As I was preparing to republish My Thomas and publish the first two of the Letters From Love novels, I had to “come out” to my legal clients and to friends who had never known me as a writer. Especially with people who had long known me as their business attorney, I had some strange conversations! But what most surprised me was the fact that people I never had imagined might be writers began to share with me their lifelong wish to get a novel published. And they asked me for advice.
Here is the advice that I give to people that I care about: Don’t do it. Because reading a novel is easy and fun, people have the perception that writing a novel has to be easy and fun as well. But writing good fiction is the most difficult and time-consuming pursuit on the face of the earth.
It’s difficult because there are so many things that have to be happening for fiction to work. It’s difficult because no matter how good a novel is, there are ways to make it better. It’s difficult because it requires that you spend many hundreds of hours alone, with your family and friends off enjoying their lives while your only companions are the people in your mind. And it’s time-consuming because you will have to spend at least a decade working at it before you write something worthy of publication.
If I have discouraged you, then you’re welcome. You have gained back a whole lot of time and energy that you can devote to something else! If not, then you and I share an unfortunate but joyous form of mental illness, and all you can do is pick up your quill and join the happy sufferers who went before you. Here is what I did to prepare to eventually publish My Thomas:
1) Read Good Fiction. The sort of novel that I like to read may differ from the sort that you prefer, but all good fiction is strongly plotted, with interesting characters who feel like real people and grow or change as the novel progresses. And – most importantly – good fiction tastes wonderful. It is spare, with each word perfectly chosen and just a few words evoking whole scenes; and it is active, moving your eye right along, with no burrs or catches anywhere. My own teachers were Pearl Buck, John Steinbeck, John Updike, and Anne Tyler. Brilliant, brilliant writers. I read Pearl Buck’s House of Earth trilogy several times in childhood, savoring the way that just a few words could bring early-twentieth-century China to life and make it sizzle. Read good writers. Stop reading sloppy or lazy writers, no matter how popular their novels might be.
2) Practice. Assume that your first ten novels will be worthless, but write them as if they were sure best-sellers. The first million words of fiction that you write are your practice words. Write only what feels perfect to you as you write it, then go back and polish it carefully; and then put it away and resolve to make your next practice novel even better. Rewriting your favorites can be a great exercise. I wrote my first practice novella in 1977, and this year – after dozens of rewrites – it was finally published as Letter From Freedom.
3) Live. No matter what your genre might be, good fiction has to feel like life, so the more things you do with your life, the better. For my part, being a wife (41 years and counting), a mother, and a grandmother has given me lots of fodder. Working as a lawyer, advising people financially, researching and writing about the afterlife, having a host of different friends: your experiences will differ, but being fully present in a varied life is essential if you want to write novels that are going to feel real to readers.
4) Have a Day Job. A successful novelist whose names escapes me famously said, “You can make a fortune as a writer but you can’t make a living.” That was truer back in the day when New York houses were the only way to publish, but even now just a tiny percentage of the novels that make it into print will sell sufficient copies to earn a paycheck. Writing fiction is a hobby. It is the best hobby on the face of the earth, but it’s a hobby all the same.
5) Write Strategically. You’ll have written eight or ten practice novels by the time you feel ready to try for publication, so you will have used up your random ideas. Now you are ready to write to sell. Browse bookstores and best-seller lists and talk to people who love to read. Look back at all those practice novels to help you figure out how what you write best intersects with what many people are reading. Then, plan a series of novels. There are so many reasons to go for a series that they deserve a separate blog post. For now, suffice it to say that your job will be easier and you will be more likely to develop a following if you write your first novel with a series in mind.
6) Put Out Your Best Possible Product. No matter how wonderfully you write, the barriers to having your first novel find an agent, never mind having it bought by a New York house, are so high that I would not attempt it now. Self-publishing is ridiculously easy, and if you do it well for a novel or three, then if having a New York imprint is important you will be more likely to find one. Don’t flounder and court despair in pursuit of your first contract. Instead, self-publish. But don’t let the fact that you are self-publishing diminish the care that you bring to your work! You must have a professional editor, a professional cover designer, a professional interior designer, and a terrific website. All of that is basic. You are building your oeuvre. Professionalism has to be your priority.
7) Promote! Until very recently, publishing fiction was a white-shoe, old-boys’ club. Now, however, it is the Wild West. Things are changing so rapidly that what was daring two years ago is now not only commonplace, but staid. Five years ago you couldn’t sell a self-published novel, while today self-published novels can be best-sellers. Five years ago, being reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly and The New York Times was essential to a book’s getting noticed; today, though, just Amazon.com and a few fiction websites are all you’ll need. And all it takes for you to get the fifty good Amazon.com and Goodreads.com reviews that can give your book sales power is hustle. So, go for it!
My advice is that if you can avoid writing fiction, then you really should avoid writing fiction. But if, like me, you can’t live without it, then the good news is that the market for new fiction writers is better than it ever has been!