In praise of unpublished books

At long last, it’s finished. Against the odds, you’ve planned, drafted and edited your first novel. Now the only question is which publishing path to choose.

Some people will choose to try for the traditional model first, submitting to agents and publishers, with self publishing as a back up option. Others go straight into self pub, believing it to be the newer and better form.

Both paths have their merit, depending on the author and the work. However, I’d like to suggest that you strongly consider a third way.

Don’t publish it.

When you finish your first novel, you should give very serious consideration to pouring yourself a celebratory glass of Scotch, sticking a year’s hard work in a drawer, and starting straight away on the next one.

Why? Because it’s probably not good enough.

It’s a shadowy topic that isn’t always discussed openly, but ply a successful writer with enough wine or whisky, and you might just get them talking about the stinker they’ve got hiding in a desk drawer at home, never to see the light of day. That mediocre novel they turned out when they were first learning the craft. Some have got more than one – two, three, half a dozen. Some have more than ten.

When they finished their book, they didn’t immediately leap into trying to get it published, to get it out to as many readers as possible, to make as much money from it as they could. First, they gave it a long hard look, and they asked – is it good enough? More often than not, for a first time novel, the answer is no. Editing can do wonderful things, but sometimes there are books that cannot be saved, that are too fundamentally flawed. Then they asked, can I do better? And they knew the answer was yes.

I don’t recommend this course of action out of snobbishness, or elitism. It’s because I think it is one of the best things a writer can do to develop their craft. The moment you publish something, you tell yourself that it is of professional standard, that it is worthy of being paid for. Fix that bar too low, and you’ll cease to push yourself as hard as you could. Traditional publishing has a barrier to entry built into it; questions may be asked at how effective or well calibrated it is, but there are plenty of writers who owe their development to the knock backs they got, forcing them to raise their game. Now with the option of self publishing, it falls to writers to exercise restraint and discipline. Not to click publish until they are certain that the work is good enough.

Most self published novels I see aren’t truly terrible. They really aren’t. They’re just very average. Mediocre. Undercooked. The work of writers still finding their voices, writers who are still learning, still a few novels away from producing the real thing. And I believe that you shouldn’t start monetising your art until you have absolute confidence (and trusty external validation) that what you are producing is strong enough. Otherwise, you’re disrespecting both your art form and your readers. You might be stunting your own growth as well.

When I wrote my first novel, I knew it wasn’t good enough. I could have stuck it online, earned a little beer money. The hook was enticing enough, and on a sentence level it wasn’t too bad. But it wasn’t good enough for me, I knew I needed to do better, that I could do better. So it was an important decision for me not to publish it – not to let myself think that it was good enough. Because it wasn’t.

The next book I wrote secured a two book publishing deal. If I’d settled for the quality of the first novel and published it, I might never have pushed myself to make the next one that much better. I owe a lot to that first book I wrote, it taught me so much. But I’m glad I didn’t publish it.

So that first book you’ve finished? Maybe it really is good enough to send to agents, or to publish yourself. You might be an exceptional case, someone who really did crack it first time around. But maybe you should take a moment to congratulate yourself and think on all the things you’ve learned.

Then put that book aside, and start in on the next one. This time, you’ll get it right.



The Imposter and Dylan Thomas

I am not a writer, I am an impostor. That is what I told myself again and again, even after my first novel came out.

Impostor syndrome (the persistent sense that one is an unworthy fraud in constant danger of being found out) isn’t unique to writers. But, working in an insecure profession that requires an exceptional level of self criticism and long periods of working alone, we may be more prone to it than most. So when my book, The Last King of Lydia, was released earlier this year, I greeted the occasion with as much fear as joy. The publishers would soon realise they’d make a mistake, I thought. The critics and readers would let them know that I wasn’t good enough. That I didn’t deserve it.

Even when it was shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize (the winner of which takes home a life changing £30,000), a nagging voice still told me that I was the odd one out, the lucky one on the list. And yet, when we shortlisters gathered in Swansea for a week of readings and events, it turned out this was how all the others felt as well – that they didn’t belong, that they had been the beneficiaries of some unlikely stroke of fortune or lapse in judgement.

Yet I soon saw that none of the others had fluked their way on to the list, that everyone had earned their place. There was James’s relentless force of language and Marli’s mastery of voice, Jemma’s honesty and Majok’s bravery, Prajwal’s effervescent comic warmth and Claire’s imperious command of narrative. And, seeing how they were all so good and yet still so doubting, I began to believe that perhaps I might be like them. That I might not be an impostor after all.

We went out to schools and spoke to students of all ages, gave readings in bookshops and pubs. Again and again we found the common ground amongst ourselves – a love of untold stories, of the musicality of language, of finding ways of answering the seemingly unanswerable questions in our lives through our writing. Together we enjoyed the strange luxury of being taxied around and going out for fancy meals, the celebrity experience of gladhanding luminaries amidst endless photocalls, and, finally, of dressing up and going to a grand awards ceremony, to find out at last who would be chosen.

The tension was agonising as the night drew on, all of us gulping wine like water and trying to sit patiently through the numerous speeches. I didn’t know how I would feel if I won, how I would feel if I lost.

But when at last the announcement came that Claire had won, all I felt was a relief so strong that it was euphoric, a relief that at last I knew one way or the other. Though I’d nursed a secret hope that I might get lucky, I knew deep down that my book didn’t deserve to win – Claire’s wonderful short story collection, Battleborn, really is a cut above it in craft and skill. But though my novel didn’t deserve to win, I thought that it did deserve to be there, that it stood honourably against the best the world’s young writers had to offer. I began the week thinking I was a fraud, and ended it feeling, at last, like a writer.

I hope that the others feel the same. Steinbeck once said that “A writer out of loneliness is trying to communicate like a distant star sending signals…We are lonesome animals. We spend all life trying to be less lonesome. One of our ancient methods is to tell a story begging the listener to say—and to feel – ‘Yes, that’s the way it is, or at least that’s the way I feel it. You’re not as alone as you thought.’” That is the cruel irony of writing – the writer tries to make others feel less lonely, and yet often ends up making him or herself feel more so. And now that it is all over and we’ve all gone our separate ways, this is the feeling I take away: that I am not alone.