Unfortunately, writing a novel remains one of those ambitions that remain unfulfilled for far too many aspiring authors. Nevertheless, the runaway success of a handful of novels by first-time, hitherto unknown authors serves as inspiration that the task may not be as daunting as it seems. Follow the advice and experience of those who did achieve their goal, and five simple tricks for success reveal themselves.
It may seem ludicrously simple, but the biggest impediment to not writing a novel is not writing a novel. The first step, then, is to develop a consistent writing habit. Ray Bradbury, for example, wrote at least a thousand words a day, plowing his way through short stories before he reached the necessary finesse to attempt Fahrenheit 451. Likewise, Stephen King reveals in On Writing that his regime includes at least 2,000 words a day, whatever his mood.
Writing every day doesn’t have to mean producing reams of piping hot copy. Dean Koontz admits to producing as little as a third of a page of usable material for a 10-hour-day’s writing, while Gustave Flaubert was notoriously fastidious, rewriting one scene 52 times until he had the required prose. While motivational events such as Novel Writing Month challenge authors to write 50,000 words in 30 days, there is no consistent evidence of a correlation between speed and success. Hemingway wrote 500 words a day on average, and that’s for famously clipped prose, while J.R. Tolkien took seven years to write The Hobbit.
At the other end of the scale, neither should an author restrain the creative impulse. Robert Louis Stevenson took just three days to write The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, while Ed McBain typically took just a month to finish each of his thrillers.
Know the Odds
With a success rate of less than one percent, the odds of publishing a novel are, quite frankly, abysmal. Again, that figure is just for finding a publisher. The subsequent odds of a first novel succeeding are roughly 50 percent. In other words, half of all novels judged outstanding enough to pass the rigorous literary selection process go unnoticed once they hit the bookshelves.
The good news is that publisher selection is not an arbitrary business, and there is a great deal of chaff among the wheat. If a publisher or literary agent typically receives 10,000 query letters a year, the vast majority are removed from consideration within a matter of minutes, either because their presentation is not professional, or because the author has failed to research the publisher’s areas of interest sufficiently. In the US, just under 50,000 new fiction titles are published each year. Without a doubt, their authors’ first step was to submit a manuscript that was grammatically correct and tidy, sent to the correct person with an appropriate cover letter.
Incidentally, the self-publishing route might appeal to authors who have suffered overwhelming rejection from publishers but offers odds that are hardly more encouraging. Just under 90 percent of self-published e-books fail commercially. However, self-publishing has its own standard-bearers. Beatrix Potter (initially), E.L. James and Zane Grey all produced wildly successful self-published titles.
Even with the knowledge that the road to publishing is paved with rejection, many authors struggle to overcome a steady drip of negative replies or no replies at all. Students who find themselves battling their way through English literature classes can take heart in the fact that the high school reading list is peppered with authors who all suffered consistent rejection, including Joyce, Lawrence, Salinger, Kipling, Plath, and Nabokov. Agatha Christie took five years of rejection before finally being published, and is now the second-most published author of all time. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was famously rejected 12 times before a publisher snapped it up, while Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight notched up 14 rejection slips. Neither does success guarantee success. Dean Koontz sold his first every short story, then suffered 75 rejections before the next was accepted. Isaac Asimov, the author of hundreds of science fiction novels and short stories, also had several stories he simply couldn’t sell.
Know your World
Numerous authors impart the wisdom of writing about subjects close to home before embarking upon an ambitious science-fiction trilogy. For example, William Golding, author of Lord of the Flies, learned everything he needed to know about puerile behavior as an English teacher at a boys’ school in Salisbury, England, while Hemingway’s tales of hunting, fishing, and ambulance driving were the authentic basis for novels about all three. What hasn’t been lived can still be learned. J.R. Tolkien was a brilliant philologist who spoke several languages, including Old Norse and Latin, and invented others, such as Elvish. Without these, his Lord of the Rings series would surely have rung hollow in places.
Read with a Passion
Almost without exception, successful writers read as much as they write, if not more. Not only does voracious reading improve a writer’s feeling for structure, language, and dialogue, but background reading is essential in order to prepare an authentic historical novel. There is no need to attack the canon of so-called ‘greats,’ but a writer wanting to set a novel in Renaissance Italy, for example, can quite easily find a multitude of free texts that detail life and society during the era. Read widely and actively. For his part, Ray Bradbury recommended polishing off a short story, poem, and one essay before bedtime.
Ultimately, two misleading perceptions seem to dominate when it comes to publishing. One is that the process is hopelessly futile and the author a doomed species. The other, championed in movies, proposes the image of the inspired artist dashing off a bestseller in the time it takes to assemble a montage. Follow the experiences of established authors, however, and it is clear the process is far more in the writer’s hands than he or she may believe.
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