An experiment

I’ve decided that I will sell my fourth book after I’ve finished writing it, rather than from a partial. I sold the Magic or Madness trilogy from an outline and the first three chapters of the first book. That is, I sold the idea of three books and then had to turn around and write them to pretty tight deadlines. Now I want to try writing one at my own pace and not try to sell it until it’s as good as I can get it.

I’ve done this before. My very first novel was written that way. I had a lot of fun writing it and I’m proud of it, too. But it hasn’t sold. That’s the huge risk, of course. Who’s to say that a novel of mine that hasn’t been sold from a sexy proposal will sell at all?

Having a contract— even though it comes with a big ole scary deadline—is comforting. You have proof that a publisher wants your work. You’re not floating in space hoping that one day you’ll sell a book again. You’re not thinking, I am contractless does that mean I am no longer a professional writer?

There are the economic factors, too. I’m halfway through the first draft of the great Australian feminist YA Elvis monkey-knife fighting mangosteen cricket fairy book. If I sell it from a proposal and the first few chapters now I’ll get money a lot sooner than if I wait until I’ve finished it. Bills do have to be paid . . .

Here’s my question: Do you prefer selling books before they’re finished or from an outline? In an idea world where money wasn’t a question which would you rather do?

And for those non-pros: How do you feel about the books you love being written to deadline? Do you think much about the writerly means of production?


  1. Rebecca on #

    if anyone can do it, you can. ๐Ÿ™‚ as for my personal experience, i write more words under deadline, but not necessarily better words, which means more time spent editing. and i hate editing. i usually just scrap the whole thing and start over. however, these are only self-imposed deadlines and therefore not the same thing. it also helps to have people cheering you on, and you seem to have a good supply of those. ๐Ÿ˜€ i guess my point is, go for it.

  2. lili on #

    I prefer to sell first, for two reasons.

    1. i work really well under pressure. the more deadlines the better.

    2. i am a dreadful self-editor. i blame it on the double whammy of being an only child and generation y. i just can’t do it. so i don’t think anyone would buy my book if i’d already written it, because it would be a crap first draft.

  3. Jenny Davidson on #

    as a reader, i feel sure you’re making the right decision! (you can always go back to doing it the other way if you look at the finished book this time round & think the self-pacing didn’t make an appreciable difference compared to writing to deadline.) i love both kinds of writers, the ones that write a huge number of books under tight deadlines & the ones who write unpredictably but extraordinarily well (i think of robin mckinley as the perfect example of the second category). but it seems safer to really give yourself the time to make it amazing, & to push yourself to get the book to the next level even if it’s going to take quite a bit longer.

    as a writer, i don’t know that i have enough experience to say. i think for a FIRST novelist, selling the book before it’s written is a recipe for total and utter psychological disaster, unless you have nerves of steel. and that can make for very unpredictable book quality too–sometimes it works out well, sometimes not. my first novel only found a publisher after years of rejection and editing and rejection and editing and …. my second one (which i also revised a lot of times, over about 2 years, before getting all sorted out on agent and publisher stuff) has been bought along with a sequel that isn’t written yet; but on the other hand the sequel picks up right where the first one ends, i’ve got character and voice and even done a lot of the research & have a clear idea where the story’s going. i think it would make me very, very nervous to sell something on proposal when i really hadn’t figured out whether i’d got a voice that worked. but on the other hand i have a steady paycheck and benefits from my “real” job, so it is easy for me to say that i’d rather write first and get paid later.

    in sum, though, & despite the fact that i’ve got this sold-first one coming up to write, i think writing first & accordingly having the freedom to take more time to revise if it’s not working is surely psychologically liberating. but then again i am the kind of person who takes all the seeds out of all the grapes before eating any of them! i would always rather defer gratification & have the work part first….

    sorry for awfully long-winded answer! it is an interesting set of questions–boils down to temperament i expect, like so many other things in life.

  4. Darice Moore on #

    As a reader, I think you should do whatever it takes for you to tell the best story possible.

    As a writer (unpublished, I admit) I’d have a hard time writing to an outline, and I’d be afraid if I sold something based on a proposal that it would go through shocking changes between proposal and finished product. (This is because my writing pattern seems to be “dump story onto page; closely examine story; rewrite it nearly completely; be surprised by new revelations in second draft; complete extra third-draft revisions to handle new revelations…”)

    I devoutly hope that someday I will need to get over my fear of outlines because someone wants to buy my books, sexy proposals or not. (And I admit that I find deadlines to be very conducive to creativity.)

  5. cecil on #

    I am going to do like you and write my entire next novel before I sell it on a partial. This is because I am venturing into new territory and I think the new project scares me and I want it to be something I am confident in before I let others eyeball it and give opinions. I’m too fragile about it. It’s like singing in a new voice. I’ve got to sing in the forest a bit, cracks and off key and all before I can sing in front of someone.

    I think both ways have their pluses and minuses. It’s just different flavors of creating. I love a deadline. But I always give myself deadlines no matter what. Right now I’m enjoying being done with everything and the freedom of just writing for myself with no deadline.

    That’ll change once I run out of money and am writing in a cardboard box on the street.

  6. Ted Lemon on #

    If you’re anything like me, a deadline is the only thing that will get the book finished in a reasonable amount of time. But otherwise, yeah, deadlines suck.

    There’s also a certain niceness about someone wanting your intellectual output. I tend to resist strenously any input they want to provide into what I actually do (coding, not writing – I’m a geek). But having that input is actually invaluable, and if I listen to it, the result is a stronger product. I don’t know if this carries over into fiction, of course, but it’s something to consider… :’)

  7. marrije on #

    I’d say go for it, if you feel it will help and if your financial situation allows. And also don’t be afraid to recant just a little and get scott/friends to enforce made-up deadlines. No deadline ever worked as well for me as the entirely imaginary one of nanowrimo.

    i think that as a reader i prefer the idea of you giving your absolute best to the book, taking as long as it takes, not having to stop because the fall catalogue has to be made. this may just be a romantic notion, of course (still too many of those banging around in my reading-head, even after years of reading ‘making light’).

    oh, and about that novel-that’s-not-published-yet: are you still trying to place that now and then? or perhaps any plans to go the scalzi route and make it available online?

    and how ’bout that landis, huh? what a flabbergasting, surprisingly complex tragedy.

  8. Justine on #

    Rebecca: Why, thank you! Can’t tell you how lovely that is to hear! You’re absolutely right about the vital need for a cheering squad!

    Lili: Lili, Lili, Lili! Ya know the more you self edit the better you’ll get at it. And Generation Y ain’t got nothing to do with it. So many smart kids have coasted through school and uni on first drafts that they never learn how to edit. This is an age-old phenomenon. I only learnt to truly rewrite (as opposed to a wee bit of vocab tinkering) in the last ten years or so. Ie you’ve still got a few years before you even have to start learning . . .

    I am so going to be brutal to that first draft, missy!

    Jenny: You didn’t go on at all! I’m really fascinated to hear everyone’s take on this. You know, as a reader I’m not sure I can tell the difference between books written to deadline and those that aren’t. That is, there are some bad examples of both kinds of books. And (for the most part) I only read the books I think are really good. If that makes any sense . . . (I’ll contradict myself below.)

    I did sell my first pub’d novel before it was written and it worked out just fine. But, yes, if I hadn’t already written two other novels I think it would have gone exactly as you describe. Every single writer I know who sold their first novel before it was pub’d, like Diana Peterfreund, had already written unpublished novels. It makes a very big difference.

    The steady job gives you financial security, yes, but it also makes meeting deadlines a lot harder, because you have less time. There’s no way I could have held down an academic job like yours—which requires you to write and think and publish—and have met novel deadlines. Part of why I’m late with the third book was all the work I had to on Daughters of Earth meant I started Magic’s Child later than I otherwise would have. I don’t know how you manage to write all the fiction you do on top of all your scholarly work! It would break my brain.

    All the seeds out, really? Okay . . .

    Darice: I’m not wild about outlines either, which is another reason I’m doing this (finances allowing). But once you’re a pub’d author who’s doing well you’ll be able to sell your books on the basis of a mere idea, not an outline ๐Ÿ™‚ I hear no one ever requires an outline out of Stephen King . . .

    Cecil: Yes, indeed! The book I have in mind after the mangosteen fairy one is so tricky it terrifies me! No way am I selling it before I know it actually works!

    Yeah, I always give myself deadlines, too. I like mine much better than my publisher’s, cause if I don’t meet them it doesn’t mean that sales & marketing will no longer get behind my book and/or there are going to be no advance copies printed and sent out to reviewers!

    And, yes, too on the money thing!

    Ted: See above for my deadline stance.

    Critiques and suggestions and edits from others are essential. All my first drafts go out to a whole bunch of first readers. I think the problem, though, is when the input is too early. If you’ve got people commenting on the ideas you have for a book before the book is written in can get in the way of writing it. I really need to know where a book is going and what shape it has before I have anyone else throwing their tuppence in. Does that make sense?

    Marrije: Having an agent is an excellent way of always having a deadline. She always wants a book from me sooner rather than later ๐Ÿ™‚

    It’s not at all a romantic notion. There really are too many books published that are one or two or more drafts short of where they should have been. I’d name some of them but I don’t want to be lynched! On the other hand, I can also name a few that were written first and then sold that are total disasters . . .

    Yes, my Cambodian novel is being shopped by my agent right now. I’ve thought about making it available online. But I’m a young adult writer primarily and it’s a very non-young adult kind of a book.

    Yeah, I was very bummed seeing those reports about Landis. Still it’s only the first test, maybe the second one will be fine. Coud be as Stephen Colbert says that he’s American and they naturally have bucketloads of tetstosterone!

  9. ebear on #

    I’d totally rather sell a finished book than a proposal.

    Any day of the year. Of course, not always possible….

  10. Simone on #

    how dose this fit with the 2 books a year thing?

  11. lawence schimel on #

    I’m lazy. I never have enough concentration to finish anything without the threat of the contract deadline looming over me.

  12. Justine on #

    Ebear: I wonder if there are any pros who truly prefer selling from proposals? I know Chip strongly believes you should always write the book first.

    Simone: Ha! I suspect that they‘re prolly not compatible goals.

    Lawrence: And even then it doesn’t always work does it? ๐Ÿ™‚

  13. marrije on #

    I’ve thought about making it available online. But I’m a young adult writer primarily and it’s a very non-young adult kind of a book.

    Are you talking about finding a publisher here, or about putting the cambodian novel online? Perhaps I’m wrong, but the people who hang around here aren’t strictly young adults, I think, and they would strike me as a prime target for this online book (talking about me me me here, of course :-)).

  14. Justine on #

    Marrije: I’m actually more talking about my career as a young adult author and the kind of stuff I want people finding if they google me.

    Scott has two distinct writing careers, of course. His young adult stuff and then his adult sf. Some of which is very adult indeed. So far there’s been not a lot of crossover between the two. But I think that would be a wee bit different if he had one of his adult novels online!

    I have not yet given up hope of finding a publisher for the Cambodian novel!

  15. marrije on #

    ah, i see your point. and it is a good one, and not one i’d thought of before. so thanks!

  16. sean williams on #

    like so much of this business, i think it comes down to what’s right for the project as well as what’s right for the author. i can, therefore, only speak for me. i like writing to deadlines, and i think i write pretty well to them, but i know that there have been times i could’ve used a little longer to finesse an extra draft or two. would those particular books have been better for it? maybe. would i have learned as much by taking all the time i liked? i don’t think so. career-wise, in both monetary and artistic senses, selling books from partials and writing them under deadline has worked for me.

    that said, i am always keen to experiment, and the one thing i haven’t done, ever, is write a book outside deadline. so i’m also planning to do that in the next year or two, on top of the books i’m contracted to write. it’s good to be challenged, instead of just contracted. if i don’t set those challenges for myself, no one else will.

    so good on you, justine. i will watch your experiment with great interest! (confident that it will be brilliant success)

  17. Kristine Smith on #

    I am seriously considering writing the next book on spec. I am a slow writer with a day job, whatever I write will require a lot of research, and I crave the luxury of time to do it right. Does that mean that I will have blow-off days–yeah, probably. But while the existence of the deadline does help in the word extrusion, it also led to a bout of burnout that I don’t want to experience ever again because I started to dread writing. I don’t want to go through that again.

    Have you run this past your agent?

  18. Kristine Smith on #

    As for the outline question–my final books often deviate significantly from my outlines, I hate writing outlines, and I would prefer to never write one ever, ever again.

  19. claire on #

    oh, and about that novel-that’s-not-published-yet: are you still trying to place that now and then? or perhaps any plans to go the scalzi route and make it available online?

    let me just put in a bid for this as well. couldn’t you just put up a note to your younger readers saying “this is an adult novel, read at your own risk”?

    i’m just being selfish, of course. I wanna read it!

  20. little willow on #

    I’d rather have it done, so that it was ready to go. However, it never fails that the mainstream ideas I think are only that -passing thoughts that I am not fully invested in – are those that others say, “YES! Write THAT!” I wrinkle my nose and say, “Really? But I’d rather write about (exciting! fantastic! idea!)”

  21. Jenny Davidson on #

    this is absolutely fascinating. justine, thanks for initiating the conversation… strangely i realized after i posted my comment before that i actually also got an advance contract for my second academic book when it was only about half written–but that this feels completely different to me, i.e. i feel in much more control of process and product and more confident that what i draft will need straightforward heavy editing rather than, you know, magically transformative heavy editing!

  22. Jenny Davidson on #

    oh, i too desperately want to read the cambodian novel! i hope you find a good way of publishing it so that we can all read it, i feel sure it will be delightful!

  23. slwhitman on #

    As an editor, I have writers that do either. On the series book side of things, there really is no other way to get books out within the timeframe we’ve scheduled them for without contracting writers on the basis of an outline, rather than a full manuscript. The outline becomes the skeleton, which allows the tight deadlines.

    On the other hand, though, I’d rather just get a finished manuscript in my hands rather than worry about whether I’m contracting a book that won’t pull together. Of course, there are all those complicated clauses in contracts when such things happen, but it’s just much easier for me as an editor to have a manuscript in front of me that I can say “I like it; I’ll buy it,” or not.

    But there is something about that creative process in the outline stage that I really like, when you’re talking about an overarching series. I like being able to know the big picture and therefore help an author work within that framework. I like seeing the work from the very beginning and mentoring a new author. It’s something I think few editors get to see nowadays, because of the nature of the industry.

    Now, both my examples don’t cover the situation of writing a standalone book under deadline, sold on an outline and three chapters. If the writer had a solid background–having written a novel or two before, even if unpublished–I’m more likely to trust that they can finish, which is I think the situation you encountered with your first book.

  24. Chris S. on #

    Agent Ethan Ellenberg wrote an interesting article about this subject once, comparing (without naming, darnit!) two of his authors. One was writing a contracted book; the other had decided to write without a contract. He saw benefits in both arrangements.

    You write how you need to write. And what you need for one book may not be what you need for the next.

    As for outlines, eh. A writer friend sold sold 10+ novels without ever writing an outline. The first time she was asked to write one, it panicked her so badly that she wrote the whole book instead, in twelve weeks! We won’t discuss the toll that took on her health.

    When it comes to an author with a track record, a house is looking for a rough map, an indication that the author can go from A to Z. If the outline stops at C, L and Q, but the book stops at F, N and T… really, it won’t be a big deal. Not if you still get to Z (and haven’t suddenly switched to another alphabet).

  25. veejane on #

    > great Australian feminist YA Elvis monkey-knife fighting mangosteen cricket fairy book

    Okay, so is this a YA Elvis fighting monkeys with knives, while crickets go swanning about dressed in sparkles? That would be awesome!

    Or a monkey Elvis! Even more awesome!

    Fighting with knives against winged pixies who play cricket!

    (I don’t even know what a mangosteen is, or else that would be part of the fun too.)

    I am gonna have the phrase “monkey Elvis” stuck in my head ALL DAY.

  26. anghara on #

    Been there done that – both ways. Curently writing Book 2 of the trilogy that sold as an idea, deadline is September, I’m one chapter away from the end, it should work fine – but then there’s #3 to write before September NEXT year… and the project tentatively lined up for after that also exists as no more than a synopsis… and the book BEFORE this trilogy was done on the strength of a synopsis and the previous book… which was written FIRST and sold afterwards.

    Writing something sold only as a vision is damnably nervewracking. I’m not sure I want to do that regularly. he NEXT book I have the idea for I think I’ll just go ahead and WRITE and then see how the publishing world feels about it…

  27. maureen johnson on #

    ooooh. That’s tough. I have a book I’ve been working on for a few years, checking and rechecking and rewriting. But it’s gotten shoved to the side by the books I have under contract.

    I moan and complain a lot, but like a lot of people, I think that the deadline construct is ultimately very good. Sometimes I think it’s insane to write a book in that amount of time, but it does show you what you are capable of, and sometimes takes you just that extra inch.

    Having said that, I think you should try this experiment, because I’d bet you have great reserves of natural discipline. And you live with a writer, so you’ll have someone to pace against.

  28. Diana on #

    When I write a whole novel first and then get a contract, I’ll be able to tell you which I prefer. So far, I prefer getting paid first, but that’s all I know.

  29. John H on #

    I’m actually more talking about my career as a young adult author and the kind of stuff I want people finding if they google me.

    That’s understandable. But of course, you can always block bots from caching certain things on your website. For example, if you decided to put the Cambodian novel online on its own page you could create a robots.txt file to tell the search engines not to cache that specific page.

    You can read more about it at

    I believe you could also use Adobe Acrobat (if you have it or know someone who does) to allow the story to be read online, but not copied, saved or printed elsewhere. I’m pretty sure this would block the search engines from caching as well, but would also deter someone from trying to repost your novel to another site.

  30. sara z on #

    Ooh, I know I’m late to the commenting party but I’ve been thinking a lot about this. Having just turned in my 2nd book of a 2-book contract (when I got the deal, the first book was finished, the 2nd unwritten), I’m now feeling like I just want to write something at my own pace and, like Cecil, feel more free to experiment and stretch myself with no input from editor or agent before I’m happy with it.

    That said, there is the running out of money/cardboard box issue to consider. And the needing a deadline to finish something thing. But I think I’ll do my best to have a completed book to offer for the option on #3.

  31. Lynn on #

    My editor asked for an outline for my second book. Having, by that time, finished the first draft, I had no problem giving her one. But it’s hard enough writing to a deadline, writing to an outline makes it doubly so.

  32. Ken Kugler on #

    I was wondering if the deadline given to you pushes you to complete a book before you are really ready to the editor? It seems that if that is the case, writing the book first and being satisfied with the final results before handing it in would be the way to go if you can hold out for money.
    Also there is the question of payment.Are there financial incentives to consider such as preselling a series at a lower price?
    BTW I think you know that I really have enjoyed your Magic series and am looking forward to more stories by you.

  33. sara gran on #

    My two cents: I ALWAYS write on spec (ie write first, get paid later, if I’m lucky). My books always change as I go on–and I want to be able to ditch it if isn’t going well (which I often do). I couldn’t do it any other way. Then again, a lot of great books were written under contract, so what the hell do I know? I think it falls under the “everyone is different” category.


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