Speed Bumps On The Road To Publication

I was driving through the resort grounds in Jamaica, navigating the unfamiliar territory with difficulty in the darkness, when I saw the sign: “Sleeping Policeman.” I was wondering what a police barracks was doing on the grounds of the hotel when I was sent airborne, straining at the seatbelt while my back teeth clattered together. In the clarity that followed, I realized that I’d just seen the Jamaican equivalent of a “Speed Bump” sign.

Just as there are speed bumps on the roads we travel, there are speed bumps on our road to writing. Let me warn you about a few I’ve encountered, because—as I learned the hard way—when we know about the speed bumps they don’t bother us as much.

1) Constructive criticism is necessary. When we write, we know that ultimately someone is going to read what we produce. That’s what it’s all about. But if the only person who reads our work before we submit it to an agent or editor is our spouse or parent or Aunt Sally, we can’t expect any beneficial feedback.

The beginning writer doesn’t generally produce a Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel. But informed and constructive criticism allows us to correct our errors—and hopefully refrain from repeating them—so that everything we write afterwards is better than what went before. Find someone who is knowledgeable, ask them to read and critique your work, and be prepared to experience both pain and growth as a writer.

2) Rejections can convey a message. For a writer, rejections are a way of life. We might as well get used to it. But sometimes, in addition to the usual boilerplate language of “Not right for us at this time” or “Doesn’t fit into our plans”—both of which could be true—an agent or editor may make a comment. When that happens, pay attention.

Admittedly, there are times when the comments aren’t exactly helpful, as when an editor returned one of Tony Hillerman’s stories with a note to the effect of, “This might be better if you get rid of all that Indian stuff.” Of course, Hillerman went on to be an award-winning, multi-published novelist with his books about Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn. But sometimes there’s a ray of hope in the comment, such as “I’d be interested in reading this again if you (fill in the blanks)” or “This shows great promise. I’d like to see your next one.” That’s when you take a deep breath and plunge on. The speed bump has slowed you, but it hasn’t brought you to a stop—just redirected you.

3) Hurrying can cause problems. Admittedly, I was in a hurry when I first made the acquaintance of the “Sleeping Policeman” in Jamaica. I’d have been better served by driving more slowly in the first place. That lesson can carry over into writing. Don’t be in a hurry.

You’ve just typed the last line of your first novel. Now how quickly can you send it off the every agent on your list? Hold on. I did something like that with my first novel, submitting it to the editor who’d encouraged me at a conference, and now I’m embarrassed to read it. It was a good first effort, but by no means was it a publishable book. The best advice I can give you is to let the manuscript cool—for a week, a month, or more. Then read through it like an editor, not a writer. Can you remove excess words (or, as Mark Twain put it, kill the adverbs) and passive voice passages? Are your characters well-drawn? Does the plot move smoothly and logically? Then, when you are sure it’s your best work, send it off.

What next? Why, start on the next book. Speed bumps are meant to slow you down, not stop you and make you turn back. Good luck.

30 thoughts on “Speed Bumps On The Road To Publication

  1. Thank you for your post! Great to be reminded of these things. No pain, no gain, I say. It does get a bit bumpier than normal sometimes, the trick is to drive on. Our dream is ahead, can’t reach it if we don’t drive on.

  2. Richard,
    So, so many good points in this post — and you had me at the “Sleeping Policeman” hook. Won’t forget that analogy.
    Another great takeaway: Your advice to read through a manuscript like an editor, not a writer. It’s an acquired skill, but well-worth learning.
    Off to tweet this blog post!

    • Beth, I’ll have to admit that “sleeping policeman” was a new term to me, as well. And James Scott Bell first taught me to read through my completed manuscript like an editor. Glad you agree.

  3. Richard, I appreciate the reminder to not be in a hurry. Like many eager new writers, I sent my work out before it was ready, and I have the rejections to prove it. Thankfully I learned my lesson quickly and don’t have a huge collection of “not for us” letters

    After writing five stories in two years, I took a year off to study craft, and it made a big difference. I then took the better part of another year to revise one of my florescent green newbie attempts at a story.

    The hard work paid off. The manuscript won a number of contests, and I received an offer of representation from our awesome agent. But my work wasn’t done. I had to completely rewrite three-quarters of that story, which I did. Only then, after five years of hard work, did it sell.

    • Keli, Your story is an excellent illustration of hitting speed bumps, slowing down, and moving on down the road to your ultimate destination. Congratulations on reaching this stage of your writing career.

  4. Hi Doc– this is great advice. It’s so easy to get impatient when we hit a roadblock and forget the fact that every road– even the roads to the most beautiful places have twists, turns and speed bumps. Thanks!

    • Erin, Kay and I were watching something on TV last night and saw pictures of huge logs being trucked up a mountain road. It reminded us of our trip in Germany’s Black Forest, where I had some close-up views of the backs of some of those trucks. The scenery was breath-taking, but to see it required some hard work behind the steering wheel. I like to think of the road to writing as being like those mountain roads–it takes some work to navigate it, but it’s worth it.

  5. Great stuff, Richard.
    Speaking of being in a hurry, I’m curious to know what you and others consider the ideal amount of time to write a novel for your publisher. I’ve just turned in book 2 and have to have book 3 turned in by April 1st. Not enough time in my opinion, but you learn as you go. If I get another contract after book 3 is complete I’ll have Rachelle help me with this. As slow as publishing is there seems to be a real rush when it comes to the amount of time we have to get our novels turned in once we do publish. Hopefully this makes sense. I’m still drinking coffee to get my brain moving today. Love the sleeping policeman. 🙂 So what do you and others out there think is the ideal. I’ve got a full time day job so that makes a difference too.

    • Jillian, Given my ‘druthers, I’d prefer a book a year–but, as you know, authors aren’t really given their ‘druthers. We write what the contract calls for. All four of my books for Abingdon were published at six month intervals. My three new ones from Thomas Nelson will be at about 9 month intervals. But, we take what we can get.

    • Patti, We’ve all rushed to send in our work, despite being told we shouldn’t do it until we’ve edited it many times over. Like having to touch wet paint to see if it’s dry.

  6. Oh, owie, I am guilty of sending out my first works well before they were close to ready. The realization was much like running over a ‘sleeping policeman.’ 🙂

  7. Thanks for sharing your wisdom…and a laugh. I agree that rejections convey important messages. For the ones I’ve received, it served as a great reminder that I had not done my homework or taken the time to find out what they truly requested/needed.

  8. Donna, The fact that most rejections are boilerplate makes the ones that carry a message pure gold for an author, if they’ll just wipe away the tears long enough to read them and think about what they’re trying to say.

    • Thanks, Paula. I have a couple of very early manuscripts on my hard drive that I hope I can get the courage to delete before someone finds them and sees my name on them.

  9. I remember when we hit our first “sleeping policeman” – Cozumel. Ummm.

    I know I have so much to learn about writing, but that’s why writing is such a fascinating career/avocation. My first reaction to criticism is to make excuses. I’m finally to the point with my writing that I remember to shut up and learn!
    Thanks for this great post, Richard!

    • Sue, I’m happy to learn that I’m not the first person among us to hit a sleeping policeman and pay the price. It’s hard not to make excuses when we read a critique. But as the saying goes, “If one person calls you a donkey, ignore it. If two, think about it. And if three, get a pack saddle.” Eventually we have to listen…and learn. Thanks for your comment.

  10. Great advice, Richard. Don’t hurry too much before you submit. Then, once you are on contracted deadline, hurry until your head explodes. 🙂

    Actually, the way a writer can solve the post-contract rush is to avoid submitting until he or she has THREE good novels ready. I realize that would feel like an agonizing wait, but in retrospect, I wish I had waited the extra two years so I had them all ready and didn’t have to rush. I know other writers who are in this enviable multi-completed-novel position…our own Katie Ganshert of Wordserve is one of them!

  11. A speed bump slowed me down for several months. As I was getting out of my car to go into the church, to play the organ for the service, I tripped over a speed bump, hitting my face on the hubcap of a car and breaking my hand. After a very painful ride to the hospital in an ambulance, I was told of the broken hand, as well as a concussion. My face was colored black, blue, purple, and my eyes swollen shut. Due to Spinal Stenosis, I also was not able to walk for several days. But, I did play for the service the next week, with assistance from my husband getting on and off the organ bench. You have to watch those speed bumps.

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