I have written nineteen novels in the last nine years. I’ve tried different genres, and books for different age markets. I’ve tried self-publishing, and I’ve tried going the traditional route. I’ve succeeded a little bit, and failed often. I have a literary agent now, and a book on submission. I’ve learned a lot these last few years, and I thought I’d share with you some pieces of advice…
1. The first drafts of novels are always hard, no matter how many books you’ve written.
As I said, I’ve written nineteen novels since 2010. The first draft of my first ever book was really hard, but when I finished it, I felt like I had climbed Mount Everest. The following year I managed to write four different novels. The year after that? I wrote three more. I’ve slowed down lately, but I’m still going strong. I wrote my MFA thesis novel in 2017. And I wrote my latest novel, a middle grade ghost story, between December 2018 and January 2019. I think my writing gets better with each new project I take on, but you know what stays the same? The difficulty. Even though I have lots more tricks up my sleeve today than I did in 2010, writing a first draft is always difficult. Don’t worry, though. What also remains the same is that it’s exhilarating each and every time, too.
2. Your first novel will probably not be the first of your novels that gets published.
I self-published my first few books, so actually, in my case, the first book I ever wrote was the first book I ever published. But looking back, I wouldn’t advise you to introduce yourself to the world with your very first novel. And if you go the traditional publishing route, you’re probably going to need two or three books, maybe more, before you get the attention of a literary agent or publisher. I’m one to know: it took me sixteen novels before a literary agent took a chance on me. That’s right, sixteen. And of those sixteen novels, I queried eight of them. Over seven years, I had some close calls on a few of my earlier projects, but it wasn’t until I wrote a middle grade adventure story that everything changed for me… in all the best ways.
3. Revision needs to go beyond two or three drafts done all by yourself.
One thing I learned the hard way, especially in my first few years of writing, was not taking enough time to revise. I’d say my first eight or nine manuscripts I worked really hard on the first draft, then sort of just drifted through the second and third drafts, changing sentences, adding a little description here and there, but not really looking critically at the project as a whole. Therefore, a lot of my early work suffered, especially when I moved into the querying process. After you finish the first draft of a novel, you really do want to just send it out, trust me, I know. You want to move past the revising part and get an agent, get a publishing deal, get paid your million bucks. But unfortunately, all that time you invested in writing the first draft becomes a total waste if you breeze through the revising part. Take your time. Get some beta readers to look at your work. Let the book rest for a month, then read through it again. Don’t rush!
4. You’re going to be met with a lot of rejection, so be prepared.
This is honestly the part I was least prepared for. I knew there would be rejection for my work. I knew my first book might not be the one that made my career blossom. But if I had known back in 2010 just how much rejection I would be faced with over this near-decade of writing, I’m not sure I would have ever written down a single sentence. I like to think I’ve been rejected far more often than the average writer. As I said before, I queried eight of my novels before signing with a literary agent. Of those eight novels, I probably queried 100–150 agents for every single one. Therefore, I probably have at least 1,000 to 1,200 rejections from agents, and that doesn’t take into account the hundreds of rejections I’ve had from literary magazines for my short fiction. Rejection is the name of the game. Some of you will be met with success rather quickly. For others, success might take awhile. You have to let rejection roll off your back. If rejection bothers you, you are going to be in for a world of hurt.
5. Don’t self publish your novel because you’re afraid of rejection. Do it for the right reasons.
I’ve heard of writers who send out ten query letters to literary agents, get rejected by all ten, and then quickly self-publish their novels. I’ve never understood this method of building a career. If you truly believe in your novel, and you want to go the traditional publishing route, then don’t give up at ten rejections. Re-work your query letter. Send your query letter to experienced authors for feedback. Try ten more literary agents. If you’re met with more rejections, re-work your query letter again. If you want to self-publish your novel, then great, but do it for the right reasons, and have a plan. Make sure your novel is edited and that you get a professional cover. Decide how you want to develop your career as a self-published author. I made so many mistakes self-publishing, starting with releasing novels of different genres. Do your research and find what’s the best route for you.
6. You might have to query more than one of your books before you sign with a literary agent.
The first novel you query might not get you a literary agent. You might send your query letter to every agent in the world with a beating heart and still be met with only rejection. Don’t sit and stew. Write the next thing. Write something different, something better. The easiest way to fail as a novelist is to write one book, send it out, get rejected, and then give up. That’s not how this works. You need to keep going, keep writing. I could have given up years ago. Think getting rejected across the board for one novel is hard? Try querying seven different novels over a six-year period and getting only rejected. Try finally getting about twenty full requests for that seventh novel, and still not having a literary agent give you a yes. Trust me, you have to believe in yourself and your work to make a career of this. You can’t hang your head in shame if one of your novels doesn’t work out. Keep going.
7. After you’ve signed with your literary agent, be prepared to do more drafts of your novel.
The day a literary agent offers to represent you will be one of the best days of your life. It certainly was for me. After seven years of trying, trying, trying, finally I got that incredible e-mail. I was in a state of euphoria for weeks. I thought I had made it, that my time had finally arrived. This was in April 2017, almost two years ago. Here’s the deal: signing with a literary agent doesn’t mean instant publication, instant fame. Signing with an agent is simply one step closer to the dream, a dream that still may be years and years from your reach. After I signed with my agent, I spent months revising my middle grade adventure novel, in one draft adding 10,000 new words, in another draft adding an entirely new character. I worked on a flashback scene for almost a year than I then ultimately cut. For me, signing with an agent is where the hard work truly came in as a writer, and you know what? All that work I put into that middle grade novel made a better writer than I ever thought I could be.
8. When your literary agent submits your novel to editors, you might be waiting awhile.
Here’s another sad reality: once your literary agent pitches your novel to editors at publishing houses, be prepared to wait. Unless you’re one of the lucky few whose novel gets lots of interest very quickly (and yes, that does happen!), it might take months to get a yes from an editor, or even a year or longer. It’s also quite possible that no editor takes on your manuscript, and then you and your agent will get to work on a second project. Again, you can’t take these rejections to heart. Even though your novel is now one yes away from making your publishing dreams come true, you can’t fixate on every rejection that comes in, on every week or month that passes without any word from a single editor. Definitely stay hopeful every day — I know I do — but don’t obsess to the point where you can’t focus on anything else.
9. It might take years and years, possibly a decade or longer, for your writing dreams to come true.
Again, if I have known at the beginning of 2010 that at the beginning of 2019 I will have written nineteen novels but had nothing traditionally published yet, not even an offer from an editor, I probably wouldn’t have gotten started. When I wrote my first book, I genuinely believed it would be published and that, by the end of 2010, if not 2011, I’d have a contract in hand. When I wrote my second book, I thought that would definitely get me an agent and a publisher. When I wrote my third, the same thing. It’s kind of been that way for nine years running now, and what I’ve come to learn is basically this…
10. Always, always, always be working on the next project.
Love the process. Love the writing. It’s all you can really do in the face of so much rejection. If you fall out of love with the writing part, it’s over. And I’ve often told myself, especially around 2015 and 2016, when I was starting to wonder if I would EVER find any success in my writing, that if I lost the love of writing and storytelling, then yes, it was time to stop. But that’s the beauty of writing, at least for me. The love of it has never slipped away from me. I just wrote my nineteenth novel over the holidays, and I had a blast every second writing those characters and that story. It was hard, like every novel is hard, but it was also great fun every step of the way. If you want to make it as a novelist, you have to always be working on the next project. Don’t obsess over the one you just wrote that’s now on submission, whether it be the querying process to a literary agent or the submission process to editors at publishing houses. You will drown, I’m telling you. Instead of sitting around and waiting, and worrying, get started on the next thing.
And then one day it will happen. Maybe not tomorrow, or next month, or next year even. But I’m telling you, if you keep it up, and you don’t ever give up, all your dreams as a novelist will come true!
4 thoughts on “10 Things You Should Know Before Becoming a Novelist”
Another fantastic page I am bookmarking. Great information and advice. I don’t truly understand the self-publishing route, but I suppose it works for some people. Very interesting process, writing a book is. It seems these days only celebrities can get things published. I truly admire those who don’t give up writing because they are real writers. Number 10 really resonates with me. Love the writing. I definitely do.
I’m so glad! Never give up.
Brilliant, honest advice Brian. I’ve met people with no passion for writing who attempt because they think it’ll be a cosy little earner. You won’t be surprised to hear they didn’t make it past the first draft, let alone that mountains that follow.
You’re so right about the first novel thing too. I am have a couple of queries still out there for my first novel, but as I work on my second one I can already see how much stronger it is…and the third will, hopefully, be stronger again.
Great advice, and it sounds like you’ve been so persistent through the years, so you deserve every success! x
Thank you so much for your kind words!! All the best to you and your writing career as well.