So You’ve Finished Your Novel:
Now What?

Absolute Blank

By Dee Ann Ruffel

Recently I completed my third work of novel-length fiction. The senses of relief and pride overwhelmed me as I typed the two most beautiful words in the world, “The End”. But still I did not kid myself; I knew my tale needed honing, major editing. I didn’t mind. I loved the story, and enjoyed the tuning as if my novel were a scuffed Steinway in need only of a little tenderness to be beautiful again. After two overhauls and an exhaustive search for the perfect agent, I was finally ready to unleash my story. So what happened? What did I hear back on it? The two ugliest words in the world, “Slush Pile”.

Think it couldn’t happen to you? Read on, please. Oh, I know what you might assume (just as I once smugly presupposed of unpublished writers), her novel must not be that good. Don’t think that about my work, and don’t think it about yours when you get that first rejection letter. Writers Digest books, Writer’s Market and all of the ‘resources’ for aspiring writers can be dizzying with scarcely veiled promises of that big nugget—cue the bongos—a contract. So we buy the books (are you catching my hint?), read the articles, brush up on copyright laws, overseas rights, film rights, agent percentages, ah yes, and then come the money fantasies. Reading about $50K-plus advances can get even the most hard-boiled of realistic writers dreaming of hot tubs and a spot on the David Letterman show in a jiffy. But unless you’re a cousin of a friend of a publisher who owes your gangster father money, getting your foot in the door of the publishing industry is more like going twelve rounds with Mike Tyson than a happy-footed skip to the post office.

And speaking of snail mail, do not send manuscripts via the expensive priority route. See, while you may be in a giant rush to have your novel read and adored, agents I’ve spoken with (the Donald Maass Agency, to list one), say it doesn’t do a whit of good to overnight, express, return-receipt, or buy into any of Mr. Postmaster’s extra extras. If you want to insure your package, go ahead, but why would you waste your money? Without a contract, that copy of your novel is, well, worthless to anyone but you.

Discouraged yet? Don’t be. If you’re a Writer with a capital W, as Stephanie Lenz (Baker) says, nothing will stop your locomotion. Your itch to burrow into the literary world will drive you onward, deeper, inch by hard-earned inch, until one afternoon you realize that a year ago you would have popped champagne for the penny-a-word magazine sale you just made. And you stop worrying about the golden nugget for a moment and give thanks.

You’ve just smuggled one toe in the door of the publishing industry. And what you’ve accomplished, not just by making a tiny sale but having completed a novel of your own mood, characters, scenes, action, dialogue, plot, and conclusion, is a level more than many aspiring writers ever make it to in a lifetime. You say that isn’t enough, and you want more? Good, because with an attitude like that, you’ll eventually get your work published. You will because you can suffer the rejections and keep improving, keep submitting. Your first novel may never leave your hard drive, but neither will it leave your heart. You will build on your experiences and grow into the writer you know you’re destined to become.

In the meantime, there are a couple of facts you should know about the publishing industry—and you can’t take them personally or let them take your money. You just can’t, or they might destroy your will.

The Publishing Industry is about Making Money. That’s right. From agents to magazine editors to the almighty giant publishing houses, the fruit of your labors must sing, “I’ll pay your mortgage, I’ll make you rich, I’ll sell, sell, sell.” Now, how could they possibly turn down your novel when you know it’s better than half the crap you’ve seen on the shelves at Barnes and Noble? Because they aren’t clairvoyants, and they know it. They want numbers, a proven track record. They’ve published novels they personally liked, and ended up eating the extra copies the author’s family and friends did not buy. So it comes down to one question, one that has nothing to do with the quality of your prose. Can you prove that your book will make them money? It is no wonder more than ¾ of all publishing houses accept only non-fiction work from the masters of respective fields. Textbooks are guaranteed to sell.

The Publishing Industry Makes TONS of Money from Unpublished Writers. There are books about writing, about publishing, about ‘breaking in’. There are book doctors, agents who charge reading fees, writers’ conferences, and the list goes on. Not to say these practices can’t help, because I’m sure they can. But if you don’t have the wherewithal to become your own Book Doctor, how will you ever make it as a professional writer? These sharks claim the ability to whip your work into bestseller quality, but what I want to know is, where are their bestsellers? Why do they need our work and our money to survive? And any person (agent) who would dare charge a writer to have her work merely considered is not an agent, in my opinion, but a carpetbagger, a parasite who gorges on gullibility. Don’t be that naïve with your money, because if you’re anything like me, you don’t have much to begin with. There are too many resources (Toasted Cheese for one!), that are there to help you and don’t cost a dime. Most of the books for sale can be found at your local library, and the kind of contacts that can be made at conferences can also be made on the Internet. It just takes a lot of work and a lot of time. But you’re a novelist! You should be used to research and hard work by now.

So you’ve completed your novel. Now what? Search the Net and books like Writer’s Market and Guide to Literary Agents for non-fee charging agents and publishers who accept work from unpublished writers. Find out what kind of books they’ve sold, and to whom. Look for fiction similar to yours, then re-read your novel and pretend someone else wrote it. Is it ready? Are you sure? If you were looking for a good book to buy, would you buy yours over everyone else’s? Are you ABSOLUTELY certain? If yes, see if you can get someone to rub your aching neck while you pound out that query letter and synopsis, then double-check your submission for requested guideline adherence and get that sucker in the mail. But if no, you would not buy your novel over the likes of the bestselling authors who reign in your genre, then don’t expect anyone else to either. Keep writing, keep burrowing, and you’ll get there. As will I.

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