How to be a Successful Novelist in 38 Easy Steps

Mar 01, 2018

At a party recently, a friend’s eyes glazed over as I began explaining how novelists get from idea to published book. I quickly realized that not only was this conversation exceedingly boring to her, but that most people have no idea just how convoluted and long the road to publishing can be, especially if you go the traditional route. She seemed to think there were three easy steps: 1) idea for book => 2) write book => 3) find publishing house. Hey presto.

How many steps are there, really? I counted at least 38:

  1. Have an idea for a novel. Think you are brilliant, insightful, unique.
  2. Consider characters and plot. Decide you are plodding, dumb and unoriginal.
  3. Begin writing. Anything goes! Get it down! Do writing exercises, talk with writer friends, read illuminating novels. Get into the flow.
  4. Realize the opening chapter is tedious. What is the inciting incident? What do these characters want, anywayStruggle with how to make the beginning work. Try jumping to later scenes. Discover the “flow” of the river of words has dried up and all you can see is a cracked clay riverbed. Buy many books on how to write books.
  5. Decide to turn your agony into prose. Push through the barriers. Write knowing you can delete later. Feel grateful for computers. Here today, gone tomorrow. It’s okay, it’s all about getting words on the page, right?
  6. Re-read. Realize you are alarmingly cliché prone. Spend hours thinking of clever ways to describe being sad, happy, confused.
  7. Press delete. (No one wants to read 15 convoluted sentences about how the color of the sky made you feel sad.)
  8. Join a writers group. Labor over your submission. Sit in stunned silence as they refer to you in the third person, as “the writer,” even though you are sitting right there, inches away. Can’t they see you? Feel despair at how much they just didn’t get it, OR feel elation that they think you’re as good as Franzen, Flynne or Flaubert.
  9. Finish your 1st draft. Hit up Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, email your parents and kids and friends: I DID IT! I FINISHED MY NOVEL!!!
  10. Send your draft to some carefully chosen readers. That friend from high school who loved reading. That person you met at the party who talked about the industry for an hour. Your best friend who has great taste in literature. Throw a few strangers in for good measure.
  11. Wait. Wait. Wait.
  12. They loved it! The reviews are coming in.  It’s awesome! They can’t believe you wrote such a complex and moving story! They didn’t know you had it in you!
  13. Begin fantasizing about what you’ll wear at the Awards Show. Who will play the protagonist in the movie version?
  14. Get the first review that expresses doubt. What do your characters want? Why do they go here, do this, say that, react this way? Realize your friends are not as smart as you thought they were. Suppress your irritation and say thank you.
  15. Open a friendly email that eviscerates your book from someone who knows what they’re talking about. Note with sinking heart that s/he has not made one single positive comment on the entire manuscript. Try to begin draft #2.
  16. Take a long break. Focus on other work. Nurse your shredded soul. Creep back to your project, tail between your legs. Begin to see where the feedback—both positive and negative—can help improve the novel. Remember that most people write multiple drafts not just one. It’s okay. You’re normal. You may still have talent.
  17. Go through drafts #2, 3, 4, 5 and 6. You must be close, right? Read other books for inspiration. Toil endlessly. Begin to see light at the end of the tunnel.
  18. Tentatively send it to a few more readers. One of them asks you if this is a first draft. Defensively tell him/her this is DRAFT NUMBER SEVEN, BUDDY.
  19. Start your query letter. Wonder when you’ll know if you’re really done. Feel like a kid again, and not in a good way.
  20. Put together your list of agents to query. Feel great about your list and your pitch. Begin sending out queries.
  21. Check email every ten minutes. Shift to every half hour. Let some days pass. Go online to see what the consensus is on when you should expect to hear back. Realize that you may have to wait UP TO TWO MONTHS TO HEAR ANYTHING AT ALL. Realize that often agents don’t even bother to say no. Take a deep breath.
  22. Get your first request for a full. You are a genius! Your story is awesome! OMG what will you do if you have multiple agents offer representation?? Worry about how to pick among these titans of the industry. Replay step #13.
  23. Get your first rejection. At least it was quick. So, okay, okay, not everyone’s going to like your book. Wait. Get more rejections.
  24. [THIS IS THE END FOR SOME WRITERS] 90 percent of the agents don’t respond, even when you send a friendly follow up email. That’s it. No one likes your book, and you’re not going to be going the traditional route after all. OR, hear back from some of them and… yes! An agent wants to represent you! Maybe it’s the one you wanted… or maybe it’s just a name you picked off a list. Can beggars be choosers? YOU HAVE AN AGENT! Replay step #13.
  25. Re-writes. (Really? You heard agents only take manuscripts that are ready to go?!) More agony. What do your characters want? Why do they go here, do this, say that, react this way? Drafts # 8, 9 and 10. Freak out about how often you’re allowed to call your agent.
  26. You’re finally there. Your agent draws up a list of publishers to submit to. You are either deeply involved in this process, or have no clue what’s going on. Self medicate at night with Ambien and wine, or lie awake. Either way, waiting is hell.
  27. [THIS IS THE END FOR SOME WRITERS] Turns out publishers don’t want historical/ dystopian/ traditional structure/ weird chronology/ books featuring dogs/ quirky voices/ riffs on classics/ feel good romance/ feel bad romance/ political thrillers…. Whatever it is you wrote, they don’t want it. OR: Get multiple offers and go to auction! OR: Get one offer and it’s decent. OR: Get one offer and it won’t pay your electric bill for a month. Whatever. Your book is going to be published. Replay step #13.
  28. Your new editor loves loves loves your book. Go to NYC under a pretext and meet her/him, get taken to lunch, feel like a hot shot. Get a pub date: Three years from today! Okay, more waiting.
  29. Re-writes. Really? Yes, really. What do your characters want? Why do they go here, do this, say that, react this way? (And you thought they LOVED your book?!)
  30. Your publisher wants to change the title. You were warned this would happen. But your current title is elegant yet catchy, literary yet commercial. Nope. You have a new title. It’s no so bad, really. You think. Maybe. Okay, well, it is what it is.
  31. They’re working on the cover. Hooray! Get excited about this part because you are a visual person and have strong opinions. Offer up nine covers that you love. You are offered three options that you hate. Call your agent.
  32. Copyediting. Huh? Why do you now sound like an Oxford Don in some sections? Do you have to accept all the copyedits? Call your agent.
  33. More re-writes. Lose track of which draft this is. Call your agent.
  34. Proofs. Exciting! It’s going to be a real book!
  35. Pub date is delayed again. Decide that’s actually good news, because you’ve started to realize that you have sooooooooo much to do to help sell this book. Quickly get back on Twitter. Instantly freeze. Get on Facebook and ask your 71 friends to buy your book, which comes out in 10 months. No one likes your post or responds.
  36. Bone up on publicity. Pub date approaches. Get some decent blurbs and a couple of reviews. Everything seems to be going according to plan. Replay step #13.
  37. PUB DATE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Go out and celebrate. You did it.
  38. Go back to #1. 

Image from