Early Manuscripts, Depressing is Thy Name…

I am on my third manuscript, beyond dozens of picture book stories and poems that I worked on prior to that. Hundreds and hundreds of hours of work, over multiple years (my SCBWI membership shows me joining in 2006, although I didn’t start writing novel-length manuscripts until 2012). I think that my first three novel-length manuscript all had solid pieces to them, more than solid even. Humor in the first, atmosphere and world-building in the second, premise and magic system in the third. And yet, the struggle remains: are early manuscripts from a writer to be seen or hidden? It is becoming a more significant question, with the rise of self-publishing.

I am not complaining about the time invested, I love writing, although rejections have been hard. But the question is: when is the work worth showing to potential readers, even if a traditional publisher doesn’t want it? When do you decide that self-publishing is a good marketing tool, instead of a bad one? Because there is the risk of showing your work too early, before you have all your skills and polish in place, and scaring off readers that might have otherwise loved your books, and aren’t likely to give you a second chance.

I don’t know the answer to these questions. I have heard ten books in some places, a million words in others (this is a common one). Brandon Sanderson noted that his sixth book sold, similar to another author that he knew. Others have mentioned earlier. But Jay Yasher, author of the top selling Thirteen Reasons Why put in twelve years, if I remember correctly, before rocking the YA world with his break-through effort. Not to mention the fact that those people probably started off in different places in their writing skill sets, making it even harder to judge ‘when’ is right.

The reason that I’m asking this question is that I think that my writing is getting close to a point where it might be half-decent, and the topic or premise of a book the marginal factor in whether an agent or editor gets excited. Not that my skills won’t improve further. Of course they will, as long as I stick to it. But I think that I’m closer to the point where I might catch hold of readers with my writing, rather than scare them away. At least I hope so!

In any event, I think it’s interesting to consider what a thankless job it is, being a writer early in their journey. Even the three books I’ve written (still shy of a million words, just for the record) have been an enormous task, with little external reward. Writing is different than other performing arts, like drawing or piano, where people enjoy a few minutes of exposure and often give positive feedback. Not many people want to read a 80,000-word early manuscript from an amateur writer.

Early Manuscripts, depressing is thy name. But without them, we wouldn’t get the later ones. The ones that readers see and love. The ones that make it all worthwhile. Hopefully.

Here’s to hoping we all make it through. Happy writing!