Sane people are not writing novels. They are spending their free time taking dance lessons, going to barbecues, learning how to golf, and having drinks or coffee with friends after work. But you're only marginally sane, and you decide to write a novel.
Step One. Decide what type of novel you want to write. This part is easy. What kinds of novels do you read? If you’re drawn to romance or chick lit, perhaps that’s in your wheelhouse. Do you love danger and carry a gun? You should write a mystery. For years writers have heard “write what you know,” but good writing is also about finding what you don't know. A well crafted novel combines both.
Step Two) Write a draft of say 55,000 words. This could take as little as a month (see nanowrimo.org) or several years. In any case, it’s not a bad start, but you know it’s not ready for publication. You just don't know why.
Step Three: Show it to someone. You have several options here. A) Take a writing workshop where you attend a First Pages session. The instructor asks for copies of participants’ first pages. (This is after he has just demonstrated how the first page should snare the reader, identify the protagonist, and reveal conflict. (For more on this read Hooked. http://www.writersdigest.com/qp7-migration-all-articles/hooked.) The workshop leader projects these pages anonymously on a giant screen, where he deconstructs yours. Words you thought looked good on your laptop screen reveal too much back story, show no hint of conflict, and vaguely give the reader a picture of who your protagonist is.
Revert back to Step Two. Call this 2 A)You write two more drafts, where you restructure the story, refine characters, and flesh out details; the manuscript grows to 70,000 words.
Step Three B) Take another workshop with a Famous Bestselling Writer (FBW), whose work you admired. FBW treats you and your work as if it were stinking up the room. You stash the manuscript inside a suitcase and leave it there. Maybe writing isn't your forte. Several months later, you clean out a closet and find the albatross, and decide it’s not horrible. You make a few changes, and C) choose a writer friend who will provide honest feedback without shredding your ego. Keep writing. Why else can you do? Writing the novel was the easy part, but you don't know that yet.
Step Four: Hire an editor. Whether you self- publish or seek a traditional publisher, this step is critical, particularly if like me, ‘typo’ is your middle name. This editor will point out where you spelled a character’s name two different ways, repeated dialogue and actions, forgot names of minor characters, and used the verb ‘smirk’ too many times to count.
Step Five: Title it. The title is more than just a name. A book’s title gives the reader a hint of what lies inside. A book called Love’s Eternal Promise is clearly a romance. Kafka on the Shore begs for a reader who has read Kafka. In Game of Thrones you know kings and queens are involved.
I like a title that isn't too obvious, yet also not obscure. (Poets can get by with obscure titles, but fiction readers like the book slightly unmasked.) Shadow of the Wind conveys mystery, On the Road, and Gulliver’s Travels let you know the characters are not sitting still for long, Pride and Prejudice provides hints to the book’s major themes, and The Last Song emits clues this book will be sad. Catcher in the Rye is a weird title, and though you don't learn two thirds through the book why it’s called that, the phrase rolls off the tongue. Salinger could have called it Holden’s Weird Adventure in Dropping Out, but that reveals too much plot, and somehow weakens the book.
My novel takes place during summer, and the eighteen year old protagonist has a car he calls the Blue Whale, and I considered calling it Summer of the Blue Whale, but that sounded too juvenile and chirpy. (My snarky editor friend suggested I call it A Whole Lot of Smirking Going on).
My working title was Pagoda because initially my boy has a fake ID that names him Michael Pagoda. Later this is changed to Michael Neruda after the word ‘pagoda’ did not make sense to the plot or character. After many sleepless nights, I decided on Breakfast with Neruda. Why? You’ll have to read the book for the answer….
Now that you have named your masterpiece, you move on to Step Six: publication. (Success at self-publishing requires aggressive marketing skills, and since you’d rather write, we will stick with traditional publishing.) This step involves A) researching agents in Writer’s Market, or other online sources. Make a list of agents, and B) start sending out queries. Almost every novelist I know hates this part of the writing saga. I’d rather write another novel. Or get a root canal.
What is a query? It’s where you shrink that 70,000 plus word manuscript to no more than two paragraphs, share your publishing history or related qualifications, and hint your “brand.” You need to appear friendly without being obsequious, confident without being haughty. Most importantly, your words reveal you can write well. http://laura-moe.blogspot.com/2013/07/query-letters-how-to-get-and-agent-to.html
Six C): Many agents require a synopsis along with query. Take your 250-500 page manuscript and shrink it to two to ten pages, depending on each agent’s preferences.
Six D) Agents and editors claim they want something new and unique, but if you scan the shelves in the bookstore or library in the fiction section, most of what is published is derivative of what has previously sold. Or we’ve just published a book with a similar theme, or a similar setting, etc. I read a great piece today that addresses this issue.http://lithub.com/we-need-diverse-diverse-books/
Step Seven. A) You will get rejected, possibly more than 100 times. Most will either send you a generic rejection, or not even respond. The best rejections will tell you specific reasons why they said no. some will even supply you with names of agents they know who might like your work. These are rare, but golden people who have nice notes and smiley faces next to their names in my database. Rejections can help you make improvement
Seven B) Prepare to get weird feedback. I attended a conference in Seattle on marketing your work that included “pitch sessions. .http://laura-moe.blogspot.com/2013/08/the-pitches-at-pnwa-2013.html A couple of agents asked to see my manuscript. Neither represented me,) one agent I pitched to told me, “If you rewrite it and give him a superpower I’ll take a look at it.”
Step Eight. After about a hundred "thank you for submitting, but not for us," start doubting yourself, and think maybe FBW was right; you suck. Your friends and family think you’re brilliant, so they have to say nice things about your work. But you want strangers to be honest. You reread the good rejections and confirm your work has merit; it just wasn't something they felt passionate about. Submitting work is like dating; agents and editors have to fall in love. Even though your submission package is dressed to the nines, your hair is freshly cut and you’re wearing your best cologne, if the chemistry isn’t there, he or she will not call you. You rename your email inbox the Daily Rejection.
Step Nine At this point you have two options: quit writing and be normal, or keep trying. But seriously, can a trapezoid like you squash yourself inside a square box?
You have exhausted the list of agents out there who are looking for your type of work. One day you’re reading an online trade journal and come across an article about a publishing house looking for contemporary realistic YA that describes your tale. This house also accepts un-agented materials. You sigh, and think, well why not? You send them a query along with the first 25 pages and a two page synopsis.
Step Ten: The acquisitions editor likes your manuscript, but asks you to rewrite two chapters before she will consider it. You suspected there was a flaw in your book, and this editor nailed he problem. You rewrite and resubmit a couple of weeks later, and a short time later an offer is made. Your work is done, right?
Ha! Writing the novel was the easy part. The work is just beginning.