What It Takes … To Write A Novel (Part 3!)

So you’re convinced that you need to write a novel. Maybe you’re an undergraduate creative writing student. Maybe you’re a poet. Maybe you’re a 62-year-old grocery store manager and you just have this really good idea. Maybe you’ve been writing since you were three, and maybe you’ve never written anything you didn’t have to.

I doubt nothing. People come to novel-writing from so many different places that it’d be sort of stuck-up to tell someone that they should maybe try something else first. The point, here, is that you have not written a novel yet, and you’re looking for some advice. To help you along, I spoke with three authors who have just recently finished and published their first novels:

  • James Tadd Adcox, short story writer and author of Does Not Love, available from Curbside Splendor (day job: Short story writer, publicity at the University of Chicago Press)
  • Kathleen Rooney, author of O, Democracy!, available from Fifth Star Press (day job: Founding editor at Rose Metal Press, member of Poems While You Wait, and assistant professor at DePaul University)
  • Susan Breen, author of The Fiction Class, available from Plume (day job: Teacher in fiction writing at Gotham Writers)

Monday, in part one, our experts shared their advice for deciding on what to write about, carving out time to do it, and getting organized in a way that works best for you. Yesterday, in part two, discussed diving into your first draft, having patience and knowing when you’re done with revisions. Now, here’s our final installment!

Step 7: Find An Editor

Kathleen Rooney, as the founder of a small press, is a particular advocate for finding a place to publish your novel, regardless of the size of the press. “Don’t forget the huge and often overlooked landscape of small and independent publishers out there doing great work for their authors. You don’t have to be by yourself (unless you want to). There is a rich, diverse ecosystem of publishing options which afford that added value and infrastructure.”

And she believes in it because, as she says, “I believe that editors add value – editors make even strong books stronger in their content, shape, and quality of writing – and presses and publishers provide a host of indispensable, but often invisible, services that people who self-publish might not even be aware that they need: everything from design on the cover and interior of the book to sending out review copies to encouraging course adoptions at high schools and colleges to setting up readings, signings, classes and other events.”

As for her experience with her publisher, she says that “Fifth Star was fantastic. Ian Morris is my editor there, and he was a joy to work with and he took what I felt was, at that point, a very good book (or I would not have sent it out) and made it better. He is brilliant at delivering constructive criticism in a tactful fashion. He saw what needed improvement in my manuscript and was able to convey that information to me in a clear way, and in a way that did not make me feel overwhelmed or hopeless, but excited to work on it, which is maybe the best kind of editor to have: keen-eyed and gifted in communication.”

James Tadd Adcox, too, enjoyed the process of working with his editors at Curbside Splendor. “I did a sort of larger edit round with Jacob Knabb, and then did a line-edit with Peter Jurmu, and they were both pretty good at identifying things that I either hadn’t noticed or had thrown up my hands about earlier. It was a good process.”

So how do you get an editor? Susan Breen’s method was to pitch her novel at a conference, since she didn’t have an agent when she finished up The Fiction Class. These conferences can be brutal – the first editor she pitched to told her that the book would never sell, that no one would read it. But tenacity is important, and she went back and kept pitching, and the fourth editor she pitched to bought it.

Susan now teaches pitching workshops. She says, “The point of the pitch is to intrigue the editor into requesting your work. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to sound interesting. Every single word does not need to be just so, you really just want somebody to say, ‘Oh that sounds good, I’ll read it,’ and then hopefully your book persuades them.”

Step 8: Give Yourself A Little Motivation

It gets overwhelming to tackle a massive project, so to some extent, you have to find ways to encourage yourself. Tadd told me, part-jokingly but also seriously, “I’ve found it very helpful to have a picture of Ernest Hemingway’s bathroom on my wall, for the past ten years. I don’t know if that qualifies as good advice.”

But I don’t know, I think it does – it’s a reminder that you’re part of that group of people. Susan likewise told me, “All the time I’ve been writing I’ve been thinking of myself almost like I have these invisible cheerleaders behind me, all the writers who I love.”

And for Kathleen, the act of writing, itself, is a motivator. “That flow state–that sense of total presences to what you’re doing–is one of the biggest reasons I became a writer in the first place, and why I continue to be one. Writing, when you are in that state, becomes all you can think about (you forget your other dumb problems, you forget to eat, you forget to be mad or jealous or worried or whatever) and it’s beautiful.”

A tremendous thank you to James Tadd Adcox, Susan Breen, and Kathleen Rooney, as well as Curbside Splendor, Fifth Star Press, and Gotham Writers. (Full disclosure: I know Tadd and Kathleen personally, via Chicago writing circles.)

Do you want to know What It Takes to achieve your big goals? Send me an e-mail at [email protected] and let me know what you’ve been dreaming of doing!

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