Hint: There are no secrets to writing a great novel. But there are some things you need to know.
This post is a slightly grumpy response to the myriads of posts/ads I’ve seen lately offering to help you write a bestselling book in nothing flat. They make me wish English had no generic word such as book that can apply equally to any set of bound pages (or bytes of equivalent length), regardless of category, genre, or quality. Fortunately, we do have a specific word for book-length works of fiction: novel.
The shortcuts I’m referring to (at least, the ones presented in good faith, such as Michael Hyatt’s current offering)* might work fine for writing a nonfiction book, especially if it’s something connected with your business or area of expertise. But when it comes to writing a novel . . .
- There are no shortcuts.
- It’s hard. (Yes, it can be fun, but that doesn’t make it less hard.)
- It isn’t something everyone can do. You DO need education, training, talent, and lots and lots of practice. (According to Ray Bradbury, about a million words’ worth of practice.)
- It’s part of a tradition. If you haven’t been reading great novelists voraciously since childhood, you should probably drop everything and do that for the next twenty years. Then you might be ready to start writing.
- It isn’t quick. Despite the popularity of National Novel Writing Month, it is extremely rare that anyone is able to produce a complete, polished novel in 30 days. A year is closer to the norm.
- It isn’t formulaic. As W. Somerset Maugham said, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
- It’s a lifelong commitment. A career. A vocation. It isn’t something any sane person would do “just for fun” or to check it off a bucket list. Before you finish one novel, the next one should be percolating in your subconscious.
- It’s individual. You can read all you want about other writers’ processes, habits, and journeys to publication, but ultimately, your process, habits, and journey will be uniquely your own.
- It isn’t a vehicle for a message. It’s art. You need to have something to say, but if you can express that something in a neat little sentence or paragraph, you should be writing nonfiction, not a novel. Art is more about asking questions than answering them.
- It isn’t a solo process. Writing itself is solitary—too solitary for some. But once you finish a draft, you’ll need critiquers and beta readers, and these people should not be your spouse, mother, best friend, or the English teacher who praised your writing in high school—unless those people happen to be publishing professionals or readers of extraordinary perspicacity and frankness. You’ll need cheerleaders and mentors and writing buddies to make it through the process. Ultimately, to publish, you’ll need agents, editors, designers, publicists, marketers, and readers as well.
- It’s all about quality. If you send your novel to dozens of agents and/or editors and it repeatedly gets rejected, the best response is to revise, revise, and revise again—not immediately to default to self-publishing. (Self-publishing is fine once you have objective testimony that your novel is the best it can be. It just shouldn’t be a substitute for doing the work to get it there.)
- It’s doable. If you persevere despite numbers 1–11 and complete a polished novel, you will have achieved something a great many people dream of doing but relatively few actually accomplish. You will have joined the Eternal Worldwide Brother-Sisterhood of Novelists, which is a really great group to belong to—whether your novel ever reaches a bestseller list or not. Congratulations and welcome to the club!