How to Make Sure your Story Is Publishable

You must look for the flaws in your own work, so you can fix them.

You must look for the flaws in your own work so you can fix them.

So you’ve decided to go indie. What is the first thing you should do?

No, you shouldn’t – really, truly, trust me – make space in your basement for all those piles of money you intend to roll around in. Yes there are some people who made quite a lot of money right off the bat. There are also a lot of people (cumulatively) who win the lottery. However, just like your retirement plan shouldn’t be “first, win the lottery” your plan for indie success shouldn’t be “put one book out, make a pile of money.”


Most of the people who buy a lottery ticket do not win the lottery. And most of the people who have a single book out do not immediately and suddenly become bestsellers with millions of dollars flowing in.

If you are one of those people, you’re one of luck’s own children, and you don’t need my humble advice any more than you need an extra arm or a third eye. Go forth and perform magic, or something.

However, let’s suppose you’re a normal human being and you just wrote a short story or a novel, or a novella, which you’ve decided to throw out there for sale to the general public.

First of all let me caution you: the first piece of completed writing you ever do will seem to you like the most amazing and miraculous thing.

Even if you’ve been writing for years, and have been aware that there was something lacking in your efforts, there will be a story you finish that you know is “a real story.” And you’ll think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.

The same thing happens with your first “real” heart piece, your first “real” song, your first “real” computer program, and just about any other endeavor that involves both art and craft. The first one that you think is “good enough” will also seem wonderful to you.

Most of the time it will not be.

This kitten might look perfect to its own mother -- and us incorrigible cat lovers -- but objectively it's a big headed, feeble-legged, blind creature with pinned back ears.

This kitten might look perfect to its own mother — and us incorrigible cat lovers — but objectively it’s a big headed, feeble-legged, blind creature with pinned back ears.

There is a name for this – and I can’t remember it – a name for the beginner’s lack of reference points which means that they will over-value their early efforts.


If you’ve never gone through this with writing, I’m sure you’ve experienced this with some craft. The first crochet curtain I finished seemed like a thing of wonder to me. Now every mended place and fobbed stitch seems glaring to me. Is it?

Well, strangers seem to see it as something in between.

What I mean is, when you finish your very first story, it is normal to expect other people to fall down in awe of it. And yet, I guarantee that whatever its real value, if you keep working in the field and trying to learn and progress, in ten years you’ll be embarrassed by it.

It used to be bad enough when it was traditional publishing, and when very few of us sold our very first piece of halfway decent writing. But now you will both have the opportunity to sell earlier, and have the opportunity to have your early mistakes pursue you to the end of time. Even if you take it out of print, someone, somewhere, will have saved electronic copies.

So, the first order of business when you’ve finished your story, is to make sure it doesn’t suck, or at least doesn’t suck too badly. But how do you do that? Well, in the old days, you took the publisher’s word for it. If they bought it, it didn’t suck. I’m here to tell you that not only is that not necessarily true, but also that there were tons of pieces that didn’t suck but were kept out by the limited slots in the publishing schedule. You could be the second coming of Robert A. Heinlein, or Shakespeare’s little sister, but if your publishing house had all slots filled with authors they already published (and who were therefore a known quantity) you’d still get rejected. Or if your character chanced to wear blue and the purchasing editor hated the color blue. Or if you wrote a novel featuring the Red Baron and the potential editor hated him for fighting Snoopy (you only think I am joking) or…


But now, how do you know if your piece is just quirky, or it plain sucks?

Your novel about the Red Baron might be wonderful.  But if all the editor knows about him is that he was cruel to cartoon dogs, it will never get bought.

Your novel about the Red Baron might be wonderful. But if all the editor knows about him is that he was cruel to cartoon dogs, it will never get bought.

Well, my normal recommendation is that you get people to read it. And by people I mean people you can trust, who are neither your cat nor your mom.

We’re not saying your cat or your mom might not have excellent taste. It’s more that their taste is likely to be… specialized. My cats, I know, would be riveted by a reading performance of Here, kitty, kitty, kitty, have some tuna. And my mom is of the sort who would be embarrassed by just about anything I’ve written, from violence to romance (I can’t be said to have written sex.) Others of my friends have the sort of mom who will say everything is wonderful, even if it’s written in Martian and is a description of paint drying.

Look, if you read a certain type of book, you probably have friends who read the same. Round up no more than ten and no less than six, hand them your magnum opus, and sit back and wait… and wait… and wait… and wait.

There is nothing more guaranteed to make people have sudden health emergencies, broken hearts or a need to wash their hair than being handed a friend’s novel/short story to read.

Nine times out of ten it’s actually true. What I mean is, they want to give you their best attention, but life rarely gives uninterrupted times to look at things. So they postpone.

You might have to remind a few of them, politely, every week or so.


When you get the opinions back – it is unlikely all of them will say it either sucks or is wonderful.

On the other hand it is likely that only one or two will see a problem in it.

In this case you should apply a rule of three – unless three of them, independently, point at the same problem, you should ignore it. The things people see in stories are a combination of their own inner mechanics and what you wrote down, and sometimes they kick up very weird results. One of my friends hated one of my books because he was sure everyone would “know” I’d based a character on him. I hadn’t. The character had no resemblance to him. No one else saw that resemblance. In fact, other than height, they had absolutely nothing in common. But that’s not what he told me. Until I pried, he just told me the book was awful. Over and over again.

Your story is all very well, but it doesn't compare to Shakespeare's Tragedy of the Tuna.

Your story is all very well, but it doesn’t compare to Shakespeare’s Tragedy of the Tuna.

You’re going to run into something like this, if not your first book, then the others. As I said, unless three people say the same, ignore it.

If three people say the same (or if all of them come back and say “oh, my. Are you sure you want to publish this” of course) then worry about what the problem is and how to fix it, or ditch that story and try again.

In your early years of writing, you might find it’s easier to toss the story and write it new and fresh from the beginning than to rewrite. Dean Wesley Smith told me this when I was a newbie and, of course, I didn’t believe him, but it’s much, much easier to write than to rewrite. Re-writing is an art in itself and a difficult one, because you’ve lost the “fresh eyes” with which the reader will approach the story.


After you’ve established that you have a story and one that won’t make you cringe too badly in 10 years (it will still make you cringe, if you’re continuing to learn and improve, but hopefully not too badly) you need to make sure it’s as clean and readable as it can be. This is when you find a friend, neighbor, close acquaintance, or another self-publisher who is good with grammar, and have him look over your stuff. (Yes, there are also people for hire. Charlie Martin and I are going to publish a list of indie-publishing para-professionals soon – based on people who’ve sent us their info. If you’re hiring a total unknown ask him/her for references and talk to the references and try to read between the lines to see if this person understands/fits your type of writing.)

Once you have the story as good as it’s going to get and as clean as it’s going to get, it’s time to consider how to actually sell it.

This will involve things under “Which name will you sell it under?” and “Will you be listing it as self-published or will you be forming a publishing house?” and then “How do you get a cover to put on it?” And then “How do I publicize the story?”

I confess I thought I’d get to those topics, at least cursorily, in this post – but then I realized first I had to make sure you understood the phases the story itself would need to go through before it started getting “dressed up” in cover and house name and all, for publication.

So, next week we’ll tackle which is the best way to present yourself and your story, and perhaps which is the best “legal” structure to use and where and when.


And then we’ll approach covers in a general way. I’ll do a more specific post on covers as a supplemental post. And in the meantime – for those of you wishing to try traditional publishing – the first part of my supplemental post on pitches, queries, synopsis and proposals will go up soon.

All pictures courtesy of Shutterstock.  1- © Roman Gorielov    2-© Evgeny Dubinchuk   3-  ©oturanx 4-©netbritish



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