...if it's not hard, you're under-performing.
I'm not just being crass, I promise. This is the big lesson I'm taking away from 'Heaven Can Wait'. Okay, it's also a little crass. But despite my under-performing, it's still a big, hard lesson.
Okay, that was really crass.
*gets act together*
The point I'm making that it's always hard to do the best work you can. Stuff is hard when it's at the limit of your ability - that's what something being hard means (unless it's too hard, in which case it's beyond said limit). And if you're going to publish your writing, you've got to do the best work you can.
With writing, there's no 'good enough'. There's no point where you can stop working despite the fact you don't feel stretched.
This is a problem for me, because I've spent the last ten years working towards very clear standards of 'good enough' and perfected the art of doing exactly what's needed and no more. Since I was 15 and facing the first round of nationally-standardised exams (GCSEs), I've done my best to keep my work rate to the minimum necessary. For my first semester of university, I did all of my 10,000 words of coursework in 4 days. In the second semester of second year, I spent the exam period churning out 8 pages of webcomic a week. I spent my final year of undergrad mastering Guitar Hero. I wrote my MA thesis in 6 weeks flat.
In short, I'm the kind of lazy that knows exactly how much work is 'enough' and does that and no more (this, by the way, is the most efficient way to live; see the start of Terry Pratchett's 'Moving Pictures' for a more detailed discussion). This works great whenever there's a clear 'enough'.
No such luck with writing. 'Enough' when you're writing is the point at which you actually can't do any more. Maybe not when you've been doing it for twenty years and have all that experience guiding you. But with a first novel, you've got to run yourself ragged. You've got to work until your eyes bleed (well, okay, maybe stop just short of that).
Why? Because if you don't, then the novel isn't as good as it could be. And if you know it could be better than it is, what are you doing starting your career with it?
This goes double for self-publishing, since there are no safety nets and you're doing so much more work yourself (or at least you're in charge of so much more). Cover not up to spec? Either you didn't put in the hours, or you did a shoddy job of finding a good designer. Formatting a mess? Be more thorough.
If you want to succeed in this business, particularly with the market so crowded and the industry so unstable, you're going to need every ounce of skill and diligence you can muster. So, before you commit anything to publication, go through every part of your book and ask yourself;
'Was that hard enough? Am I underperforming?'
(I'm not sure how this works for ladies... ;) )