Archive | June, 2012

What Kind of Training Do You Need to Publish a Novel?

So you’re writing a novel but you don’t have a degree in English literature. Are you out in the cold? What kind of training do you need to get your novel published?

Elizabeth posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi! My name is Elizabeth and I love your blog!

I am a first time writer working on the first book of a trilogy and my question is,
Do I have to take writing classes or be an English major to write a book?

I had an idea that came to me and have been writing it for over a year in between work and science classes. I only recently thought of trying to publish it but I am worried it won’t be good enough because I don’t have “academic” training but I really want to start pitching the book soon. (I almost completed the first draft).

Randy sez: I wasn’t an English major. I double-majored in math and physics and scratched through college in four years. The way I did that was by taking CLEP tests to get out of as many humanities courses as possible. So I wound up taking only one history class and one English class total.

My lack of training in history and English in college has never stopped me from writing historical suspense novels. The reason is simple:

Education is about learning how to learn. My training in math and physics taught me how to think and how to learn what I need.

So the short answer is “No, you don’t need to have a degree in English literature to write a novel.”

There is a longer answer that is not quite so cheerful. No matter what degree you have or don’t have, you need to learn the craft of fiction writing. And these days, because publishers only market the winners, you also need to learn how to market yourself effectively so that your publisher will perceive you as enough of a winner to put some marketing money behind you. And (because we all have limited time, energy, and money), you need a bit of organizational skill to get it all done.

So you do need to learn, somehow or another, quite a lot about craft, marketing, and organization.

Now would be a great time for me to make a self-serving comment about why I created this web site. After publishing several novels, winning a bunch of awards, and teaching at a fair number of conferences, I woke up one day and realized that I knew a lot of stuff that other writers thought was immensely valuable.

OK, that’s a bit of a fib there. I didn’t wake up and realize that. My friend Marcia Ramsland told me that every month for six straight months, until I finally realized she was right. That’s when I decided to create this site — to teach how it’s done, as best I can. I don’t know everything, but I do know quite a lot. I hear all the time from people who say my teaching is helpful.

Now if I can be REALLY self-serving, I’ll add one more thing. Quite a lot of what I know is packed into my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES. There is a limit to what you can put in 384 pages, but I did the best I could. The book is the #1 book in the fiction writing reference section on Amazon, and also has the highest customer ratings of any book in that section.

Gack, that’s probably enough self-advertisement for about a year. My main point here is that there is a lot to know about writing fiction, but you typically don’t learn it in school. You learn the craft in three ways:

  • Writing fiction
  • Getting critiqued
  • Studying the theory from excellent books and teachers

I will note that there are plenty of excellent schools with Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degrees, where you can do all of the above. I know a number of writers who hold MFA degrees, and I think getting an MFA is a fine way to learn the craft. It’s not the cheapest way, but it works perfectly well.

However, most working novelists I know don’t have an MFA and have done just fine. And I gather that MFA programs focus on craft but generally don’t teach you much about marketing and organizational skills. So even if you were to get formal training in the craft, you’d still need to learn some things on your own.

So Elizabeth, there are many roads to publishing nirvana. A formal education is one way to get there. An informal education is another. Pick the road that suits you best.

Remember also that getting published requires talent, training, and time. If you don’t have at least some talent, no amount of training or time will get you there. If you do have the talent, you still MUST get the training and you MUST put in the time.

Every year, hundreds of aspiring authors get published by traditional royalty-paying publishers. You can too, if you have the talent, get the training, and put in the time.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

What If You Can’t Produce a Novel Every Year?

What if you’re one of those slow-working novelists who just can’t produce a book every year? Are you totally out of luck?

Lisa posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy I love your blog, e zine, software and books, your info has helped me develop as a writer.

I have a question about writing a series. I am writing a trilogy, but am a slow methodical writer. I read what you wrote about how quickly a publisher wants you to have any sequels written. So my question is this, if you are a slow writer, who takes more then a year to write a novel should you complete the series before trying to sell the first book? or at least be one book ahead?

I am a stay at home mom and my children come first making writing quickly quite challenging. I know if you can write a book that quickly that it is not recommended to write them all in case you can’t sell the first one, but would a slow writer need to write ahead in the hopes of the novel selling and the publisher wanting to publish a sequel?

Thanks for all the great resources for aspiring writers!

Randy sez: Good question, Lisa! Not every writer puts out a book every year. J.K. Rowling seems to have done OK releasing books on an irregular schedule, only releasing them when they were done. I doubt any of her fans would have wanted her to put out a half-baked novel just to hit a yearly schedule.

Since there’s no guarantee that you’ll sell the first book in a series, I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to get the whole series written before you start pitching it. If I were you, I’d write the first book, make it as good as possible, then find an agent and try to sell it.

While you’re looking for the agent, you can be working on Book 2. It might take a while. If you find an agent quickly, it can still take a long time to sell the book. Once the contract is signed, the publisher is usually going to take at least a year to bring it to market, and it can take a lot longer than that.

During all that time, you can be writing and editing Book 2, which will be much easier to sell than Book 1. In fact, when you sell Book 1, more likely than not you can make it a multi-book deal just by telling them that it’s the first of a three book series.

So for the short-term, that’s what I’d do.

What about long-term? What if you’re working with a good publisher and you just can’t maintain a pace of one book per year?

That’s a good problem to have. I think you can cross that bridge when you get to it. Plenty of successful authors don’t produce a novel every year. If you’re good enough, it’s not that big of a deal.

Note that some writers have the opposite problem — they write too much, and their publishers don’t want their books competing with each other. So the publisher limits the number of books it will publish by that author.

In that case, authors usually take on a pseudonym and publish their extra work under different names. The names Evan Hunter/Ed McBain come to mind. So do Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb. So do Stephen King/Richard Bachman.

My view is that your productivity level is a secondary problem. The main thing is to learn the craft of fiction writing well enough to sell a novel. Once you’ve solved that, you can deal with the “too little” or “too much” issues.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

How Do You Know When Your Novel is Finished?

When do you quit editing your novel and start marketing it? Is there a foolproof way to know when your story is done?

Tami posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy,

I’m working on what I hope will be the last edit of my manuscript. My question is, how do you know when to stop editing? I read that at some point you stop making it better and just start making it different, but how do you know where that point is?

I have learned so much since beginning the story, and am still learning, so I try to incorperate that knowledge as I edit. I want to make my story the best it can be, but at this rate the editing process could go on forever. HELP!

Randy sez: This is a good question. The question is simple. The answer is complex. A lot depends on where you are in your career.

This might be a good time to read (or reread) my article, “Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author!” where I spell out the various stages in the career of a pre-published writer. There are several stages after getting published that I don’t cover in this article, but it’s a good start.

If you’re a Freshman or Sophomore, then I guarantee that your novel is not done yet. Period. This is true by definition. Being a Freshman or Sophomore means that you are not yet writing publishable work. Maybe you will one day, but not yet.

However, if you’ve chewed all the sugar out of the story you’re working on, if you’re just tired of the thing, it might be a good time to lay it aside and move on to another novel. You can always come back to it later, when you’re more advanced in your career.

I have a novel on my computer that I wrote when I was a Freshman/Sophomore. I suspect that it’s actually not bad, but I never sold it and I’m sure that if I read it today, the reasons would be obvious. At the time, I had a hard time letting it go and moving on to the next book.

That novel was a necessary stepping-stone along the way to getting published. That doesn’t mean that it has to be published someday in order to earn its keep. It already earned its keep by proving to me that I could write and finish a pretty good novel.

If you’re a Junior, then you should be looking for an agent and the main thing you need for getting an agent is a good manuscript. How do you know when to go looking for an agent with that manuscript?

I would say that your manuscript is done when you don’t know how to make it any better, even after considering the helpful advice of your critique group, your spouse, your sister who reads 7000 books per year, and the 92-year-old woman in your church who tells you it’s “brilliant, honey, brilliant.”

When you can’t improve the thing any more, go looking for an agent. While you’re working on that, start writing a new manuscript, because finding an agent could take a while. A long while.

If you can’t find an agent, then that manuscript just wasn’t what you needed. Maybe the one you’re working on now will be better. (It almost certainly will be.)

If you do find an agent, he’ll tell you whether your manuscript is ready to be published. It probably isn’t. Don’t feel bad if your agent asks you to rewrite your manuscript and sends you a detailed list of things to work on. This means he cares enough about you to make you improve.

If your agent never sells your manuscript (this happens quite a lot), then it probably wasn’t ready. There is no way to make this a happy event in your life. This is always painful. Novelists have to learn to accept that not everything they write is guaranteed to sell. If this is too much for you to bear, then you should try a less risky career, such as blind-folded lion-taming.

If your agent sells your manuscript, then your editor will have a go at your manuscript. Without a doubt, she’ll find a large number of problems. Then it’ll be on you to fix them. The manuscript isn’t done until your editor says it is.

Once you’ve been published, you’re operating on a higher plane than you were before. By now, you’ve got the experience to know when a manuscript is done. If you’re normal.

There are a few sick authors who are too darned humble and believe that nothing they do is ever good enough.

There are a few other insufferably egotistical authors who think that everything they do is golden, even in the first draft.

But most published authors develop an inner sense of rightness. They know that their book will generally be ready after the third draft, or the fifth, or the thirteenth, or however many drafts it usually takes.

The simple fact is that most authors reach a plateau in the quality of their writing after a few novels. They may be constantly striving to improve. They may be actually making small steps forward. But we’re talking about one percent effects here. Small improvements.

Once you’ve reached your natural level of fiction writing, you probably aren’t ever going to make any more quantum leaps. Just my observation of how things actually work for real writers in the real world.

When you reach your natural level, you’ll know when your story is done. You won’t be able to explain it, but you’ll know. You’ll know that your novel is as good as you can make it and you’ll know who to show it to in order to take it up a notch or two.

There is just no substitute for getting other eyes to look at your manuscript. No author on the planet is qualified to be their own editor. (Yes, some of us can be our own copyeditor, line editor, or proofreader. But none of us is able to be our own macro editor. You need an emotional detachment from the manuscript that you will never have.)

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.