How To Become A Novelist

Here’s a question from LS about how to become a novelist:

I’ve been writing for a few years (I’m 17) and I know I want to be an author. It’s all I want to do but I know my writing needs work – a lot of work. I’ve heard from some people that the only way to improve your writing is to practice, just keep writing and reading. Is that true, or is it different for everyone? And is it wrong to pursue this as a career?

It seems like the most common advice is to do something else, “write in your free time”. I originally decided that if I made it to college, I’d major in Creative Writing. I thought that would help me become a better writer, but I’m worried now that it would be a waste of time.

how to become a novelist, writing career
How to become a novelist: Read, write, read, write, read, write, repeat.

How to Become a Novelist: Read and Write (And Read and Write Some More)

There isn’t a single writer in the world who hasn’t doubted whether a writing career is the path for them. These questions are definitely normal. The first thing I have to say is that you’ve got plenty of time on your hands to pursue how to become a novelist. A lot of writers discover their passion for it early. This is the part you might not want to hear, though: a lot of writers start early but then spend years and years and years honing their skills. To answer your question, yes, practice and reading like a writer are the best ways to improve as a writer. That’s not just for some people, that’s for everybody. The more you write, the better you get, and the more you read, the more you absorb for your own craft.

Degree Optional

Even though you’re thinking of majoring in creative writing, don’t think you’ll get out of college with that degree and begin a career writing books right away. If you want to learn how to become a novelist, you’ll learn a lot more from years and years of practice than you ever will in creative writing classes. Those classes were nice but did little to prepare me for a writing career. Heck, my MFA in creative writing was only marginally better than college in terms of craft and literature curriculum. Luckily, nobody cares about your degrees or your resume when you’re a writer. They only care about the work, as should you. That’s your responsibility to hone, so don’t feel like you need to put so much pressure on your degree.

Tenacity Required

Writing careers aren’t easy to get into. Most people don’t realize how long it takes to start writing good, saleable books. Most people have no idea how slowly the publishing world moves. I talk to writers all the time who say it took them ten years of solid writing to finally get a manuscript that sold. But if that’s the only thing you can possibly imagine doing, if writing is an irresistible, compulsive thing for you, then pursue it. Most people try and then drop out. If you want to know how to become a novelist, tenacity is pretty much a requirement.

Find Your Voice

The thing you really need to explore right now is your voice. For young writers, the voice is usually the last thing to develop and solidify. It’s true. To carry any kind of book for 300 pages, a writer needs a mature, dynamic and compelling voice. A voice that feels like a real human being, not just some caricature or persona. If there’s any advice I’d give you on how to become a novelist, it’s to educate yourself, put in grueling writing time every day and to work tirelessly on your voice. That and don’t give up just because it’s hard. The most worth-it things are always difficult.

Hire me as your novel editor and publishing consultant, and we can figure out how to position your novel in a competitive marketplace.

The Reassurance Query: Don’t Do It

So, I was talking to a writer today and they said something about the reassurance query that many writers have thought before:

I wish I could just query agents, even if the book isn’t finished yet, just to see if they like my idea and if they’ll request it.

reassurance query, query letter follow up, slush pile
An agent’s job isn’t to give you a reassuring thumbs-up, at least not until you’re their client and you’re working together.

As and agent and as a writer who has done the reassurance query, I say unto this writer and all others pondering this same path: Don’t. Do. It.

I know you will, against my advice. I know that writers misjudge the words “I’m ready” all the time. I know it’s part of my job to go through my slush pile, read reassurance queries, and gently hint to writers that they may not be ready for publication yet. I know that the most resounding lessons are learned through experience, through querying, through feedback. I know. But this way, I feel like I’ve at least said my piece about it.

Why Writers Send the Reassurance Query

First, let me say that I know why you reassurance query. It would be so very nice to know that an agent likes your idea and whatever sample pages enough to request more of your manuscript before you sink a year or two into writing something that could just languish in the slush pile. But here’s the problem: if you get a literary agent request for more of your manuscript…what will you send them?

Nobody wants to hear about the really awesome Christmas present they’re getting…in July. I assume that you’re querying me because you have a book you want me to sell. My job isn’t to stroke your ego, at least not until you’re my client and we’re working together. I can’t be expected to give feedback to everyone who sends along an idea. Don’t clog up my inbox with queries for things that aren’t done, just because you want reassurance that you’re on the right track.

Other Avenues for Reassurance

If you need reassurance, get a critique group. If you need reassurance from someone in the industry who’ll be a good judge of whether your project is saleable or not, go to a writers conference and pay for a critique. At a conference, at least, you’ve paid for my time and I’ll happily oblige. Maybe find a freelance editor. See if any agents or editors or industry types are auctioning off critiques or giving them away on their blogs.

Most of these options, as you might guess, cost money, but such is life. If you don’t have an agent or a finished manuscript yet, you can’t expect someone in the industry to make you feel better for free. There are not enough hours in the day and, besides, I can’t really tell how good your project is until I see it finished. An idea and a snappy first 15 pages are one thing…the execution of that idea and the rest of the pages are what will either make you or break you.

But again, I know humans. And I know writers. And sometimes humans and writers are even one and the same! (Just kidding!) So I know I will get the reassurance query for as long as I have a slush pile. It’s part of the service I provide, and at the end of the day, I can make peace with that.

Feeling unsure about your query letter, synopsis, or manuscript? Hire me as your freelance editor and we can work on your submission materials or dig deeper into your picture book, novel, or nonfiction proposal together.

Writing Bravely: The Last Threshold

Here’s a post by Mary-the-Writer about writing bravely. I’ve written a lot of manuscripts in the pursuit of my craft. Each has been better than the last one and I have no doubt I can tell a story, but there’s a threshold in my way that I’m always grappling with. It’s the hardest, most menacing final hurdle, and I haven’t hopped over it yet, as my work remains unpublished.

writing bravely, permission to write
Write what you can’t. Write what you’ve been afraid to write this entire time. Writing bravely means you’ll cross the threshold to more authentic, vibrant writing.

Developing Authentic Voice Requires Patience

My struggle is voice. A voice that’s believable, that changes, that evolves and reeks of humanity. Because that’s what is necessary in today’s market. And my biggest problem is impatience. I want to publish a book and I want to do it right now. But things don’t work that way. In my pursuit of the manuscript “just good enough for someone to publish it already!!!” I’ve been turning out lazy, one-dimensional, generic writing. Some writers, those trained in critique groups and workshops, will automatically move to pat me on the knee and whisper that no, it’s actually very good and that I shouldn’t say that, and that I’m being self-critical, and blah blah blah. But compliments don’t help a person improve. They’re the last things you’ll remember, after you process all the real, honest and challenging advice you get.

Are You Playing it Safe?

In the pursuit of the book that’s good enough, I haven’t written a book that’s alive. Something with a pulse. Something that has the “x factor” to succeed. (Hint: the “x factor” in any manuscript is voice.) Not yet. That’s what I finally have to tackle (in all my “spare” time, ha!). And the painful funny thing is, I’ve known it all along. In my rush to write and revise, I’ve known that these manuscripts haven’t been my absolute best work. A long time ago, in college, I figured out that my lazy try was better than some people’s absolute best writing. That’s the moment when I decided to play it safe. I know I’m not alone in this.

People have a tendency to stop short of doing their best. It’s a self-defense mechanism. If they don’t write the things they really want, if they don’t give themselves permission to write bravely, then the failure they’re imagining (and will most likely experience) can’t hurt them that deeply. Criticism slides right off, because they have a dirty little secret: this wasn’t the real try anyway.

Writing Isn’t Supposed to be Easy

But here’s the cold, hard reality. If want to do it well, if you to get published, writing is hard.

So I’m throwing in the towel on my lazy attitude these days. It’s childish, it’s self-defeatist and it’s the last great threshold in my writing life. I’m finally giving myself permission to write bravely. Is there anybody out there with me who’ll do the same? Have I hit upon anybody else’s dirty little secret? Good.

Here’s my advice to those writing what’s just good enough.

Write what you can’t. Write what you’ve been afraid to write this entire time.

Writing Bravely Will Carry You Over That Last Threshold

I’m done with writing safe, bloodless manuscripts that get me nowhere. Just like any writer, I’ve faced a lot of rejection. But I’m grateful for it, so thank you to all the editors who haven’t published me yet. Thanks for not letting me get away with it. I’ll be here until next time, getting over my self-inflicted BS and finally writing bravely in order to craft the manuscript that’ll make me vulnerable, that’ll seem impossible, that’ll take me over my last threshold.

If I’m giving myself permission to write bravely, I expect nothing less from the writers who query me.

I know that writing bravely is hard. Hire me as your book editor and I’ll give you feedback that’ll get you a little closer to crossing the threshold to authentic, vibrant writing.

What Editors Want

I had the great fortune to hang out with some editors recently and talk about writers. Especially new writers.

What is the #1 most important thing an editor wants from a new writer?

Is it astronomical talent and mind-blowing prose?

Writing is important, of course, but…

Is it a story worthy of the next Harry Potter/Twilight/Percy Jackson and the Olympians?

Story is important, oh yes, but…

If an editor is interested in your work and the writing and the story are solid, the number one thing they want is:

Willingness to revise.

Sure, a book starts in an oddly sparking synapse somewhere in your brain, ends up jotted on a journal page and blossoms from there. But if that book is going to hit the real world, a lot more people are going to be involved in bringing it to life. That includes agents, editors, designers, sales reps, librarians, booksellers, etc. etc. etc. And while not all of those people are going to be giving you direct input, it’s important to remember that they’re all on your team.

So when an agent or editor ask you for changes (and they will, I guarantee it)… hear them out, see it from their perspective and go into the process with an open mind. Then revise your butt off and turn out a book that’s all the better for it.

The more I learn about writing, the more I realize its real name: “revision.”

Manuscript File Name Mishaps

Your manuscript file name may seem inconsequential, but it’s an important element of submission etiquette. Whenever you send your manuscript to an agent, you should be super aware of what the file name is. That seems like common sense but you’d be surprised.

manuscript file name, submission etiquette, document file name
Your manuscript file name contributes to an agent’s first impression of you and your work. Keep it concise and professional.

Manuscript File Name Do’s

When I scroll down to the bottom of a query e-mail, I expect to see a mundane manuscript file name, like:

LastName_Title.doc

Title.doc

Name_First_50_pages.doc

Something nice and neutral.

Manuscript File Name Don’ts

What I don’t really want to see is:

Title_Revision_37.doc

Title_TOTAL_OVERHAUL.doc

Or, worse yet:

LastName_First_Draft.doc

Details Matter

Keep your manuscript file name really simple, really professional. If you track your revisions with the document title, make sure to take the ten extra seconds and “Save As” a copy of your document with a nice, generic title.

In acting class, my teachers always said: “The audition doesn’t start when you begin your monologue. From the second you enter the building to the moment you leave, you’re auditioning.”

So watch the message you send with your manuscript file names. The ones about “first draft” or “revision 37” or “overhaul” can sometimes make me either dread what I’m going to find when I open the document or make me wonder what’s wrong with it. All those numbers and markers are part of your process… keep them behind the scenes.

Hire me to do a manuscript critique and I’ll guide you towards making a positive first impression when you’re ready to submit to agents.