×

My Turn: 15 easy steps to writing your very own novel



Last modified: Sunday, October 18, 2015
There’s one question that authors get asked more than anything. It has nothing to do with plotting or characters or genre. The question is, simply, “How?” How did you get published?

Some authors, particularly the grizzled and prickly, bristle at this question, perhaps because they have gotten tired of answering it. But me? I’m fresh off the unpublished boat, and I’m happy to field this one.

Just follow along in these fifteen easy steps.

1.) Figure out what to write

This step looks so simple as a bullet point, but it took me 37 years. There are a lot of books being published, so you have to figure out what you bring to the table. Statistically, most authors start their careers between 35 and 40, and that’s probably no accident.

At least part of this time, you should be reading. George R.R. Martin is fond of telling future writers to read everything, but I think it’s okay to read what you like. Whether it’s Crime and Punishment and The Bell Jar or Tales of the Weird and Captain America, everything is grist for the mill.

2.) Write the book

It’s said that writing a novel is as easy as falling off a log, and this is true, assuming that you somehow bioengineer the tree, build your own saw and also create gravity.

This is a step that eludes most people, although it mostly eludes them because they get a dreamy look in their eye and say “I’d like to write a novel” and then go off and make toast / read the newspaper / take their kids to soccer practice / go bowling / other activities that do not produce a novel. Alternatively, they begin a novel, get through a few chapters, and decide that novel writing is hard.

Novel writing is hard, to be sure. And it never seems to get any easier. I’m very easygoing about taking criticism of my writing, but the one word I blanch at to describe any novel is “unambitious.”

Every novel is ambitious. If it weren’t ambitious, it would be an idea.

3.) Write the book, again

Another reason people don’t finish novels is that they read what they’ve written and decide that it’s garbage. They are usually right: First drafts are garbage. Novel writing is really just re-crafting garbage so that no one can detect its origins.

Rewriting requires very particular skill sets. You must stare at this godforsaken monstrosity you’ve created – when your initial, sensible, instinct is to run screaming from it as though you are Victor Frankenstein. Then you must actually engage with it, which is a bit like taking the Frankenstein monster, deciding it has some good features, and then putting some rouge on the thing and perhaps dyeing its hair.

Generally speaking, this requires a combination of crushing self-loathing and ridiculous vanity. If that’s how you feel at this point, you’re doing it right!

4.) Share the book

Woah there, cowboy – not with publishers! You’re not ready. No, you need to share with other hungry, desperate writers like yourself.

The term is critique partner, and you’ll want to find another writer who has his or her own Frankenstein monster. You will then trade monstrosities. This means you also read their work and give them your own notes, and will generally involve you feeling smug that you didn’t make all the rookie mistakes that they made, and also a dismaying sense that they are way more talented than you and that your little monster is nowhere near this good.

You do not share the book with friends or relatives. If your potential reader might be inclined to say something like, “Oh honey, those pants look great on you,” or “Your hair is as thick and luxurious as the day we met,” skip them. You need the hard stuff at this stage. And typically you’re doing this with lots of people, because you need a number of opinions.

5.) Weeping

Drinking may also be substituted in this stage.

6.) Write the novel, again. (You heard me, again.)

Now you need to rewrite the novel using that feedback from your readers. Typically, I like to take a few days to privately observe that my critique partners are “fools” and “hacks” and that they “just don’t get me” and that the plot holes they pointed out are “artistic choices.”

Take all the time you need to grumble. This means that you are still a human person, which is bound to be useful later. Just grumble privately, and then get to work.

Rewriting the novel often involves jettisoning huge sections of your book. People often talk about “killing your darlings” in writing. But a better phrase is “say goodbye to everything you have ever known and loved.”

7.) Repeat steps 3 through 6

Do this until you are sick of the novel or you don’t feel you can make it any better. Usually, these things go together.

8.) Send the novel to agents

(Note, at this point you could self-publish, which is a valid choice, but isn’t my area of expertise, so we will talk about traditional publishing.)

To get your book in stores, you have to get it through a couple of gatekeepers, the first of whom are literary agents. Literary agents sell your work to publishing houses and are generally shark-like dealmakers. They don’t charge you anything, but they will take 15 percent of whatever you make. This might sound scary, but good agents will be able to negotiate you far better deals. Furthermore, if you don’t have one, no one at a big publishing house will even look at your monster, which at this point, is dressed quite nicely and even has a flattering haircut.

Agents are great. The trouble is, you cannot get one.

9.) Write a query letter

A query letter is a three-paragraph email that’s meant to describe your book and entice an agent to read it. Like these other steps, it sounds easier than it is, because it’s like taking an elaborate six-hour opera for which you have created the music, words, costumes and choreography and cramming it into a shoebox.

Frequently, you will find that the story you worked on for a year or more of your life does not fit into this shoebox, but them’s the breaks. You must cram it in.

10.) Wait

Querying takes a very long time because most agents are busy with authors they already have, and reading your sad query letter is something that they do when they have time, such as when they are on the train or in the restroom.

11.) Get rejected

This will happen. It will happen so much that you will become inured to it. You will get form rejection letters that say things like “I just didn’t feel that magical spark of connection,” or “I’m just not taking many new clients right now,” which are meant to suggest, nicely, that of course if the agent had more time and resources they would be happy to take your sad monster on. These are usually lies, but they are lies in the sense of “Those pants look great on you,” and you should take them.

Occasionally, you will get quick little notes from agents that can be encouraging or crushing, like: “This isn’t for me, but I’m sure some else will like it,” or “I can tell you’re a good writer, but no one is buying books about mummies right now.”

12.) Agent!

Someone likes you! They think you’ve got it! You’re the real deal! Their people will call your people! You’ll do lunch!

You can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Although, you still usually have to rewrite the book again here. Not a big rewrite, necessarily. Maybe just new shoes and a tie.

13.) Book deal!

This is an amazing step, and it becomes the point where you really can’t believe that any of it is happening. Of course, you also have to rewrite the book, but at this point you’re getting good at it. Maybe add a jaunty hat? And how about some suspenders?

The one problem with this step is that it is usually shrouded in secrecy, and you absolutely cannot talk about it at all until all the paperwork is signed, which can take months. This leads to conversations like this:

Frank: “You do anything interesting this weekend?”

You: “Um, nothing, I guess.”

When in fact you want to yell: “I signed a multibook deal with a major American publisher and they said they liked my work and WHY CAN’T I STOP CRYING?”

But you will not say that. You will say, “Um, nothing” and stare into the distance. When the paperwork is signed you plan to tackle Frank, screaming, “I’m getting published, I’m getting published!” all the while.

14.) Get published

I can’t really speak to this step, because I’m still two whole days away from it. But at this point, I think it’s a bit like heading toward the water after having jumped off the diving board. There’s no going back now. You’ll get some good reviews – some rapturous reviews, even – and also you’ll encounter people who don’t like your work. After all the rejection you’ve been through, it really doesn’t faze you too much. Any of it – good and bad.

You wrote a book. Your little monster is all grown up. He’s driving. He’s visiting girls’ houses. He’s even spending the night, which you aren’t sure how to feel about. He’s not your monster anymore, but really belongs to himself. You’re proud, and embarrassed, and you will feel a little extraneous sometimes, as parents can do. But mostly you’re proud.

Also, you’re thinking about the next step.

15.) Start all over again

And there you have it. Fifteen easy steps to get published, where “easy” here is probably a word that was not very well chosen.

Yet some of you are probably reading this and thinking: “I could do that. What have I got to lose?”

And I’m here to tell you, you’re absolutely right.

Go for it.



(A book launch event for “The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss” is set for 7 p.m. Friday at Gibson’s Bookstore, 45 S. Main St. in downtown Concord. The book is out Tuesday, published by Redhook/Hachette. It’s available in hardcover, and as an ebook and audiobook. Max Wirestone lives in Concord.)