Wednesday, November 1, 2017

I've written a novel. Now what?

It's NaNoWriMo time. For those that don't know what that means it's National Novel Writing Month. During the 30 days of November aspiring authors are asked to challenge themselves to write a novel. In an effort to help aspiring authors I'm going to try to do two things.
  1. Have some "writing focused" posts on the blog throughout the month
  2. Host an AMA (Ask me Anything) on reddit/r/Fantasy which specifically focuses on writing related questions. It'll be held on November 8th.
Early today I received the following email:
"I am currently a college student who just recently finished writing a novel. I'm just beginning the peer review process using some friends of mine for help, and I was just wondering how exactly I should move forward if I want my book to be published. My friends are not the most reliable sources of feedback given their studies and other commitments, so should I seek out a professional editor? Also once the final edits have been made, how do I go about submitting my work to publishers without them simply trashing it before reading a word? Any advice at all would be greatly appreciated."

After responding, I realized it would make a pretty good post for NaNoWriMo. So here's what I told young Ben.

Dear Ben,
Congratulations on finishing your first novel! I don't want to sound too pessimistic but I do want to warn you that first books are rarely "suitable for publication." Think about it, you can't play Carnegie Hall after a few years at the piano, and likewise it takes time to develop a full set of writing skills to crate a work that is fit to share with others. For me, it was my14th novel which was the first published. Now, you are likely not as slow a learner as I am, but here are some metrics to keep in mind. Stephen King says you should consider your first 1,000,000 words as practice, and Malcolm Gladwell says you need 10,000 hours working at a task to become proficient at it. Assuming your novel is 100,000 words or so you're 10% there!

 Okay, with that very sobering preamble out of the way, let me address some of your questions and offer some advice. Here goes.

  • After finishing a book. You should put it away for 4 - 6 weeks then pick it up and re-read it again. Pay particular attention to how it opens. It's likely that it doesn't start where it should...something you can't tell for sure until the book is finished. As you re-read, polish, polish, polish. In particular make sure your opening line is a great one, and that the first paragraph sets a stage and hooks the reader in. Make ABSOLUTELY sure the first 5 pages are flawless. If an editor or agent can make it through the firsts 5 pages, it's likely they'll request the full manuscript.
  • You need to find writer critique groups. If you live in a fairly populated area, there should be a number that meet face-to-face. Checkout Meetup.com. If you don't find any, then look online there are plenty and most specialize in a given genre. In these groups you'll read and critique other people's work in exchange for them doing the same for you. You'll actually learn a great deal when critiquing others. You'll see things they do wrong and when you are explaining the problem to them, you'll often realize you did something similar in your own work.
  • Once the book is polished and critiqued seek out beta readers. There are groups on Goodreads.com that are dedicated to beta reading. An important part of the beta reading process is to set expectations for the readers. My wife does an excellent beta program and she sends this document to anyone who wants to beta read so they know what is expected of them. Feel free to adopt it to your own uses. I suggest 3 - 7 beta readers and keep adding them until you have at least 5 people read the entire book (some beta readers will drop out - either because life gets in the way or they don't like the book. 
  • As to a professional editor. They come in three type: structural (sometimes know and content editor), line editors, and copy editors. The first is (a) very expensive and (b) hard to find a qualified person. It's a very subjective process and a bad structural editor can cause more harm then good. Generally I don't recommend paying for structural editing. You can get the equivalent feedback from a few good critique partners and beta readers and I suggest you go that route. As for copy and line editing...these are tasks the publisher is going to do on your behalf, so you shouldn't have to pay for those services. Now, that said, if your work is riddled with errors, it may make reading the submission more trouble than it's worth. In those cases, it is worth paying for someone to fix a manuscript in such a state, but I can't say whether yours will fall into that category
  • As for submitting to publishers. For the most part, you'll want to submit to agents instead. These days mot publishers don't take unsolicited manuscripts, so you get an agent who knows what publishers are looking for what types of books. To get an agent you need to (a) do research to determine who represents your genre of work and (b) write a query letter. This post Writing Query Letters & Where to send them should help you with both.
As you can see, you have only taken the first steps on what is a very long road, but it can be a rewarding trip both professionally and personally. I hope some of the above helps you in some way. Once you have your book in good order send me the first five pages (here is a link that provides full instructions on doing that), and I'll take a look at it and let you know whether I feel it is ready for primetime or still needs some polish. But I warn you, I'm a harsh critic because my standards are high.

I hope this advice helped young Ben, and I hope you found it to be helpful as well. Happy Writing!

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