The question came in the other day: How many books should I write before I publish one? The answers, almost to a one, were ridiculous. One response from a spotlight-grabbing literary wannabe stated outright: one million words. Not very grounded in reality. Here's how I corrected the narrative.
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The Queen of Wrong strikes again. There is no magic number, not "in general" or otherwise. The truth is that you can self-publish the very first novel you write and be happy with it or self-publish your tenth and hate it. Just understand that, in either case, no one else is likely to see it, let alone read and enjoy it, unless you happen to be a marketing guru. But, that's the foible of self-publishing.
As for conventionally publishing a book, here's a reality check: You have nothing to say about when you "publish one." That, my confused newbie friend, is totally up to the marketplace. You can "try" to have a book published by submitting it to a conventional, advance-paying publisher, but whether or not it's accepted isn't up to you; it's up to the publisher. It's a competitive market out there, and all conventional publishers know it. I estimate that more than ninety-nine percent of all submissions to conventional publishers are rejected out of hand.
But, to get back to your question, you should write as much as necessary to become as good a writer as you can possibly be. In all likelihood, you'll think you're good enough after your very first attempt. But, I guarantee you, if you go back a year or two later and pull the book up on your computer (which is likely where it will spend its lifetime), you'll be astounded at how little you actually knew about writing in general and writing novels in particular. And perhaps a little amazed at your arrogance at thinking you were ready for The Show.
Far more important than the number of books or words you write in prepping for publishing, of course, is your skill as a writer. Some people are born writers. Others learn their craft. My suggestion to you? Take courses; join top-tier creative-writing workshops; read; write; learn, and read and write some more. Critique and review other writers' books; study your favorite authors, and learn how and why you think they're the best. Read your own work out loud, and listen to the weak spots in your manuscript before going back to strengthen them.
Meanwhile, keep testing the publishing waters as you go, from your first book to your last. Send your books to conventional publishers to see what the response is. If it's not good, so be it. No harm, no foul. Again, there is no magic number for how many words you need to write before you're ready to be published, and anyone who says there is (a million words, for example) is tragically misleading you.
One million, one dozen, a hundred thousand, twenty million—the number of words (or books) you write before getting published doesn't matter. Only quality results do. You could strike literary gold with your very first attempt at writing the Great American Novel, or you could wait forever for success to come knocking on your door only to open it and let disappointment walk in. That's the nature of writing.
Just remember this: You'll never get published if you never try.
Hope this helps clear some rather fouled waters on the subject. Meanwhile ...
Smoke if you've got 'em
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D. J. Herda is author of the new ebook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere. You can check out his weekly column, "The Author-Ethicist," at Substack.com.