So You Want to Write A Novel

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Every now and then when I tell people I’m an author, they ask for advice on writing their own novel. It usually starts out something like this:

Oh! You write books? I have this really great idea for one! I’ve always wanted to write. Do you have any advice?”

I always answer the same. “Write. Write and read as much as you can, every day. Read all sorts of genres. Read books on writing. Find critique partners that are not family members. But most of all, write.”

The question everyone seems to ask right after that is, “How long did it take?”

To which I reply, “How long? To do what part?”

They blink a few times. “Write the book.”

And again, I always answer the same. “The whole time. No two books take the same length of time to write, much less go through several revisions, and then pass it along to a few critique partners.”

This is the point in the conversation when they become slightly concerned. “So, what? A month, two?”

And this is also the point that makes me chuckle. “Try six months or better. But your mileage may vary. Some books can take a year.”

“Then you send it to a publisher and they hand you money and they publish your book?”

They seem happy here. I can see visions of stardom and money in their eyes. They think that’s all there is to it–write, send a publisher a book, they’ll polish and edit it, then promote it lovingly to the world.

Until I tell them how it really goes. Publishers don’t take manuscripts like that. By the time I’ve explained it all, they realize that well over a year of their lives has been given to their book. Their once joyful expression falters when they also realize that they won’t be buying a house in the Hamptons—that they’re pretty darn lucky if they can make a few mortgage payments.

It’s true: traditional or indie, odds are that the budding writer will only make half the salary of someone working at a fast food joint. Minimum wage. No benefits. Working at least twice the hours.

The publisher will take at least 50-60% of sales, the agent another 15%. Advances are rarely more than a few thousand dollars. Most authors never earn out their first advance. And these days, the brunt of promotion falls on the author, which means they’ll be spending their own time and money promoting the book. They’ll need to do most everything themselves: bookmarks, paperwork, signings, trying to prevent sites from pirating their books, keeping a presence on social media, taking out ads, getting on blog tours.

Now, the light fades even further from their eyes. That, or they’re in disbelief. Clearly, I must be wrong! I suck! Or, I don’t have any ideas worthy of a book. They ask how much money I make. I ask the same of them. Then, I tell them that if they want instant riches, buy a lottery ticket.

All this usually leads to the next question writers are often asked. “Will you write a book for me? My idea will make millions! I’ll split it with you if you write it. No, really! It’s based off my grandfather’s memoirs. When you finish the book, you should write the screenplay, too. Send it to Hollywood!”

 

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Don’t laugh. People really have suggested this on more than one occasion, and talking to my fellow authors, I’m not the only one. I once knew someone who had ZERO experience as a writer, nor any experience in publishing who’s very first words to me every time he say me was, “You’d make money if you’d do what I said and write a screenplay and sell it to Hollywood. You’d make a million bucks.”

And no, I’m not kidding. Every time I saw him, he’d say this. Every. Single. Time.

Look, I know people who have written or still write the occasional screenplay. They all laugh like mad when I tell them what this person says and tell me that screenplays do not sell well and there’s virtually NO money in it. I know at least 300+ writers. We all agree on the reality—this: The odds are miniscule that a new writer will ever become an overnight success. Most of us have to work at it every day. True, some will earn a living. The majority will not. Publishing isn’t a get rich quick scheme. It’s not a sprint to the bank. It’s more like a very long hike through the mountains. If you don’t mind the bugs, the sweat, forging new paths (sometimes through poison ivy), watching out for wildlife, and balancing on a few ledges, writing for pay can be a rewarding experience. You may not ever be able to reach the top of the mountain, but you can still enjoy the scenery. There are always people who will tell you how to get to the top—both those who’ve never been and those who have, but no one else can climb the mountain for you.

I end by telling them that if they still want to write, there’s no shortcut, no promises. You write.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes on what it takes to write a book…

 

Writers are not just people who sit down and write. They hazard themselves. Every time you compose a book your composition of yourself is at stake. ~E.L. Doctorow

Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. ~Gene Fowler

Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart. ~William Wordsworth

It is impossible to discourage the real writers — they don’t give a damn what you say, they’re going to write. ~Sinclair Lewis

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16 thoughts on “So You Want to Write A Novel

  1. You should write for the love of writing not for fame and glory. You should write for the joy you can bring to the reader.

    • Yes, they should love to write, love telling the tale. Writers should be paid for their hard work as publishing is a business. A lot of time and money go into putting a book on shelves, virtual or otherwise. But it’s also unrealistic to expect to be the next King, Rowling, Roberts, Grisham, Meyer. It’s a rough business and if someone doesn’t love to write, a career in publishing is not for them. I always tell the hobbyists that perhaps a great fanfic forum would more aptly suit their needs.

  2. Really loved this post. I’ve spent just over a year on my first book and I don’t expect that I’ll ever make enough to give up work for someone else. I think they key is to write because you need to. If you make money at it ,great, but if you want to make real money you need more than talent and a good story. You need luck, patience, information and a steely determination to promote yourself.

  3. Tthere’s no clear path to becoming a writer. Everyone who has succeeded in that, like you, has his or her own unique recipe. Sauced with blood, sweat & tears (sorry, i can’t help) and lots of very hard work. Thankfully, there are not many Overlook Hotel out there . For the space,Thankee-sai.

  4. I never thought of giving the “you should try fan fiction” answer! Or really, any site that gives you the thrill of publication without much headache. My daughter posts to these sites and gets very excited when people “follow” her or ask for the next installment of the story. She’s also crushed when she doesn’t get much response to a story. It’s not a bad training ground, and it’s enough for some people.

    • Fanfic has been the training ground for countless authors. I bet that long before the internet, kids (and adults) wrote more stories based on their favorite fictional characters or TV shows. I think I remember writing about Walter Farley’s The Black Stallion when I was very young. In my teens, I wrote short horror stories because I was such a fan of Stephen King.

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