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The 5 Steps to Writing a Novel that Sells

To create a marketable product—in this case, a salable manuscript—you need to follow these five steps. Although they may seem obvious, many writers ignore them.

“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” (W. SOMERSET MAUGHAM)

Before you decide which publishing options to pursue and begin your search for editors or agents, there is one very important, often overlooked factor to attend to.

As in any industry, to sell something, you must have a quality product the public wants to buy. How you go about creating that product will, in part, determine how successful you’ll be.

To create a marketable product—in this case, a salable manuscript—you need to follow these five steps. Although they may seem obvious, many writers ignore them.

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The 5 Steps to Creating a Sellable Novel

Step 1: Read before you write.Before you even sit down to write, agents and editors advise that you read other writers. Famous writers do, too. William Faulkner said, “Read, read, read. Read everything—trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out the window.”

Stephen King said, “If you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the time or the tools to write.”

Reading the work of other writers helps give you those tools.

“The best advice I can give,” says agent Nancy Yost of Lowenstein-Yost Associates, “is read, read, and read some more. It’s important to read other writers and to know what other people are reading. The best writers are avid readers.”

Reading other writers will give you a more in-depth understanding of what’s out there, and it can help you improve your own writing as well. Read for style, read for content, read for technique. Read to understand the marketplace and to determine if what you want to write will fit in.

But there are ways to read a book to get what you need out of it. It’s too easy to get lost in a good story and forget why you’re reading it. Former executive editor Kent Carroll gives a few hints:

“Take a book you like and go through it a second time. Dissect it. Take it apart to see how the thing is structured, what the convention of storytelling is. Pay particular attention to how the book is organized. I think you can learn a lot from that. But don’t just imitate it. Let it come from your own heart, your own mind, your own imagination.”

How you read is important. But so is what you read. Read as much as you can, but not just the established writers, such as Danielle Steel or Stephen King. Make sure to be in touch with what’s new. Read the work of current authors that are being put out now. This is the kind of material that publishers are looking for. The old standbys will always be there. Be aware of what currently attracts agents and publishers.

“But remember that everything you’re seeing out on the shelves now was bought a while ago, so something you are sure is a new idea or a fresh twist may not be,” reminds Karen Taylor Richman, editor of the Special Edition line at Silhouette.

In addition to reading current authors, make sure you’re familiar with the line of publishers you’d like to write for. Richman says, “If you want to write for Silhouette, you should be reading Silhouette books to get a feel for what we’re looking for.” If you’re writing romances, then read the books romance publishers put out. The same goes for mysteries or books in any other genre.

Former editor Michael Seidman advises, “Read fiction, all kinds of fiction. I’ve found that reading best-sellers is a frustrating experience, because no one can tell you why a particular book made it in spite of everything that’s wrong with it. But if nothing else, it will reaffirm for you the fact that sometimes God smiles, and why shouldn’t that smile grace you?”

Marjorie Braman, publishing director at HarperCollins, sums it up nicely. “If you want to be a writer, the best thing you can do for yourself, for a number of reasons, is read a lot. There’s the commercial reason of knowing what’s working, and how to tailor your book for a specific audience. And also, if you read voraciously, it opens you up to a broader approach in your own writing. You can hone your skills by reading people who are good writers.”

Afraid to read for fear your writing will be adversely affected? Some writers make that excuse for not reading. Don’t be one of them. This mindset can sabotage new writers. Nancy Bereano, former editor at Firebrand Books, says, “When writers say to me, ‘Oh, I never read anyone else because I don’t want to be influenced by them,’ I laugh hysterically. Give me a break.”

Step 2: Write for the market. Editors and agents want you to be aware of the market and to write for it. Without a commercial product, they’d have nothing to sell. “The writing I look for should be ‘relentlessly commercial,’” says Kate Duffy, an editorial director with Kensington Publishing Corporation.

If you want to have your book considered by a particular publisher, become familiar with that publisher’s list. There are formulas that certain genre books follow—and it’s your job to be aware of them and to create a work that fits a publisher’s guidelines. Senior editor Jennifer Brehl of Avon Books agrees. “Be familiar with the clichés of your genre before submitting.”

How do you write for the market? Says editor Ginjer Buchanan: “You won’t have a lot of success if you are just stumbling around in a vacuum. Read Publishers Weekly. Read magazines on the genre you are interested in. Study the markets so you know what is happening. It’s basic, but you won’t get anywhere without paying attention to those types of details. Later, you can rely on your agent to keep track of markets and trends, but beginning writers really have to know what the business is doing. If you don’t work hard at the business end of your writing, you’re just dooming yourself to disappointment.”

Agents don’t really want to say “no” to writers. They make their living finding good, commercial writing they can sell. “But,” says agent Peter Rubie, “the reality is that the bulk of material agents receive is just not up to a publishable standard. I love to come across great material, but people don’t read enough and have no idea what’s fresh and what isn’t, what’s been done or what hasn’t. I get queries that say, ‘I’ve written a unique book about a vampire that’s called AIDS.’ It seems like a great idea except that I get the same idea sent to me at least ten times a week.”

Laura Anne Gilman, executive editor for Roc at Dutton, says, “Know your market! Reading is the best way to study a market. You shouldn’t be writing in a genre unless you enjoy it. Watch what is selling, who the authors are, and read those books. And keep trying.”

Step 3: Write for yourself. Step three sounds as if it contradicts the advice in step two, but it really doesn’t. Writing for the market and writing for yourself can co-exist. Market-savvy writers understand the fine line here and know how to blend both elements.

Agent Russell Galen explains: “The writing process should be shaped internally, by the writer himself, not by me or by the marketplace. It isn’t simply that this makes for better books, though, of course, it does; it actually makes for more commercial books. When the writing process is shaped externally, the result is always an obvious knockoff, an ersatz Rolex made in Hong Kong, and I can spot it.”

Write what you love to read. Don’t shy away from the genre you love because you fear it will be too difficult to break into. Yes, Stephen King and Dean Koontz have had the horror market sewn up for years. But that doesn’t mean a fresh voice in the horror world would not be appreciated. The same holds for other genres, too.

And don’t make the mistake of thinking there’s an easier path to publication. Occasionally, we’ve run across a new writer or two who thought that romance was the way to break in. But these new writers were not lovers of the genre—in fact, they had done little reading in that arena. Writing romance requires a great depth of skill. In fact, nothing is easy or easier to write. If you don’t know and love the genre you are writing in, it will show and you won’t make it.

Choose your genre based on what you like. John Scognamiglio, an editorial director of Kensington Publishing Corporation, says, “I don’t think a writer should decide to write a historical romance just because that’s what’s selling now. They need to combine what they like to read or write with what’s selling.”

Says Anne Savarese, former editor at St. Martin’s Press (now with Oxford University Press), “It’s easier to sell a first novel if it fits into some kind of genre. But often writers worry too much about tailor-making their work to what they think publishers want. Even to the point of what kind of novel they’re going to write. I think it’s best to be true to what you want to do. If you have a novel in mind, you should write that novel as best you can. Certainly you want to send it to a publisher who will most likely be interested in it, but sometimes, for example, new writers will say, ‘Oh, these techno-thrillers are really big, why don’t I write one of those?’ But that’s usually not a good idea. If you’re not writing something you’re really interested in or know well, it’s going to show.”

Agent Evan Marshall agrees: “Don’t try to fake it. Write only the kind of books you love to read and never deviate from that. Find your niche and stay in it, and believe in yourself. Don’t leave it just because you get rejected. If you’re really good you will be published.”

Step 4: Learn how to write. This seems like such an obvious step, you might be wondering why it’s even included. But it’s a step many new writers often overlook. You might have been an avid reader all your life and feel more than ready. And yes, reading other writers does help with your own writing. But it’s often not enough to bring your work up to publishable standards.

Let’s compare an aspiring writer with an aspiring physician. It’s true that part of the training for a medical student is to observe seasoned doctors at work. But before students are even allowed in a hospital room or an operating theater, they must sit in lecture halls, read and absorb countless textbooks, and study, study, study.

Can you imagine a med student on his first day being shown an operating table with a tray of instruments next to it—and being told to begin a surgical procedure on his own? Hardly.

Admittedly, writing a novel certainly isn’t brain surgery, and nobody dies if your fingers slip on the keyboard. But the point is that learning how to write is not something that happens in a day, or in a vacuum. Yes, being an avid reader is an important part of the process, but it is an ongoing process—and there are other elements to consider as well.

Here are some avenues to pursue to learn the craft of writing:

  • HOW-TO BOOKS. In addition to your mainstream or genre reading, don’t forget the textbooks of the trade. Hundreds of how-to books are available on every aspect of writing the novel. They cover writing in general and also narrow in on specific topics. Want more insight into plot, dialogue, characterization, voice, style, viewpoint, action, or conflict? There’s a book that covers it.

There are books on grammar, too. You’ve probably heard about this or that famous writer who couldn’t spell or whose grammar would have horrified his seventh-grade English teacher. That’s what editors are for, right?

Wrong. In today’s market that writer would have a difficult time getting his work considered seriously, never mind published. Of course, an agent or editor might overlook the glaring mistakes. But the story and characters would have to be pretty outstanding to keep the agent or editor’s attention beyond the first paragraph. Why lessen your chances?

  • MAGAZINES AND NEWSLETTERS. In addition to how-to books, there are very good periodicals out there that can help you. Writer’s Digest magazine, The Writer, and countless newsletters put out by various writers associations are all good sources from which to glean information. Check out our appendix on page 229 for extra resources.
  • UNIVERSITY WRITING PROGRAMS. Many new writers enroll in university master’s degree writing programs. For some this is an excellent way to hone skills, but there are authors, agents, and editors who have mixed feelings about these programs.Former editor Michael Seidman says, “I think they can be brilliant training grounds, but too many of them are insular and wind up teaching you how to teach a master’s course.
  • “But, they can serve to stretch your imagination and force you to look at writing from perspectives that might not be your usual ones. So, in the end, if you have the time and finances to attend, I’d go for it.”Best-selling author Susan Isaacs is glad she didn’t attend a writing program. “If I had taken a writing class, I would surely have lost it [her own writing voice] and come out writing present tense fiction like everyone else in New York.”Author Flannery O’Connor wryly pointed out: “Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”
  • ADULT EDUCATION PROGRAMS. While there might be a bit of snobbery attached—for and against—attending a university master’s course in creative writing, there are many fine adult education programs out there offering workshops, seminars, and classes, taught by solid, experienced writers and teachers. Marshall Cook has coached writers through one such program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Division of Continuing Studies, for almost three decades.Adult education classes, especially those focused on writing, generally attract serious people who want to improve their craft and learn how to get published. You’ll meet other people with the same interests and concerns you have. Through adult education classes you can find other writers with whom you can start a critique or writers support group that continues to meet after the adult education class is over. The contacts you make and the support you receive will be invaluable.You can find adult education classes through your local school board or nearby community colleges or universities.
  • WRITERS CONFERENCES. Writers conferences are another good vehicle for learning how to write. While excellent for meeting agents and editors and other new writers, (which you’ll learn more about in upcoming chapters) they also afford you the opportunity to hear successful authors speak on novel-writing techniques.Workshops can cover everything from novel openings to characterization to dialogue or conflict. You can learn how to pace your thriller or plant clues for your mystery. Some conferences also offer manuscript critiquing for an additional charge.It’s important for a new writer to invest some time, money, and energy in learning the craft, and a writers’ conference is a good place to do that.Says agent Julie Castiglia, “People sometimes think they can tackle a book without spending any money or effort on training. They expect their book to be top-notch without going to writers’ conferences, taking classes, or learning the craft of writing. Even if you are very talented, you need instruction and networking in order to develop your writing to the fullest potential. If you haven’t invested yourself in learning to write, you are wasting your time seeking an agent.”
  • SUPPORT GROUPS. Many writers depend on critique or support groups. It’s difficult to improve your craft writing in a vacuum. A well-chosen group with a particular focus and a set of guidelines to follow can provide valuable feedback on your work.Editorial director John Scognamiglio says, “You should always try to get someone to read your work. A lot of times writers can’t distance themselves enough and someone else might find something you might have missed. A writer shouldn’t be afraid of criticism; part of writing is rejection. It’s just a matter of building a tough shell and knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are.”You can find other writers through taking adult education classes, belonging to local writers organizations such as the SouthWest Writers, or by joining online groups such as Fiction Writer’s Connection, which Blythe Camenson runs. Through FWC, members can contact other members and form e-mail or chat room support groups. Also try local libraries. Many provide space for writers to meet regularly for discussion and critique.Although writers groups can be very helpful, it’s also important not to become so dependent on them that you lose your own voice. Agent George Nicholson of Sterling Lord Literistic says, “It’s important to be your own person. Too many novice writers are uncertain about their skills and pay too much attention to what others say. While it is important to listen to what others say, trust in your own instincts and judgment.”
  • CRITIQUES. Paid critiquing—by a trusted professional—is also a possibility to consider. The critiquer’s comments can help pinpoint your problem areas and offer suggestions on how to correct them.Good critiquers usually provide margin notes, circling errors and noting questions that need addressing. In addition, they usually type up full reports covering any of the writing or plotting problems identified in your manuscript. The report could cover everything from how best to open your manuscript, to pacing, characterization, dialogue, and action. Through FWC, Blythe has critiqued hundreds of manuscripts over the years. She helps writers learn how to write more tightly and avoid the first-novel problems covered in the following section.If you’re open to improving your work, and need one-on-one feedback, a critique could be the way to go. Just make sure the critiquer is known and has a good reputation, and that his or her fees are reasonable. Critiques usually run between three and five dollars a page or more, depending upon the skill of the writer. Line edits, which promise comments or notations on every error, would cost more.You can find critiquers through adult education classes and university writing programs, or online.

Step 5: Polish your product. Many new writers are so excited about the prospect of seeing their name in print that they rush too quickly to get their material out there. Typing “The End” on that last page isn’t necessarily your signal to get the mailers and your self-addressed, stamped envelopes (SASEs) ready.

Yes, it is cause for celebration. Many people will tell you they have a great book in them. But only a small percentage actually sit down and write that book. You’re one of a select few who applied bottom to chair and produced a finished product.

Or is it really finished? Your product might not be ready for the marketplace. In the rush to publication, many new writers inadvertently defeat their efforts for success. They send out their first draft instead of their tenth. They send out sloppily prepared manuscripts. They send out novels with grammatical errors and typos. They send out novels with technical errors, point–of-view problems, plotting mistakes, characterization inconsistencies, and loose ends galore.

“Put down everything that comes into your head and then you’re a writer. But an author is one who can judge his own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it.” This hard-nosed quote is attributed to author Colette.

In a similar vein, Oscar Wilde said, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”

Self-editing is an important part of the polishing process. “I really believe in writers rewriting their material,” says editorial director John Scognamiglio. “When someone sends something off it should be really polished. Writers learn a lot when they go over their material. I think you can get better if you keep working at it.”

Agent Elizabeth Wales agrees. “Work on your craft and polish what you are offering: Don’t send out drafts!”

These five steps to a salable product really do work—if you follow the steps. Look back on our earlier example of the doctor learning his profession. Considering the investment of both time and money a doctor has to make to pursue a medical career, writers have it easy. A few how-to books, market guides, a well-chosen conference or two a year, and perhaps a manuscript critique, all add up to a small amount of money, comparatively speaking, and it is money well spent.

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As agent Evan Marshall says, “Before you even approach an agent, learn your market inside out and master the techniques of your craft the best you can.”

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