When Is It a Book?

Written by Charli Mills

Charli Mills, a born buckaroo, makes literary art accessible at CarrotRanch.com. She writes about the veteran spouse experience and women forgotten to history.

July 22, 2014

Tips for WritersAsking, when is it a book is a lot like asking when is your pile of logs going to be a structure. Last week we examined NaNoWriMo as a tool: your ax to chop down material. If you meet the challenge, you’ll have 50,000 words by the end of 30 days.

Some writers use the term WIP, as in a work-in-progress. I prefer the term project because it resonates with my experience with project management. I’ve learned to let go and write during NaNoWriMo, and I’m learning how to manage the result. It seems doable if I call it a project; daunting if I call it a book.

Yet some writers get to the end of their book and call it thus. First draft, and they publish. Why? Because they can. You don’t even need money to publish a book these days because you can forgo print, design your own cover, transfer your text into a template and hit publish as easy as tapping enter your keyboard.

Why do it? Well, people do have reasons. It is an accomplishment to craft 50,000 words into a story and the fundamental premise of NaNoWriMo is that everyone has a story. Some just want to share it among friends or family. I’ve met some WriMos in my region who only write in November and they love the activity as an annual hobby. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Other writers mistakenly think that publishing a book is a quick way to make money. It’s less about what is shared or the story told and more about sales potential. I met such a writer. She drafted about 30,000 words, designed a cover and published it digitally. She didn’t want to create a writer’s platform (too much work) or work with an editor (too expensive). She said she’d “hire” those people after her book sold. It didn’t.

Then there are writers who dare. They dare to finish it. Dare to call it a book. They do the best they know how with the resources available. They revise according to feedback from beta readers. They find someone to edit. They publish the book both in print and digital and promote it along the platform they have built and continue to work. Reader reviews are mixed. But you know what? A writer has to start somewhere, and often those in this group learn from newbie mistakes, hire a better editor and write a stronger second book.

On the other end of the publishing rainbow is not necessarily a pot of gold, but a possible contract. Publishing houses range in size and benefits. One benefit is professional editing. It’s kind of like winning a game show where you get to select your prize behind one of three doors. It’s a mystery as to what you really have won.

But reputation and quality are a big deal to those writers who are career-minded, who want to publish books traditionally. It may take years to call a book a book. Revisions with an editor. Revisions with an agent. Revisions with a publishing house. Not to mention rejection letters in between.

Some writers try to fast-track the traditional route by investing in an MFA. It’s paramount to networking and puts in to question, are the best books truly from college educated writers or do they simply have the better connections? Often there’s a pretentiousness that is discouraging to writers outside the ivory towers.

With so many possibilities it is hard to answer, when is it a book. All I can offer are opinions. All I can say is that I have career goals. I’m not in an MFA program, but I feel like I’m apprenticing, trying to figure it out via workshops, blogs and writing mentors in a book. It’s an unpaid apprenticeship with no guarantee I’ll become a journeyman or ever a master.

So, we write. It is the best we can do. We have nothing without writing. Call it a book when you feel ready to put it out into the world. Do it justice. And we’ll talk about editing next week.

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  1. Sherri

    Great post this Charli, so well written as it points out all the different aspects of publication, whether self or traditional. I didn’t know anything at all when I started blogging about all of this and have learnt so much from writers such as yourself. It can be a minefield that’s for sure, but you make it so interesting and relevant. I’m looking forward to your editing post although I will have to come back to that once back from vacation but I’m finding all that you share here very enlightening indeed. Thanks again πŸ™‚

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Sherri. Like you, I entered the minefield (great analogy) not knowing much more than “about” traditional publishing. That’s the only option taught to writers when I received my undergrad in writing in 1998. I always felt like I “failed” because I was unable to go on and get an MFA, which was “the next step.” It’s been a long journey to recover myself as a literary writer and accept that I can do this non-MFA. In fact, we live in the best time ever to publish–so many options! One thing I appreciate about NaNoWriMo is that the organizers make writing a book available to everyone. To me, it’s about telling our stories which really is about finding our voices. But what do you do with your story? I know what I want to do, but it’s not what every writer wants. I honor the dreams built on stories and voices and feel that there are many options and chances to learn and improve. I believe we can learn from and inspire other writers; after all, no one else really “gets” why we do this except other writers. Writers rarely get rich, quick or otherwise, but you can make a living or career of it, or publish books you can feel good about by taking the time to mature your book beyond a first draft. It’s important to know your personal goals. That will ultimately help you decide when your book is a book! Go enjoy that vacation–unplugged! πŸ˜€

      • Sherri

        It is those very same personal writing goals that keep us going isn’t it? And you are certainly not a failure Charli. You are so inspiring with all you bring here to help other writers, especially newbie writers like me. All that you have learnt and using your personal experiences brings a wealth of knowledge here and you teach it so well.I don’t understand about going the MFA route. I just thought, naively, that one could write a book and either it would be good or it would be rubbish. If good, then hopefully, it will be published and then sell. So you can see how much I have to learn!!!! I have found that being able to talk about writing here is so wonderful. You do indeed ‘get’ this need πŸ™‚
        Thanks again Charli…I’ll be over to your compilation post and will be signing off in a couple of days.. πŸ˜€

      • Charli Mills

        It’s a learning curve for all of us! In part, we learn something of ourselves and how we experience the world; the other part is how to convey that experience to others. We can learn from multiple sources, but we have to dare to put something on the page, too! The MFA can connect you to people in the current industries–magazines, books, academia–but they are also out of touch with what’s happening outside those ivory towers. I guess we each have to decide what our goals are and beat down the path to get there! But never underestimate the power of voice–it’s what makes each of us unique. Sometimes it can be the easiest and most difficult thing to master! Keep at those goals and let all your experiences add to the richness of your voice, Sherri!

  2. Ariel Bernstein

    I really enjoyed reading this post! Currently I’m in the rejection stage of trying to get an agent or an indie publishing house interested. I know a lot of writers have author websites or Facebook pages even without having published yet, but I think when mine is published – either self or traditionally – that’s when I’ll feel ready to think of myself as an author.

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks for sharing, Ariel! With knocking knees, I’m finishing up final edits to enter what I’ve dubbed, “The Great Rejection Rodeo.” I’m looking for that one chance to stay 8 seconds in the saddle with an agent or publisher. πŸ™‚ I won’t call myself an author until someone pinches me and says, “That’s your book on a shelf.” But darn-tootin’ I’m a writer. And, I won’t go self-publish ONLY because want I want the title (or false idea of rags to riches). Self-publishing is a wonderful gift to us as writers, but we must use it well and do our books justice with thoughtful revision, good editing (by someone else) and letting go. Some writers never let go because it isn’t “good enough.” We have to find balance and ultimately the courage to dare and it sounds as though you have! Since we tell actors, “break a leg” for good luck, I’ll tell you, “break a pencil tip.” Let us know over here at Carrot Ranch how it’s going!

  3. Lisa Reiter

    Another great post that makes succinct sense of the publishing minefield! Lovely to hear more of your own experience and opinion – thank you πŸ™‚

    • Charli Mills

      It is a minefield but we all want what’s on the other side, don’t we? πŸ˜‰ Writing this helped me work out some doubt that had crept in and squatted on my brain. I think I have the jitters because I’m not done with my edits and the deadline doth approaches!

  4. TanGental

    Good stuff Charli. As someone on the verge of the ‘indie’ route (never thought of myself as an ‘indie’ kind of guy but there you go) I echo all you say. The editing process is rewarding the first 50 times but after that it palls a little. I will be pleased to put the first one out there. Once I’ve broken my duck then whey-hey….

    • Charli Mills

      This is a great time to be an indie writer. The revision process is something I hope to get better at so I can relish rewriting as much as writing. πŸ™‚ I’ll be excited to see you book in print and then you graduate to author!

  5. Pete

    Great post Charli. I’ve written four “books” and while I think each one is better than the last, they’re not ready for prime time. My stepmother, Diane Fanning, has over twenty books published and is my most valuable resource,giving me an inside glimpse at just how hard it is to get a book from first draft to publication. She also talked me out of self-publishing. Luckily I love to write, so if it happens it happens, but i’ll be typing away regardless…

    • Charli Mills

      Thanks, Pete! What a wonderful mentor to have in your family! I like Diane’s crime books, but haven’t yet read any of her mysteries. You can always decide what you want to do with those projects as you learn more, too. I think the best writers are the ones who like to write. I certainly like to read what you write and hope you get to prime time soon!

  6. Annecdotist

    Another fab post, Charli, on an increasingly complex area, and fab comments too. The UK is well behind the USA in terms of university writing programmes and probably more ambivalence about their value here. When I graduated from my first degree in 1980 there was only one creative writing MA (to my knowledge) at the University of East Anglia – I sent for the brochure (no Internet then) but didn’t dare apply. Now it seems that every university has one along with bachelor degrees in the topic. and now Ph.Ds. Result? More people confronting the publication obstacle course. Hopefully it leads to better books being written, but who knows?

    • Charli Mills

      I have to think about that, Anne. For some reason, I look to the UK as housing the writing gods of the English language. Maybe ambivalent because they are not needed? Perhaps the USA has placed too much value on such programs as it seems they only serve to advance a few and block out plenty of others, deservedly or not, is hard to judge. Better book, maybe; a larger obstacle course, definitely! πŸ™‚

  7. Norah

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and wisdom Charli. It is interesting to hear your perspective, and thoughts about being a writer as opposed to being an author. I tend to agree with the distinction you made. I think Anne Goodwin and I may have had a similar conversation at some point. I love that you call it the ‘rejection rodeo’. I sure got bucked off a few times. Fortunately each time we need to get back on or we just stay down in the dirt!

    • Charli Mills

      Good way to put it, Norah–we don’t want to stay in the dirt, but sometimes we tire of getting bucked off. It’s another reason to like doing flash fiction as a challenge (instead of a contest). Everyone who gets in the corral to ride gets better at it when it’s time for an 8 second ride. It’s a good point to discuss as I’ve read other perspectives, too.

      • Norah

        I agree. I can see development in my own writing from participating in the flash challenge. As well as the challenge of writing 99 words in response to the prompt, I am also enjoying the challenge of making it fit my criteria for an educational post. So far your prompts have been most accommodating of that, so thank you for it. In the beginning I was trying to fit too much into my flash pieces but am slowly learning to break the ideas down to smaller pebbles. To so so I have to create a very visual picture of a tiny slice of life or story. It’s a very effective, if challenging, process. Thank you.

      • Charli Mills

        I like that you uphold your criteria for several reasons. First of all, it’s your brand product and you are expanding it to a whole new audience. Second, you have such vast knowledge on the topic and you are able to break it down for a general audience. Then, of course, from meeting you in the beginning, I’ve admired your advocacy for education. So you really take ownership of your creative output, yet you also allow yourself to get into a creative mindset. All good things, Norah!

      • Norah

        Thanks for your generous comment, Charli. Your depth of vision has much to be admired. You always help me see things in a slightly different way. I am all for creativity!!

      • Charli Mills

        Thanks, Norah! I’m with you on the creativity. We help each other see different views!

      • Norah

        Which helps us grow!

      • Charli Mills

        Cheers to always growing!

      • Norah


  8. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    A great post Charli and I agree with you that good editing is the essential factor in whether a manuscript becomes a book either traditionally through a publishing house or through independent publishing. Both I believe have merits but when it boils down to it I believe it is the writing with good evidence that prevails whichever way you go. In Australia it is almost impossible to get to a publisher if you are an unknown writer. Preference is certainly given to journalists and people known in their field (I know more about memoir than fiction). Getting a literary agent to take you on is both incredibly expensive and as difficult as getting a publisher to look at you. Author platform are therefore really important to build because most unknowns end up going the independent route. Then the marketing becomes a big issue.
    Whether a university higher degree helps I don’t know. Certainly as a research student you publish papers so you get a string of publishings to impress with. My writing voice hasn’t changed since my university undertakings but I am reflecting on what makes other memoirs work or not (a subjective analysis which does not make my opinion the only one) and also reflecting on my own creative work so that I have more insight into the difficulties I am having and developing techniques to overcome these.
    I will never be a literary writer but I do hope that one day, however it is accomplished I will have published an incredibly good read which is well edited and enjoyable.
    You’ll get there Charli because you are a good writer and you have the perseverance to succeed.

    • Charli Mills

      I appreciate you sharing insights from your region and area of knowledge, too. I think in many ways what feels so overwhelming in the publishing industry as a whole is also great opportunity. You have to get in and start figuring out pieces as you keep writing. Knowing your own voice is so important. When I was younger I was easily influenced by teachers and often it conflicted with my voice and I’d hit a wall with writing. When I started Elmira Pond it was for the sole purpose of voice exercise! I just wanted a place to ramble about birds and thoughts and connects that I’d make in every day life. Having that blog outlet served me better than if I pursued an MFA. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not against the education, it’s just being told that I “had” to if I wanted to publish. There is power in networking, but that’s also what you can build with your platform, too. Thank you for your comment and adding to the discussion! We’ll both be bound in print one day!


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