Monday, October 29, 2012

5 Steps to Ensure Your Novel Isn't a Piece of Crap

I got an email last week from a writer who'd stumbled on my blog after searching on Google for "How to tell if your novel sucks." Oh yes, and she got this disgusting toenail post I did back in April.

The writer, whom we will call "Trina," said that she had just finished writing a novel, and was wondering how to really tell if it sucks (my toenail post didn't help all that much as it was mainly about toenails). She said she would be really unhappy if her completed novel turned out to be a piece of crap. I totally understand. After all that hard work, how can you bear it if it's not bestseller quality?

So I humbly present 5 Steps to Ensuring Your Novel Isn't a Piece of Crap:

Step 1. Adjust Your Expectations.
If you have just written a novel, the sad truth is that it will most likely be a bit crappy. I'm sorry. You don't want to hear this, I know. Sometimes it takes writers years to come to terms with this fact. Some writers never make it beyond the first novel, so great is their disappointment. But if you want to get published, you absolutely must face the fact that writing well takes practice. I'm talking years of toil. "Oh, yes?" you say. "What about all those authors who say in the back cover bio on their books that it is their first novel?" They mean it's their first published novel. They probably wrote four or five novels before that one.

There are always exceptions to the rule, of course. But another cold truth is that you are probably not going to be that exception. I know, I sob with you on this point, because I too believed that my first novel was going to defy all odds. I planned an elaborate five continent book tour for myself, so sure was I. Good thing I didn't book plane tickets.

Step 2. Find Feedback in the Right Places.
As I told "Trina," if you have your mother and your best friend read your novel, they will lie and say it's really good at best. At worst, they will say nothing. No, at worst they'll suggest that you look into self-publishing, and that everyone's doing it nowadays, and how great it would be if you did that too, after all,
then you could have a copy of your book, and how cool would that be?

It's not cool.

That isn't to denigrate self-published books whatsoever. Rather, self-publishing should not be used as a way to avoid making your book better because you think it's your only option. Where were we? Yes, get feedback from people who don't love you. This is essential. That means:

  • Finding a writer's group in your area
  • Join online forums like Absolute Writer or Backspace
  • Join local chapters of national writing organizations like RWA (if you write romance)
  • Pay for a professional critique (if you can)

Step 3. Study and Learn the Way of the Writer.
Reading widely in the genre you write in is a must, as is reading widely on the craft of writing. You must do these things. There are lots of lists out there on good books to read on writing, but I recommend starting with:

  • Stephen King's "On Writing"
  • James Scott Bell's "Plot & Structure" 
  • Anne Lamott's "Bird by Bird"
  • Robert McKee's "Story"
Those are just a start. Get a subscription to Writer's Digest or The Writer. Read writing blogs. There's so much wonderful information out there--but you need to make the effort.

Step 4. Accept that You Must be Patient.
You must come to terms with the fact that you need to be patient in your journey. Give yourself time to learn. Give yourself time and room to write more. You won't want to hear this if you've just finished a novel that took you a year to write and longer to revise, and you ignored your spouse that whole time, stopping watching television and shaving your legs, and became a recluse and never spoke to your children all that time because you were busy pouring every ounce of your soul into your novel. I get that. I totally do. But just because you tried hard doesn't mean you don't have to stop and take stock of what you're doing and where you're going. And if all indications point to a novel that isn't quite there yet, then you need to go on. It doesn't mean you've failed, it doesn't mean all that passion was misplaced. It just means that you had no idea that this was a much bigger thing than you expected it to be.

Step 5. Write, Revise, Revise, Write.
If you want your novel to be good, you can't just type "Finis" and save and close the file. Keep working on it. Revise the living daylights out of it. Set it aside for a long time and then come back. Travel, and then come back to it. Think about it all the time. Read books in the genre and then come back to it. But don't walk away from it and assume it's perfect, because it isn't, and books take much massaging and working before they're saleable. Sometimes this means that after two years of revisions, you discover that you have to rewrite the whole thing because a fundamental plot element never occurred to you until just now. If you're devoted to making your novel a success, then you have to accept that revision never really ends, and you need to be open to it at all stages.

I hope this helps. Please feel free to add any items of wisdom in the comments. Or, just leave a comment and tell me about your experience with your first novel. I want to know!

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