16 Things I Wish I’d Known as a Beginner Novelist

16 things1. This journey is probably going to take longer than you think.
In fact, you might bust your butt on something that never sees the light of day.  It’s okay.  You become a better writer by writing.  I had to write a novel to prove I could write a novel before I could write a good novel, if you follow me.

2. Write because you love it, not because you want to be published.
You might never have your work published.  If you write because you have to write, because you’re a writer in your bones, then this won’t matter.  (Or at least it won’t matter enough to stop you!)

3. Write every day …
Establish a writing routine, even if some days you only get ten minutes to write.

4. … but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t.
I’m still learning this.  GRACE.

5. If you start a website, don’t waste time thinking of a clever blog title.  Just use your name.  
With WordPress and $18 a year, you can even buy your own domain so that you can just have www. [yourname] .com.  Trust me.  It’s going to be better for branding yourself as a writer someday. 

6. Learn blog etiquette.
Make a commitment to post on your blog at least once a week.  Also, don’t solicit readers by posting links to your content as a comment.  The best way to get readers is to read other blogs and leave thoughtful comments.  They’ll be much more likely to visit yours that way than if you use their comments section as your own personal ad space.

7. Join a writing group– or at least collect some beta readers.  Preferably both.  And take their advice.
Make sure they actually know what good literature is.  They should be good writers themselves or at least good readers.  And do take their advice or at the very least try it out.  No one said you have to keep your revisions.  Take their feedback, make revisions, and then decide whether to take it or leave it.  It goes without saying (I hope) that all this should be done without putting up a fuss.  You need feedback to make your writing sparkle.  Well, at least most writers do.

8. Genres have word count guidelines.
Debut authors should be especially aware of this.  Many literary agents won’t even bother with a manuscript that falls outside the genre word count guidelines.  (Not that it has never happened– but it’s the exception, not the rule).  There are detailed posts about this at Literary Rejections and Writer’s Digest.

9. Set aside some money to devote to your craft.
You can use this money to take a class, attend a workshop, or hire a professional editor.  Yes, a professional editor in addition to your writing group and beta readers.  The more [qualified, capable] eyes on your novel, the better!

10. Join Twitter.
I can hear some of you groaning.  I did too.  Who needs one more social media avenue?  You do.  It’s a great way to connect with other writers (amateur and professional!).  You can also start following literary agents and editors to learn more about the industry.

11.  You’ll need an agent.
I didn’t know this.  To be honest, I’d always thought that you sent off your completed manuscript directly to publishers.  But there’s a whole chain of command.  You’ll need to write a query letter (in some ways, this is harder than writing the novel itself!) that you’ll send to literary agents.  Once a lit agent signs you, it’s your agent’s job to sell your manuscript to an editor.  Novelists should wait to have a completed manuscript before beginning the querying process.

12. There are great resources out there for how to write a query letter and what agents are specifically looking for.
If you spend two hours on Rachelle Gardner’s blog, you’ll have the basics of querying down.  Best places to find what agents are looking for include Writer’s Digest’s Guide to Literary Agents, the author acknowledgements in the backs of your favorite books, and querytracker.net, especially the “backward” search that allows to look up an author and find out who reps him or her.  From time to time, literary agents on Twitter will hashtag things #mswl (manuscript wishlist), and this is super helpful and often gives you more specific, up-to-date information than their websites.  Remember that money you set aside (#9)?  Use it to attend a conference or workshop where literary agents will be in attendance.  Sometimes you can meet them and deliver your pitch in person.  (I’m not talking about stalking and cornering here; there are actual times and locations and events set up for this to occur!)

13. Rejection is inevitable, and it hurts.
I’m not sure if knowing this ahead of time helps things or not.

14. Read like crazy.
Everything [good] you can get your hands on, but especially in your genre.  And add a healthy dose of poetry for good measure.  Also: blogs, especially those of authors and literary agents and others in publishing, but also book blogs to keep your finger on the pulse of what is trending in your genre and what readers are looking for.  That said …

15. Write what you’re passionate about, not what’s trendy.
By the time you finish your novel about [insert trendy, current topic here], the topic will probably no longer be trendy or current.

16. The most important thing is that you write a great book. 
Ignore whatever you want on this list, but write an amazing book.  A writer who follows all the rules but writes a sub-par book probably has less of a chance at publication than one who bucked all the rules but wrote a masterpiece.

[I searched online, but could not figure out whom to credit for the original image of the white frame on the green wall.  If you know or find its original owner, let me know.]

41 thoughts on “16 Things I Wish I’d Known as a Beginner Novelist

  1. Jackie, Thanks for creating this list. It was very helpful and interesting. How does it feel to write something like this now that you’re on the other side of writing a novel?

  2. This is awesome. But I do have a question that you may or may not be able to answer… how does one become a literary agent? I want to write a novel one day, perhaps, but I almost want to /work/ with other novels ever more!! I find so much joy in helping other peoples’ writing.

  3. Love this list, Jackie! Especially your point that joining a writing group doesn’t do any good if you don’t *listen* to the feedback you get. That advice is gold for new writers–especially the ones who have a tough time taking criticism. No one said revisions are permanent!

  4. Yes, yes, yes! Great tips, Jackie. It is such a long hard road this writing journey so if you don’t have it in your bones there is no way you would keep at it. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Wow, that is truly great advice!
    I don’t really know a lot about writing groups is their a certain one you would recommend?

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  8. Jackie, just started following you and this is some great information. Thank you for taking the time to do this. Any thoughts on simply self publishing on Kindle and the like? Sorry if this was addressed in any of the above comments but I have to get back to my own book so did not take the time to read them!


  9. Not sure what happened but my comment does not seem to have posted. Anyway, thank you for this wonderful information.
    Any thoughts on self publishing on kindle and the like? Sorry if this was addressed in any of the above comments, but need to get back to my book and ran out of time to read them all!

    • Hello FBF!

      Self-publishing is always an option for people, but I chose to pursue traditional publishing. I got my literary agent last summer, and I got a two-book contract with HarperCollins last November. I’m really, really excited. 🙂

      • Does an agent cost anything up front?
        Congrats on your book. I love writing and write because I need to write. Of course it is a dream to be published and break free from the corporate world but I know that is a dream! Anyway, hence the purpose and name of my blog!

      • No, an agent should NEVER have upfront costs. An agent only makes money when YOU make money– 15% of what you make! In order to get a literary agent, you have to write a dynamite query letter and book, and the agent has to offer you representation.

  10. Reblogged this on Free by Forty and commented:
    Great information herein for those who dream as I do … or if you just simply love the process and write because you can’t not write … or if you simply find freedom by way of penning your words daily as a ritual!

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  12. Thanks Jackie have just finished my first manuscript after 5 years (3 years were research) and it feels good – I’m getting nibbles to my query letters from agents and publishers which is encouraging. I wish I knew everything you shared before I started, but hey we’re all learning. I think its really important to write about something that interests you as you said rather than following trends. It takes so long to write a book it must be about something we love. And totally agree about Beta-readers – even though it is a bit tough at first hearing your work isn’t perfect yet(!).

  13. Hi,
    Very useful information you collated for beginners, especially about ‘getting an agent’. I was completely unaware of this. I have been implementing few of your points already. I am saving these all points for my future. I hope your book would have been successful. Good Luck with more publishing
    Thanks for the post.
    By the way, I am writing this comment just to implement the 6th point! 🙂

  14. Thank you so much for the insight on that topic. As I’m just starting out writing, it is great to get this kind of help and information.
    I guess I will read this post again in a while, and go through your list step by step…

  15. Yes, so much of this is true. I remember finishing the first draft of the first novel length thing I wrote at 16 and thinking it was amazing and I was close to publication. Yeah, that didn’t happen. It still hasn’t happend.

    I can’t say I would have wanted myself to know that when I was younger though because I’m not sure I would have kept trying this long if I realized how long and hard I would write before getting published. I used to think people who’d written something like five novel length drafts and still hadn’t published not understand the reason. Now I’ve written five, almost six novel length drafts and am still not published. People sometimes look at me with incomprehension.

    I also kind of regret not using my name as part of my blog title. Then again, I still haven’t decided on a pen name, and considering that I was sixteen when I started this blog I could have done much worse. So, maybe I should just be happy I didn’t do anything that could permanently damage my reputation.

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