How to Write a Novel (Part 2)

January 21st, 2008

So you decided to write a novel, you committed yourself to the task, and you agonized your way through your first draft — as described in How to Write a Novel (Part 1). Now one of two things will happen:

John Barth writing 1) You’ll print that sucker out and add a title page. You’ll type up a page dedicating the book to your sister Chloë in Venice, whose steadfast support and witty observations helped you get through the tough parts, and who served as the inspiration for the character of Empress Fögelschmëer (the Younger). You’ll add a cover letter, mail the whole package off to Random House, and watch the royalty checks flow in. Or,

2) You’ll look at what you’ve written and realize it ain’t publishable.

Most writers — even the successful ones — fall into that second camp. And it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Months or even years will have passed since you started, and the world’s not the same place. You’re not the same person. So it’s only natural that the story has wandered onto unforeseen paths. It’s only natural you look back at those early chapters and shake your head and think, How naive that guy was who wrote this stuff.

Don’t despair. Here’s a path (my path) of getting from first draft to final draft. As before, keep in mind that your mileage may vary.

Step 8: Send the book off to your first readers. You need a small number of people who will agree to read your book and give you the unvarnished truth about it. This might be a writing group or a local book group or (most likely) a few select friends and family members. Try to choose people who are representative of your target audience, and who you trust not to just butter you up with useless flattery.

Tell your first readers you don’t need to know that you misspelled the word “pernicious” on pages 36 and 129; you need to know the answers to the broad questions. Does the book work? Are the characters sympathetic (or not sympathetic, as the case may be)? Is the book interesting, boring, confusing, amusing, intriguing? Assure them that you want The Truth and that you won’t take it personally if they don’t care for the book — as long as they tell you why.

Step 9: Read the book yourself from start to finish, and identify the problems. This is where your critical faculties as a reader come into play. Print the book out and pretend you’ve never heard of Empress Fögelschmëer (the Younger) or the Quest for the Glittering Orb of Mint Jelly. In fact, pretend that you’ve just picked this book up at random in the bookstore and you’re skeptical about the whole thing. Read the book over, and start taking notes.

Chances are, you’ll discover many of the flaws right away. Pacing is often the biggest culprit in first drafts: things happen too quickly, or not quickly enough, or in the wrong order. Characters do the things they do, and you won’t quite buy their motivations for doing them. Parts of the book might hang together just fine, but they don’t feel satisfying.

Typewriter from 'The Shining'Step 10: Get your first readers’ feedback, and listen to it. This is the difficult part: you need to listen to your first readers. Really, really listen. You cannot argue with them. At all. They’re going to try to sugar-coat their criticisms, because they don’t want to make you angry or disappointed. And they’re going to be biased anyway, because they’re your friends and they probably share your worldview to a certain extent. So you need to very patiently coax the truth out of them, and let them do most of the talking.

If you did step 9 correctly, you’ll probably anticipate most of their criticisms. So you’re looking for two things: (1) validation of your conclusions from Step 9, and (2) consensus on things you missed in Step 9. Of course, not every criticism you get is worth following up on. But if three of your trusted first readers all tell you independently that it just doesn’t feel right for Aslan the King of Narnia to be a toad, it might be time to reevaluate some of your choices.

Step 11: Start writing your second draft from the beginning. This time around, don’t skip willy-nilly to whatever section suits your fancy at the moment. Start with a blank screen and a big “Chapter 1” at the top, and proceed in order (as much as you can) until you hit “The End.” I usually have both the first draft and the second draft open, and I Alt+Tab between them as I write. I read a few sentences from draft 1, contemplate for a moment, Alt+Tab, and then type draft 2. Sometimes the sentences will be the same, sometimes they’ll be radically different, sometimes I’ll drift off and add whole new paragraphs.

Why start from the beginning this time and write in order? Because this time, you want to get into the flow of the novel. You want to be mindful of the transitions. You want to keep things like pacing and foreshadowing foremost on your mind. This time you know where the story’s going, and you know where it needs to go this chapter in order for the next chapter to work.

Step 12: Be ruthless, and don’t be afraid to make major changes. If you’re going to make any major changes to the novel, this is the time. Restructure things, change POVs, combine characters or get rid of them altogether. When in doubt, try hitting the Delete key. Don’t be afraid that the Muse will be so offended at your edits that she’ll pack up and abandon you entirely. (Besides which, who says you can’t recycle those excised passages in a later chapter, or a later book?)

Drawing of a writer scribbling with penOne of the hardest things you’ll need to learn how to do is to let go of the troublesome parts of your book. All of your first readers will agree that it would be better if Frodo and Sam headed into Mordor without Clumsy Cousin Mungo, but even though you know they’re right, you absolutely love Clumsy Cousin Mungo, and you refuse to cut him out. I’m sorry, but sometimes you just have to give Clumsy Cousin Mungo the guillotine. Who said writing a novel was easy?

Step 13: Get serious about outlining as you go. By the time I’m well into my second draft, I’ve started constructing a very serious outline. For each chapter, I list the date that the action takes place, and then a two or three sentence synopsis of what happens in that chapter. And then I change the color of the text for each different point of view character. In MultiReal, I used black text for Natch, blue text for Jara, red text for Magan Kai Lee, and green text for any other points of view (such as a tertiary character or an omniscient POV).

Why do I go to all that trouble? It’s a good way to get a bird’s-eye view of the action. The color coding helps substantially, because I can glance through the outline and see that there’s a long spell in the middle of the book where character A disappears, or there’s too much of character B at one particular junction. Having the dates written down can be a lifesaver if you’ve got the type of book that’s time-sensitive. (It can also help you figure out what kind of weather to sprinkle into the background of the story.)

Step 14: Make decisions, and stick to them. Just like you have to commit to writing your novel, you need to get serious about making tough decisions in the writing of it. Can’t decide if your characters should act a certain way, or if you should use a certain point-of-view, or if you should include a particular scene? You’ll need to make these tough decisions at some point, and you’ll need to stick to them. You can’t keep vacillating the gender of your main character the whole way through, and you don’t want to dig through the book at the last minute to tease out all the inconsistencies. Decide.

When confronting tough decisions, it helps if you stop thinking of your choices as a shell game, where the “right” answer lies under one of your decisions. Every writing choice is the right choice, as long as you make it the right choice. There’s no Big English Professor in the Sky passing judgment on your work. Commit to a choice and make it work, and you’ll never go wrong.

Step 15: Go back to your first readers when the second draft is done. If you’ve listened carefully and done the hard work, you’ll hear comments like, “It’s like a completely different book!” And if you actually took some of the suggestions your readers gave you the first time around, they’re more likely to be forthcoming about their criticisms this time. Make sure you let your readers know that you’re heading into the home stretch. Tell them it’s too late to make any big alterations in the book at this point — because you made your commitments in step 14. Now you’re looking for inconsistencies, false notes, individual chapters that don’t work.

You might also want to expand your circle of readers at this point. Consider handing the book to people outside your immediate circle of trust. If you’re almost done, it should almost be ready for their consumption anyway, right?

'MultiReal' manuscript with line editsStep 16: Print out your second draft and edit on paper from here on out. Most writers will tell you the same thing: compose your novel however you feel comfortable composing it, but you need to read the whole thing through on the printed page at some point. It’s hard to say why. The human brain seems to have different gears for typing and writing longhand, and you need to switch gears at this point.

Use a colored pen. Read carefully. Mark that puppy up, and don’t worry that you’re going to overdo it. The photograph you see here is a sample page from the fourth draft of my novel MultiReal. You don’t necessarily need to get that meticulous, of course, but if you feel the book still needs work, there’s nothing stopping you.

Step 17: Continue fine tuning until you reach the point of diminishing returns. There’s a common myth that writers don’t complete books, they just abandon them. But the reality is that you do reach that point of diminishing returns. You’ll never write an absolutely perfect book — there’s always one more comma to add, one more metaphor to tweak — but you will get to the point where you recognize that your obsessive tweaking isn’t improving the book.

How do you know when your book is done? That’s easy: when you can read it, start to finish, and be satisfied with every single paragraph. If you come across a chapter or a sentence you don’t like, rewrite it. If you still don’t like it, rewrite it again. Some chapters will only take two or three passes, but some chapters might require five or ten or even twenty rewrites.

Step 18: Finish when you finish. When do you type those magical words, “THE END”? When can you stop saying “I’m writing a novel” and start saying “I’ve written a novel”? Only you can know. You’re going to have to resist calls from well-meaning friends and relatives to “just send it in already” because “it’s good enough.” Guess what? It’s your book. You’re the only one who really knows when it’s good enough.

Congratulations, you’ve finished your novel. Now the real fun begins. The wonderful world of publishers, agents, editors, proofreaders, typesetters, book buyers, and Amazon reviewers awaits…

45 Responses to “How to Write a Novel (Part 2)”

  1. Sherwoodon 21 Jan 2008 at 11:52 am

    Good stuff, David. (though I don’t know about that outline–those things are useless to me.)

    I think the sticking points are, one, getting good betas–and two, gaining critical judgment oneself.

  2. Seaboeon 21 Jan 2008 at 12:18 pm

    I think of the outline at this stage as a way to put the story into proper order. All the scenes in the outline should exist in some form in the first draft (unless you’ve really screwed up). An outline helps you figure out which ones are in the wrong place, which ones are too weak, and which ones are longer than they need to be.

    I also agree with the retype from beginning advice (not just cut and paste) and editing from hard copy. Even if the edit for a particular scene consists of crossing out what is there and writing “do something else”.


  3. D. Robert Peaseon 21 Jan 2008 at 12:38 pm

    Wow. Retype from the beginning to the end?! I don’t know about that. I’ve honed and reworked, and retyped nearly every word in the book already, but never wholesale like you are talking about. I can see the value in it, but it seems so extreme.

    You’ve certainly given me something to think about. Thanks for that.

    I agree with everything else completely.

  4. Kate Elliotton 21 Jan 2008 at 1:11 pm

    Two excellent posts, Dave.

    I think this issue of gaining critical judgment oneself is crucial, but darned if I know exactly how that happens. I’m far better than I was 20 years ago at “knowing” what is working and what isn’t, and how well it is working, and yet I still have blind spots. Why I’m better . . . is it just experience? I suppose so.

  5. Mike Brothertonon 21 Jan 2008 at 1:41 pm

    I’m with D. Robert Pease!

    Although, you know, I’ve written two novels so far. The first one, Star Dragon, I got about 1/4 into a draft and the feel/plot were straying so much that I eventually just started over from scratch, stealing the good parts from the first draft. That’s sort of like your approach, but without finishing the first draft (although I’d outlined it all). The final submitted version was very close to the published version.

    And the second novel — Spider Star — that one was sold in advance and the my editor thought the submitted draft had major problems. I wound up cutting about 30k words and adding 50k (a mix of new and reworked stuff).

    So I guess I’m with you more than not. I’ve had to do such major overhauls with a clearer vision in mind to make the novels work.

  6. David Louis Edelmanon 21 Jan 2008 at 1:49 pm

    I realize not everybody’s going to agree with my method. I remember a bestselling SF novelist looking over my shoulder at a con one day while I was doing the handwritten line edits for MultiReal. I had a page that looked much like the one above in front of me, I told him it was the fourth draft, and he shook his head and laughed like I was crazy.

    I never thought I would be such a rewrite freak until I actually sat down and committed to finishing a novel. It was only then that I determined this was the only way I was going to be satisfied with the finished product.

  7. Carol Bergon 21 Jan 2008 at 8:05 pm

    I consider myself a heavy-duty reviser. I read and reread and read yet again, on screen – always, always on paper – always, always aloud, because there are things you hear that you can’t see – before, during, and after critiques from first readers – both before and after I’ve reached the end of the story and finally know what it is about. I also make lists as I go: timelines, chapter/scene lists, who-knew-what and who-believes-what lists, and the I’ve-got-to-fix-that-damned-fight-scene lists. I love revision and feel that some of my best work comes out of re-viewing what I’ve written. I tweak and throw out and recast sentences and scenes. But I never sit down and rewrite a book from scratch. I know you are not the only one who does this – and I know it works for those who do it – but the thought makes my head hurt!


  8. ehjoneson 21 Jan 2008 at 11:39 pm

    OK, I’ve been lax in posting lately, but this series of articles has grabbed my attention.

    I’m finding that my process is very similar to yours, at least so far, other than the fact that I write an almost exhaustive outline prior to starting the first draft. Of course, in some places, I completely disregard the outline, so go figure.

    However, I re-write on the fly. My first readers were given the book a few chapters at a time, as I wrote them, and then my revisions were done in the morning and my new work done in the evening… which meant that my first readers were often handed revised copies of what they’d already read, along with new draft copies of later chapters.

    I can’t wait for the next section, though. I’m hoping to get some perspective on where I stand now. You see, my first novel has been in the hands of my agent now since last February being shopped around. Although technically, it’s been since October ’06, when we had a near miss with getting it published, following which I did a couple of major re-writes at my agent’s urging. After several rejections, it’s been under consideration now for some time (months) with a big publisher, and there’s been no word. I’ve finished a sequel already, and have partially outlined a third, but my agent has said I need to move on and work on something different for a while, so she can get something unrelated out there for me… since she can’t sell book 2 or 3 until she sells book 1. So I’ve been working on another project that just isn’t going as well as this series, and it’s frustrating me.

    My question is, after the rejections I’ve gotten (which all included encouragement and desire to see other things I’d written), is there a point where I should pull back from the submission process and do a full re-write in an attempt to address any issues that might be keeping it from being accepted? How long do I let my agent keep shopping around the same draft before I decide it’s not ready, and go back to work on it? And if book 3 is struggling to get out of me, and what I’m working on now just isn’t doing it for me, is there a point where I say OK, I have to write book 3, even though I’ll never sell it until book 1 and 2 sell?

    I guess what I’m asking is, what do I do now? How long do I wait? Will anyone EVER buy my masterpiece??

  9. […] DeepGenre – Davide Louise Edelman brings us a secon part of his article about writing a novel. You can find the first part also here at scifirama. […]

  10. David Louis Edelmanon 22 Jan 2008 at 9:47 am

    ehjones: Your agent’s advice seems pretty sound to me. There are many authors who have gone on to sell their third or fourth or fifth novel first, and only then gone on to sell the stuff that was roundly rejected a few years prior.

    A couple of possibilities: can you write your book 3 at the same time as you write something else? I’ve never been able to do that, but some people have. Or can you write book 3 such that it stands on its own? That way with some tweaking you could go back and sell books 1 and 2 as a prequel.

    I say never abandon your masterpiece until (unless) you’re ready to abandon it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t work on other projects in the meantime. Might be that a year-long break or so will give you the perspective you need.

  11. Carol Bergon 22 Jan 2008 at 10:08 am

    ehjones: Don’t plunge into a withdraw and rewrite unless you have some identifiable flaw to work on. Doesn’t sound like you know of one as yet. As David says, time will give you perspective – but I’d say time and writing will give you perspective. What do you want to work on now? Yes, your agent would like something else to market, but that’s not going to be immediate either. If book 3 is calling – demanding? – to be written, do it, and then move on to another project. When you do sell book 1, chances are they’ll want book 3 as well. Nice to have it done, and the process of writing might clue you in to what’s missing in book 1 (if anything!) If the other project is calling for your full attention, then work on that one. Publishing is a slow business. Keep writing. And keep learning the craft – which means…keep writing.

    Good luck

  12. Laurieon 22 Jan 2008 at 11:24 am

    I laughed out loud at the idea of the Big English Professor in the Sky! Whenever I write anything, I think back to the brazillion English classes I had in high school and college and think, “Is this proper?” I can practically feel my old Grammar and Syntax prof standing over me, dangling my participles over the fire. ><

  13. Stacyon 22 Jan 2008 at 12:55 pm

    My tendonitis screams out in protest of starting over – but the more I thought about it the more I had to admit I had come fairly close to doing that very thing but didn’t think of it that way. It was just rewriting, starting with opening scene, in a fresh notebook. I didn’t scrap everything, as not everything deserved to be scrapped, but I’ve found that there are several parts of my first draft that were straight from the Muse and aren’t improved by later attempts at duplication, and they only need gentle edititing. Sometimes you do get it right the first time.

    I like the idea of color-coding for POV – I’ve had it suggested to use different paper color for different plot threads, but I seem to only have one main plot and no subplot (because I really don’t think I yet understand what a subplot is) so the suggestion didn’t really seem applicable. But different points of view – now that I could use. If only I hadn’t replaced my color printer with a fast-n-cheap black and white . . .

  14. […] step-by-step guide on the [not-so] gentle art of crafting and honing a novel. Part One is here, and Part Two is here. Mr.Edelman’s tone is humourous and light-hearted, so we’re reminded that — while […]

  15. Staceyon 22 Jan 2008 at 1:32 pm

    I really appreciated your idea of actually physically retyping the second draft. One of the reasons I try to do a first draft by hand, despite the time it takes, is in order to force myself to edit continuously through the story. As soon as I transfer something to the computer, my edits tend to lessen, or at least lose some of their responsiveness. I think it’s something we lost with the computer age – without a typewriter’s need to retype the page, we aren’t nearly as cognizant of the flow of the story.

  16. Charleson 22 Jan 2008 at 1:42 pm

    One of the POV expirements I’ve been trying when I’m unsure which POV should carry the scene when multiple POV characters are present in a scene is to ask myself the following questions:

    *Which POV character knows the least about what is happening?
    *Which POV character is impacted the most by what is happening?

    Usually, answering those two questions leads me to the proper POV character for the scene.

    As for Draft Two, I will almost surely write that straight through from beginning to end (which is my normal process – abandoned for draft one). Once I have the full novel in front of me I will have a clearer picture of how it flows and what modifications to the novel as a whole need to be made for it to flow smoothly.

    Hopefully I’ll get to draft two by the summer.

  17. […] Deep genre – David L. Edelman is describing the process of writing a novel. You can read the article on DeepGenre. Part two can be found here. […]

  18. Maryon 22 Jan 2008 at 7:06 pm

    Humm. I don’t even think of sending it off until I have given it a month on the backburner (improving the chances of reading what I actually wrote) and then revised the whole thing longhand and then typed in the revisions.

    My principle is that you shouldn’t waste your first readers on flaws you can notice yourself. You should hand it to someone else only when you think it’s flawless — or you can’t put your finger on the flaws you know are there.

  19. Ariaon 23 Jan 2008 at 11:06 am

    I have to say that these two articles were insanely inspirational/comforting…it actually feels like I’m doing something right when it comes to writing. The only thing that I balk at is rewriting the whole thing from scratch…I can’t imagine!

    For me, I’ve been editing my first draft, and while I didn’t scrap the entire story, I definitely scrapped the entire prologue. That was probably one of my best choices, because I’m really happy with the rewrite. But scrap everything all at once? Oh my god….but…it might be worth a shot.

    My question is, is there going to be a sequel to this article…like, say “Tips on getting published?”


  20. Katie Lon 23 Jan 2008 at 12:48 pm

    I rewrite from scratch, too. Can’t imagine doing it any other way. Isn’t it weird how everyone works so differently, though?

    Thank you sooo much for #14. That’s exactly what I need to remember with what I’m working on right now. Back to work!

  21. betsy dornbuschon 23 Jan 2008 at 3:35 pm

    I wish I could be as methodical as this. I have to say, I like the idea of rewriting v.2 and flipping between screens.

    Somehow I get the job done, though it feels slapdash. I actually think I work quite a bit like Carol: revising constantly (even as I draft I get myself back in the story each day by backing up a scene or two and revising them). And lists, Oh, the lists! And tea-stained spiral notebooks. And crit group copy. And note cards! Right now I’m finishing a revision and the notecards are EVERYWHERE. It’s such a relief to pack them up, stick them in a file (even the round one, sometimes) and send the damn book AWAY!

  22. David Louis Edelmanon 23 Jan 2008 at 3:49 pm

    Aria: I’m considering writing a sequel on “How to Get Your Novel Published,” though I’d probably be much less helpful on that score. I did write a pair of posts on my own blog a while back, “How Did You Get Your Novel Published?” Here’s links to part 1 and part 2. You might find those useful.

  23. Anyaon 23 Jan 2008 at 5:15 pm

    I’ve just read David’s part 2 of “How Did You Get Your Novel Published,” and it made me wonder (not for the first time):
    Is there any published author out there (or here on DeepGenre) who actually got an agent and a publisher without any contacts in the business?

    Because I know NO ONE remotely in a position to recommend me or my work to any agent, editor, or publishing house, and I had rather hoped to read a story of how a manuscript actually gets picked out of the slush pile by virtue of a powerful query and powerful prose of the sample chapters. Does it ever happen? I’m starting to think it’s all a myth. ;o(

  24. Ariaon 23 Jan 2008 at 5:33 pm

    David: Thanks! But now I kind of have to agree wtih Anya…I know absolutely no one who would be in that position. I know there’s the self publishing places though…is that an invesmtent or a waste of time/money…I guess it all depends on how well you write…

  25. ehjoneson 23 Jan 2008 at 6:40 pm

    OK, you said PUBLISHED authors, and that’s not me, not yet. I’m determined that it will be, but it’s not yet.

    However, I can tell you that on occasion, a manuscript DOES get picked out of an agent’s slushpile, and agency contracts CAN be found that way.
    I found my agent that way, the old fashioned way, and I had (and have) literally no other contacts in the industry. I did very much what David did, sending out blind to a list of well-researched and well respected agencies, and through an accident of fate, one of them knew of a publisher who was looking for something very much like my first novel. I signed with the agency, sent in my final manuscript, and wham-o!

    And they almost bought it, too. Almost.

    But it worked out, because I have an agent, she believes in my work, and she works with a reputable agency (that I won’t name, but I do know of at least one author that most fantasy fans are familiar with that they represent).

    So don’t despair just because you don’t know anyone in the biz. I’m not there yet, but I’m halfway there. It can happen.

  26. Robin Granthamon 23 Jan 2008 at 8:20 pm

    Thanks for this. I’ve been a little stuck between Step 7 and Step 8 (Step 7 and three-quarters?) lately and this helps. Today one of my first readers came over and said, “Did I see something about you being done with your project?” and I made some excuse and promised to have it to her soon. I have made a few changes lately, but really the hard copy is sitting on my desk, taunting me.

    I think you helped me get to, like, Step 7 and seven-eighths.


  27. David Louis Edelmanon 23 Jan 2008 at 9:55 pm

    Anya and Aria: There’s actually a very easy way in SF to make connections — SF conventions. I know several published authors who spent a long time on the con circuit and met their editors and agents there. There are lots of pros just wandering around who are more than happy to talk to aspiring writers. I went to my first SF con a year and a half ago knowing almost nobody — now I know a zillion people.

    Robin: That manuscript ain’t gettin’ any riper just sitting there. Hand it to those first readers already! They understand it’s not going to be perfect.

  28. Anyaon 24 Jan 2008 at 3:05 am

    There’s actually a very easy way in SF to make connections

    Ah. Not so easy. There is half a continent and a big blue ocean between me and the nearest SF convention. Aren’t there any internet places where one could “meet” the right sort of people? (I write fantasy, btw.)

    @ehjones — Having an agent would be great! Proves that one person other than oneself likes the story :o) And gives you about a year to write your next story (with new confidence) while the agent tries to shop your first, ha! I could use that right now. In a few months I’ll try to find a agent. Perhaps I do have what one of them is looking for.

    Good luck to you. Hope you sell your novel.

  29. David Louis Edelmanon 24 Jan 2008 at 11:03 am

    Anya: Not sure what continent you’re on, but FYI, there are SF/F cons and events lots of places around the world. I know Australia, Europe and Asia have SF events from time to time… not so sure about Africa and South America. I found some links to places that list international events on SF Site.

  30. Carol Bergon 24 Jan 2008 at 12:10 pm

    Anya wrote:

    Is there any published author out there (or here on DeepGenre) who actually got an agent and a publisher without any contacts in the business?

    Raising my hand. I didn’t know editor, agent, or even a published author. I sold my first book by going to the Pikes Peak Writers Conference and signing up to read the opening pages of my novel for an editor from Roc and then meet with her for a ten-minute “pitch” session. (You can call this the face-to-face slushpile.)

    I didn’t think the editor liked it, so I almost didn’t go to the “pitch” session. After she said she’d like to see the whole manuscript when it was finished (this was Transformation), I sat down for a ten-minute session with an agent who happened to be at the conference as well. She agreed to look at three chapters of Song of the Beast, as it was already complete. I am still publishing with Roc, and the agent still represents me.


  31. Stacyon 24 Jan 2008 at 5:00 pm

    Don’t despair about meeting people – I’ve met a slew of agents in the past year, thanks to joining a writers/publishers group. They host a big workshop every year and invite a dozen agents of all shapes and sizes, with an agent roundtable along with private meetings. This networking stuff is out there – conventions, workshops. You don’t have to be somebody’s in-law or college roommate.
    I’m reminded of reading about Brandon Sanderson’s first sale, Elantris (hope I remember this right) – he got it to an editor at a convention, who read it later, decided they had to have it, and had to track Brandon down through his college, which he was no longer attending, as the editor had no good contact information. If the book is good, people find you.

  32. Chris Murphyon 27 Jan 2008 at 9:53 pm

    Thanks for this post — though I’ve read similar direction from published members of a forum I frequent, this post serves to re-enforce the advice. I appreciated your points on outlining, as I’ve had issues with tracking plots and the finer details of my work about halfway through writing the first draft. I’ve since adopted a loose but serviceable outlining practice that has served me well. Thanks again!

  33. Laura E. Reeveon 01 Feb 2008 at 11:23 am

    I initially knew no published writers or agents or publishers or anyone in the publishing business, but my first novel (starting a 3-book SF series) will be published at the end of this year by Roc.

    My experience was a combination of Carol Berg’s (for getting an agent) and ehjones. I signed up to pitch my fantasy novel to an agent at the Pikes Peak Writer’s Conference, and she said to send her a synopsis and the first 3 chapters. I didn’t hear from her for quite a few months, but she eventually asked for the full mss. Then she asked for some editing — all of which would obviously make the novel better. Almost a year after the pitch, I had representation.

    But representation doesn’t mean automatic publication. My story then became similar to ehjones, above. You can read this on Jennifer Jackson’s blog, titled “A Tale of Two Authors.” Somehow, this fantasy novel always fell just a little short, even though there were many good comments about it. I had a 100K-word sequel ready when my agent asked if I had anything different (meaning that this just wasn’t the right time for that fantasy novel).

    So… I pulled an old idea out of mothballs, restructured it with my improved writing abilities (yes, one does learn the more one writes), and sent her a proposal. She liked it, but I still had to write the novel. Once finished, this particular SF novel won the Pikes Peak Writers contest in the SF/F/H category and was bought by the first publishing house that my agent submitted it to, resulting in a 3-book contract. Perseverance does eventually pay off [keep at it, ehjones!]

  34. Debbie Whiteon 02 Feb 2008 at 1:29 pm

    Okay, so apparently I need to get out to some fantasy conventions and start making connections. What sort of connections? As in, what’s the objective beyond getting an agent or editor interested in your novel? Also, Pikes Peak has been mentioned several times, but it doesn’t look like they have very many agents or editors interested in fantasy there. Published authors, can you name some conventions that are good for meeting agents and editors that handle fantasy?

    I’ve also heard that pitch sessions and such are dreaded by agents, editors, and writers alike. Agents repeatedly say on their blogs that the best way to make a good impression with them is to not pitch to them, but to just chat and ask questions about the industry. Well, okay, I can do small talk with strangers…but my polite little self is more likely to see a pestered person and resolve not to bother them at all rather than to go up and make small talk. Not to mention that I don’t tend to talk much even with my best friends (though I’m a great listener).

    I don’t have much money, so going to a con would be a major investment. I just know I’ll make a bad impression because I’ll feel the pressure of ‘making good’ on that investment. That’s why I’ve never bothered with conventions before. So are you sure they’re really a good idea? I suppose if nothing else I can just people-watch and get ideas for story characters. *sigh* Frankly, I’m more interested in going to BookExpo America and learning more about the publishing industry than hunting agents and editors at writers conventions.

  35. Carol Bergon 02 Feb 2008 at 7:00 pm


    Writers’ conferences (like Pikes Peak, Surrey, Colorado Gold et al) are very different from conventions (World Science Fiction, World Fantasy, WesterCon, ArmadilloCon etc.) You are correct that writers’ conferences have only a few editors and agents, so if your sole interest is to “pitch” your finished book, you want to look for conferences hosting people who represent or publish your preferred genre. There may be only one or two, but most editors who are there know the fantasy/sf editors at their houses. Good conferences try to cover the genres by getting pros who represent many kinds of works. Sometimes they do better than others. Anyway, writers conferences also provide workshops to help improve your writing, agent and editor panels to help you learn about the business, and networking with other writers. Yes, agents and editors get tired from the pitches, but they are there to discover new writers. Yes, they want to hear what kind of person you are, but if you pitch them something they haven’t heard before and demonstrate your commitment and enthusiasm, (or even babble foolishly as I did) you can get them interested. In any case they will likely request your pages and read your work – which is the object of the pitch.

    Science fiction conventions are held everywhere across the country. At the largest conventions like World Fantasy and World Science Fiction (which includes fantasy programming), you will see lots of agents and editors. But there is no formal venue for meeting them (like WC pitch or read-and-critique sessions). You meet them through networking, offering to buy a cup of coffee or a drink, or getting into the same parties. At regional and local conventions (like Westercon, MileHiCon, Archon, and the like) you might have an opportunity to meet agents and editors and might not. Writing programming at sf conventions usually consists of panel discussions rather than workshops. These are sometimes about writing, sometimes about fantasy or sf tropes, sometimes about the litererature. Quality can vary widely, depending on the qualifications and background of panelists.

    Writers conferences tend to be more expensive, as they usually compensate their faculty. Conventions are all-volunteer events to keep their costs down. World SF (this year in Denver) and World Fantasy (this year in Calgary) are more expensive than regional conventions.

    For me, the format of the conference provided opportunities to meet the right people without the pressure of a “social” situation. And it allowed me to bypass queries. If you have a manuscript you believe is ready to market, look seriously at opportunities to meet the pros in person. (And yes, EVERYone is nervous.)


  36. David Louis Edelmanon 02 Feb 2008 at 7:29 pm

    Debbie: I imagine the perfect interaction with an agent/editor would go something like this.

    You attend a panel that the agent/editor is on. You listen attentively and, after the panel, approach the agent/editor and ask a pertinent follow-up question or two. Nothing too pushy. “Hi. I was really interested in what you said about x. What do you think about y?” After a couple of minutes, you say, “Thanks. I don’t want to take up too much of your time. I’m ____, by the way. I’m writing a fantasy novel about [something very short, pithy and intriguing], and I’d like to send you a sample and a proposal.” Chances are the agent/editor will say something pleasant and noncommittal like “Sure, send it and I’ll take a look at it.” At that point you smile, shake their hand, say thank you, and walk away. Don’t push.

    A week later, you send them your proposal letter, the first few chapters, and a standard cover letter that begins with, “It was very nice meeting you after the panel about Yiddish Vampires at BlahBlahCon last weekend. As discussed, here’s my novel about [something very short, pithy and intriguing.]”

    Obviously you adjust this scenario depending on the circumstances. And it’s not going to work every time. But if your short, pithy and intriguing synopsis is intriguing, that’s about all you’ll need to get someone to take a look. Of course, it’s probably going to have to pass through the 22-year-old intern first, but them’s the breaks.

    Short, non-pushy interactions in person. Maybe a few polite comments on their blog, if one exists. You’re not looking to be their best buddy. You’re just looking to tickle their mind and remind them that, oh yeah, this was that nice, earnest guy/gal that I met at BlahBlahCon. If your book is good, the writing will do the rest. If it’s not good enough, well, hopefully at least you’ve got someone you can send your next book to.

  37. Debbie Whiteon 02 Feb 2008 at 8:26 pm

    Carol, thanks for clearing up the differences between conferences and conventions. Things suddenly make a lot more sense. I thought both were the same type of event, and it really helps to know the differences between the two.

    David, thanks so much for the sample conversation. Your advice makes a lot more sense than some of the suggestions I’ve heard. Now I feel like I can actually do this.

    BTW, yes, I have a completed and polished first novel which has received some nibbles from agents so far. I’m also nearly done with the first draft of my second novel. I guess I’m feeling pressured to try something new to get agent/editor attention because my friends don’t understand why I’m almost done with a second novel and yet the first hasn’t been published.

    Again, thanks for answering my questions.

  38. David Louis Edelmanon 03 Feb 2008 at 7:37 am

    Point your friends to Tobias Buckell’s survey on how many novels did you write before you published one? 13% of actual, published novelists said they wrote 7 or more novels — 7 or more complete, finished novels! — before they actually got one published.

  39. Debbie Whiteon 04 Feb 2008 at 9:11 pm

    David, thanks for pointing out the surveys on Tobias Buckell’s site. I’m guessing the primary friend I was thinking of will simply think I’m crazy for writing so many novels without the assurance of having any of them published, but, hey.

    Partly based upon my friend’s reactions, I’ve been a bit depressed about my apparent lack of progress. Yesterday I was even wondering if it was worth spending all the time and effort needed to write and polish these novels up. Then I asked myself, “Are these stories worth telling?” My answer was a resounding, “yes.” So I’m mentally back on track again. It’s not like I would ever give up writing–I love it too much. But it’s nice to feel optimistic again. :) Thanks for taking the time to help.

  40. Anyaon 07 Feb 2008 at 2:20 pm

    Thanks David, Carol, and Laura, for your wonderful tips.

    So it’s a writers’ conference I want. There seem to be some in the UK, one in Paris (in English); ah, it’s time to plan a nice vacation. ;o)



  41. How to write a novel « Orbis Writingson 27 Feb 2008 at 10:41 pm

    […] […]

  42. Austinon 11 Aug 2008 at 4:15 pm

    In the irony of the world, its stories are dark and chaotic, its allure: mesmerizing.

    Perfection is an ideal, and in the irony of the world, it strives for it with each labored breath, with every dwindling ounce of strength.

    Its guiding light is reality…but is it heeded? Is the Ideal to be the destroyer of mankind?

    Or will it be our inspired salvation?

  43. kurisutaon 28 Sep 2008 at 10:18 pm

    wow rewrite the whole thing for the second draft? I’ve always just tweaked and rewritten on the first draft. but i see your point. To get the whole flow out it seems to make sense to do it that way. i might have trouble though with not just retyping a lot of lines word for word, so I’ll defiantly have to do a detailed outline. It always helps me out.
    I always write up Character outlines, character relationship outlines, draw a map for my story, do a time line of events how they happen in the story and how they happen in real time. It helps me a lot but i don’t overdo it. Though i like the color coding idea, might try it ^^

  44. kurisutaon 18 Nov 2008 at 12:04 am

    So i’ve started my second draft and I’m doing the whole rewrite things and its really working for me. Thanks!

  45. J Hugh Thomason 20 Jan 2009 at 8:54 pm

    Part 2 is even better than Part 1! Thanks for taking the time to share all the helpful advice.