I Just Finished My First Novel And …

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

…I was hoping you could recommend an agent.

…I was hoping you’d have a look and tell me if I’m on the right track.

…I was hoping you’d tell me the best way to self-publish so it will have a chance to sell.

These are all variations on a theme in emails I’ve received over the years. I’ve answered each one, but calculate that in the cumulative expenditure of time I could probably have written a novel or two. I thought I’d write this blog post so the next time I get such an email I can simply send a link!

So … Hello, hopeful first-timer! And thanks for your email.

A few thoughts:

You are not ready for an agent. Most likely, that is, for an agent is not looking for a book to sell. An agent is looking for a writer to represent, one who will be able to produce quality books (plural). And by quality, I mean something that stands out, is bold and beautiful, but also has a reasonable chance to capture a significant market share. Can you say that about this first novel? And by the way, are you developing a second novel? Have you got a great idea for a third?

I can’t read your manuscript. I am a working writer, and there are only so many hours in a day. If you attend a conference where I am reading manuscripts as part of the deal, I will have a look at your first 3000 words or so. I can tell a lot about a writer in 3k…so, by the way, can an agent or editor. But outside of that limited venue, I just don’t have the time, and I don’t read for a fee. There are good teachers who do. One of them is blog brother Larry Brooks via Storyfix.

You are probably not ready to self-publish. You could be the exception, but generally speaking your first novel is going to need a lot of work. By the way, have you heard that writing is work? Making money self-publishing is work. Tossing up books that aren’t ready for prime time is not the way to make money. Becoming a professional about things is (and I use professional in the sense of doing productive things in a systematic way). You need a plan, and business sense. Here I can recommend a book.

But you’ve finished your first novel. Congratulations! That is a big step. There are more:

  • Let your manuscript sit for three weeks or so. Print out a hard copy and read it as if you had just purchased the book and it’s from a brand new author. Take minimal notes, but be looking for places where things slow down or don’t work for some reason. Mark those places.
  • Do any fixing you can. If something’s not working, try to figure out for yourself what to do about it. Books on revision, for example, can help you here. You will learn invaluable lessons that will serve you in the future.
  • Write a second draft.
  • Show your second draft to beta readers, people you know and trust to give you specific feedback. It helps to give them a checklist of questions, like this one.
  • Re-write again.
  • As this is your first novel, a pass from a good professional editor is a good investment.

You’re here? You’ve done all that? Good going! I trust, then, that you are at least halfway through the first draft of your next novel.

What?

Yep.

This is the work ethic of the career writer.

Repeat over and over the rest of your life.

Thank you for your email.

Keep writing.

JSB

Any other advice for such a one as this?

12+

34 thoughts on “I Just Finished My First Novel And …

  1. Nicely said, Jim. I wish I had this post yesterday when a mother assumed I’d be willing to critique her son’s first attempt at writing. The worst is when new writers just send the manuscript without asking first, like I have nothing better to do than give feedback on their stories. Thanks for this. In the future, I’ll refer them to this post, too.

    • Most of the time I’ve gotten a request, but on those occasions when the thing is sent and a reply is expected, I just shake my head and wonder what happened to the lost art of asking nicely!

  2. “Any other advice…” Yes. Keep visiting and reading the posts on this blog.

    A great big thanks for the time you and your fellow bloggers put into teaching on this site. It’s where I start my writing days.

    And, by the way, the link to “How to Make a Living as a Writer” shows that the digital format is free today.

    Thanks for all your teaching, Jim!

  3. Good reminder to be considerate of other people’s time & not assume. I’ve written a well-known author before to thank them for their contributions to that particular field and they wrote me a very nice reply back, and off-handedly mentioned being glad it wasn’t a request for them to do something for someone else.

    I won’t lie & say I wouldn’t have loved to have picked that author’s brain on their keys to success in time management & organization (they’re very prolific), but honestly, before that author’s reply I never gave much thought to how many requests an author gets so I’m glad I didn’t bug them with questions.

    • A little genuine appreciation, without more, is always welcome to an author. Of course, we do understand that new writers seek blurbs and feedback. As long as they are polite about it, and won’t take a turn down personally, the balance should work out.

  4. Thanks Mr. Bell, for a great post. I’m new to the writing world and have been following TKZ and other writing blogs for several years. I have learned so much from the authors of the posts and from the comments. The posts have often led me to books and websites on writing, editing, and revision. The books and websites have provided me with much needed guidance.
    I’ve been fortunate to have been able to attend a conference and participate in a session with a published author who provided feedback on some of my pages she had read. At the same conference, I met with an editor who did the same. Both provided constructive feedback and encouragement.
    It blows my mind that people would think they have the right to request that a published author would read their manuscript or refer them to their agent! There are many resources out there, reputable resources, where you can learn the ropes of this industry.
    Thanks to TKZ for an excellent group of writing experts.

  5. Seek informed criticism and learn to accept it. Too many writers believe their baby is perfect. They ask for critiques, but then say, “yes, I’m more of a literary writer” or “my novel isn’t linear.”

    • Stephen King did a wonderful piece on accepting comments from his beta readers (including his wife.) He said that every word the writer says in reply after “but,” needs to be stricken.

      Terri

  6. I have a short work in the phase I call “soaking in the marinade,” meaning I typed “The End” knowing it was the beginning. It gets another week. Then I’m taking a trip and it will be my reading material.

    The one piece of advice, I got years ago from a source I can’t even remember:

    “Always play tennis with someone who can beat you.”

    For writers, it usually means leaving that petting circle of a workshop or forum or group of those in your same boat who pass each other’s work around and say things like, “the raw emotion made me weep.”

    No, at some point you have to start running with the big dogs and learning what you need to know. I immediately improved when I did that. Subbing to the first page critiques and joining in on the discussions here is a level up.

    It’s not dreary and counter-productive to always be in a game where you are on the low end of the skill scale because you find that as you apply yourself, it takes better and better players to beat you. You are moving up through the ranks even though it may not feel like it.

    And that advice is best coupled with another sports metaphor that alas is also unattributed:

    If you can’t see yourself on the medal platform, then it’s time to get off the ice.

    Meaning a defeatist attitude leads only to, you guessed it, defeat. I visualize success and work on defining what it means to me. But then I also identify the obstacles (number one being my utter lack of time management skills) and know that it’s time to head back to the court and whack a few (hundred) more balls, especially if I can play against someone who makes it look easy.

    Terri

    • “Always play tennis with someone who can beat you.”

      I got that same advice when I was learning to play chess. Play somebody a little stronger. I got good enough to win my freshman dorm championship. Of course, some of my opponents were high when they played me, but hey, a trophy’s a trophy.

    • Love the tennis analogy and playing up. Wise advice to apply to writing and other creative endeavors as well.

  7. My heart is pounding right now.
    My first novel is almost ready to pitch. I’ve done three drafts, had my computer read it to me, sent it out to four beta readers, and I’m almost done with those tune ups. I have my next novel outlined, and will have started writing it by the time anyone asks for a full submission of my first.
    When you say a writer with a first novel is not ready for an agent, do you mean they should skip this step as it might be a waste of time with rejections based on my ‘green’ status unless I’m brilliant (which would certainly be questionable at this point)? Is it better to try and get a contract directly with a publisher?

    • Janet, your comment suggests to me that you could be ready for an agent search. As I tried to make clear, an agent wants to know that you can produce other books as well, and you are demonstrating that. The one thing you haven’t done yet is get a professional editorial opinion. However, a well done proposal could do the work of that first step of getting an agent interested. You can find suggestions on how to do proposals in our archives by using the search box, or consulting my book The Art of War for Writers.

      As far as approaching publishers directly, it’s been done, though it requires a lot of business savvy. The role of the agent is to know a lot of the things you don’t know. You can learn them, but it’s a big learning curve. If a traditional publishing contract is your aim, it wouldn’t hurt for you to propose to a few agents and get more feedback.

      You are on the right track as far as your work habits. Keep it up!

  8. Thanks so much, James! I admire and value your opinion and I will go get my copy of the Art of War right now and check out the chapter on proposals. My day is saved!

  9. I’d add: Insist on the patience to do the necessary research. I’m jealous of the research you did for the Kit Shannon series and _Glimpses of Paradise_. Definitely an advantage of a series is that you can reuse much of the research. I would think a first novel could pass all the other tests but if it got certain things wrong (e.g., the kinds of things Gilstrap writes about here), it would still not get accepted.

    In writing short stories for the past three years or so I’ve managed to skirt areas I’m not expert on. I’m finding, about four chapters into what I hope will be a novel, that it’s harder to do with a novel. And I’m not good at contacting strangers and asking to pick their brains. Sometimes I think it would be easier to create a fantasy world from scratch.

    When you emphasize being into the second novel and having an idea for the third, how important is it that they be a series? My second and third ideas are different enough from number one that they couldn’t be forced into a series.

    • Eric, one way to approach research is to write your scene with your “best guess” and get through the draft, then later find people to look at those scenes for you. Most people like to talk about their professions. I bought lunch the other day for a retired LAPD detective, and just listened.

      No, your next book doesn’t have to be part of a series. There are still plenty of stand alones out there.

  10. JSB,
    Love the post, but would you make an exception in my— Just kidding!

  11. Great post. Thanks for the checklist for Beta readers. I’m almost ready with my second book. Hope I can get to a conference where you are doing the 3K review. Are you always in LA? I don’t live there anymore.

  12. Great advice – I can’t tell you how many people think that once they’ve finished the first draft that novel is ready to be published and will be an instant bestseller…when really it’s just the first step in the process:)

  13. Thank you, Jim, for an excellent post. It brought back a memory of a time when folks would ask my husband if he “would just take a look at the TV, appliances, electrical circuits, etc. during a group outing or visit “when you have a few minutes….” and always, assuming no charge in the name of professional friendship, or just plain insensitivity.
    Again, a lot of good stuff in your post.

  14. I am going through a period of intense psychoanalysis of my first novel and have taken your previous post on novel structure very much to heart. Am I to take away from this post that your first novel, no matter how many times it’s been reworked, redrafted, beta-read, etc. etc. etc., it will never be ready to submit a query to an agent unless and until you have a draft of a second novel done and a third outlined? Is that part of the code to be cracked for agent interest?

    • Barbara, good question. Having that second one under way is always a good sign. But if you have a crackerjack first novel, you might be able to skirt with an “I am working out the idea of my next one.” But be aware that there have been a legion of debut novelists who have not been able to follow up with a second good book.

      It’s also just plain old good discipline if you want to make a career out of this.

      • Thanks for the advice. I’ve got an idea but haven’t pursued other than in my head. I’ll get working on it. It’s very hard to let go of the first one.

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