Don’t Talk About Your Book Until It’s Published

June 15, 2017 | 14 3 min read

When I was a graduate student working in the philosophy department at Rutgers University, an old academic offered some advice: “don’t talk about your book until it’s published.” Like most other English graduate students, I was writing a novel. I offered that information while giving the man a tutorial on using Microsoft Outlook. My job that semester was to teach the typewriter-clinging philosophers how to use their desktop computers (in 2005).

I had started to tell him that my manuscript was a historical novel set in the American Southwest, but he held up his hand and told me to stop. He said the worst thing a writer could do was talk about his work before it was finished. “You’ll talk about it enough after that.” He said this was also true for works of scholarship, even though chapters had to be published on their own. But that seemed like a necessary evil for him. He was adamant that a fiction writer should never talk about his book until it hits the shelf. “Otherwise,” he said, “you’ll kill it.”

When Esquire published a story of mine a few years after that, I offered a proclamation in my bio note: “he’s working on a novel set in southern Vermont.” That was true. I was working on it, in the sense we devote significant hours of our lives to books. I taught during the day, went to an MFA program in the evening, and wrote late into the night. I typed, drafted, revised, printed, tore-up, trashed, and re-started a book.

But I never published that book. Like other ditched efforts, it sits in a folder titled “Vermont Novel” on an abandoned laptop in my basement. It shares that electronic graveyard with the historical novel, hundreds of short stories, and a few poetry collections.

Between 2011 and 2015, I had 7 books published by small and scholarly presses. It is fun to say that you are having a book coming out. It is fun—and more than a little self-affirming—to share images of your book contract, your cover design, and your page proofs. During those years, I was always working on a new book. To have a forthcoming book meant to be alive as a writer.

Publishing is not writing. Writing is what you do at midnight. Writing is what you do, as William H. Gass says, “to entertain a toothache.” Writing is casting your voice into a world already filled with noise. Writing is an act of faith, rebellion, and hope. Publishing is a world outside of yourself. In many ways, that is a good and necessary thing. Writers need editors. Editors help writers turn their ideas into stories; they help writers reach audiences. Yet publishing is also a place where writers must learn to cede control and embrace patience; a place where failure is likely.

Publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. When your book comes out, shout it and sing it from the rooftops. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished. Don’t worry about people being sick of hearing about your book—you’ve scrolled through their daily posts about food and politics. They can handle some literature.

But until your book is published, don’t talk about it. That old academic was right: you risk sucking the life out of your book. If you talk about your book, it stops belonging to you, and starts belonging to the world. You’ll have to explain it to people you sit next to on the train, distant cousins at family reunions, or people at work. When the soul of your book hits the air, it will dissipate without its physical body.

Until then, hoard your manuscripts. Keep your secrets. Delete your tweets about your work in progress. Play coy in your bio notes. Be devoted to your book, and resist the urge to whisper about your relationship to others. Stay committed to that book, and one day—when the time is right—you can tell the world.

Am I writing a book now? That’s between me and my hypothetical manuscript. I’ve learned to keep my mouth shut, hunker down, and get to work.

Image Credit: Flickr/Josh Janssen.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He has written for Rolling Stone, The Paris Review, The Atlantic, Esquire, and The Kenyon Review. His newest book is Ember Days, a collection of stories. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and twin daughters. Follow him @nickripatrazone and find more of his writing at www.nickripatrazone.com.

14 comments:

  1. An interesting take! Personally, I subscribe to the notion “everything in moderation.” Blogging about my then novel-in-progress actually got me my first book deal! So sometimes talking about it can be really beneficial. (Also, talking about your book in progress with close friends and other writers can help you iron out your plot.) So there really are no rules. As long as you keep writing, do whatever works for you! And thanks for sharing what works for you, Nick. I enjoyed reading it!

  2. My totally scientific hypothesis is that the more one talks about their book, the less serious they are about it (and writing in general). The first “novel”/ semi-autobiographical self-important vomit of words I wrote way back when made all the rounds with friends and family. By now most of them have (hopefully) forgotten about my “hobby”, and if not, they can read the book when it’s published.

    Thanks for the nice piece Nick.

  3. At first blush, I found myself agreeing with this. Too much exposure to the air can kill creative energy (not unlike planting tomato starts outside before you harden them off). But, I think there’s something to be said for resisting the image of the writer as toiling alone. If you ask me (which, admittedly, you didn’t), I think there’s a place for trusted community in the life of a writer, even in the life of a book. Not too much, not too soon, but not to be shunned entirely, either.

  4. I’ve actually found it useful to talk a certain bit about ideas in the chute… it’s usually when describing/defending a conceptual stub to an esteemed friend that I realize it’s not rich enough to spread out across more than a few pages. When I was much younger I kept starting “novels” and coming to a weird impasse at the seventh-to-tenth page, until I realized, finally, that each of these becalmed “novels” was, in fact, a short story that had come to its natural conclusion. If I’d run these ideas by friends first, I probably would have known what they were from the very beginning, saving myself all kinds of 20-something angst.

  5. Eh. Secrecy is fun but conspiracy is more exciting for me. Also not to nitpick the foundations, I do find it a little tiring that writers still invoke those old, fixed ideas of “faith, rebellion, hope.” Too raggedly American for my tastes really. Although I do like slow news days and Gass.

  6. Have similar philosophy on baby names. If there’s someone you really trust, however– you can maybe share a bit about your book-in-progress. Baby names I’d say are best kept to the parents until you meet the baby.

  7. I tend to agree that the people who talk the most aren’t real writers who actually write but people who want to perceived as “Writers.” It’s a lifestyle choice. It’s like how some people go to college to actually learn whereas others go just for the degree, or to seem educated or to look smart. The best talents I’ve met often need to be encouraged TO talk about their work. Submitting is the same way. The overconfident young writer who submits the same manuscript 50 times in a blanket submission vs. the experienced/real reader who cautiously submits to one or two places (and needs to be prodded to be more active in submitting). Readers of manuscripts at lit mags, editors, agents, people who work in publishing as assistants or in just about any capacity; you all know what I mean.

  8. There’s a caveat to this: if you have a publisher, you should talk about the book that is coming out a great deal. You should promote it with all your heart and soul and sacrifice your time to do so. Most publishers these days decide whether they will publish your next book by the pre-orders on the current one. If you don’t talk up the book up in advance, pre-orders will be low, and unless you are selling in the gazillions, you will endanger your next book by not pre-marketing the one that’s coming out.

  9. Can’t agree LESS. A book you never talk about is a book that can quietly disappear before it ever gets finished. I’m learning that with my current work in progress. Not fiction, but I’ve blogged and bought research materials and have almost everything in my inter-library system on the subject checked out. And when the editing monster comes out an says, “Who are you to think you can be AUTHORITY (that’s the same root as author) to have written a book like this?” I think about everyone I told about making this book and don’t want to be a liar. (Or have to say all the money and time I spent on “research” was for naught.)

    Law of Attraction: Act like you already have that which you want. In authorspeak, that’s” talk about the book as if it’s already born.”

  10. Can’t agree with Wendy on that one. That whole “dress for the job you want” logic doesn’t work in actuality because it bankrupts you in the process. Yeah, if you’re a barista at Starbucks making fifteen bucks an hour who wants to be an investment banker, you can’t afford the suits and the Mercedes. It just doesn’t work. The same thing goes in the arts. Eventually, bluster and blowhard and oozing charisma has to be backed up by merit. The person who talks themselves up often gets snickered at behind their back by people who can tell fool’s gold from the real thing. Meanwhile, the aspiring artist goes around all puffed up and walking away thinking they’re hot shit. Talking about your book before it’s born is a good way to never have it born. This is like the guy in high school who tells all his boys he’s gonna ask out the prom queen and have her say yes. That might work in the movies but guess what? In reality, she almost never says yes.

  11. I don’t think it matters either way. There’s an entire cottage industry on the internet devoted to writer psychology, and it’s poisonously fatuous and self-regarding. Talk about your book or don’t talk about it–to think that it matters one way or the other is magical thinking. The important thing is to write it, and not build a burdensome parallel mythology about it as you do.

  12. Interesting POV as always, Swog. So you don’t think there’s any connection at all? What about self-promotion or making connections that can help you get a manuscript published? I mean, the days of just cold submitting your book through the front door at a Big 6 publishing house are over, right? So at some point networking and all that shmoozy stuff is a necessity for most writers, don’t you think?

  13. Sean,

    I wasn’t really talking about self-promotion. Yeah, you’re probably better off if you do that stuff (Twitter, etc.), although I think the benefits are a little on the margins. Connections obviously help. But I meant more that people on the internet seem so hung up on lifestyle aspects of writing, how hard it is to be a writer, how to frame your writing life, how to be a writer in this existential psychological sense, when it really just comes down to doing it a lot or not (plus having some talent).

    So I don’t think it really matters if you talk about your book or not, though my feeling is that there probably exists some correlation (not causation) between talking all the time about a project and not being able to finish it.

  14. Talking about a project means you’ll inevitably hear people’s opinions/disagreements/running their mouth, and that will put you on the defensive and might force you to defend the project in a way you’re not prepared to do. Then, that can hurt confidence, etc.

    So it’s not “best” to not talk about it, but any half-formed idea released into the world will run up against the naysayers on every street corner.

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