in: Career, Career & Wealth

• Last updated: May 30, 2021

So You Want My Job: Novelist

Dennis Mahoney author photo portrait.

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

A lot of men dream of being a writer. Many have even written up a manuscript, and truly believe they’ve crafted a great novel. But then what? How do you go from typing away in a room somewhere and eagerly clutching a finished manuscript in your hands, to actually getting it published? And even if it does get published, how do you get actual people to read it? Today novelist Dennis Mahoney offers his advice on making this much desired leap. Fresh from the process, Mahoney’s first published novel, Fellow Mortals was released this year by Farrar, Strauss & Giroux and garnered a New York Times book review. This is a thoroughly interesting and enjoyable interview, even if you don’t ever aim to write the Great American novel.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from? How old are you? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, etc.).

I was born in Troy, NY and stayed in the area through college. My wife and I moved around the East Coast after graduation, chasing jobs we never really liked, until we bought a house back in Troy after our son was born. I’m thirty-eight now and have been writing for two decades. My creative inclinations were strong early on, but they initially emerged through drawing and imaginative play. The Empire Strikes Back came out when I was six and changed my life. I remember wanting to be George Lucas and make something that amazing. I’d make “movies” by taking sequential photos of my action figures, or by drawing a cartoon, slideshow-style, on a big roll of paper I could pull through a fake TV made of a box with two slits cut in the side. So the storytelling impulse was there, even if I wasn’t yet writing. Books weren’t a major part of my life until my teens.

2. Why did you want to become a novelist? When did you know it was what you wanted to do?

I was on a self-improvement kick in junior year of high school—trying to find direction, hoping for a girlfriend—and since I wasn’t naturally athletic, reading and writing felt cool and almost countercultural. I’d been lazy, “not fulfilling my potential,” and had been demoted to a lower-level English class. Since I’d already read a lot of the material in the advanced class the previous year, I started reading other books instead. Getting through Stephen King’s The Stand felt like a real accomplishment. Reading Hemingway and Shakespeare by choice, and finding similarly bookish friends, gave me a huge boost of confidence. I felt I had cred staying up all night to finish a book. A lot of that was pretense, but the books themselves began to change my outlook, as books often do, and soon I was writing poetry and convincing myself it was marvelous stuff. I began to build my identity around being a writer.

3. Do you think writing is something that should come naturally through self-education and practice, or that it’s worthwhile to major in something writing-related in college and/or graduate school?

Self-education and practice are essential. A major can help but isn’t as necessary. I’m not putting down writing programs; I’m saying no writing program will help if most of your effort isn’t self-generated in the first place. I learned the most from books I wanted to read, rather than books that were assigned to me in class, but being an English major exposed me to works I wouldn’t have looked for, like-minded students, and wonderful professors. It was a lifestyle. I was a proud book nerd. And any successful career has to be a lifestyle, doesn’t it? A Major League baseball player thinks like a player off the field, staying focused, eating well. The game’s his life. I don’t consciously walk around thinking about writing all day, but it’s always with me. There have been times I’ve gone to the gym because getting in shape gives me energy, and I want more energy to write. So crazy as that sounds, I work out to be a better writer. I read to be a better writer. But getting back to writing programs: writing can be taught like any craft, but you need the natural inclination. If you’re faking the desire because you think being a novelist would be interesting, you’ll never truly care enough to be one. What began as pretense in my own life became real as I felt in love with writing.

4. So a man’s written a novel. Now what? How do you go about finding somebody to publish it? Do you send out the manuscript yourself, and where do you send it? Do you need to get an agent to shop it around? Basically, how does the process of getting a book deal work?

The traditional way to get a book deal is well-established and generally nightmarish. I went through the entire process with two previous novels before my third, Fellow Mortals, found a home. (Note: In retrospect, I can see why those first two novels were repeatedly rejected, and I’m glad there were agents who didn’t let me put them into the world. Gatekeepers are often a good thing.) Here goes: With non-fiction, you pitch an idea with a sample chapter and a detailed outline. With fiction, you need the finished book. So let’s say you’ve completed a novel, revised it repeatedly, shown it to honest readers and gotten feedback, revised again, and made it as perfect as you can. The major publishers almost never look at a book that isn’t presented by a reputable literary agent. You can find good agents a number of ways. Two of my favorites are checking the acknowledgments page of similar books—most authors thank their agents—and The latter allows you search for agents by specific criteria. You can find an agent who represents similar authors, so you don’t submit your horror novel to someone who reps romance novels, for example. The results of the search provide contact info, agency site links, and submission guidelines. Once you have some appropriate agents in mind, send a query. That’s a short letter introducing yourself, describing your book in a few compelling paragraphs (think jacket copy), and asking if they’d be interested in reading a sample. If all goes well, an agent will request pages. If she likes the sample pages, she’ll ask for the whole thing. If she loves the whole thing, she might offer to represent you. A good agent will have relationships with editors at publishing houses, and will submit to those she feels are the likeliest fit. There’s still no guarantee you’ll get a deal at this point, but if an editor loves the book, too, an offer will be made to buy and publish the book. You’ll get an advance on royalties, based on how much money the publisher expects to earn. Advances are usually low, but if you’ve gotten as far as a deal, count your blessings. You’ve made it farther than most, and if your book is a hit, you’ll get additional royalties once you’ve earned back your advance. 

5. What are publishers looking for in offering book deals? Do you have any tips for landing one?

Every publisher is different, and every editor is a combination of professional and, more importantly, subjective interest. I firmly believe that most agents and editors adore books. Very few editors are rolling in money. They’re in it because they love it. That doesn’t mean they don’t want their books to sell like crazy, but a lot of editors will fight for a book they believe in even if they think the potential readership is small. My publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, has a reputation for supporting authors based on merit more than obvious marketability. They take more chances, but are therefore increasingly selective. My editor actually passed on my novel twice. I got the deal because I did a good rewrite, she saw the book’s potential, and the two of us hit it off. My tip for getting a deal is simple: love writing, and don’t quit. Just keep writing better novels until one of those book-loving agents or editors is thrilled to find your manuscript sitting in their pile. You can’t control people’s reactions to your work, except by doing better work. A lot of writers spend too much time worrying about book deals when they ought to be writing a book.

6. What do you think about self-publishing? Is it a viable option these days? What are the pros and cons of self-publishing versus going the established publisher route?

I’m not terribly well-informed on this subject, but here’s my take. Self-publishing used to be a joke. Now, thanks to many excellent writers who went that route, it’s more respectable. But I think it’s even harder than taking the traditional route. Yes, anyone can self-publish, and earn higher royalties per copy, and skip the torturous query-rejection situation. But then your book is out there and you have to find ways to get noticed amid the millions of books on the market. You can hire a publicist, but there goes a lot of your extra money, and the self-publishing success stories are much, much rarer than some people believe. And even though the self-publishing stigma has diminished, it still exists to some degree. If you tell someone you self-published a novel, all they really know is that you wrote a book. If you tell someone a major house is publishing your novel, they know you wrote a book and it was good enough to rise out of the slush pile. It all depends on what you want. Will you be satisfied self-publishing? Are you willing to make it work with tons of self-promotion? Go for it. Will you be disappointed with anything less than a traditional deal? Work until you get one.

7. Tens of thousands of novels are published every year. How do you get your novel to rise above the fray and get noticed? Do you have any promotional tips? How did you score a review in the New York Times Book Review? How do they pick which books to review — is it just chance that they came across yours?

My publisher really goes to bat for the titles they publish. Sales reps travel store to store, trying to convince booksellers to carry upcoming books (this is true of all major publishers). I have an experienced publicist at FSG who contacts every major and minor paper, magazine, or web site that might be interested in covering the book. She sends them copies and follows up. That was how I got the Times review. (It didn’t hurt that FSG is a respected house; as a side note to the previous answer, the Times still won’t consider self-published books for review.) Word-of-mouth, which no one can control, remains one of the top—if not the top—ways of getting noticed. If readers like a book, they recommended it to friends and family. If word-of-mouth grows, the books takes off, and no single review or article can compare. I’ve also blogged and tweeted, but those approaches work best when you’re winning an audience with original material instead of just self-promoting. Facebook is useless; it’s mostly friends and family who, one hopes, will buy your book anyway. I wrote guest essays for a number of popular sites to get my name out. But again and again, the best promotion is having a good book, so the bulk of the novelist’s work is writing the actual novel.

8. Did you work another job while writing your novel? Are you writing full-time now? What percentage of novelists would you guess do it full-time?

I didn’t feel an inclination toward teaching, so I didn’t know what to do with my BA in English. I worked a bunch of temp jobs and eventually landed a job in NYC doing television research for The Hallmark Channel. I crunched Nielsen ratings. It was the least writerly job imaginable. In time I became a copywriter for an academic publishing house, but I became a stay-at-home father when our son was born, and now that I’ve gotten one novel published, I’m taking a whack at writing fiction full-time. This would not be possible without my extraordinarily supportive, breadwinning wife. I try to keep myself useful by handling the finances and attempting DIY projects.

9 The publishing landscape is rapidly changing. Scott Turow thinks the American author is suffering a “slow death.” But aren’t there new opportunities for authors emerging as well? What do you personally think are the challenges and opportunities for modern novelists?

I can’t believe any author can still write about the death of fiction, publishing, etc., with a straight face. It was a cliché to lament the death of literature decades ago. Not that people like Turow don’t have valid concerns, and ones worth expressing, but it so often sounds like Mayan prophecies and Y2K, and here we all are, still writing and reading. I honestly wonder: Was there ever a golden age when writers made loads of money and everybody read a book a week? eBooks are great, and I say that as a paper devotee. Self-publishing is great, and I say that as traditionally published author who’s trying to get noticed in an increasingly cluttered market. Opportunities always exist. Look right here: I managed to successfully pitch this feature before any other novelist, even though your site is super popular and you’ve already had job features on everything from butchers to luthiers. If my pitch here hadn’t worked out, I’d have tried elsewhere. The challenge of being a novelist is primarily writing a good novel, and getting better, and finding a way to love it. The secondary challenge is getting your finished work into the hands of overwhelmed readers, the best solution being to write a book people want to read and recommend. As for opportunities, look at the wonderful buffet of options: social media, web sites, big and little traditional publishers, self-publishing. Pick the routes that light you up. Ultimately, however, I try not dwell on the state of the industry or the popularity of fiction. It doesn’t help me write any better. I can’t control it any more than a meteor hitting Earth, so why let it distract me? 

10. What is the best part of your job?

The writing itself. It wasn’t always that way. Early on, I wanted to be published so intensely that I couldn’t wait to finish a manuscript, polish it up, and fire it off. The first time I submitted a novel to dozens of agents and failed to get it published, I was crushed and considered giving up. Depression has always been a danger for me, and rejection seriously fueled it. But I’ve discovered that I’m more likely to get depressed when I’m not writing. If I skip a few days, which is rare at this stage, I start to feel antsy and glum. Writing is good for me. It keeps me balanced, gives me purpose. I had a major breakthrough when I realized it could also be fun. I’d spent years falling for that tortured artist nonsense. This is a job I do five to seven days a week, every week, ideally for the rest of my life. I’d be an idiot if I thought of it as torture and didn’t find something better to do with my time. So now I write to satisfy myself, and I’m totally in control of that. No worries about promotion or the death of the modern fiction—it’s just me and my imaginary world.

11. What is the worst part of your job?

There remains a lingering fear that I’m not a good writer and don’t know what I’m doing. Part of writing is having an inner critic, looking for mistakes and potential improvements, but the critic shows up at irritating times, and sometimes lies, and often fails to notice the most glaring shortcomings. It’s hard to find a balance between freewheeling emotion and careful thought. But the nice thing about writing is that it’s done in private, and I have all the chances I need to make a manuscript work.

12. What is the work/family/life balance like for you?

Pretty balanced, but it’s always at risk of falling apart. I get preoccupied or stressed sometimes and have to dial back on my workload. I’m very, very lucky to have six hours a day when our son is in school. I do most of my writing then, at home with our dog Bones, and try to tidy the house and exercise a few times a week. In the afternoons I’m with our son, and then we’re all together once my wife gets home from work. I’m kind of a hermit. I’m OK with staying put most of the time. Our family schedule is busy but rarely insane, and my wife and I try to rein things in whenever our lives start to feel scattered.

13. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

That it’s magic and not just making things up over several thousands of hours. Writers sometimes have an aura that you don’t see in other professions, maybe because the work is so private, and because so many writers, myself included, struggle to explain how exactly we go from a little idea to a 300-page book. But I feel the same about anyone who’s good at anything. I just saw a news report about a local high-school student who’s getting great a pole vaulting. That’s incomprehensible to me. He takes a long bendy stick and uses it to propel himself, nearly upside-down, into the air without breaking his neck. Give that guy the magic aura.

14. Any other advice, tips, commentary or anecdotes you’d like to share?

I was writing a long time, and putting in major effort for ten years, before I wrote something good enough to publish. I doubted myself constantly, and lost hope, and re-approached it, and found hope, and finally found a defiant sort of happiness in knowing I would keep on writing, even if I died an old man without a book deal. Now that I’ve had some success, I can say the struggle was entirely worth it, and that the daily work is more satisfying than ever. There’s a good anecdote about a young Edward Norton being told that he had no talent and ought to quit acting. This was said by a woman he respected. He walked away crushed but then decided she was wrong. If you act like that whenever someone, or something, insists you pack it in, you’re probably a writer who’s going to make it eventually. And I recently told an aspiring writer about a realization I had: when older writers are past their peak, and very young writers aren’t yet good enough, the writers in the middle have the best shot at breaking through. So if you’re getting down because you haven’t gotten published after many years of effort, remember there’s a large window of opportunity. It’s not like certain sports where you’re washed up at thirty. You might be Charles Frazier (Cold Mountain) at 47 or Norman McLean (A River Runs Through It) at 74. And really, try to leave publishing worries for after you’ve finished a novel. Then write another novel right away. Right away.

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