When we start out on the road to becoming a novelist, it’s fair to ask, “What are my chances?” And we’d better ask that question, because the odds are tough and relentless. If we want to survive in the industry, it helps to have our eyes wide open. If we know it will be hard, we are less likely to give up at the first or fifteenth set back.
The long odds
If this is your first novel, the odds of your publishing it with a traditional New York publisher are very small indeed. I’ve heard editors say that they publish one in one thousand manuscripts that come across their desk.
Still, that’s not astronomical. If your desire to write novels is strong enough, it may even sound doable. Like losing twenty pounds, or learning French. It will take a similar amount of determination, and perhaps a great deal more.
If you want to publish on your own, of course, the odds are about 100% that you will succeed in doing so. (And the very ease of self-publishing is one of the reasons that you may not want to self-publish, placing your book out there without a thorough learning curve and without a brand name.)
Beating the odds
But assuming you want a traditional publisher with the resources to put you into real bookstores with a well-designed book, what can you do to increase your chances?
I’m assuming that most of you are going to do the obvious things to establish your careers, so I’m going to concentrate on the ones that may be less obvious, the ones that aspiring writers often overlook:
Evolve your story
Don’t be satisfied with your initial concept and your first plot instincts. Many first ideas spring forth because you’ve read them/seen them before, or they are simply the easiest. Work hard at emotionally-driven and dramatic concepts. Don’t give up when your first ideas stubbornly cling. You can rework your ideas to become deeper and more compelling. Plan to evolve your story using your growing understanding of story architecture and characterization. Grow in the craft. If you don’t, you’ll be one of the 999 rejected manuscripts.
Play to your strengths
Know your strengths and weaknesses. Although we’ll get better at everything as we grow and learn, we will probably always be better at either plot or emotional truth. If plotting is not your strength, concentrate on the inner story, the cast, and character arc. If your characters tend to fill roles rather than real shoes, you can still tell a great story. Find the genre that welcomes what you do especially well.
Let your stories go
At some point in their careers even traditionally published novelists will spend a year writing a novel that does not have legs, that will not get picked up. What to do? Ah, friends, we must let the story go. It may be salvaged by several excruciating rewrites, but don’t flog it to death. In the context of the dozens of novels you will write in your career, one or two non-starters is not a particularly cruel fate. Sometimes an unsold book is just an unlucky one. It is not a trend. Every story starts your chances all over again.
Some people have the experience of having several novels rejected. I’ve seen such people become confused and bitter. But I don’t often see such a writer ask what they can do better. Or ask, is there a different genre that might suit me (and the marketplace) better? The willingness to try new styles and genres is the hallmark of a writer who is in the game to stay. There is no shame in changing the sort of thing you write. In fact, it can be a relief to try the brand new. Let’s stop feeling rejected and start feeling instructed by what happens to us.
You’re in this for the long haul – and even breaking in may mean a multi-year journey. The writing life tends to isolate us, but don’t go it alone. Find and nurture friends who will become mentors and confidants. You will rely on such friends for comraderie, advice and fun. They’ll be there when the road is harsh. One of the secrets of breaking in is to finish the book. It’s surprising how many people quit. And even if this book doesn’t sell, we’ll be on to the next one. Share the journey with others who’ll cheer you on. Find your circle.