November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), an annual novel-writing project that brings together professional and amateur writers from all over the world.
The ardent task of NaNoWriMo is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. It’s an official competition with prizes and acclaim. Last year more than 310,000 adults signed up for the program, along with another 89,500 students.
What we haven’t discussed in detail is how arduous the task can be. It isn’t easy. But it can be done.
How about you? Have you ever thought about writing a novel?
I mean, a really good novel that starts off with Call Me Ishmael and gets a commercial publishing contract and inspires people and hopefully flies off store shelves for the next 20-plus years?
Here’s the encouraging word: it can be done. And you don’t necessarily need to participate in NaNoWriMo to do it, either. I’d say if you want to write a novel, then write your novel. Write it in your time, in your way. Pour your blood into it. Plenty of folks figure out how it’s done. Why not you?
But I’d also say to be prepared for a heavy dose of reality. Commercial publishing is a mercenary business, and works of fiction are harder to get published than nonfiction books. Publishing fiction is a longshot at best, and there are no failsafe solutions anyone can prescribe to guarantee you success.
So, I offer a paradoxical sort of encouragement. For anyone contemplating writing a novel, I’d give two messages: both “you can do it” and “beware,” at the same time. The caution means that almost anyone can write and publish a novel, true, but there’s a high price to pay to do it, for which you need to be prepared. I’d be doing you a disservice if I told you otherwise.
One of the main problems is that people tend to think that the actual writing of the book is the only battle they will face in the process. But the writing is only about a quarter of what’s needed. The second quarter is the fight to get your manuscript published. The next quarter is relentlessly marketing your book once it comes out, which publishers expect you to do these days.
Then the final quarter is going to primal scream therapy after your book sales fail miserably, because by then you’re depressed and broke and visionless, and insanely jealous of John Grisham, James Patterson, Ken Follett, and Lee Child—pretty much the only four male scribblers who actually make money at this game.
That said, if you still want to write your own heartbreaking work of staggering genius, here’s how you can begin navigating down that good and winding road. I call these the “5 insanely difficult yet necessary steps” to writing a commercially-published novel.
1. Commit to an unsustainable schedule.
You won’t find the time.
You must create the time.
I wrote my first novel in 2003. It took me a year to write it. I had a wife and child and mortgage by then and was working 40 hours a week at a newspaper and moonlighting for a publishing company by editing their books at night. But I desperately wanted to write my own book.
So I wrote it.
I just wrote it.
I wrote on nights and weekends. In my rare spare moments I played with my baby, kissed my wife, and went to work, and I kept writing until my book was finished.
That type of unsustainable schedule is typical in the writing industry, at least when you’re starting out. You can’t maintain that schedule for the rest of your life. But any man can do it for a season or two.
The great novelist Elmore Leonard worked at an advertising company while he wrote his first novel. While he worked, he kept one hand in his desk drawer and penned the whole thing longhand.
That’s what it takes. No one will give you time. You must create time.
2. Woo a literary agent.
Once your book is finished and has been polished to a shine, you will need to woo a literary agent, who will represent your book to publishing houses.
I say “woo,” because agents can’t be hired. At least not reputable ones. Agents make their money when—and only when—they sell your book to acquisition editors, so that means they absolutely must fall in love with it first. They must believe your book is commercially viable. Their jobs depend upon it.
You can email or cold-call agents, pitch your book, and see if they’re interested, but that’s hard-going because working agents already have full rosters of authors they represent.
One of the best ways to find an agent is to invest in going to a literary conference. Search online and find a reputable regional conference near you. You’ll meet agents face to face there, and it’s harder for them to slam the door.
Even then, wooing an agent isn’t easy. By the time you factor in transportation, meals, and hotel costs, it might cost you a thousand bucks to attend the conference. That’s money you undoubtedly don’t have handy in your account, so you must prioritize and sacrifice. Not to mention that 500 other people will be at the conference along with you, all vying for an agent’s attention. Still, getting an agent can be done.
I landed my first agent at a writer’s conference in California. On a handshake, he promised to represent my manuscript, but told me to be wary of pestering him by telephone to see how the process was going, since he was so extremely busy all the time. Three months later, I still hadn’t heard a peep out of him, so I steeled my nerve and called. He had switched agencies by then and had completely forgotten about me.
I went with somebody else, my second choice from the conference. He shopped my manuscript around New York but couldn’t find a buyer, so he released me from our exclusivity contract.
I went to another writer’s conference, this one in Seattle. I landed another agent who told me—with blunt honesty—that I was a top-tier writer but that my book wasn’t commercial enough and couldn’t be fixed or sold. He asked if I wanted to collaborate on a book with another author until I could write another novel of my own. I needed cash, so I said yes.
We sold that book to Simon & Schuster. That meant a mark of success, and decent money too, although a different type of success than I’d imagined.
See, I had good connections now and a cover credit on a larger book. But no novel of my own. And if you want to publish your own novel, then you absolutely need your own novel!
3. Write a second novel when your first one fails.
I wrote a second novel in 2005 and showed it to yet another agent. (I had my 4th agent by then, as the previous one had gone out of business.) This agent liked the dialogue and pacing but said the plot was a disaster. He recommended shelving it and starting over again.
The news that my second novel stunk was hard to hear, but it didn’t sting as much as it might have. I’d left the newspaper by then and was working full-time as a freelance collaborative writer and editor in the book business, so it felt like I was seeing some success in the direction of my dream.
In 2007 I wrote the first five chapters of a third novel and showed it to my agent. It was an experimental sci-fi thriller, and early readers liked it, but my agent hated it. Like I say, an agent stakes his reputation and business on yours. If he doesn’t think he can sell your book to acquisition editors, then he won’t bother trying.
It might sound like a lot of work to write more than one novel when the first doesn’t sell, but that’s surprisingly common.
If you check out any great novelist’s Wikipedia page, it will often say something like, “[Dude with three names] wrote three unpublished books before [hipster title] was finally published. It stayed on the bestseller’s list for 15 years and won the Pulitzer.”
Those first unpublished novels aren’t remembered anymore—not the works themselves, nor the agony and exhaustion involved in the throwing away process. They’re just a necessary part of the experience.
4. Voraciously study the novel-writing technique books — and preferably do this first.
If you’re smart, then you will do this step first. But if you already think you’re a good writer, like I did when I first started writing professionally, then you will write a bunch of books that you throw away first. Then, when all those fail, out of necessity you will go back and read the how-to books.
There are specifics of novel writing that you can learn from how-to books. Plot development techniques. Dialogue. Pacing. Genres that sell. Word count minimums and maximums. How to craft a book around a failsafe 3-act structure.
Try these 3 classic how-to books for starters:
You will need to read more than these. But these will get you going.
Even then, it’s not a given. I read all these books and more, then wrote one more novel, a military thriller, from 2008 to 2011. Early readers loved it. My agent deemed it commercially viable. I was regularly publishing bestselling nonfiction books by then, and we submitted it to Penguin, my nonfiction publisher, who passed because they liked the writing but not the subject, and then we submitted it to several other publishers who said similar things.
So I decided to put that manuscript in a drawer and think about it for a while. It was a good novel but not a great novel, and in this business, you need to be better than good.
It’s still in the drawer.
5. Decide if you want to keep going.
When you were a kid, maybe you dreamed of becoming an astronaut or playing in the NBA. For a lot of years, you headed that direction. You tried hard, sacrificed, and gave it your all, but you’re still not living your dream today. What do you do? Do you keep going or give up?
Writing a novel can feel like that. Persistence in the ultra-competitive writing world doesn’t always pay off.
So maybe there’s a third alternative. You redefine success as giving it your all and relishing the journey, although you may never reach your intended destination in the end. That’s respectable.
Maybe you need to take a break from your current work-in-progress for a while so you can renew your vision and dream it all up again. Or maybe you need to focus on your family and day job and make some hay while the sun shines.
For me, I decided to give it one last shot. One last, make-or-break, bleeding and desperate, Hail Mary shot.
I created the time to write the novel. I wrote it. I edited it. My agent liked the manuscript. We shopped it around, and—mother of all victories—we eventually found a commercial publisher.
This one made it!
After the contract and the advance were received, the book went through the publisher’s gears and eventually went to print. I waited about a year from manuscript turn-in to release, and the book is out on store shelves as we speak. Readers say they really enjoy the book. It’s a fun, fast read, and it inspires them—and that’s tremendously satisfying as an author to hear.
Published in September of this year, my debut novel is titled Feast For Thieves. Set in 1946 and loosely inspired by a true story, it’s about an incorrigible elite paratrooper who comes home from WWII, turns his life around, and through a bizarre set of circumstances must survive a full year as preacher in a backwoods Texas town.
Publisher’s Weekly gave it thumbs up. So did one of the top features writers at O (the Oprah Magazine). So did the writer-in-residence at Oxford University. So have more than 90 reviewers on Amazon so far.
I’m proud of this book. Really proud. I’m not getting rich or famous from it. Still, there’s something incredibly satisfying about it all too.
Would I do it all again?
My experience shows the reality of how hard publishing a novel can be. That’s why I offer a mixed message of encouragement and warning to anyone considering doing the same.
Looking back, I’d say that publishing a novel took way too much work. A heartbreaking amount of work. If this is the road you head down, then I hope your journey can be shorter than mine.
Still, I did it in the end.
And if you are realistically prepared for a lot of work, then so can you.
How long have you worked at your dream?
Marcus Brotherton is a contributing writer to Art of Manliness.
Enjoy his debut novel, Feast For Thieves.