So You Want to Be a Novelist

September 26, 2019 | 2 books mentioned 6 4 min read

Five years ago, when my first novel was published, I had the experience that I suspect many young, would-be novelists dream about, which is I got to give a reading at my alma mater. When the book launched, I was feted as the big-deal visiting writer on campus and gave my first reading to a room full of creative writing students and my former professors.

I read a chapter from the book, and then in the signing line, I gamely answered questions about how to get from there to here, what to do if you want to become a novelist. You know, read a lot, write a lot, don’t give up, yadda, yadda, yadda. I was absurdly dazzled by the whole experience of being a debut novelist, and was sure my career was on an upward trajectory.

You can guess what happened next: the sophomore slump. After the book tour winded down, I had five years of mostly failures: two books with two agents didn’t sell, and meanwhile a new crop of dazzling debut novelists took the literary stage. Now, my second novel is about to launch on a press I founded, and I’m dreading the inevitable question of what to do to get from young scribbler with an idea to a capital-w Writer on Book Tour.

Maybe, don’t do it.

I’m 36 years old now and have been writing seriously for half my life. In that time, the publishing world is a different game from the one I started playing in college. None of the old rules apply, and I suspect any advice I might offer a student will be irrelevant by the time they find their own way.

Novel writing is such a personal profession that the only timeless lesson might be that you’re on your own. The only “advice,” then, that I can offer is a recounting of my own experience in getting from there to here:

1. Know Thyself. Every day you walk by these words inscribed in Greek on an arch on your college campus. You know you love to read, and you believe you are a good writer, so you decide to become a novelist. Understand you are never going to make money in this occupation, and you probably will never find a tenure-track teaching job. Take a hard look at law school. Fork over the money to take the LSAT, just in case. Don’t be afraid of a career in real estate. Consider an internship.

2. Go to Graduate School. Or don’t. It doesn’t really matter where you go. All that matters is what you do there—namely, read a lot and write a lot. Maybe take advantage of staying on your parents’ health insurance plan and spend your early 20s doing some mind-numbing job. Wash dishes, perhaps. Or serve coffee. Just don’t take on debt. Commit to reading 100 pages and writing 1,000 words a day, at least five days a week. Write a novel. Revise it. Revise it. Revise it. If you can swing it, consider paying a good editor a goodly sum to give you a professional critique. That’ll save you some time.

3. Watch Your Dreams Disintegrate. Send the book out to 50 agents. Don’t get heartbroken when they tell you they can’t sell it because it’s too “quiet.” No one asked you to write a novel, and no one wants to read it, and anyway this first one’s not any good. Don’t take up smoking. Try not to drink too much. Remember Beckett’s quote: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Read and reread Ted Solotaroff’s essay “Writing in the Cold.” Write another novel.

4. Double Down. Revise the new novel. Make it scream! Send it out to 100 agents. Try not to get discouraged when no one wants this one either. Bite your tongue when a famous agent tells you it’s too “depressing.” Have faith: A few years later, someone on Goodreads will say the same thing in a review. It’s okay to get married, get a real job, and buy a house in the suburbs. Remember Flaubert’s dictum: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Maybe take another look at law school, or write three more novels.

5. Enjoy Your First Taste of Success. Publish your screaming second novel with a reputable small press. Go on book tour. Spend all your earnings on gas and drinks for your true friends who come out to your readings. Try not to get discouraged when it seems like every other novelist is getting more money, making more sales, getting calls from Hollywood. You’re on your way. Dream big when a fancy agent emails you to say he wants to rep your next book. Keep working on those next three novels. It’s okay that you don’t live in Brooklyn.

6. Take a Clear-Eyed Look at New York Publishing. It’s not okay that you don’t live in Brooklyn. It’s also not okay that you already have a published novel. The big New York publishers are seemingly only interested in debut novels, preferably from authors who schmooze in Brooklyn. If you write “southern” fiction and want success in New York, it better be in the “methalachia” vein—the great Appalachian meth novel. Realize you are not going to find success in New York.

cover7. Consider Having Children. Maybe read Bill McKibben’s Falter first. Children are absolutely wonderful, but it’s irresponsible to bring one into this world if you don’t understand the concepts of “wet bulb temperatures,” “carbon parts per million,” and the “singularity.” Your children have some tough skating in front of them. Your generation does, too, by the way.

8. Take Up Powerlifting. You’re getting older, and your body doesn’t spring back like it used to. You need to exercise regularly. Maybe you always rolled your eyes at the bodybuilders in the gym, but there is wisdom in the body as well as the mind. You can achieve that wisdom five reps at a time. Also, the abstract problems of publishing don’t mean as much when you have a 200-pound bar on your back. Find a new agent. Find a friend in real estate.

cover9. Hit Rock Bottom. Read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. Understand the truth of your situation. You have spent the first half of your life building a vessel for your identity, and now the task before you is to fill the vessel up, which is a very different job than the one you were doing. You’re 36 years old. Half your friends are on the rocket ship of success, and the other half are struggling mightily. Nothing is how you thought it would be.

10. Throw a Hail Mary. You’ve committed this far. Take your savings and get ready to push the rock up the hill one more time. Start a small publishing house. Put out your own book. Virginia Woolf did it. Dave Eggers. Kelly Link. You might make it. If not, you’re too old for law school, but there’s always a career in real estate. (You did make friends with a realtor, right?) Remember: Know thyself. You’ll be fine.

Image credit: Unsplash/David Pennington.

is the author of The Whiskey Baron and The Edge of America, the latter of which he published on his new small press, Haywire Books.

6 comments:

  1. In addition to being entertaining, this is excellent advice. A career in something other than writing won’t prevent you from writing. You don’t need to move to a certain city or get a particular degree in order to write. You do need to lower expectations.

  2. This is great. As a person who published two novels several years ago, did not get even slightly rich or famous as a result, and who has since worked as a lawyer (and raised a kid who dreams of writing a novel and whom I refuse to discourage), this is absolutely spot on. What you describe here is my own happy and successful life, lived in obscurity. No regrets.

  3. Since I’m doing this author thing ass-backward already, I found these words strangely comforting. Other careers launched—check. Kid raised and launched—check. Notions of NY representation trashed—check. Eye on the indie publishing front—check. Bring on the bearable lightness of realistic expectations.

  4. I love this — a lot of it rings true with my experience, and like others, I found it comforting. It’s too bad we don’t all talk more openly about the reality of being a novelist today.

    And also so true about the debut author thing. New York publishing has become more about gambling (continually publishing debut novels in hopes that they’ll hit pay dirt) than about bringing great books into the world. Six-figure deals or nothing.

    Awesome that you started your own press and are getting your work out there. What’s the point of writing if not to have our work read?

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