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By TACP Staff on July 06, 2021
With the advent of self-publishing and the ability to bypass the formerly arduous process of securing a “book deal”, becoming a successful novelist is a career waiting to happen. Find out how to embark on a new journey of sharing your stories and opinions with the world.
Most everyone has a novel in them just waiting to be written. Some writers even have a synopsis, maybe a few characters, and a moderately good premise, but absolutely no idea about how to get started or stay on track. Most writers consume books; everything from thrillers and romantic fiction to horror and suspense, studying each one for ideas and clues to what makes one novel a best seller and another a paperweight. Most novelists also think endlessly about dialog, plot changes and twists, heroines and charlatans, and the beginning, the middle, and the end of their next best seller.
But more than all that, a novelist is a person who uses the written word to communicate a fictional story. A novel is a book of fiction written with some degree of realism. So, if it is not long-form fiction, then it’s a book and not a novel. A novel writer is different from a non-fiction writer, different than a technical writer or a writer of websites, blogs, or other forms of communication. A novelist uses imagery and creative thought to take the reader on a fictitious day, week, or year-long journey but also allows readers to relate to the story in some way through characters, setting or location, or time period. Just like a cookbook writer writes from experimentation and experience, a novel writer writes from imagination with originality, illusion, ingenuity, and heart.
Novelists come from many backgrounds, and sadly, most struggle to get their first novel published. The saying ‘starving artists’ applies to novelists as well. However, once published, novelists often continue to be published although there is never a guarantee. Like a songwriter who has a ‘one-hit wonder,’ so goes the same for some great novelists. Even so, novelists love what they do because it allows for a kind of freedom not often found in other kinds of writing. To them, it’s a bit like breathing.
Simply put, a novelist writes novels. Sometimes for personal gain, other times to ascribe to a particular social responsibility, including activism or advocacy, or to effect change. Writing a novel begins with brainstorming and deciding about characters, plot, setting, conflict, and resolution or ending. Usually, outlines are mapped out and a timeline is developed to keep track of who, what, when, where, and why. When an outline is penciled in (an outline may go through a number of changes as the story develops), a writer will the research about all the various aspects of the story’s background. For instance, if the novel takes place in San Francisco during the 1960s, you’ll want to study about the hippie movement at Haight Ashbury. Or, if you’re writing about taking a trip to a far-off planet, you may want to research space exploration.
Next, a novelist writes; one word at a time. One sentence and one paragraph after another until they have a couple of chapters finished, with the final goal of a completed best seller. Most novels are between 80,000 and 200,000 words. That’s one reason why it is so imperative to have all your thoughts and ideas in outline form prior to beginning the writing process. Patience and dedication also play a big part in novel writing. The idea is to start off with a bang, write a compelling middle that keeps the interest of the reader, and end strong. Without patience and dedication, you may end flat, or the middle may have the reader closing the book too soon and reaching for another novel off their shelf.
Other skills a novelist must have to include a good grasp of the English language, including grammar, spelling, punctuation, and syntax. Editors can and will catch missing or incorrect sentence structure and punctuation, but will send the novel back unread if the first paragraph contains misspelled words and incorrect use of grammar. Novelists must also be imaginative and unique, disciplined, and critical of their own work, as a good novelist is never satisfied with the first draft. Novelists may want to take a computer keyboarding class, hone their research skills, and work to identify which research sites work and which are better left unopened; saving time. Novelists must be passionate, ambitious, and have a thick skin, because like a movie or play, once your book is published it will be reviewed. And, because you will be writing between 80- and 200- thousand words, you better be an enduring storyteller.
Those looking to become a novelist should know that they do not need a formal education to write a best seller. However, the benefits that can be gained from attending college cannot be overstated. A bachelor’s degree in English or communications with a concentration in creative writing are the most common degree programs for prospective novelists. A degree not only offers students the chance to hone their skills and learn new or different ways to write and think, but it also provides a network of professional contacts and mentorship opportunities. College can also build a solid work ethic and discipline, both of which are vital to a writing career.
Coursework can include English, creative writing, history, composition, introduction to fiction writing, intermediate fiction, contemporary fiction, short story, literary analysis, literature, independent study, and portfolio. While in school, experience can also be gained through internships. Internships can improve a writer’s skill set, offer opportunities network, provide experience, and may help with future employment prospects. Most employers (publishing firms, academia, or if working as a co-author) prefer candidates with a degree, mainly because they believe graduates have a larger base of knowledge and experience, so earning a degree (BA, BFA, or MFA) is a smart decision if you wish to rise to the top of the applicant pool. And, although most novelists work solo or freelance, a college education can still give you invaluable skills, such as the ability to work to a deadline, construct better sentences, learn outlining skills, organization, discipline, and perseverance, as well as the ability to withstand criticism and stay the course.
There are also certificate programs in novel writing, many of which are offered online. Most do not require students to be English majors, college graduates or published writers, but others do require completion of a bachelor’s degree. Admission is by application only, but all programs do require applicants to be high school graduates. Most certificate programs last between 10-weeks and two years and are completed on a part-time basis. Tuition varies.
About two-thirds of all novelists are self-employed and work in an office or at home; anywhere with Internet and computer access. Some writers find inspiration for working in public areas, like parks or coffee shops. Others find working in a quiet environment offers less distraction and is best for concentration. In other words, just as novels are unique, so are working environments for writers.
Some novelists keep regular office hours, while most (one in four) work part-time. During any given day, novelists might be required to stay in contact with editors and publishers, and any contacts or sources needed to write and promote their novel, so hours may depend on their schedules, not yours. And, novelists who are working with a publisher must also stick to strict deadlines. Although writers usually set their own hours, they must learn to stay on a semi-reliable routine, say, 9am – 3pm every day but weekends. As a result, novelists must be willing to work long hours, weekends or holidays, or whenever inspiration strikes.
Calculating an average annual salary for novelists is difficult. Novelists who self-publish keep most of their income from book sales, after expenses. There is no royalty and no agent takes a percentage of net earnings. However, self-published novelists must pay the cost of printing, unless they opt to publish e-books instead where costs are minimal. The downside to self-publishing is that authors must market their own books, and can’t expect the same attention that a publisher or agent may give. In fact, it is predicted that a novelist who chooses to self-publish spends 80 percent of his or her time marketing, and only 20 percent actually writing. But, some novelists have very successfully self-published their books. For example, novelist, Michael Prescott, has sold over 300,000 copies of his e-book, Bad To The Bone, at an average price of .99 cents each, earning him more than $300,000.
Novelists who have earned a reputation can earn millions of dollars in royalties. Those just starting out may earn a few hundred dollars. Potential sales are the determining factor that influences a publishing advance. Novelists who wish to work, or are fortunate enough to work with a publisher must pay all royalties out of book sales until the author’s advance is paid. J.K. Rowling and Tom Clancy are the two highest-paid authors to date, both earning well more than $50 million dollars per year.
Sometimes novelists are lucky enough to have their novel turned into a movie or film where producers by the option for rights to their stories. The novelist is paid a small amount for the option, then if the film is produced, the author is paid much more. Payments can range anywhere from $50,000 to more than $500,000.
Another way to earn more and increase a novelist’s following and recognition is to blog about their book, which can sometimes grab the attention of a publicist or agent and can also widen an author’s audience. Many novelists have websites devoted to promoting their books, blogging, and even a few offer simple lessons in writing and tricks of the trade. There are also dozens of websites offering advice on ‘how to write a novel’ by bestselling authors. Many strictly offer advice, others sell books on novel writing, while some simply have you sign up for daily writing emails delivered to your inbox. All of these are great tools to get the creative juices flowing. But, most novelists will tell you that the best way to write a novel is to simply get started.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of novelists (writers and authors) is projected to grow only two percent from 2014 to 2024. However, with the growing demand and sophistication of online publications and e-books, employment may exceed these numbers.
That said, there is strong competition in the world of publishing. Not everyone with a bestseller actually gets published, and many great manuscripts are never read. After all, some publishers get between 100 and 1,000 unsolicited manuscripts a month. Authors who are comfortable working with digital tools and online publishing will have the best chance of getting their work published. The declining costs of self-publishing and the growing popularity of e-books allows many freelance authors to see their books published on sites like Amazon, Pubit!, LuLu, Scribd, Kobo Writing Life, and many more. Most sites charge a royalty per sale, but there is usually no sign-up fee and most of the money from sales goes into the author’s pocket.
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