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 Oh, I know what you might assume (just as I once smugly presupposed of unpublished writers), her novel must not be that good.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.

Final Poll Results

Quick Picks: Books Recommended by the Crew

Conundrums to Guess

Sheila


Dee Ann

  • The Stand, Stephen King. The Stand is a journey I like to relive about every two years. I bought the hardcover new in 1987. King has a way of showing you things a movie can’t. This is an epic tale of a biological weapon, an ever mutating ‘super flu’ the world soon calls ‘Captain Trips’ that winds up in a showdown between good and evil with the few survivors left in America. My favorite quality about anything King writes is that he faithfully keeps you in the story. This is his genius, IMO.
  • The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis. Another journey, this one a delightful classic. I read this book for the first time in fifth grade, and most recently about 6 months ago. Of all Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the most fascinating. The closet that leads to another world, the ‘bad’ faun who lulls Lucy to sleep with his strange little straw flute, the magic Turkish Delight of which Edmund can’t stop eating… This book showcases, IMO, the best of Mr. Lewis’s imagination put to work.
  • Writer’s Market (Released annually) from Writer’s Digest Books. I’ve seen many writer’s websites that scoff at anything from Writer’s Digest, but within the pages of this thesaurus-size book are highly organized lists of publishers, agents, magazines, contest and award information, and what each wants from a writer. There are articles on query-writing, e-queries, synopsis-writing, and a writer’s rights. I pick this book up often enough to justify the price tag every year.
  • Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass. I bought this book last year because I admired Mr. Maass, and I wanted to hear what he had to say. I’m pleased to report this book is insightful in many respects, it is well-written and entertaining (not didactic at all), and leaves messages imbedded in the brain that continue to help my writing in many ways. His best advice, IMO? Build high human worth to raise the stakes in your novel, or the reader won’t care what happens to your characters.
  • Dance Upon the Air, Nora Roberts (1st in the Three Sisters Island trilogy). Nora is a fantastic writer, and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed her stories. I have an exceptional eye for other writers’ mistakes (though not my own, of course) and Nora doesn’t make too many, if any at all, IMO. She doesn’t confuse, she doesn’t meander, she sticks to the story and makes you care as she leads you into the lives of her realistic characters. She’s been described as a word artist, and I think that’s apropos for her, especially in this book. In some ways, Dance Upon the Air made me think of Sleeping With the Enemy, which was also a good book.
  • Sleeping With the Enemy, Joseph Ruben. This came out when I was in college, and though I didn’t have the time to spare for anything fiction (unless it was assigned by a professor), I made the time for this book. It’s a gripping thriller. The movie was good too, but different. The characters in the book were more realistic than the movie’s la-la-la, beautiful Julia Roberts show philosophy, IMO, of course.

Ana

  • I’m very fond of Robertson Davies, perhaps with special notice given to Cunning Man and the Deptford Trilogy (Hmmm… Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders). I astonished myself once by saying that if Davies could write as fast as I could read, I’d never read anything else. Alas, he’s gone now.
  • Also Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, with special attention to the afterword, in which he discusses how he put the novel together.

Boots

  • The Rose of the Prophet, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. There are three books in this series. Fantasy. Two warring tribes are forced together through matrimony to save the life of their god.
  • Bird by Bird, Anne Lamont. Non-fiction. “Some instructions on writing and life.” A great way to look at the writing life and then to start living it. Full of humor and spice and some simple, yet profound, writing advice.
  • Fall of Atlantis, Marion Zimmer Bradley. Fantasy. (Compliation of two books.) Follows two sisters as they grow to womanhood, struggling to remain together while they strive along very different paths.
  • Circle of Three, Patricia Gaffney. Fiction. A novel about three generations of women, each trying to hang to the other and build relationships after a death.
  • Belinda, Anne Rice. Fiction. About a girl who is older than she looks, and a man who is younger than he seems.
  • Effortless Prosperity, Bijan. Self-help/Inspiration. 30 simple lessons to change your life in a month. Easy to understand and follow guide to create peace in your life and reach for your dreams.
  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Fiction. A good standard that shows the value of research mixed with imagination.

Bonnets


Billiard

  • A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle. A classic, one that’s stuck with me through many years and that I want to share with my own children one day.
  • On Writing, Stephen King. Thoughtful and inspiring, a great read for anyone who’s a writer.
  • Harry Potter series, JK Rowling. Great children’s books are more than just “children’s books”. These are.

Beaver

  • Meet the Austins / The Moon by Night / A Ring of Endless Light, Madeleine L’Engle. Undoubtedly the biggest influence on me, my writing, my choices during my teen years.
  • Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. The copy we had when I was growing up will always be The Dictionary to me. I loved this book. How much? I’ve asked that it be bequeathed to me…
  • The Language of the Goldfish, Zibby Oneal. Still my standard for young adult fiction.
  • Jalna (series), Mazo de la Roche. A great big family saga.
  • A Circle of Quiet, Madeleine L’Engle. Part memoir, part writing advice. One of the best books I’ve read “on writing”. Deals with giving up, the compulsion to write, and success after much rejection.
  • Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, Simone de Beauvoir. Part memoir, part philosophy. Read at a schism in my life, I identified with de Beauvoir’s reaction to her childhood and her existentialist philososphy.
  • Georgia O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe. Memoir mixed with the artist’s work. Fabulous insight into the creative process.
  • Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg. The book that got me to stop thinking about writing, and start doing it.
  • The Weight of Oranges/Miner’s Pond, Anne Michaels. Absolutely delicious way with words. This poetry has had a strong influence on my style. Great book to read if you’re looking to put music into your writing.
  • Regeneration (series), Pat Barker. These blow me away on so many levels. The writing is fabulous. The research is meticulous. The blending of fact & fiction is seamless. And oh yeah, Billy Prior is the best. character. ever.

Banker

  • Wizard’s First Rule, Terry Goodkind. My current read; I don’t know why I waited so long to start it because I can hardly put it down.
  • The Sword of Shannara, Terry Brooks. The next greatest fantasy epic after–
  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien. What can I say that hasn’t been said already? I first read this in my early teens and it woke me up to the fact that fantasy wasn’t just fairy tales.
  • A Wrinkle In Time (the trilogy), Madeleine L’Engle. Actually the third book in this trilogy was the best, but I loved the characters and the sense of magic in all the books.
  • The Hound and the Falcon (trilogy), Judith Tarr. Historical fantasy: who knew it could be done, and so well?
  • The Colour of Magic (and everything succeeding), Terry Pratchett. The man’s a comic genius. Enough said.
  • The Once and Future King, T.H. White. The definitive version of the definitive heroic tale.
  • The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis. Smaller in scope than Middle-Earth, yet no less wonderful for that.
  • The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Stephen R. Donaldson. I picked up the first book on a whim, never having heard of it before, and I was hooked before the end of the first chapter. Six books in all, each more intense than the last, dark but satisfying.
  • Sanctuary (edited), Robert Asprin and Lynne Abbey. It was after reading about Thieves’ World that my own fantasy world began to take shape, so I suppose I owe the most debt to this series of books.

Baker