WRITING + PUBLISHING
Drafting a novel
Finishing a first draft is the hardest part of writing for me. Some people are "mud slingers," who just get the words out and worry about beautifying them later. These folks can typically nail tight deadlines and NaNoWriMo. Others are diamond polishers, who just can't stop editing as they draft. Some writers are "pantsters," meaning they're fine just letting their fingers dance on the keys and see where the story leads. Planners, on the other hand, find they need to plot out an entire novel before they write the first page. Let no one tell you there's only one right way to finish your novel. I'm a diamond polisher and a pantsing planner. It doesn't matter what you are. You just need to love writing stories with all of your heart, and the words will land on the page and mean something.
That being said, it takes most writers many attempts to write a full novel, and sometimes even more attempts to write something that is of publishable quality. If you don't have dozens of unfinished stories tucked away on your hard drive or in a notebook somewhere, maybe pause before you think of plunging into the process of writing and publishing a novel. It's not something you should do because you think it'll be easy or lucrative; it's rarely ever easy and only sometimes lucrative. You should adore writing with all of your soul if you're going to set your sights on a career as an author.
The more you write and read and practice, the easier the process of drafting becomes. I've written four novels now and shelved one. Drafting is still frustrating, but I no longer feel stranded in the middle of the narrative like I used to.
Okay, so what are some actionable steps to follow to end up with a decent draft, whether it's your first attempt or fiftieth? Thankfully, some deeply clever storytellers have dissected the formula of a novel so I don't have to do the work! Of course, everyone had to memorize the plot diagram in English class: exposition, conflict, rising action, climax, denouement (or falling action), and conclusion. But there are some amazing drafting resources that go into far more detail. Dig into the The Snowflake Method or Three-Act Structure if you're not sure whether you can trust your instincts on plotting (credit to my critique partner, Sarah Goodman, who does her research on these things while I kind of wing it). For organizing notes and research, Scrivener software can come in handy.
When you draft, try not to think too much about what comes next: the critiquing, revising, querying, or submitting. Drafting is the one phase of an author's career where they can be free of expectations and just enjoy the journey.
Revising a novel
Whether you edit your work while you draft or toss words on the page without thinking too hard, revising is arduous work. It should be. No one writes a perfect first draft and no matter how talented of a writer you are, your work needs review and polishing. During the first round of revision, I don't usually pay too much attention to line-by-line flaws. The first revision is generally focused on the plot and concept - rearranging, cutting, and fleshing out certain scenes to make sure the narrative is clear and meaty. A good thing to keep in mind during your initial revision is the ideal word count for your genre. It's totally fine if you wrote a 130,000 word first draft for a YA contemporary novel, but this is where you need to start shaving off the excess and deleting scenes that don't have enough of a purpose so you can be ready to show an agent or publisher that you know your genre and can edit yourself. Debut authors who want to be traditionally published don't often have the luxury of writing books that are 500 or 600 pages long.
I typically don't start paying attention to the syntax until the second or third round of revision. KINGDOM OF ASH AND BRIARS was the first novel I ever finished and I over-wrote the first draft. A ton of unneeded words and even some unnecessary sequences and characters weighed down my manuscript. If you tend to over-write, look line-by-line for places where you need to be concise. You can be concise yet still descriptive; in fact, I think concision can make good writing truly gleam. Here's an example of what I consider to be an over-written paragraph:
I stepped off the bus and aimlessly meandered through wet, rainy streets lined with brick houses where people lived their lives. With no particular destination in mind, I entered an adorable, quaint coffee shop that smelled divine. I was always reminded of home by the rich, full-bodied aroma of espresso.
Let's talk about what's wrong with this paragraph. "Meander" means to drift or to roam, which implies that you're not heading directly to a destination. That means the adverb "aimlessly" and the prepositional phrase "with no particular destination in mind" are both superfluous. The sentence really goes off the rails with "houses where people lives their lives." You don't need to define terms that are part of a collective experience for your readers. And then with "adorable, quaint" and "rich, full bodied," you've got too many adjectives packed into a paragraph, slowing it down. And worst of all, the passive language in the final sentence is clunky and cringe-worthy.
This fixed paragraph isn't exactly dripping with poetic flair, but it does demonstrate how you can communicate the exact same thought with fewer words, sacrificing no meaning in the process:
I stepped off the bus and meandered through wet streets lined with brick houses until I found a quaint coffee shop that smelled divine. The rich, full-bodied aroma of espresso always reminded me of home.
There are plenty of writers out there who don't overwrite, but it is a common mistake among those taking a crack at their first novel. Some writers actually end up with a skimpy first draft and have to flesh out the story to make it into the ballpark of a typical word count for their genre. Everyone is different, but everyone makes mistakes while drafting that need to be addressed in revisions.
To catch all those mistakes, you can't be the only wordsmith reviewing your work. This is where critique groups, critique partners, beta readers, workshops, and freelance editors come into play. You don't need to have all of these, but 2-3 is good. Be selective about who you trust to critique your work. I once entered a first page contest on a popular blog, and the other entrants ripped my excerpt to shreds, saying I spent too much time on description instead of launching right into the action. But the editor arbitrating the contest chose mine as the winner and I won a critique and free book! All that to say, not every ambitious writer you meet online is going to have revelatory feedback about your work, so don't bend over backwards to revise for the wrong people - do it for the right people, if you have the feeling in your gut that their feedback is worthwhile and will ultimately improve your work rather than send you down revising rabbit holes.
If you don't have a critique partner, there are critique partner match-up sites that will help you find a like-minded storyteller or two with whom you can swap helpful feedback. My critique partner has been vital to my success. So was the writer's group that helped me polish my first ten pages for querying and the beta readers who just gushed adoringly without offering critiques. We need all these facets of community to believe in our work and make it something worth believing in.
Preparing to query is scary and exhilarating. This is the part where you meet the reality of rejection head-on. No amount of preparation can ready you for your first "no," but when it comes...you get over it! And you keep trying. Everyone hopes in the corner of their mind that they'll be in the .02 percent of writers who get a yes from their dream agent straight out of the gate, the same way every lottery ticket buyer thinks "someone has to win - why not me?" But the truth is that even with a shining manuscript, you may still face a few rejections. Steel yourself for this and keep going. This business is SO subjective.
The best advice I have is to query strategically. Get feedback on your query from CPs and betas and groups just like you did on your manuscript, then send out a batch of about 10 queries, each one carefully personalized for the agent you're submitting it to. Almost every agency has unique guidelines for submission, and it is SO important that you follow them. Even if you learn about an agent on a blog that has all the info you think you need, visit the agency website, as this will have the most updated information. Even if you feel you have a lot in common with the agent or that they'll like you as a person, stick to talking about your book rather than talking about yourself. Around 2-3 concise sentences of biographical information at the end should be sufficient.
But maybe I'm getting ahead of you, here. If you need advice on how to format a query, you can easily find this information online. My critique partner and another writer friend of mine both recently referred to C.J. Redwine's Query: Everything You Need to Get Started, Get Noticed, and Get Signed. Both have had quick success with positive responses, requests, and in my CP's case, signing (the other writer just got started querying as of this post). The Kindle version is only $3.99, a worthy investment to make in a phenomenal query.
You may or may not get helpful feedback from your first round. But if you get no requests, send out another batch and see how it goes. If you haven't received at least a partial request after two batches, you may need to rethink your query or your first ten pages. Take some time to suss out what might make agents hesitate. This might be a good time to enter a contest to win a query critique from an agent or author. These kinds of contests are floating around Twitter all. the. time. Sometimes entering is as simple as retweeting a tweet, other times you may have to bid on an auction item for charity. You can also pay many authors for their time. There are plenty of ways to get the feedback of an industry professional who will be honest about your pitch and the marketability of your novel premise or genre.
I recommend keeping a spreadsheet with info about the agents you've queried, such as the date you've queried them, typical response times, and the name and website of the agency (so you don't accidentally query two from the same one). Be patient as you wait to hear back. Don't nudge agents who say they don't respond if uninterested. If you get an offer, it's good form to let any agents who have requested your materials know so that they have time to make an offer or step aside. The right agent will be enthusiastic about your work and confident that it has a place in the market.
I'm not equipped to give you a thorough play-by-play of how every aspect of the publishing industry works; I can only tell you what I've learned from my experience as an author. I also can't give much advice about self-publishing, but there are plenty of authors out there who will have great takeaways for writers who want to go that avenue. If you've already read through my "querying" section, you probably know that literary agents play an important role in launching authors' careers and protecting their interests. I would advise getting an agent because A) they have connections and know how to pitch to publishers and B) they're experts equipped to understand the nuances of contracts and rights and will negotiate on your behalf. Agents don't ask for compensation up front. Instead, they typically take a percentage of your earnings when and if they come about, usually around 12 to 15 percent.
If you're wondering whether it's possible to get a deal without an agent, the answer is yes. Many independent publishers still take submissions directly from authors. However, I wouldn't recommend it unless you are intimately acquainted with the business side of publishing. But if you were, you probably wouldn't be reading a little post from little me explaining how you get to that point! So, if you're reading this, I recommend you search for an agent before submitting directly to any publishers, and certainly don't submit straight to publishers simply because you couldn't find representation; this is probably just a sign that you need to work on your craft or your pitch and try again when you're ready!
Agents usually do at least one round of revision with you as a client before sending your novel out on submission. Going out on submission means that your agent is essentially querying publishers, using her or his connections to stoke interest in your work. If the first round of submission doesn't result in a deal, your agent may encourage you to cast another net, or she or he may recommend you revise again and try later.
Be patient and willing to persevere through this process. Even after you land an agent and a deal, publishing is full of ups and downs for every author. If you haven't finished a novel, don't worry about this stuff yet. Write because you love it - not because you want a six-figure deal and renown. Enjoy the part of the process where it's just you and your words in your own world!
Frequently Asked Questions
How are Kingdom of Ash and Briars and the other books in the Nissera series related?
Kingdom of Ash and Briars is a standalone prequel. Realm of Ruins and Palace of Silver (4/28/20) take place a century after the events in Kingdom of Ash and Briars. If you want to start with Realm of Ruins and Palace of Silver, you could go back and read Kingdom of Ash and Briars.
Will you send me a copy of one of your books to review?
If you're a book reviewer and would like an advance reader copy of one of my upcoming books, please contact marketing (at) holiday house (dot) com. You can also contact marketing (at) holidayhouse (dot) com for general marketing and publicity inquiries.
Can you read my query or manuscript?
While I love giving writing advice to aspiring authors, unfortunately I don't have the time to offer any personalized advice or feedback. I can take on limited freelance clients. If interested, please use the "contact" page to inquire.