Becoming a Novelist: Five Principles to Success

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The story of how I broke into publishing is not one most aspiring writers immediately find helpful. One bitter individual informed me that my experience only proves the insularity of the industry, that you are nobody without an “in.” On the surface, he’s right; my “in” opened that final elusive door to publication. Less obvious are the years I spent opening doors for myself.

You can open these doors, too.

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Column by Hester Young, author of the Southern Gothic thriller
THE GATES OF EVANGELINE (Sept. 2015, G.P. Putnam's Sons)
the first of a trilogy. The second book in the series, THE SHIMMERING

ROAD, will be released in February 2017. Before turning to writing
full-time, Young worked as a teacher in Arizona, Hawai’i, and
New Hampshire. She currently lives with her husband and
two children in New Jersey.

Here are the facts: at nineteen, I interned with the fledgling Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency in Boston. Fifteen years later, when I’d completed my first novel, THE GATES OF EVANGELINE, I hunted down agent Esmond Harmsworth and sent him an email query. He quickly requested a full manuscript, and by the end of the month I’d signed with him. Six months later, I accepted a three-book deal with G.P. Putnam’s Sons, one of Penguin Random House’s oldest and most prestigious imprints. Easy, right?

Except it took fifteen years.

If all you needed to publish was an “in,” I could’ve published at nineteen. But I had fifteen years of work to do before my connection had any currency. What truly helped me get an agent and a deal were my actions over that fifteen year period. Here are five principles that helped me find success.

1. Educate yourself.

There are many ways to learn about writing and publishing, and I tried several. My internship at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth taught me the importance of first impressions through query letters and opening chapters. My pair of English degrees exposed me to contemporary authors and shaped my style. My writing groups taught me to accept critiques with grace and enthusiasm. My book clubs gave me insight into what readers enjoy and dislike. Teaching high school English taught me to identify and systematically fix weak writing.

(The skinny on why to sign with a new/newer literary agent.)

The precise way you learn about writing doesn’t matter as much as the variety of your sources. Whether you attend a prestigious MFA program or find some great critique partners and become a fixture at your local library, a multi-directional approach has the best chance at success.

2. Build your resumé.

Earning just one sentence worth of writing experience can take years. It took two years (plus student loans!) for me to say I had an MA in English/Creative Writing. It took six years of writing and sending off short stories to say my work has appeared in several lit mags.

If you are a doctor writing a medical thriller or former cop writing a gritty crime novel, you know the years you spent gathering knowledge about your subject. Building a resumé takes time. Start now.

3. Embrace self-improvement.

Amateur writers are often insulted when people suggest changes to their writing. Professional writers know better. If I’d had a flare up over every revision my agent proposed for my first book, I’d have ended up drooling in a convalescent home, my nerves irreparably damaged. Instead, I spent five months fine-tuning my manuscript under his direction before it went into submission. By then, I’d gone through several rounds of beta readers, and editing was second nature.

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Part of learning to write is learning to listen non-defensively to your readers. Remember, they want you to be better. You have to want to be better, too! Find readers who have something to teach you.

4. Master the art of the query letter.

Interning at a literary agency gave me a leg up on queries. Having spent an entire summer reading other people’s incoherent descriptions of their manuscripts, I knew what worked. As an intern, I essentially looked for two things: who is the story about and what conflict does this character face? If that can’t be explained in two concise paragraphs, no one will be able to market your book.

Read sample queries—they’re all over the internet—and then read book jackets in your genre. The summary of your novel should read like a book jacket. It will make or break you.

(Should you sign with a new literary agent? Know the pros and cons.)

5. Use connections wisely.

These days, anyone can make a connection in the publishing world. From pitches on Twitter’s #PitMad to writers’ conferences, retreats, and festivals, agents are accessible to hungry writers. Hone your pitch, and you can attract interest. The key lies in how you use that connection.

My internship gave me exactly one “in.” Did I use it the moment I wrote something I was excited about? Nope. I waited until I had a polished piece with real commercial potential before I called in that favor.

I know it’s exhilarating to finish a novel, but chasing agents with some unedited, doesn’t-really-fit-any-genre early draft wastes their time and yours. Agents should not enter the picture until your product is at its absolute best. Ultimately, what really sells your book is…your book.

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