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Learn to Write Novels by Writing Short Stories

When I was in college a well-meaning English professor read one of my short stories and encouraged me to expand it into a novel. I wholeheartedly agreed. I thought it would make a good novel then, and I think so now. But at that time I wasn’t ready to write a novel. I’d only been trying to write professionally for a short time and was just becoming comfortable with the short story form. I didn’t realize that a novel is an entirely different animal, and it takes much longer to write.

So I started pounding the keyboard to transform my 5,000-word short story into a 50,000-word novel. Shouldn’t be too hard, right? Just add scenes. Piece of cake. Unfortunately, at that time I had never heard of Elmore Leonard or his one-sentence explanation of the driving force behind his writing: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Long story short, my first novel was mostly made up of parts that even I skipped. I finally put it out of its misery at 47,000 words because I couldn’t stand working on it another minute, not even to reach my goal of 50,000 words. I never submitted it anywhere. I tried to throw it away, but the garbage man rejected it. He suggested I call the hazardous waste people. I put it on a shelf in the closet where it gathered dust and dead flies–who died instantly once they landed on it . . .

Okay, I’m exaggerating. But the best thing I can say about my first novel is that it stunk to high heaven, and the worst thing I can say about it cannot be published on a family blog. Mercifully, the thing was lost over the years as I moved from one place to another. I hope it won’t show up to haunt me when I least expect it.

Why should you care about my first novel-writing experience? I’m glad you asked.

Regular readers of this blog know by now that I have a man-crush on Ray Bradbury. Bradbury’s advice to aspiring writers is to write short stories to learn their craft. You can write one short story per week, 52 short stories per year, but it will take you months to write a novel. You get more practice, and more chances of getting it right – and you learn more about writing – by writing short stories.

Except for my one deviation described above, I followed Bradbury’s advice. I wrote 200 short stories before I wrote my next novel. Most of them were clinkers, but among the coal were some gems. I finally got it right and was prepared to tackle a longer form.

And judging from comments I’ve gotten from readers and reviewers, I did a much better job with my second novel, In Human Form, than I did with my first.

Four Steps to Building a Successful Writing Career

For a business to succeed, four things are necessary:

  • Financing
  • Research and development
  • Production
  • Marketing

To build a successful writing career, you must use the same principles.

  1. Financing. What this means is: don’t quit your day job. You will need money to support yourself and your family while you are struggling to break in. The financing may come from your job, your spouse’s job, a trust fund, or the lottery, but it must be there until you’ve established yourself. A WORD OF CAUTION: Don’t quit your job as soon as you get an advance for a novel, unless it”s for a million bucks or so; a first novel usually won’t bring an advance anywhere near that, but it’s not unheard of (i.e.-Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook).
  2. Research and Development. Applied to novel writing, R & D is thinking up story ideas and developing plots and characters. Many success gurus recommend setting aside an hour a day to think about how to improve your work. Lots of writers use this method to plan stories. Sit at your computer or with a notebook and write down everything that comes into your head about the story you’re working on. Everything. There will be lots of garbage, but you can eliminate that later. For that hour, don’t reject anything. Write it all down.
  3. Production. Writing the novel. Sit at the keyboard and type and revise and polish your manuscript. Although some writers claim that you’ll know your novel is finished when you’ve revised it so much you’re sick of it, I maintain that you will know when it’s completed, and you won’t be sick of it. There’s a thin line between doing the best you can and being a perfectionist; at some point you must let go. Perfectionism may seem like a good thing, but it’s not. Perfectionism can stall a budding career because the writer is trying to make his or her novel perfect, and that is impossible. You’ll only be tinkering with it–tinkering that won’t make any difference in the long run–when you could be trying to sell it. You must sharpen your ability to sense when you have crossed the border from revising to tinkering. After all that work, you’ll be too close to your novel and your judgment may be impaired. Send out 10 queries, and if you get 10 rejections, your manuscript will have cooled off enough for you to take another look at it (also take another look at the query letter; that could be the problem, not the story).
  4. Marketing. Send out queries. Send them out to 10 or more agents at a time. If you have a good story and have written a good query, chances are good a few of the agents will ask for partials or the complete manuscript. If none of the first 10 agents offers representation, send out 10 more queries–possibly rewriting the query slightly. Repeat this process until you sell your novel. Don’t dash off your query; take your time, make it as good as you possibly can. A query that grabs an agent’s attention may be all that stands between your novel being published  or being shoved to the back of your closet where it gathers dust. For some good insight into writing queries, go to agent Kristen Nelson’s blog and scroll down the right side of the screen for everything you need to know about submitting to agents.

For your writing career to prosper you must not neglect any of these areas. And don’t stop. After you’ve gone through the process with one novel, begin again with another. Keep repeating the process. And never give up. The first novel you write probably will not be the one that is published.

To see how one best selling author did it, read Nicholas Sparks’ account of how he found an agent and a publisher for The Notebook.

Why You Need An Agent

Do you really need a literary agent to sell your novel?

Probably not; however, you should have one. The reason is simple–writers write. If writers also try to sell their work and handle the business deals, they have less time to write.

There are several reasons you should stick to writing and let the agents handle the sales and business deals:

  • Selling a manuscript is a specialized skill. You would have to  do extensive research on the types of fiction publishers are buying and which editors are reading which categories of fiction. And you’d have to keep up-to-date–editors move around, and their needs change.
  • Agents have made contacts in the publishing industry–doing the research and keeping up-to-date is their job.
  • Agents can often get your work read more quickly than you can if you submit it yourself; the editor may not know you, but he knows the agent and trusts her judgment, so he’s more likely to put your novel on the front burner.
  • Agents sometimes can set up an auction situation where several publishers bid on a manuscript; this would be difficult, if not impossible, for an unknown writer to do himself.
  • Agents know the ins and outs of contracts. They try to get their clients the best deals they can and hold on to subsidiary rights (film, TV, foreign, etc.)–the inexperienced author might inadvertently sign away some of these rights to the publisher. Being able to navigate contracts is more important than ever now that  eBooks are at the center of a controversy about what royalties should be paid, how earnings should be reported, and the rights that will be retained by the author or sold to the publisher.
  • Agents interpret the royalty statements, which can be a pain if you’re not familiar with publishers’ accounting procedures.

It’s not as difficult to get an agent as you might think. Do the following two things, and you should be able to find one :

  • Write a good novel, one that people will want to read.
  • Write a good query letter, one that will inspire the agent to ask for a partial or the complete manuscript.

To write a good novel, there is no substitute for practice, lots of practice. An excellent guide to writing a novel that people will want to read is literary agent Donald Maass’ Writing the Breakout Novel and its companion, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Those books not only have good information on how to write a novel that people will want to read, but they also offer some insight into what agents and publishers look for in a manuscript.

To write a good query letter, here are a few things to remember:

  • Keep your letter to one page.
  • Try to make a connection with the agent. Keep it brief, like “I met you at such and such conference.” If you haven’t met or corresponded with the agent, do some research about her to see if there is something you can work in, such as a similarity between your novel and another she has represented. But don’t try to force a connection; if you don’t have one it’s better not to say anything. Say something like, “I’ve just completed an 85,000-word literary novel entitled [you novel’s title].”
  • The next paragraph should be your “hook,” a one-line summary of your novel’s conflict, what makes it unique. Then write a few sentences expanding on the hook. Include the main characters and the setting.
  • Next write a short paragraph about you. Keep it short. If you’ve had fiction published, mention it. If you have some special knowledge or experience that is relevant to your novel, put that down. If you’re a beginner with no published works or special experience, leave this part out. It won’t hurt you. The agent probably will have decided to ask for a partial on the basis of your hook and description. If he has decided not to ask for a partial, he probably won’t finish reading the query.
  • End by asking the agent if she would like to see the complete manuscript, and thank her for taking the time to read your letter. Very important. Don’t leave that last part out, the thanking her part. The agent will then ask for a partial, the complete manuscript, or will pass on your novel.

It’s okay to send queries to several agents simultaneously. Most agents expect this, but if you receive an offer of representation it is common courtesy to inform the other agents to whom you have submitted.

It’s as important to craft your query letter as carefully as you crafted your novel. The query is your main sales tool; too many writers spend most of their time an energy writing their novels, then dash off a slipshod query and expect agents to be trampling one another to get their hands on what is surely to be a hot best seller.

I’ve only sketched in the process finding an agent. For for information in much more depth, check out Guide To Literary Agents and Pub Rants. Not only do those two Websites tell you how to do it, they give you samples of queries that worked. Also, do some Web surfing yourself. You’ll find more information on writing queries than you’ll need.

Happy writing!

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