How to Become a Novelist

There is always a bit of romance to the idea of becoming a novelist. All those stories about “starving writers” who later become famous, and so on. While this might be the general image we have of what being a novelist is all about, the truth is that like any art, it is a lot of work. In order to produce good material that will sell, you need a lot of training, practice and knowledge, as well as a talent for putting the words together and evoking emotions in your reader. Often, you also need to know what the readers are looking for and cater to their wants.

If you really love writing and you have ideas and plots in mind, this might be the right path for you. But you do have to really love it. It is not an easy job to choose, and there is often little security in it, especially until you publish a novel or two and it is well received by the public. Many also choose to write novels as a side-job until they are able to have a full income from it. It could take months or years or decades to get published. It depends on how good your novel is but also on whether it is relevant.

Take a look at the infographic below to learn a little bit more about the industry:

WHAT THE EXPERTS ARE SAYING

AJ Colucci

Novelist

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  • AJ Colucci
  • New Jersey
  • 7
  • Self-employed
  • @ajcolucci
I’d been writing fiction my whole life, but it was in college as features editor of the campus paper that I found a passion for stories about people. Journalism is a terrific training ground for novel writing because it teaches you basic story structure and form; how to write dialogue and keep your writing succinct. My first jobs were editorial at a couple of trade magazines, and then I worked as a writer in corporate communications for a few years. It wasn’t until I was home raising a family that I started writing novels. Even though I’d never liked science much in school, I was fascinated with natural science through programs like NOVA and magazines like Discovery and New Scientists. I found hundreds of story ideas, including a BBC special on killer ants which become my first science thriller, The Colony. It took five years to find an agent and sell the book to Macmillan. They bought Seeders, my next novel, a year later.

After I drop the kids at school, I try to write for a few hours. Of course, sometimes life gets in the way. You can’t just ignore your family, friends and other obligations, so I learned long ago to separate the hours in the day as much as I can. If I miss a day, or even a week, I don’t beat myself up. The exception is when I’m approaching a deadline or on a roll with a particular book. That’s when I can’t seem to concentrate on anything else; the ideas are just streaming through my brain, and I may write seven or more hours a day. It might last a week or even a month, so we eat a lot of pizza and Chinese food and the house looks like a mess.

Becoming an author takes incredible patience. True, you get to do what you love every day, but there are few moments of excitement. It’s mostly waiting and waiting and…did I mention waiting? An agent might take a year to get back to you; editors can take months to make changes; then there’s cover art and galleries; blurbs and marketing. The list is endless and goes on for years. Even when the book comes out, it can be anticlimactic – and then the process starts all over again. So be patient. It’s not just about grabbing the brass ring at the end; it’s about the ride.

Advice

Write a great book
Sure, that sounds obvious, but some beginners think there’s more to it than that, a secret hidden by the industry. But there is not. A terrific book will eventually find a publisher, whereas knowing someone in publishing, being in the right place at the right time, or penning a perfect query letter will not get a mediocre book to the shelves. In terms of time, polish your manuscript first and market yourself second.

Get real feedback
Find an unbiased reader to offer constructive criticism, which usually doesn’t include your mother or best friend. It’s good to know what works in a story, but it’s more important to know what doesn’t work. If you positively can’t stand criticism, you may have to write as a hobby. When I send off a manuscript to a reader, I always write at the top “BE BRUTAL.”

Keep a perfect manuscript
Only query agents who are looking for books in your genre, and keep refining your manuscript until its publish-ready. How will you know if it’s ready? If you’re getting a ton of rejection form letters, as opposed to personal notes encouraging you to keep writing, it probably still needs work. However, if agents are giving you good feedback, requesting full manuscripts, you probably have something marketable. If you haven’t found representation at that point, you should consider attending a conference and meeting agents face to face.

Learn to write by reading
I don’t think education matters very much when it comes to getting a novel published, at least in your choice of college. Unless you’re writing non-fiction as an expert in your field, publishers don’t really care which school you attend. Do work on the college newspaper and seek out internships in magazines and newspapers. The best way to learn how to write is to read everything you can get your hands on, especially in genres that interest you. For a while, great novels were like textbooks to me, I really picked them apart, studying technique, dialogue, characterization. The best school is your local library.

Elaine Viets

Mystery Writer

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I have a bachelor of journalism degree from the University of Missouri, worked for 27 years in the newspaper business as a reporter and a humor columnist, and was a syndicated columnist for United Media in New York.

I wake up about 8-8:30, have breakfast, play with my cats, and go to my desk about 10 AM. I write until noon, when I take a tea break, then go back to work until 3 o’clock, when I have lunch. I’ll write from about 4 to 7 PM, when I stop for dinner. I live in Florida, so if it’s a nice night, I’ll go for a walk along the water or work out in the gym for about an hour. My husband and I may also go out to dinner in the evenings or to a show.

Advice

Join organizations and go to conferences
It’s important to join professional organizations, such as the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers and the Authors Guild. For me, MWA and SinC have been the most helpful. Go to the big conferences. Sleuthfest, put on by the Florida Mystery Writers of America, has agent and editor appointments. These are good ways to get professional opinions on your work.

Be friendly with local bookshops
Cultivate your local booksellers. Buy books at their stores. If you can’t afford to buy many books, get small things like bookmarks and greeting cards. Booksellers can tell you who’s selling and why.

Use writing skills at work
It helps if you have a job that uses writing skills, such as working for a newspaper, TV station, or blogging. If you can’t do that, write for your local newspaper, church bulletin, anything to hone your skills. Keep a journal. Take a course in novel writing from your local community college or university. The best part of being a writer is that nothing you do is wasted. You can always use your experience in a novel.

Be picky about your education
Many universities and colleges have excellent fiction programs taught by working novelists. Some writers belong to critique groups. If you join one, make sure the criticism of your work is helpful, not destructive. Avoid critique groups with people who say mean things and call it “honesty.” Go to writing seminars at local bookstores and colleges, especially if they are taught by working novelists.

Jennifer Walkup

Author

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  • Jennifer Walkup
  • New Jersey
  • 10
  • Self-employed
  • @jennwalkup
I mostly write every single day. Some days are more productive than others. I get anything from a few paragraphs to a few chapters written per day. I love writing. Creating new stories, worlds and characters that readers will hopefully eventually connect to is the best thing on earth. But deadlines are tough, as is rejection, of course. The tradeoff is worth it in the end, though.

On one hand, I wish I would have known from the beginning the challenges that would arise with rejection, submissions, and the all too common writer doubt. But, on the other hand, it’s the optimism and faith in it actually happening that keeps you going, so perhaps it all unfolds exactly as it should.

Advice

Write. Read. Write. Read.
Every day, every minute, read and write. Accept that there will be rejection – probably quite a bit of it. But with each new story or book or project, you will grow as a writer. Each new project is a chance for something really fun and exciting and great to happen. And everything you read helps too.

Use all experiences
Nothing teaches writing as well as experience. Schooling, degrees, job experience, writing workshops, and critique groups, of course, add and help to the overall writing career, as well as keep writers immersed in their craft. All of it is a piece of the eventual published writer puzzle. Writing, practice and submitting, are what get your career off the ground. So do it all, and above all, keep writing no matter what.

Just keep going
Keep writing and keep submitting. Do not let rejection stop you. You won’t ever publish if you quit, so keep going. Take classes, find critique groups and partners. Read critically, and study the craft. Read more books than you think you can. Let the stories root around in you, settle into your muse. And write as often as you can, until a story, or a character, or a series grabs you, takes over and wants to be told.

Todd Borg

Novelist

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  • Todd Borg
  • Lake Tahoe, CA
  • 15
  • Thriller Press – Owner
I grew up writing…songs! Some of my earliest memories are of plunking out tunes on the piano. When I got older, my hope was to be a rock ’n roll singer songwriter. Oops, I guess that didn’t work out! So I went off to university and majored in pre-med. Then I realized that doctors have to spend inordinate amounts of time in hospitals, so I nixed that concept. My first real job was in the ski business, which I loved. All along, I was still writing, only I segued from rock songs into novels. The day I completed my first novel, I knew I’d found my passion. By the time my 4th novel came out, I was able to quit my day job and earn a living as a full-time writer.

Like a lot of novelists, my dream day would be to write in the morning while I’m fresh. Unfortunately, many of us are often on the road to and from events, speaking at libraries, schools and book clubs, exhibiting our books at festivals and conferences, participating in author panels. So we fit in writing wherever we can. I always have my laptop and a pad of paper. For me, the best times to write are whenever and wherever I can get quiet time alone. If I get insomnia, I’ll be at the computer at 3 a.m., putting a character into deep trouble and seeing what happens!

I have the best job in the world – making up stories for a living. I can stay up as late as I want, sleep as late as I want, my commute is from my desk to the coffee maker. I have no boss, and the best part is that I wake up every day to fan-mail in my inbox. There’s nothing to dislike about it!

Advice

Practice
Don’t just do some writing here and there and maybe write a book and then send it out hoping the world will go crazy about your genius. Sit down (or walk in the woods as you figure it out) and write a complete novel. When you finish it, write more. Lots more.

Learn from others
Take writing classes, go to writing conferences (especially the juried ones where you submit work and get professional critique), join writer’s groups where you critique each other’s work and attend their meetings, find a mentor.

Create feeling
Write novels until you have one that makes readers laugh, cry, cheer, and stay up all night worrying and fretting about your characters. When readers email all of their friends to share their excitement about your novel, you’re home free whether you send it off to a New York agent or self-publish it and put it up on Amazon. Either way, you will find a growing fan base of readers who are eager to buy anything and everything you write after that.

Figure out if writing is really for you
There are two kinds of writers, those who are in love with the idea of being a writer, and those who are in love with writing. Successful novelists come from the second category. Writers write. Real writers are driven to write. If you are not driven to write, you should probably do something else. But if you are driven to write, get ready for the best career in the world.

What Kind of Education Do I Need to Become a Novelist?


The obvious option for aspiring writers is to earn a creative writing or English degree either at a university or a college. This will give you 2-4 years of well-rounded education in literature, writing technique and probably allow you to explore some of your writing. The stronger schools in these areas will also have clubs for those looking to work on a specific type of writing and critique sessions, as well as give you access to professors, who know and understand the industry. So if you already know and are absolutely sure that you want to become a novelist, this is a good way to go.

This being said, it’s not the only way. You can basically study anything you like and later become a novelist, as long as you continuously work on your writing skills and constantly read a lot of literature. Of course, an option such as journalism is a good place to start. But maybe you are very interested in biology or criminology or fashion, that’s okay too. It will just take extra work to continue practicing your writing.

At the end of the day, education for a novelist is not mandatory. Many writers never took any university classes and have become extremely successful. You can learn on your own by honing your skills through practice and reading, but you will still need to learn about life. You can travel, people-watch, and meet a lot of different types of people along the way to really understand what you are writing about. And that is not only true for those novelists who do not receive formal education, but for anyone who is looking to write.

WHAT IF I DO WANT A DEGREE TO BECOME A NOVELIST?

  • Emory University
    Located in Atlanta, Georgia, Emory is one of the top universities in the US for aspiring writers. The Creative Writing program offered here is composed of core courses, as well as workshops and/or independent study programs. You can choose to focus on fiction, poetry, playwriting, screenwriting, or creative non-fiction. Tuition is $44,400 per year.
  • Hamilton College
    This school in Clinton, New York, offers two tracks to its students – English or Creative Writing – with the option of majoring or minoring in either. The English classes focus more on literature and some writing courses, while Creative Writing gives students space to practice their writing through workshops. Current annual tuition is $47,350.
  • Johns Hopkins University
    Offering a multi-departmental program, John Hopkins in Baltimore, MD, gives its students a lot of space to practice their writing skills, while introducing them to literature and its history, as well as writing techniques through seminars. Students graduate with a Writing Seminars major, and have an option of many graduate level study diplomas and certificates. Undergraduate tuition here is $47,060 per year.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology
    Located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the MIT offers an excellent Creative Writing program, which lets students focus on the genre they choose. At the same time, it combines a few courses from a different discipline, such as humanities or social studies. Average annual tuition at MIT is $38,046.
  • New York University
    NYU offers both undergraduate and master’s level programs in Creative Writing, as well as a minor option. Students can also take summer intensive workshops in Florence, Paris or New York City. The first year of studies can be completed in Accra, Buenos Aires, London, Sydney or NYC. Tuition is $21,873 per term for undergrads.

GETTING MY FOOT IN THE DOOR

This is the part that requires patience and perseverance. Some novelists get discovered right away, but mostly this doesn’t happen. You begin writing, start sending your manuscripts to potential publishers, and get rejected. Then you continue and send your work again, and who knows how many times you will have to do this before you get published.

Of course, it is important to network. If you know people in the industry, it is easier to get noticed, to get real feedback and to understand what the market is looking for. So go to conferences related to your genre and the bigger non-specialized events as well. Try to meet writers and publishers there, and really understand what sells and what doesn’t at the moment.

Your other option is to self-publish; in this case be prepared to make a name for yourself. You must be business-savvy and ready to market your books if that’s the path you choose to go down.