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Breaking In (Part 2): Writing Novels

March 1, 2010

On Saturday I talked a bit about what it takes to break into the Short Story market.  But, though I like writing short stories, and hope to get published in that market, what I like even more than writing short stories is writing novel-length works.  I mean, let’s face it: I’m a wordy writer.  I like depth, multiple plot threads, many characters, and a diversity of themes.  I like thinking up all the stuff that eventually will become part of a novel.  I like writing it all down.

There’s just one teensy weensy problem: I don’t know the first thing, really, about what it takes to get published in the novel market.

Oh sure, I’ve read articles on the subject.  I’ve read how-tos.  And those are fine and good, for what they are.  But then there’s advice like this.  The gist of that link: by the time an established writer is, well, established – enough that he or she is in a position to offer advice on how to break in – the market and industry will have changed.  That being the case, you’ll find some of that advice will still be true, and some will most likely be dated and inaccurate, and some will be so specific to a certain author’s personal experience as to be virtually invalid for anyone else.  Standing in the position of someone who has yet to break in, then, there is almost no way to tell the difference.

Still, the path to wisdom begins first by admitting your ignorance.  In that spirit I have read as much as I can to learn as much as I can.  And here, over the next few days, I will share the lessons I have learned on the subject of breaking in to the novel-publishing world.

Lesson One:  Write, write well, and write a lot.  One “theory” holds that a writer needs to write a million words of awful tripe before they will have developed enough as a writer to get published.  At an average of 100,000 words for a decent-sized book, that’s 10 books.  One author I’ve recently been following revealed that he’d written some ten or twelve books before one of his earlier books was picked up by a major publisher. 

Several writers I’ve read about talk about the time of their “apprenticeship” – a time when they wrote prolifically, and practiced a lot, producing work of dubious quality.  Many can even pinpoint the time when their apprenticeship began (with it ending when the author actually gets published).  This leads me to wonder about my own career.  When did I start on my “million words”?  I never had an “aha!” moment when I knew I wanted to be a writer: I’ve known since early childhood that this is what I want to do with my life (and only turned from that path, directly, because of the general advice from one writer that amounted to “don’t quit your day job, kid”).  Did my “million words” start when I was 9 or 10, around the time I first started working on the original draft of that long-unfinished novel of mine?  Did it start in Middle School?  High School?

Honestly, although in theory I’m working on the same book as when I was ten, the story, characters and plot are so different as to be a completely different book, and different world.  So let’s set that aside for a bit.  Now, throughout High School I wrote a lot.  I started working on a collaborative story with an old Middle School buddy in pen-pal fashion – a juvenile sci fi epic in which two boys from Earth are caught up in intergalactic intrigue when they are contacted by two aliens who happen to look exactly like the human boys.  I’d write one chapter, mail it to him, he’d review it, make any corrections he deemed necessary and write the next.  I’d review his and the process would begin anew.  I probably wrote around 10 or 15 thousand words on that story.  I also wrote an alien-invasion novela that borrowed a lot from H. G. WellsWar of the Worlds, television’s “The X-Files” and the biblical Book of Revelation.  That story (and the follow-up that I never finished) totaled somewhere between 20 thousand and 40 thousand.  Throughout High School I also wrote around a half-dozen short stories (and one stage play based on one of those stories) each running between 2,000 and 10,000 words.  That brings my total to around 50 to 80 thousand words.  And then there’s my baby (no, not the human baby that will soon be brought into world – he won’t be using words yet for several years – I mean that novel I keep blathering about).  By the time I quit work on the last “draft” of my novel, I’d written around 140,000 words (and considered the book to be between two-thirds and three-quarters done).  Add to that a few more short stories (each around six to ten thousand words), and I can safely say I’ve written a little over 200,000 words so far in my “apprenticeship”.  But this means I have a long way to go before hammering out my “million words”.  That doesn’t mean I can’t try to get published before I’m done.

But if my first “few” books are likely to be complete garbage, I’ll admit it makes me hesitate to start work again on my life-long novel project.  Why write one more word on it if that word will be crap?  I love this project too much to spend more time writing crap for it!

That angst lasts for about five minutes before I decide “Who Cares?”  I love this project too much not to keep writing it.  But I am thoughtful enough about my “career” as a writer to consider what else is there?  In the time since I first read about how much work it takes to get published, I’ve come up with a couple more ideas for fantasy epics (albeit works of shorter length and less ambition) and I have one space opera concept that I’ve been mulling over since my freshman year of College.  I’m not sure at what point I’m going to turn my attention to these other three ideas and start work on them, or when I might come up with still other ideas for novel-length works.  I wonder sometimes if I should put work on my true novel love on indefinite hiatus and turn my attention more directly to these to finish honing my craft, cleaning them up and getting them ready to try to launch my career, or if I should stick to my guns and keep working on that behemoth of a project.  Until I get out of Grad School and settle into a normal working schedule, it’s not a question I intend to answer, because I don’t have time for either.

In the mean time, I intend to write – as often and as much as I can. 

Stay tuned for Lesson 2 tomorrow.  Happy Writing.

Back to Part 1: Short Stories & Periodicals

Continue to Part 3 (and Lesson 2): Writing Community

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 22, 2011 8:26 am

    You know I was thinking, as I started writing today’s blog, about that “million words” of crap. Well, here’s what I feel on the subject, and it’s only my two cents. I think that all the revising and editing that you do counts. I mean, the novel I’m currently working on is about 50,000 words right now. I’ve re-written so many parts of it, well…pretty much the whole thing. Does that double the number of words? Or are you still sitting at 50,000? I’m leaning towards the double mark. So…how much revising do you think counts towards that million words?

    • June 22, 2011 8:29 am

      Yes, I agree, revised words definitely do count. (Before continuing… I’ve also read this phrased slightly differently as “you have to write 10 novels before you’re good”, which comes out at about the same if you average a book at 100,000 words.) I’d read on the blog of Patrick Rothfuss once that supposedly you have to write ten books before you write a book that’s good enough to get published, but his first book was a NYT bestseller. Except… he’d rewritten and revised his book like 10 ten times, so that sort of counts as having written ten books. So, I agree… all kinds of writing – as long as we’re talking about writing stories – counts.

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  1. Breaking In (Part 3): Writing Community « The Undiscovered Author
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