Unknown and unpublished: enjoy it while it lasts

Fiona Maddock takes the positives of being an unpublished author and makes us all feel better about the struggle to get our names in print. Warning: also contains useful, practical advice on writing and preparing your work.

Guest post by Fiona Maddock
I read shovel loads of stuff about how, when and why my first novel won’t be published. In fact, if I read too much more I’ll be buried under it and then I’ll never get anything done.

I do believe strongly though, that there is ‘Life Before Publication’ however murky and sleazy it appears to the polished published people. Here’s my experience of being one of these unknown, unpublished lowlifes.

The freedom of being ‘Unpublished’

You can write what you like. You can roam freely through your head and take whatever imaginary, insightful, crazy, quirky, colourful, sombre, hilarious or spine-chilling ideas come to you and you can turn them into a story. It really is a blank white sheet.

You can have any number of imaginary friends and crazy ideas and nobody will march you off to see the nice man in the white coat at the psychiatric hospital, because you’re a ‘writer’. You can have fun; escape all the boring bits of real life – such as cleaning the kitchen or finding out why the car won’t start – in your noble quest to become that awesome being, The Published Author.

The beastly family or annoying day job may force you to phone the breakdown company but there’s no pesky editor or agent on your writer’s back so you can go at your own pace and not give two hoots about anyone else.


Grammar, punctuation and spelling

There are some rules, though, if you are going to play the game. To be able to respond honestly to the question asked at social events, ‘What do you do?’ by saying ‘I’m a writer’ you must observe certain standards.

Good grammar, punctuation and spelling are indispensible. There are plenty of aids out there. I have a good old fashioned Oxford Dictionary of English – paper version – and I regularly use Wiktionary on line. In the word processor I use the spell and grammar checker.

Commercial length fiction

I do not assume that everyone is writing commercial fiction but I am so that’s what I shall talk about. You must observe the conventions of the marketplace.

My genre (science fiction) requires a minimum of eighty thousand words. It’s a long and tearful journey to get there and it brings me neatly on to the next stage, which is the First Draft.

First Draft

This is the first major milestone for you – unpublished, unknown, worthless, anonymous scribbler that you are. It is the raw version of your concept in anything from eighty to a few hundred thousand words and it is the material which you will shape into the finished work.

Those of you who have a first draft should award yourselves your favourite treat and pat yourself on the back (difficult if you are not a circus acrobat so ask a good friend to do it for you). It is no mean feat to get there, so feel proud of yourself, feel elated and enjoy the moment.

Rewrites and editing

This is a traumatic and difficult process and worthy of a post of its own. I’ll summarise here by saying that it was during this phase that I almost took that night-time shelf-filling job at the local supermarket after all.

Anyway, somehow I have come through this phase more or less the same person I was before, but still unpublished. I am currently learning how to experience trauma all over again as I go through The Submission Process. This stage has the quality of rides at Alton Towers and is most definitely worthy of a blog post of its own.

One thing’s for sure, nobody on this planet is holding their breath waiting for my novel to land on their desk, which means my time is still my own and I’m in no danger of being forced to abandon the Muse in order to attend that tiresome book launch party .

Final Version

Wow! Here it is! Ninety thousand and seven hundred words, twenty crates of wine, two printers and a lorry load of black ink cartridges later, I have The Final Version of My Manuscript.

I’m so proud of it. See that ream of printed paper? I wrote that – all by myself…and it’s good. Good? No it’s not good, it’s brilliant [add glowing reviews here].

As audience of my own work I can have every accolade I dream of. All I have to do now is find an agent and get it published. Move over J.K.! Make room for another one up there on the prize winners’ podium.

Life After Publication

Savour your anonymity, fellow worthless unpublished key-tappers.

Once your work is through the slush pile, it will be dissected, scrutinised, edited, praised, vilified, scrubbed and polished, chucked back at you for re-writes, scrubbed and polished again, packaged, promoted, and that’s before the critics get hold of it.

Feeling discouraged? I thought not. You’re a writer and like a wilful teenager, whatever anyone says to you, you’ll do it anyway, but remember the free and leisurely days of being unpublished.

Once those days have gone, they’re gone forever.


iain@writeforyourlife.net 17 January 2011 Reply

Big thanks for the article Fiona. I wonder if you’ve persuaded any unpublished authors out there that they are better off as they are!?

Anonymous 17 January 2011 Reply

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Anonymous 17 January 2011 Reply

Great post – and very true. But most of us do want to leap out of the frying pan, so I’d add this word of advice – hone your craft and work out how you’re going to write the next books without so many false starts!

Anonymous 17 January 2011 Reply

It is true. There is much freedom in being unpublished, but I’m still going to strive for published.

fionamaddock@yahoo.co.uk 17 January 2011 Reply

Oh guys! I know! I know! Of course I want to be published. Roll on the tiresome book launch party but you know, when you’re bumping along the bottom, a touch of irony is very cheering.

lexi14@hotmail.com 17 January 2011 Reply

Why not opt for self-publishing, and have the best of both worlds?

janereynolds@360.com 11 March 2011 Reply

I’d describe self-publishing as the WORST of both worlds. I’m in the middle of it and you’re neither one thing or another. Takes a LOT of determination to keep cheerful!

george@tumblemoose.com 17 January 2011 Reply

An absolutely marvelous post and a great reminder about how wild and free can choose to be in our writing infancy. I really hope that the future relationship with my editor or agent or house will allow my writing child to come out to the playground now and then.

By the way, stuffy grammarians smell. Someone posted an article about US English types being poor writers for using the occasional UK English term.

Right! I shall write them a nasty whilst in the queue, chomping me favorite crisps.


iain@writeforyourlife.net 17 January 2011 Reply

Thanks for all your comments so far. I might just add that if you find the right agent, they’ll be more than happy to let your creativity run wild, and then be there to pull you back in when necessary. But as George says, that freedom when you’re starting out is both terrifying and fantastic.

Anonymous 18 January 2011 Reply

brilliant post, so true! I’m at the revisions stage with my novel but just sent off the final version my nonfiction project. Oh, observing the conventions was hard, but it’s the ‘anonymity, bye-bye’ I’m dreading most.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 20 January 2011 Reply

There’s no need to dread anything because we’re all in the same boat. You need to find a good writing group, on or offline, and enjoy sharing about and talking about your work. Just because you’ve finished, doesn’t mean anonymity. It’s just the next stage!

shewriting@yahoo.com 19 January 2011 Reply

completely enjoyed the topic and especially your spin on it – sometimes I think writers forget how to have a sense of humor – crazy is as crazy does. Good luck to you!

iain@writeforyourlife.net 20 January 2011 Reply

If there’s one thing you need as a writer, it’s a sense of humour. With all the hard work and waiting for something to happen, it’s important to keep perspective. Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous 19 January 2011 Reply

What a great post! I will be sure to remember it and will savour every moment as one of the many yet-to-sling-ink-that-sticks-slingers! Anyway, who cares if I drink wine from Tesco and get excited about a sale on Amazon? Not me, I’m writing! 😉

iain@writeforyourlife.net 20 January 2011 Reply

Thanks for the comment and glad to hear it!

andybee64@hotmail.com 20 January 2011 Reply

Being unpublished will, I hope, become something that I look back on with a fondness in my heart – rather like my teenage years.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 20 January 2011 Reply

That sounds to me like the perfect way of looking at it!

Anonymous 17 February 2011 Reply

For the first time I am feeling good after thinking I am still unpublished….Great article….thanks..
I love my teenage days now…..

iain@writeforyourlife.net 21 February 2011 Reply

There’s no need to feel bad about not being published yet. It’s a difficult thing to achieve so stay positive and keep at it!

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