13 Steps to Publishing a Novel (That I’m Glad I Didn’t Know Before I Started)

I began writing my work-in-progress (WIP, in the industry slang) in May 2013 because Annie Lamott said if I didn’t get started then, I never would. I promised myself one hour a day, and I stuck with that.

The first few weeks were delightful (I’m pretty sure my memory is foggy on this–it may have been delightful in the same way that the first few weeks of motherhood are delightful–painful, wet, stinky, sleepless, horrible, and now-I’ve-forgotten-all-that-and-only-remember-the-first-smile). I found I could write a little more than 1,000 words a day on average. Based on Google research, I only needed about 50,000 or so to make a complete young-people’s novel.

Math isn’t exactly my thing, but based on my sketchy understanding of how many hours there are in an hour, and how many days there are in a 30-day month, and how many 1,000s there are in 50 thousand, I guessed it would take me about two months or a little less to complete my novel.

Wow, whizz-bang, pow! as Stephen King would annoyingly say.

I’m pretty sure that’s what he would say because it’s the sort of thing a juvenile* says right before dropping a bomb.

The bomb: Writing a novel is way more than getting words down on the page. Writing a novel takes years. If I had known that this fact would apply to me before I got started, I would have begun with more humility. It’s also possible I wouldn’t have begun at all.

Note: October includes several weeks of planned downtime. Most months demonstrate the indicated one hour a day.

Note: October includes several weeks of planned downtime. Most months demonstrate the indicated one hour a day.

So read on with caution. If you’re contemplating becoming a novelist, this may dissuade you (don’t let it). Here are the approximate steps it takes to get from idea to finished, published novel. Time estimates are based on roughly one hour a day (your mileage may vary).

1. Vomit it up, aka first draft. It’s hard, and fun, and fast, and heartbreaking, and grueling. (Time: 2 months)

2. Tear it to pieces, aka first revisions/second draft. “Write drunk; edit sober”–gotta love Hemingway. I have nothing else to say about this except It’s Hard. (Time: 3 months)

3. Put it back together, aka second revisions/third draft. This is where I am now. It’s not as hard as step 2, just time-consuming. No adrenalin rush, all slog. (Time: At current pace, roughly 2 months)

4. Offer up your sacrifice on the altar of pain, aka beta release. This is where you send your baby to a few trusted readers and find out whether everything you’ve devoted the past seven months to is worth a sh*t. (Time: Depends on how fast your betas read/comment and what else is on their plates. Maybe 2 months?)

5. Go to hell, aka review feedback & revise again, aka completely rewrite the whole dang thing, probably. Or toss it. Whatever. (Time: I’m guessing about 2-3 months)

6. Seek a champion, aka research agents. Assuming you even get this far, most major publishing houses will not even glance at your book without an agent. Plus, the agent negotiates contract terms and other unsavory activities with which you wish not to sully yourself. Of course, as in any field that professes to help people, there are more shady agents than good ones. All you gotta do is sort out which are which, and who actually wants to see your book. Check the acknowledgements in similar types of books, read Writer’s Market, Google, check #pitmad and #mswl on Twitter. Go to conferences. (Time: Maybe a few weeks? Days? I dunno.)

7. Prostrate thyself, aka write a query letter & send it to agents. This one is no big deal–all you gotta do is take the 85,000 words you’ve slaved over for 12 months and condense them into 200 words that will jump off the page in such a manner that a good agent, whose inbox is packed with ten thousand story ideas they’ve received just this month, will decide she absolutely must read the rest of this particular book. No problem. (Time: Maybe a few weeks… months? I have no clue. I’ve been gradually honing my query letter as I go, since it also helps to refine my thinking about the book itself, so I guess maybe this could feasibly be complete while the book is out in beta and therefore not add anything to the total timeline)

8. Receive rejections aka receive dozens of rejections. Become depressed, but keep sending the query out anyway until someone bites. If you’re lucky. (Time: Weeks, months, years. Who knows)

8. Tear your hair out, aka revisions based on agent feedback. (Time: No clue. None. Just be glad you found an agent to take your work)

9. Wait. Once you have an agent, and you’ve done what they asked for to your manuscript, you wait for them to find the right publisher. (Time: Who knows. JK Rowling’s agent took a year to find her a publisher for The Philosopher’s Stone. Isn’t that encouraging?)

10. Celebrate. Briefly. Aka, you’ve got a publisher, and maybe an advance, and THIS IS WHAT YOU’VE BEEN WAITING FOR. Except:

11. Revise and edit. Again. No kidding. The publisher will have his or her own ideas about the book, and now you get to make even more changes. (Time: I wish I knew)

12. Wait. Again. It takes time to get cover art, typesetting, edits, and on and on and on… (Time: I’ll let you know someday)

13. Repeat.

*All evidence to the contrary, I actually really like Stephen King, especially his book “On Writing.” I think he’s a pretty amazing human being and if I didn’t actually like my dad even better, I’d want him for a dad. He can be pretty silly sometimes too. Pow!

P.S. My book has a title. Yes, I have a habit of burying big reveals at the bottom of long posts about other things. Maybe I’m shy. Maybe I just want you to get in the habit of reading the whole thing. Probably the former.

P.P.S. My book’s title is: COME BACK AS RAIN.

4 thoughts on “13 Steps to Publishing a Novel (That I’m Glad I Didn’t Know Before I Started)

  1. I remember when I wrote my first novel at age 14 and when I finished it my first thought was “Next I will publish this!” Hahahaa.

    Glad I didn’t have parents who knew what self-publishing was. I probably would have thought I could do it.

    What you probably ought to keep in mind, though, from the point of view of this at-step-9 author, is that the waiting part is also a sort of weird torturous joy. Something awesome could happen AT ANY MOMENT. Any e-mail could be the one saying YOU DID IT. Any phone call could be YOU HAVE AN OFFER. It’s exhausting and a bit terrifying but yes, it’s kind of fun. For those of us who are masochistic I guess. (Which . . . well, most writers are, sort of. Haha.)

  2. Thanks for that insight, Julie. Definitely the masochism–why else would we do it if we weren’t enjoying the pain? There’s little about it that isn’t painful.

  3. …. I did tell you I can/want to beta read if you need someone else, right? Just verifying.

    My title is, right now, “Priestess of the Moon.” I’m not in love with it, but it sounds good enough to put on the NaNoWriMo website. “Priestess of Osiris” reaaaaaaally wasn’t doing it.

    • YES, and I intend to take you up on it. Expect a manuscript sometime in late November/Decemberish. Earlier if I kick it into high gear. Thank you!

      Your title sounds good. I agree it’s not quite THERE yet, but good enough.

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