How writing a novel is like running a marathon. Over and over.

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It’s fun, and then it’s not, and then the endorphins kick in…

“So you want to be a writer?” How many times have you read those words as a prelude to an essay about being an author? Once? Twice? I bet they all said some variation of this little gem of wisdom: if you’re writing because you want to be rich and famous, forget about it. You need to appreciate the writing itself. Writing is ART (said in a lofty tone).

I think I may have said those words to a few people. I am sorry. The truth is, you DO need to enjoy the writing itself, but the truth also is, I want my books to SELL. I want to make money writing and I want to have a lot of readers. I want to write a bestseller.

Unfortunately, the people who sell the most books and make the most money are composed of less than 1% of the total number of writers in the world. I am not one of them. So, the first statement is still true. If you don’t love the writing itself, you may as well stop and get a job doing IT or something else practical.

Also, writing is difficult. Every time I begin a novel, I’m very excited and I love my characters and my plot, but by the time I hit 10,000 words I want everyone in the novel to die via meteor strike. Why? Because writing a novel is like running a month-long marathon: it’s hard work. It’s a love-hate relationship. I love hating writing. I hate loving writing. I love writing about what I hate. I love writing about what I love. Writers are a little bit crazy.

Another problem I’ve encountered as a writer: your first novel will probably suck. Mine does. It’s embarrassing. The best thing I ever did was write another novel because I got a little better at it. And then I wrote another one. And another one. And another. I didn’t really like the prose in my novels until I’d written ten or so of them. Another way to fix the suckage problem is to let your novel sit around for a year or so (DON’T stop writing in the interim). When you pick it up again, you will think it’s terrible. Revise. When you’ve repeated this process a bunch of times and you finally pick up one of your novels and you don’t hate it, give yourself a lollipop.

Last, remember that writing a novel and selling a novel are TWO TOTALLY DIFFERENT THINGS. If your goal is simply to be published, awesome! You have options. If your goal is to become a working writer: ack. I’m sorry. I’m one of those and it’s kind of, well, totally insane. I mean, why didn’t I decide to become a graffiti artist instead? That would be SO MUCH easier. Why? Because it would be a hobby, not a career, not something I’m trying to use to buy stuff like food and clothes. Here’s a little article that sums it up nicely: http://heidicullinan.wordpress.com/2013/11/14/if-you-build-it-they-dont-necessarily-come-the-heaven-and-hell-of-marketing-a-book/

If you still want to be a writer, here are some things I’ve learned along the way. I’ll start with the cool stuff:

- Getting a cover from the publisher is great. This is seriously awesome if your artist is good.
- Getting paid. This is always awesome.
- Getting fan mail or email from a reader or a good review. AWESOME.

Now on to the practicalities:

1. There are a few genres that are selling right now. They are:

erotic romance
young adult
new adult

That’s it. Not sci-fi or fantasy or mystery (unless you’re Dan Brown) or anything else. I try to sneak my favorite categories into romance novels (sci-fi or mystery or suspense). PW agrees with me: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/bookselling/article/55458-big-names-dominated-bestsellers-in-2012.html

2. Even if you sell a book or two, that doesn’t guarantee that you will keep selling. One of the best writers I’ve ever read sold a bunch of books and then her publisher dropped her because of poor sales and they have the last novel of one of her series in jail and it’s never going to see the light of day (deep breath). Why? Because. No other explanation.

3. To be a successful writer, you not only have to write (run that marathon, over and over), you also have to be lucky. Authors don’t know what’s going to sell next. Even if you write in one of the popular genres right now, you have no guarantee that it will sell. Why? Because. Even the publishers don’t know. Some big publishers throw gobs of money at a new author to promo the work and the book sinks. Some throw no money at a book and it sells like hotcakes. None of us know why.

Look at J.K. Rowling (http://www.leakynews.com/jkrowling-new-book-pseudonym-crime-novel-robert-galbraith/): she sold a book under a pseudonym and it only sold 1500 copies (that’s considered good sales, by the way). When people found out that she was the author behind “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” it sold way more. She was very lucky to sell as well as she did when she was J.K. Rowling, and then she wrote a book under a pen name and sold hardly any copies, proving how very lucky she was as J.K. Rowling. Same writer, same quality of prose: totally different outcome (at least until readers found out about the deception).

4. It’s easier than ever to get published right now because of the rise of digital readers. That means the market is saturated. This means it’s harder than ever to get published by a large NY publisher. Options if you still want to get published? Small publishers, self-publishing. Remember that getting published is SEPARATE from actually selling a book or sustaining a career. Know why you want to write and plan your life accordingly.

5. If you still want to get published, here are some things to try:
-Get an agent (http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents)
-Submit to small publishers who don’t require an agent (mostly erotic romance publishers)
-Self-publishing (Amazon KDP)
-Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA)

6. Read up on the business:
-Scalzi’s blog: http://whatever.scalzi.com
-Absolute Write Forums: http://absolutewrite.com/forums/index.php (check for scam publishers and iffy contracts)
Dear Author news posts: http://dearauthor.com/news/
How to submit queries to agents: http://queryshark.blogspot.com

7. If you have no support system (i.e. a girlfriend/boyfriend/mother/dog etc.) to take care of you as you suffer the inevitable rejections x1000 you will go crazy. The only other option is to be very VERY certain you want to be a writer. Like, obsessed and neurotic and totally single-minded about it. Having a support system AND being totally obsessed is the best way to be a writer.

8. You must write fast. The reality of the market today is that publishers and readers want their books NOW and then they want the next book TOMORROW. They also want them CHEAP (I am a reader and I am totally guilty of this). It used to be that authors would publish a book every year, or maybe every two years. Some really lucky authors can still do this, but most of us know that we need to produce a lot more than that in order to make any money.

I know people who have signed contracts to write a book every month. I even know people who write a novel every two weeks. I can write a book in one month, but I have no idea how the people who write one every week or so manage that feat of super-human brilliance. Maybe drugs? Electroshock?

The reason authors need to produce more, faster and cheaper, is that the market is saturated. The market is saturated because of digital readers and the rise of self-publishing. This tightens competition, especially because the NY publishers are no longer completely in charge. I know someone out there understands the basic market economy of this better than I do, but the results are still the same: write fast.

9. Craft mechanics – what the publishers I’ve worked with look for:

- No head-hopping. This used to be okay, but most publishers strictly forbid it now.
- Avoid ellipses, colons, semi-colons, etc. No, I am not joking. Some publishers are okay with creative punctuation, some are not. You can use them, but it’s best if you know how to say the same thing without them, because you may be asked to revise them out of your prose.
- No first person POV. This was popular a decade ago—not so much right now.
- Dialogue tags should be few and boring. “He said,” “she said,” is the best way to go. Anything creative gets flagged by editors. Even better is to skip them entirely and let your character’s actions stand in for the dialogue tag. ““Are you sure?” Emily scratched her forehead, puzzled.”
- Avoid passive voice when possible. (Passive voice was avoided by all. LOL, I couldn’t resist.)
- Avoid filter words (He felt his whole body seize up with fear. VS Terror rushed through him.)
- Use past tense; it’s easiest for readers to absorb. When was the last time you read a book in present tense?
- Don’t repeat the same words over and over and over. Use your word processor to find your bad habits.
- Keep your chapters around 5000 words or less. In the era of twitter, readers get fatigued much easier. Also, ain’t nobody got time for that (reading). It’s easier to put a book down and pick it back up again if your chapters are tight.
- Do NOT kill off your main character in a sequel. Many publishers have contracts which explicitly forbid this. I know what you’re thinking: so-and-so did this and she is very much still arguing in interviews that it was the right thing to do, but honestly, have you seen the fan-rage all over the internet about it? Have you seen the scathing reviews of her third novel? Personally, I would not want to face that. I would like to keep writing more books.
- Know in which genre you are writing, for what audience. Do not end a romance tragically (that is technically a horror novel). Romance novels must have a happily ever after ending. Horror novels usually contain gore. A female romance reader (30-60ish) will probably not enjoy a romance novel where the hero dies at the end. On the other hand, if she’s reading a memoir, a dead hero would be okay, as long as the narrative shows how the main character survived the death. In suspense and mystery: kill off everyone you want except for your main character. In fact, I’m having a hard time trying to think of a genre where it’s okay to kill your main character… maybe literary fiction? Hmm.

10. Social media: do have a website, Facebook account, Twitter handle, etc. The flip side is DO NOT EVER ENGAGE TROLLS. Do not respond to reviews (good or bad, but especially bad). Do not argue with readers. NO NO NO. And DO NOT EVER buy a good review on your own book, post a good review on your own book, or take pics of your junk and post it on the interwebz. Just… no.

Also, do not let your relatives post nasty commentary on other writer’s sites/reviews/etc. If your significant other starts ranting about your competitor’s ugly face on his/her book reviews or websites or twitter, you’re going to regret not stopping that disaster before it turns into the SHITSTORM that ATE YOUR CAREER.

11. Contracts: read them carefully. Do NOT EVER sign away your copyright.

12. Do not plagiarize. Ever. Never ever. The internet peeps will ALWAYS FIND OUT and you will go down in flames while we all snicker at you for not being able to write your own stuff. Also, it’s just not cool.

13. Do promo (advertising, word-of-mouth, etc.). Don’t spend too much money on it. Post your book info to your website, twitter, etc. Buy some small ads ($5-$50). I’ve done everything from free promo to buying ads that cost $400. After several years, my data suggests that luck is more important than throwing money at the promo problem. Writing in a popular genre is also helpful. I sold more of my first book, for which I did no promo, than any of my other books. Why? Because it happened to be in a category in the romance genre that people like to buy.

Also, realize that doing promo SUCKS BIG TIME if you are an introvert (like so many writers are). I hate doing promo. I love being alone and daydreaming. Promo is the OPPOSITE of that. I really don’t want to talk about how awesome my book is. I want a reader to buy it and love it and then post a review online about how awesome my book is so I don’t have to talk about how awesome it is. I’d rather be home alone. Daydreaming. Or writing my next book.

14. Money stuff – here are some rough guidelines:

Do not expect an advance. From small publishers, it’s rare. From big NY publishers, advances are becoming increasingly smaller and are sometimes nonexistent these days as they begin to change their contracts to reflect the digital market. Royalties in the small ebook publishing market can be anywhere from 30-55% of the net price of a digital or print-on-demand book (gross minus the % taken by distributors). Some print royalties are still only 6% of the net (the traditional figure before all this e-reader craziness hit the market). If you get an advance, remember that you will not receive royalties until the sales make up the difference for your publisher (depending on your contract).

Expect to get paid on time, every three months, from your publisher. Expect royalties from third-party distributors to arrive six months after your book is published. If this doesn’t happen, jump ship (if your contract allows it).

15. You must pay taxes on your royalties. You are self-employed.

16. Run away from publishers that expect you to pay THEM for editing and cover art or if they expect you to do those things yourself (In the commercial fiction world of novel-writing. In the poetry world, well, all bets are off).

17. You will receive no real-time data about book sales. Unless you self-publish (and even then it’s an iffy thing), you will have no idea how many books you are selling. The only way to tell is via book rankings on third-party sites and since they tend to change their algorithms every few months (yes, Amazon plays god with the market), you can’t really rely on those figures either. The only time you know what you’ve actually sold is when you get your royalty statement.

Some big publishers are changing this for their authors, but most of the time it’s like using a ouija board to figure out what you’re selling: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/20/business/media/authors-to-get-sales-data-from-three-big-publishers.html

(This makes promotion nearly impossible, which makes me cry. Sometimes I slam doors. Depends on the day.)

18. If you publish a book, especially in a popular genre, people will download it off the internet and give it away for free. Yes, this is illegal in most of the world. No, there’s not much you can do about it. What are your options?

- You can send a DMCA takedown notice (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_Millennium_Copyright_Act). Most sites ignore those.
- You can ask Google to take down the page that has the pirated link to your book. This is of limited value since most people who pirate books don’t need Google to find the files. (https://support.google.com/legal/troubleshooter/1114905?hl=en)
- You can use a service like Muso (http://www.muso.com/anti-piracy/) to send DMCAs for you. This is not free.

19. Word count: I tend to keep most of my novels around the 50-60,000 word length. I also write novellas which can be anywhere from 18,000 to 30,000. Why? Because most of my publishers set the price for novels based on length. Most readers will not buy a book that is over $5-6 dollars. The moment you go over 60,000 words, the price goes up and no one will buy the novel (unless you’re Justin Bieber), OR the publisher sets the price of their novels to cap at $6. Writing more words means you’ve done far more work than you need to for the amount of money you will get back in royalties.

Expect your readers to complain about how short your novel is, especially if it’s shorter than 60,000 words. Most of the time it’s because they liked it and they’re sad it’s over, but sometimes they’re pissed because they believe they’ve been ripped off. I empathize with the readers because I am a reader, too.

20. If you’re writing romance, use a female pen name. If you’re writing suspense, sci-fi, or mystery, use a male pen name. I know male romance writers and female suspense writers, and they use different pen names for different genres. The market says that only dudes are good at sci-fi and only women are good at romance. It’s sexist and stupid, but it’s reality (with a few exceptions).

21. Why listen to me? I’ve been a working writer in different capacities for many years. I’ve done technical writing (for big and small companies), proofreading, editing (textbooks, poetry, etc.). In the past three and a half years, I’ve written and sold twenty-two novels under various pen names in various genres. Oh, and I’ve also written four poetry chapbooks. I am not a best-seller (in the Elizabeth Gilbert meaning of the word), but I’ve sold okay. I am not famous. I am not rich. I am what people used to call a mid-(okay low)-list writer. I also don’t know everything, not by a long shot. I still feel like a beginner writer (and compared to some authors, I am very much still a beginner).

Despite all the crapola that goes along with writing, I can’t seem to give it up. If you can’t either, GOOD LUCK and welcome to the club!

3 thoughts on “How writing a novel is like running a marathon. Over and over.

  1. Reblogged this on The Daily 400 and commented:
    I am going to print this in large friendly letters on poster-sized paper and use it to wallpaper my office. I may tattoo it on my arm. Wow!!!

  2. Succint and funny (although a little bit sad, too). That’s the reality of a 21st century writer. The internet changed the rules of the game. You have to be a great writer and have a lot of luck to get published. I think no writer just wants to write but doesn’t care about getting published and selling their books, because selling means money means being able to live from writing means being able to write. Unless you’re rich, of course .
    Some of the requirements of the publishers that you named left me speechless. (Like, what’s wrong with semi-colons?)

    • Hi Brigita, I’d hoped it was a little funny and not too discouraging, but I also wanted to be honest. Everything about publishing novels is weird. I don’t know for certain if it’s because of the internet and digital readers, or if it was always weird. It’s a tough business.

      Not all my publishers are funny about punctuation, thankfully. On the other hand, I’ve had to edit and revise a lot of the things I’ve written to fit within guidelines. I think that’s the one thing that is totally different about writing novels to sell and writing novels for oneself. The publishers want to make money and I want to make money, and that means compromising a bit.

      I think the reason semi-colons are so frowned upon is because most of us don’t know how to use them correctly. :-) Fixing the problems makes editing more difficult, which costs money, etc.

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