What Should I Expect From My First Novel?

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I got an email the other day from a young writer seeking advice about his foray into self-publishing. Here’s a clip:

As for my career this is going to be my debut work and as an author I currently have no following. My goal with the book is to establish myself professionally and get a small following going as well as bring in a good amount of money for a first book. My question is what are some steps I can take to build publicity about the book and myself without having any real following or platform?

Here is my answer.

  1. A small following does not bring in “a good amount of money”

Of course, what qualifies as a “good amount” varies, but I’m assuming this writer means more than Starbucks money. To get there, you’ll need a large following and more than one book. So…

  1. Attract a following with really good books

And what qualifies as a good book? Any book that follows all the advice on Kill Zone.

Ahem.

Only halfway kidding. It’s a book that is crafted in a way to connect with readers. It’s a book by an author serious about that craft. Which means …

  1. Get serious about your craft 

Because this is what you want to do. But there’s a big difference between wanting to do something and actually doing it well. Get feedback from a critique group or beta readers or professional editors. And…

  1. Plan ahead

Even as you’re finishing your novel, be developing two or three or four more, because …

  1. Your first novel will probably not be ready for prime time

They say everybody has a novel inside them, and that’s usually the best place to keep it. Really. First novels are almost always best seen as a learning experience. Rarely does an author hit it out of the park on the first pitch. In the “old days” of traditional publishing (roughly 1450 – 2007) the vast majority of authors went through many rounds of rejection, and it was that third or fourth or fifth novel that finally sold.

There were some notable exceptions, like Brother Gilstrap’s debut effort, Nathan’s Run. An exception which, you guessed it, proves the rule.

Today, of course, you can easily self-publish, but that ease is a lure, because …

  1. Self-publishing is not a get-rich-quick scheme

The explosion of content out there now demands not only that books be of good quality, but that the author understand and implement some basic fundamentals about running a small business.

Self-publishing can be a profitable enterprise if you …

  1. Produce and market at a steady clip

The only real formula for making bank as an indie is quality production over time, sprinkled with a modicum of marketing knowledge. Keep in mind that the single greatest factor in selling books is word-of-mouth. Hands down. Glitzy marketing efforts only get you so far. Your books have to do the heavy lifting, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking the only thing that matters is how vigorously and breathlessly you check all the marketing boxes.

Keep writing and learning on parallel tracks, and …

  1. Don’t go shopping for a yacht

At least not until you can pay cash for it, and have enough in the bank for docking fees, upkeep and a crew. Which reminds me …

  1. Learn to handle money like a Scottish shopkeeper

That’s good advice for anybody, no matter what they do. But what you do is write, so follow the above advice and…

  1. Repeat over and over the rest of your life

A real writer writes and does not stop, even if it means managing only 250 words a day between family or work obligations. Even if it means you’ve got a broken leg and you’re in a cast that’s hanging on a chain from a rack over your hospital bed. You can still talk 250 words into Google Docs through your phone.

That is what you can expect from your first novel.

So, Zoners, what did you all learn by finishing your first novel? Where is it now?

 

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40 thoughts on “What Should I Expect From My First Novel?

  1. The main thing I learnt was that I could actually write 100 000 words of story. First hurdle cleared.
    The book in question is now on my bookshelf, in loose-page, unpublished form.
    It’s presence generally reminds me how NOT to go about writing a book. Which is surely the best lesson of all ☺
    Onwards and upwards!

    • J.A., that’s one great and valuable lesson there. We learn a great many “Nots” by completing a novel and analyzing it, and have others help in that regard.

    • You speaketh wisely, Joe. Back in the “old days” I heard good counsel about this, to the effect of a) you need to have two books out that are positive on royalties; and b) be contracted up for two books, before even thinking about quitting that day job.

      On the indie side, with all the data at your disposal, you ought to wait for a year or two to manifest a positive trend line. Then, if you have a modicum of business sense, you could consider making a go of it.

      Or become a price checker at the 99¢ Store and keep writing on the side.

  2. Hi James, I actually published my first novel. After seven years of learning the craft and rewriting it at least four times. And then I met this gentleman at a writers conference and, after getting to know him better, he endorsed my first novel: “A superb debut novel. Faith, romance, action–they’re all here in abundance.” James Scott Bell. I’ll never forget you for taking this bold step to help a beginning author.

    • Henry, how nice of you to remember and mention.

      You really did it right, learning and re-writing. And then writing some more, as your output shows. That’s the name of this game all right.

      Thanks for stopping by TKZ!

  3. Excellent advice, Jim. My first four novels are trunked. Forever. It wasn’t until I’d honed my craft with book number five that it finally found a home.

    If your writer friend is in this gig for money, they chose the wrong field. “Overnight successes” have been writing for years, sometimes decades.

    • That’s inspiring, Sue. You wrote four novels and didn’t give up!

      :I was 40 years old before I became an overnight success, and I’d been publishing for 20 years.:- Mary Karr

  4. thanks to both of you, James AND Henry for the wise words- I’m now on my third version of my first book–some characters remain from the first two iterations but plot and character arc have changed completely. I look at those first two versions as my “learning (some about) the craft (always learning). When I first started, I remember my coach saying “first, I have to teach you about writing scenes.” Thankfully I’m through that initial learning curve and still have hopes for this one. and even have 50 pages on a new one written. But it’s been a long three years

    • Long, yes, but not wasted. And having a good coach saves more years. Indeed, when I recall how long it took me to learn this stuff, when I started writing books about it my stated goal was to save writers time on the learning curve.

  5. I’m probably on my eighth manuscript and only sent out queries for one, last year. But this time, time number 8, I really feel like I got a grip on things and this writing thing might actually work for me.

    As for my first full manuscript, I don’t even want to look at it. It’s awful. I wrote it from a spark, not a premise or even an idea. Shameful. It will never see the light of my computer screen. I only keep it around to remind myself that I did it once and that I can do it again. And 100,000 words back then only took me a year and a half.

    • Yes, I remember writing my first novel, a wild and unpublishable thing, but it felt so joyous that I thought it was genius.

      It took me several more years to begin to get that grip on things you mention.

  6. I learned that the novel form is too long for my stories. The novella is better for me. Learning that and basic writing skills took the last ten years and four finished novels.
    I read somewhere that we all start in the same genre – horror. It’s called a first draft. Oh, did JSB tell us that?
    Writing isn’t coded in your DNA. You must study and TKZ is a great place to learn. The next most important was, yes I NEED an editor.
    My first decent story is coming out at the end of April as an ebook. It is named ‘The First Murder is the Hardest’ featuring tough cop Eve Bell.

  7. I’ve been at Left Coast Crime and one panelist said he was writing book #38 when he finally sold #34.

    I was lucky, I guess. I wasn’t serious about writing when I was working on my first novel. It was fun, but the critique group I was in said I had to submit it. Lots of rejections, but eventually, it was picked up by an offshoot of a then huge digital publisher. I did sell to another more traditional publisher, but they targeted only libraries, so while it was nice to have a hard cover edition, I wasn’t making money. I measured success by how much less I lost over the previous year.

    Now, having been orphaned by most of my publishers, and getting in on the ground floor of indie publishing, I’m actually making money, but I never count on it. I’m still writing because I love doing it.

    • Terry, that’s a good bit of wisdom there. In the writing life, never count on the same income year after year. It always varies, which makes estimating taxes an adventure in dice throwing. The answer is to keep writing, and don’t don’t depend on rolling 7s for your food.

  8. Thirty years ago, my first sale (short story) was to a lit mag for $5. I just knew the gates to the publishing kingdom were poised to swing wide open for me….

    The check bounced.

    Good lesson for a novice to learn. Had to cancel the yacht contract. So embarrassing.

    Nine throwaway novels before #10 (Instrument of the Devil) hit. Slow learner? Yup. But persistent.

    The knowledge I gained from TKZ over the past few years really helped boost my skill to a higher level. Thanks, Jim, and the rest of the TKZ gang for sharing reality checks like today’s wise post!

    • The check bounced.

      Guffaw! That’s hilarious, in a painful way.

      What a great story of persistence, Debbie. And thanks for the encouragement that TKZ reality checks don’t bounce!

  9. Excellent advice, Jim!
    My first novel taught me the value of finishing a draft, daily writing, and momentum. I’d spent years in false starts and working on ideas. I didn’t have a clue how to outline or put together a story that worked. That first novel was a simulacrum of a novel–it had characters saying things, doing things, going places, but there was no unity to it, no agency to the characters, only the ghost of a theme. I went on to write two more novels before I began working shopping and taking classes.

    My first published novel is the six one I wrote. I’m currently working on my eleventh. Writing that first, unpublished novel, started me on the way to learning how to write one that worked. You have to give yourself the chance to learn.

    • My first novel taught me the value of finishing a draft, daily writing, and momentum.

      Boy, Dale, those are THREE great lessons learned. Thanks for the report.

  10. A very important means of learning craft is writing courses which are now available online, many with really good teachers. Beta readers and even editors can’t provide the general and specific knowledge of craft that good teachers can. Also, pick a teacher who knows your genre when genre issues become important.

    Writing teachers who write blogs are also a good source of specific craft knowledge. I’m all but retired as a writer and a teacher, but I have many years of blog entries on craft which may help, and I answer specific questions via the blog or my website. Just click on my name here to find it.

    Read a lot of what you are writing so you can understand what the readers want and how to professional writers’ craft works.

    I read over 200 books a year, many of them self-published and first books which are often that free ebook to entice readers to buy a whole series. Those that are awful don’t sell the other books and, often, are tossed aside before being finished. Those that show promise may entice me to look at the next in the series, but, if the craft hasn’t been improved, I won’t go past a few sample pages. What’s really sad for me is looking at a first novel in a series from a writer who has three or more series going or finished, and that book is dreck because the writer has never bothered to learn anything. What a waste.

    The writing craft is like a sport. You have to learn and perfect a number of individual skills then learn how to blend them into a great game. And the learning doesn’t stop. That’s part of the fun and frustration of being a novelist.

    • I read over 200 books a year

      Holy Moly! That’s amazing, and what a great “warning” about not tossing “dreck” out there.

      Also, the importance of writing instruction which, as you say, is abundant online. It must be sifted to find trusted sources, of course. I think we can safely vouchsafe TKZ in that regard.

      FWIW, my online course in is here:

      https://tinyurl.com/ybpdf74c

  11. What I have learned as a newbie is that your publisher can decide to shove your promised publishing date back two, three, four, five times, as they, she, and he decide.

    And there’s nothing you should try to do about it.

    But I’ve got them right where I want them: I got another of the first series, and two free-standing novels in the trough, and I learned I can still write short stories and confession magazine stores. All of this will shorten the time until publication or until season eight of Game Of Thrones airs–or cables or whatever it does.

  12. Great blog. Good follow-up to last week. The platform piece still keeps me up at night, but you’re right, build your platform with a high-quality book.

    My first two books, trainers, I call them, are now manuscripts in a box. Then I got my third idea, hired a writing coach, and will finished within one year. After next week’s manuscript boot camp, I hope to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

    And, by the way, your first-page critique was a huge boost. One of the responders said something like, “This isn’t the best opening, but I can see that something great is going to happen any second.” So, with the advice and help of some of your very caring associates, I scrapped the first two pages and finally found lift-off.

    • Hey, Nancy, that is fantastic to hear. We love it when our first page critiques yield such results. I daresay we have a graduate course level of commercial fiction writing craft going on here.

  13. Before I tackled a novel, I spent several years writing short fiction, poems, and nonfiction pieces, most of which were accepted for publication. Writing a book-length work required me to develop a different mindset, work habits, skills, and expectations.

    Here are a few of the lessons I learned from writing my first novel:

    – I require a continuously-evolving outline and story-bible. I can’t keep the details and overall story in my head, like I could with shorter works.

    – Writing a novel from start to finish is a tedious process without intermittent payoffs. I didn’t get the energizing satisfaction that came with writing shorter works, which could be completed, polished, submitted, and either accepted or rejected within a compressed period of time.

    – I’m a much worse editor and proofreader than I thought. While proofing the 100th draft, I still found many errors, and therefore concluded I must have typed the manuscript with my eyes closed.

    – My first novel attracted a more diverse audience than my short stories, poems, and articles on the library and manufacturing industries. The only people who read poetry are other poets, English teachers, and captive students.

    Today, my first novel is available on Amazon. I self-published it because, at my age, I didn’t want to spend years—maybe unsuccessfully—attempting to get an agent and publishing contract. Within the next couple of months, my second novel will also be available on Amazon.

    • Great lessons there, Truant.

      And I wholeheartedly agree with your decision to self-publish. And your next book is on the way. That’s one of the great things about self-publishing, isn’t it? There’s a big difference between turning a book in and waiting a year for it to appear, and finishing your book and seeing it for sale in a few days.

  14. Great Advice Jim,

    Professional success in any artistic field requires years if not decades of relentless hard work. Feedback and growing every step is critical to getting better.

    Most of the debut novelists that had major first book breakouts over the last fifteen years came from somewhere in the world of professional writing.

    They didn’t fall out of thin air and their manuscripts avoided the slush-pile because of their connections.

    Many aspiring authors don’t understand this when they see those names.

    The Beatles had played over one-thousand live shows before they appeared on Ed Sullivan. This work ethic forged their uniqueness and made them ready for prime time.

    If someone wants a runaway best seller why should it be any different? It’s damn hard work.

    Always look forward to your Sunday column Jim.

    Best,

    George

  15. It’s currently being professionally edited after receiving some encouraging feedback here on TKZ as well as from several beta readers. I learned that it took a LOT longer to finish than I thought it would but now that I’ve got a process down, I’m hoping the second one will take a little less time and then the third even less.

    • Michelle, I think you’ll find that your process, indeed, improves. You will know more and gain confidence.

      But your standards will also go up. Subsequent books, if you’re a real writer, are often more difficult for that reason.

      But it’s a good pain, if I may be so bold.

  16. Re income: Unless you’re a mega-seller, never count on it. Last year, I had to pay extra taxes. This year, I’m getting a refund. Last week I got a royalty check for $3. Blew it on coffee and considered starting a lawn service company.

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  18. Hi, Jim. I’m late to the party. I appreciate the nod in your always-excellent post, but I’m not sure that I am, in fact, the exception to the rule. Yes, I made a lot of money with my first published book, but my first published book was actually the FOURTH book I’d written. I never tried to sell them because I knew, as a voracious reader myself, that they just weren’t very good.

    • Thanks for that clarification, John. You did indeed learn valuable lessons from completing those other novels, primarily why they weren’t ready for prime time. When prime time came around, you had the book for it!

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