Publishing is hard. We all know that. What makes it harder is bad timing and unclear focus. It’s easy to get lost in the art of writing long before you consider the business of writing, but at the end of the day, publishing is a business. You should have your business plan in mind before you set off on your writing journey. By doing so, you’ll be a lot more prepared for pitching and revisions.
That said, I want to add a caveat before I start sharing the publishing questions I ask myself before I start writing a novel. I’m pursuing traditional publication. That requires different techniques than self-publishing. Putting the publishing method aside, though, if you want to write a book that brings you joy and that’s it, then go for it! I am not here to stop you. It’s important to write and be happy. I have learned that lesson the hard way before. However, I am here to discuss how to hone your skills and focus that joy into a project that stands a higher chance at success.
By being purposeful in our writing decisions, I believe we increase our chances of success. That doesn’t mean it will absolutely work. But there is something to be said about timing (and a little bit of luck). If you can put the odds in your favor, why wouldn’t you? To do that, I’ve learned to ask myself some pretty hard questions before I start writing.
Here’s that list:
What does this novel add to the market?
Maybe it goes without saying, but I think this is probably the most important question you must ask yourself. How does your book stand out from what’s currently out there? How is it relevant but also fresh? Do you have a twist on an old trope that hasn’t been done before? Are you writing it from a perspective not often seen? My advice is always to lean into your most unique aspects as hard as you can without breaking the story. This will help it stand out.
Are there unique elements that need to be pushed or scaled back?
Once I have a list of my unique elements, I have to take a hard look at the plot/characters. I don’t want to push my unique elements too hard. By doing so, you can break a story. It’s important to understand your limitations as a writer. If you are trying to push yourself to try something way outside your norm, make sure you’re enlisting help from experienced writers or beta readers who avidly read your genre. (You should also be reading avidly within the genre/age category that you’re writing.) Remember: unique is great, but readers also love an old trusted trope. Having some familiar expectations can be a fantastic selling point, too.
Is the pitch succinct and commercial?
You certainly have time to figure out your pitching materials, but personally, I start working on a pitch and query letter before I start writing the actual book. Why? Because it quickly shows me if I truly understand the novel I am about to write. Who wants to get 80k into a piece only to realize they aren’t positive about the main themes or twists? Have you attempted to write a query letter to get a better idea of the main theme/plot/character? I stand by attempting your query letter (and maybe even your synopsis) before you start writing. It will reveal the glaring flaws you already have, before going in and finding out the hard way. I will also add that it’s important to recognize that this query isn’t truly your query. I’ve literally never used my starter query as a draft query for when I start to query agents. It’s more like a tool to get me started on the best writing path possible. I often still discover many new (and fun) elements in my work once the writing begins, but having the bare bones of a strong plot keeps me on track and confident that the work won’t fizzle out due to confusion or roadblocks.
Why would someone pick up this book compared to a comparative title?
Pretend you’re at a bookstore and your novel is nestled between its comparative titles. Cover aside, why do you want to pick up this book the most? This might go back to the earlier question about what makes your book stand out, but it’s a worthwhile exercise to try out from a reader’s fresh perspective instead of a writer’s.
Why would you choose to work on this book compared to your other WIPs?
If you’re anything like most of the writers I know, then you probably have a dozen or so ideas bouncing around your noggin that you are dying to write. So why this one? What makes this WIP better than the other ones you are currently playing around with? Not just better to you, but also better to the market? I will caution you not to pick out the idea you have the most fleshed out. Just because you’ve spent more time with it, does not mean it is the best one to pursue right now (or ever). I, myself, recently put my historical fantasy aside to pursue my middle grade novel-in-verse. Why? I’d already written three drafts of my historical fantasy. I had a great revision plan and betas lined up ready to read again. I even had an agent who already requested the full from a writing contest I won before I decided to revise. (They said they were happy to wait until I was done.) By all means, I should’ve concentrated on the historical, right? Wrong. The more I looked at where I stood with that project, the more I realized now was not the right time to pursue it. While I wasn’t confident I could revise the historical and secure representation with it (mostly due to where the market is at with this particular kind of story), I was ready for my middle grade book. Plus, novels-in-verse are finally picking up steam. I wanted to ride that wave before it became a hurricane and mine got lost in the flood. So, I took that leap of faith. I put everything aside to start a brand-new project that I was truly passionate about. I’m now querying and have more fulls than I did with my historical. Sometimes, it’s about reading the water and following your gut when you decide which river to take. (Okay, I’ll stop with the bad water metaphors.)
Can you spend 3-5 years on this project and be happy? This includes revisions, rejections, more revisions, etc.
Maybe you thought I was a kill-joy, but I promise, I’m not. I know how important your mental health is when pursuing publication. Writing can be a long, lonely adventure, and those feelings can only get worse if your current WIP is dragging you down. When folks tell me they’re writing a novel (and planning to pursue traditional publication), one of the first chats I have with them is how long it can take. Writing the first draft is typically the fastest part. Beyond that is beta readers, revisions, querying, rejections, more revisions, signing with an agent, going on sub, more rejections, hopefully a book deal! Yay! But 3-5 years between writing your first draft and the actual book release date is pretty common if not expected. Granted, that doesn’t mean you have to be happy every single day for 5 years. That’s unrealistic. But, realistically, will you enjoy working on this book for a long time? The reasons for saying yes, or no, will vary from writer to writer. Some writers can write purely from a business angle, no problem, but others require a little bit more excitement in order to pursue an idea for a long time.
All of the answers to these questions will be unique to you. They may not even be the best questions to ask yourself. These are just the ones I ask myself before I start writing, and they help me make decisions every time. Maybe they’ll help you, too.
If you have additional questions, I’d love to read about them in the comments below!