SO, YOU WANT TO WRITE A NOVEL? (January 4, 2019)

Since finding out that I have written a novel many people have told me that one of their bucket list goals is to write a novel. They’ve asked me many questions. Here are a few of their questions and my thoughts and takeaways.

1.  I’m not sure what I want to write about, but what do you think about a novel about a hospital/law firm/government agency/etc.?Develop an idea for your novel and try to think it through to the end. If you are a physician and want to write a novel about “what it’s really like to work in a hospital,” you need to think through your story, characters, and the plot. It’s not enough just to have a great beginning and a few clever vignettes, but you also need to know how your book will end. That does not mean that you need to think through every detail. The details will come to you as you write.

2.  How do I get started? Write. Just sit down and write. Do this every night and every weekend. Writing a novel is not something that you do once every two weeks or on Sunday after the football season is over. You really have to devote a couple hours a day almost every day of the week. This ain’t easy if you have a day job.

3.  Should I prepare a detailed outline of my novel? This is the age-old debate between the outliners and the “seat of your pants-ers.” I have tried writing both from an outline and without one. Many novelists have sworn by an outline (J. K. Rowling, Joseph Heller) and others (Lee Child, Stephen King) never use one. At the very least, it helps to outline complicated sections of your writing. Of course, you should know how your book will end, that way you can write to the conclusion. When I started writing novels, I wrote detailed outlines. I have now finished my fifth novel and do not use an outline.

4.  I am in love with all of the words that I have written, they are perfect. Should I keep them all? Throw out the mediocre and bad stuff. Every writer writes whole paragraphs, chapters and even books that they realize are not worthy of their effort. Throw away the mediocre and bad words/ phrases/ sentences/ paragraphs. At the very least have a special file called “outtakes” and stick them there. If you believe that the material is not really all that good, imagine how your readers will feel. He was not the first to say it, but Stephen King wrote: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

5.  I do a lot of writing at work. It’s really not necessary for me to take any special courses on writing fiction. Right?Writing a novel is different from the kind of writing you do at work. I went to college and took English and writing courses many years ago. Also, as a lawyer, I have written for my entire career. I have also written close to 100 legal articles and edited two law books. Writing fiction is entirely different from the kind of writing that you do as a lawyer or physician or geologist or engineer. As a result, you should take some courses on fiction writing if you are serious about writing a novel. Also, there are many books and web-based resources for you to review. Every year there are literally hundreds of writing seminars, conferences, festivals, and programs. Not only is this a great way to connect with other writers, but you will learn a lot at these conferences. Everything I know about the technical details of writing fiction I learned in the past ten years.

6.  Should I get an agent, go directly to a publisher, or self-publish? It is very difficult to get an agent. They receive literally hundreds of manuscripts every week and probably take on no more than a small handful of new writers every year. Do the math. Still, you should submit to agents to go through the process and see if you might get lucky or get feedback (which is a rare occurrence). I was fortunate to find an independent publisher (Headline Books, the 2018 Independent Publisher of the Year) so I was able to skip the agent. If you do go directly to a publisher, do not go to the “vanity press,” where they will charge you to publish your book. Self-publication is an option, particularly if you want instant gratification. Amazon provides an easy platform (Kindle Direct Publishing or KDP) for publication and sale so that you can publish a book within a matter of days of finishing the manuscript. Keep in mind, however, all of the editing, proofreading, cover art, and all of the other technical details will be on you. Also, Amazon does a bare minimum of marketing for you and for the most part you will be responsible to market your book.

7.  It’s pretty easy to write a novel, isn’t it? Writing is both magical and hard work. There is something about the writing process when you are alone in your room with your laptop and your imaginary friends (your characters) whisper to you. They really do. Sometimes they talk to you at night when you are half-asleep and tell you what it is they want to say or do. Sometimes you wake up in the morning with entire passages in your mind. That is really an awesome, unique experience. Also, writing is really hard work. It can be very frustrating. There are times when you can spend three or four hours writing and at the end of that time you have a crappy 600 words to show for it. You have to sweat over every word. Sometimes you finish writing at the end of the day and go back and see that every passage was written in the passive voice. Your point of view jumped around in a single paragraph. There are technical errors galore. All of that has to be fixed or discarded. It is not uncommon, after you have written 40,000 words or so, that you begin to doubt whether the book is any good at all. The process can seem endless. It is hard work.

8.  How long will it take? It takes me about 3 to 6 months to get all the words down the first time and then another several months of editing and re-writing. If pressed, I think I could write, re-write and edit a novel in about six months. I know some writers (particularly romance writers) who write eight or 10 books a year. It is also not uncommon for some writers to take eight or 10 years per book. It depends upon your skill and the genre in which you are writing.

9.  I don’t read a lot of books myself, does that matter? Read. This one should be a no-brainer, but I’ve talked with many people who want to write a novel but admit they do not read very much. You need to read both classic and current literature. Particularly, you have to read in the genre in which you plan to write so that you get a sense of what is expected by readers (including agents and publishers) of books in your genre. Generally, I read very little fiction while I am actively writing a novel, since I find myself unintentionally imitating the style of the book I’m reading. Otherwise I always have a book or two going.

10.  Once I’m done writing my novel, it should be pretty easy to get it published, right? Spoiler alert— your first novel probably won’t be published. You are going to make many rookie errors and the likelihood that your first novel will be good enough to be published is very slim. There are a few writers out there who are super-talented and the first novel that they wrote was published. On the other hand, I’ve heard from many, many successful writers and they have written five to ten novels before one of them got published. Drink to Every Beast, coming out in April 2019 (Headline Books) was not my first novel. My first novel was called Whiz Kid and is set in 1950 during the remarkable run of the Philadelphia Phillies to the World Series. It is too long (120,000 words), amateurish, has poor pacing, and has both over-developed and under-developed characters, point of view shifts and numerous technical errors. I still think it’s a good story and maybe someday I’ll return to it, but it’s not worth publishing or even trying to get it published in its current form. I spent over one year working on it. As writers say, after that, I “stuck it in the drawer.” I have written a total of five novels and am working on my sixth. It took me that much work to get my “first” novel published.

Those are my ten tips. I am sure I could write another hundred. If you are really interested in writing a book, there are several terrific books and shorter works you should read. Try Stephen King’s, On Writing, or Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing. There are many webinars and other programs that are also worth watching before you begin writing.

The very best thing you can do, however, is to write. Stop thinking about it and talking about it. Sit down and write something.

—Joel