With my more recent three manuscripts, there was nothing really Wrong with them. I’m not gonna pretend they were the next great American novel or anything, but I still think they were decent. My critique partners and mentors were convinced they could be my debut. But they weren’t — stuff just didn’t align in my favor.
The thought of writing a whole book just to get nowhere AGAIN started to eat at me. As I drafted my sixth manuscript (a fantasy with the working title These Fallen Stars), the fear sat there in the back of my mind. I really, really loved the story, even in the early stages, and I hated the idea of getting invested all over again just to have my dreams dashed to pieces. Again.
But this manuscript surprised me in a way none of the others did.
Climbing Out of the Pit
A couple of things happened to get me out of my rut. Back in March-ish, I told my therapist about my worries that These Fallen Stars might come to nothing. She advised me to focus on what I loved about writing besides the idea of getting published. Even after querying five failed manuscripts made me so cynical and jaded, I still genuinely loved getting lost in a world I’d created.
On top of that, my creative writing class gave me feedback that changed everything: to start heavily focusing on my prose. I talked about this experience at more length in a TikTok, but basically, my prose up until this point was readable, but not beautiful. It wasn’t crafted. My class’s feedback pushed me to carefully consider every word of These Fallen Stars, and long story short I’m now writing one character’s point of view entirely in a dialect I made up.
I assumed I had little left to learn about writing. The truth was, I’d only learned the basics (spelling/grammar, plot arcs, some level of worldbuilding). I still have lots left that I can work on.
By discovering a new craft skill to focus on this time around, These Fallen Stars has a purpose for me beyond getting published. It’s actively making me a better writer. I believe every manuscript I’ve written has made me better to an extent, but having active craft goals with this one has made my improvement easier to track.
The Conclusion: Why I’m Glad I’m Not Published Yet
In a publishing culture that puts so much emphasis on debut novels, it’s important to put your best foot forward. These Fallen Stars is so much better than anything I’ve written before, and is undeniably going to be my best foot so far.
If I’d gotten published with my third or fourth or fifth manuscript, I don’t know if I’d have the space and time to work on improving my skills in the way I am now. Between deadlines and an expectation to write more of the same thing to build an author brand, I have a suspicion that too much of a change in my process would be pretty hard for Hypothetically Published Me. Not impossible, but harder than it is now.
I used to think that not being published was a failure. Now, I see it a different way: not being published is an opportunity. An opportunity to build up skills so that when I do get published, I’ll hopefully be putting one hell of an awesome foot forward.
(Note: I am not saying that authors who get published with their first novel are worse than those who didn’t! Everyone’s journey is different. Some people crank out a brilliant foot — I mean novel — on their first try. I am only talking about me and my experience here.)
If These Fallen Stars goes the way of my other five manuscripts, at least I’ll have a measurable craft improvement from having written it. And maybe then manuscript number seven will be the one. But even if it’s not, I’ll gladly take the opportunity to level up in my craft again.
A Postscript: Why Don’t You Just Self-Publish?
My thoughts here have been related to the goal of getting traditionally published. At this point, some people would say, “If you’re tired of waiting for a publisher to pick you up, why not just do it yourself?”
Self-publishing is a great route for a lot of people. My fear is that I would choose it for the wrong reasons: impatience, rather than good business.
I haven’t ruled out self-publishing entirely, but I won’t do it unless I’m 100% sure that I want to do it for the right reasons AND that I could confidently make my money back (assuming I could save up the money for it in the first place; between editing and design costs, self-publishing isn’t cheap if you want to do it right).
Also … I still want to put my best foot forward. So whether I self-publish or not, I’m still grateful that my first five manuscripts stayed in the drawer.
I’ve read a few books since my last newsletter, but here are a couple that stood out to me! (In good ways and in … not-so-good ways)
Yellowface by R.F. Kuang
R.F. Kuang’s first contemporary novel was pitched as an exposé of racism in publishing, so I (along with most of the bookish community) was excited to read it! Not only did it propel me out of my reading slump and make me reflect on a lot of things, but it had an intriguing thriller bent that I wasn’t really expecting.
For more thoughts, see my full review of Yellowface here!
The Sleepless by Victor Manibo
When I found out about this book, in which a quarter of the world’s population loses the ability to sleep, the premise had me hooked! Unfortunately, the book itself was super slow and took me a while to get through … but the question is, could it have been written any other way? I’m not so sure I know the answer.
For more thoughts, see my full review of The Sleepless here!
What's Going on in the Secret Writing Cave?
As I alluded above, I completed the first draft of These Fallen Stars! Woooo! Now I’m merrily chipping away at revisions, and I hope to have it ready for beta readers very soon.
I also sort of accidentally wrote a song based These Fallen Stars (you can watch me playing it here)! It was such a cool way to engage with my story in a new medium.
Writing that song was so much fun, in fact, that I’m currently in the process of writing two other songs based on the same novel. I don’t know if I’ll run out of steam at some point, but right now I have a slowly coalescing dream of writing a whole album based on These Fallen Stars. It’s kind of like making a writing playlist, only I get to customize everything about it and it’s 100% tailored to my story!
Thank you so much for reading! Until next time, bookish friends.
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