As a forty year-old bond trader, I wrote two novels and signed a 3-book deal with a publisher. I did this with little formal writing experience, no creative writing classes, no writing coach, no writing degrees, no writer’s conferences, no writing groups, no critique partners, and no friends who are authors. Want to know how? I’m glad you asked. Read on!
When I openly yearned to write a young adult novel, not a lot of people took me seriously. And I couldn’t really blame them. For my family, it probably sounded like the time I vowed to replicate my high-school track time in the mile (which really wasn’t all that ambitious considering I routinely came in last). That first day back in the gym I remember sobbing, complaining to the trainer that he was pushing me too hard. He replied, “This is just stretching. We haven’t started running yet.” But I digress.
To those in the publishing world, my goal would’ve been even more preposterous. From agents, to editors, to creative writing teachers, to authors, to publishers, and so on. In other words, people who have spent their entire careers, and often their entire lives, living and breathing books. They’ve learned the skills that can only come with experience. This was their world. I was the outsider, blissfully ignorant about the challenges of writing a novel, let alone publishing one.
I remember reading a piece of advice somewhere that said if you plan on writing a children’s fantasy, it’s not good enough to write something surprisingly decent for a first-time author. Nobody cares that you outperformed expectations. They only care about great books, and your competition is Harry Potter. That’s the bar. I also recall reading about another Young Adult author, who had recently published her debut novel. Her day job was teaching creative writing at an Ivy League university. That’s who you’d be competing with, regardless of your experience level. There’s no minor league here.
That was fine, because my goal was to write a novel that I’d like to read, not necessarily one fit for publication. If a million people happened to want to read it, that would be cool, but I really wanted to do it for myself — for the challenge, the enjoyment of writing, and to do something different. Most importantly, I had a story to tell.
In the spring of 2015 I was at the starting line of what would become a marathon of twenty-two root canals (don’t stop going to the dentist for ten years). Having oodles of time both in the dentist’s chair and at home in pain, I was reading like a maniac. The desire to write my own novel struck me like lightning. To anyone who hasn’t written one, it’s like magic. I wondered if I could do it, too. But first, I needed to educate myself. I turned to the internet.
If you Google “How to write a novel,” it’s like the web vomits all over your screen. Everyone knows the world is chock full of aspiring novelists. Know what there’s even more of? People offering to help them. Write a novel in a month! Get your book published in 133 easy steps! Unlock the secrets to getting 100,000 followers with my video! It’s pretty overwhelming. But I did my research, and essentially learned how to write a novel while doing it.
A funny thing happened along the way. I fell in love with writing, for the first time since I’d been a kid. I loved every second of it. I stopped watching TV. I’d write into the wee hours of the morning even though I had to get up for work at 6:30am. I’d write all weekend, and on the subway, and on vacation. I was hooked. When it became clear I was actually going to finish my book, and it wasn’t horrible, I became even more serious about it. Thus my debut young adult novel The Initiation, which comes out February 27th, 2018, was born. Having completed the sequel, now I’m writing book three. A lot happened in between, though.
Before getting to my list, it’s worth mentioning that reading novels is a prerequisite for writing them. That should be a given. You particularly need to read the genre in which you intend to write (of course). Again, this should be obvious. You cannot write if you don’t read a lot. Well, you can, but it’ll suck.
The list that follows are the only 13 “things” I needed to write a novel that found a publisher. I say things because some are actual resources like books or websites, while others are more abstract. Writing is something I’ve always enjoyed, so it’s not as if I came into this like Tarzan. On the other hand, I wasn’t secretly writing over the years (the last short story I wrote was in high school), my college degree is in math, and I already mentioned my noteworthy lack of qualifications at the top of the post.
There are probably an infinite number of paths to becoming a published author; this is just what I did. I happen to learn well from books, though not everyone is like that. I’m not selling a method, or claiming it would work for everyone — I’m merely sharing the resources that allowed me to make the transition from a person who reads books to one who writes and publishes them. They are not in order of importance, either, but they do go from concrete to abstract. Here we go!
- Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight Swain. I read a few books on writing, and they’re all critical reads, but if I had to read just one book on my list it would be this one. Although Swain covers most facets of writing effectively, his work is groundbreaking for its decoupling of scenes. When it comes to organizing your book, you can have an extremely detailed outline of every scene, and that’s all well and good. Except you actually have to write it at some point. How do you write each scene? Which sentence goes where? With his MRU’s (motivation reaction units), Swain effectively figured out how and why scenes work, down to the sentence level. You can read about MRU’s in many places now, since this book was written in the 1960’s and is legendary, but nobody explains it quite as well as the guy who came up with it. There’s a big focus on writing text that flows, which is one of the goals of MRU’s. In addition, as the title denotes, this book is targeted at aspiring writers who wish to publish and sell their books. Everything is practical. I found myself referring to this book often. Virtually everything Swain mentions in this book I use in my own writing.
2. The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Right here, I’m also going to note The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Both books go hand in hand, though Campbell’s is the original. Vogler’s is based off Campbell’s. Like Swain demystified scenes, Campbell demystified stories, identifying the patterns and characters that many successful stories share in common, spanning thousands of years (in particular, quest stories, the Hero’s Journey). From The Odyssey to Star Wars, a hero’s story that “works” follows a certain pattern and contains specific archetypal characters. These stories resonate because each of those archetypal characters represent different components of an individual’s psyche (so the theory goes). Vogler’s book is for any writer, but in particular for screenwriters. His book is less theoretical and more of a practical guide of Campbell’s principles, using many well-known movies as examples. I really enjoyed both books, and their influence is obvious in The Initiation series. Each book in the series follows the Hero’s Journey, and the overarching series follows it as well. Even if you’re not writing a quest story, there’s just so much to learn about characters and storytelling in these books.
3. Story by Robert McKee. This is another book intended for screenwriters, but is a bible for learning how to tell stories. It’s in depth, like a graduate course in storytelling. Much of it didn’t make sense to me until I finished writing my book and went back to edit it. Without having tried to tell a story before, some of it won’t resonate. (This is true for much of the writing advice found in books or blogs. Until you sit down to write and edit, it might not click. I wrote the first chapter of The Initiation so I’d have written text with which to refer when applying the myriad lessons found in writing resources). Mckee is a Hollywood legend, and earns high praise from famous actors, directors, and producers. All his “secrets” of constructing compelling stories and configuring the relationship between plot and character are in this book. It’s one pearl after another.
4. The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. This book would be the one that most authorities on writing would tell a newbie to read. Written in 1918 by William Strunk and then upgraded by E.B. White decades later, it is the actual bible of writing. It’s about grammar and proper use of language, among other things. It’s a very short book and quick read, and despite being about writerly topics that sound boring, is actually quite entertaining (as well as informative). You simply must read this.
5. On Writing by Stephen King. I would have read this anyway for fun because he’s my favorite author. The master! Part memoir, part writing guide, this book is every bit as exciting as one of his novels. Seriously. Brilliantly written, it’s a peek inside the writing style and habits of one of our most gifted contemporary storytellers. (*Spoiler* He doesn’t plot!). King gives a lot of advice in this book, and not the same kind of advice you’ll get from any other how-to book. It did leave me feeling quite inadequate as a writer, but if any of King’s genius could rub off from reading it, this is worth the time.
6. The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne. While perhaps not a well-known classic like the above books on my list, I learned so much from this book. Like King’s, it offers advice you won’t find anywhere else. Shrewd observations about writing and publishing stories that “work.” Coyne teaches a method (The Story Grid) for editing/analyzing/crafting your story, based on the techniques he developed through many years as a professional editor. There is some overlap with other resources on story structure, and there were things I didn’t like about this book. It’s also highly analytical and technical — much of the jargon went over my head. But every page is filled with gems about the publishing industry and writing great stories. That’s what made this book special.
That’s the end of the “books” section. Those are the books I read on writing. Now we move onto websites/blogs/people.
7. Jane Friedman (http://janefriedman.com). I did read her book Publishing 101: A First-time Author’s Guide to Getting Published, but to list only that book as a resource would devalue all that Jane offers to budding writers. She is the publishing guru, and that’s saying a lot considering the mountain of publishing advice out there. The landscape for publishing continues to undergo rapid change. Many options exist between self-publishing and traditional publishing these days. Her website is a treasure trove of information, in easy-to-understand terms. From writing, to marketing yourself as an author, to building your website, Friedman has all the latest news and smart advice. You can learn everything you need to know and more about publishing from her website and books.
8. K.M. Weiland (http://helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com) Much like Dwight Swain’s book at the top of this list, if I could only visit one website, it would be hers. It’s that good. She’s also the author of many excellent books on writing which I’ve since read, as well as novels of her own. But I learned so much just from her website. I’ve spent hours and hours reading old blog posts, because each one is so well done, and so helpful. If there’s something you’ve struggled with as a new writer, she’s covered it. Not exclusive to addressing problems, it’s also instructive. In particular, I learned about story structure and character arcs from this site. While you can learn about them from other places too, you can get everything you need to know right here. Since visiting her site, I’ve also visited many other great ones, so it’s not like this is the only one. Nevertheless, it’s the one I used, and you won’t find a better one out there. I also regularly frequented two other writing sites that were helpful: Larry Brooks’s (http://www.storyfix.com) and Randy Ingermanson’s (http://advancedfictionwriting.com). Both have loads of great info and explanations that are easy for beginners to understand.
9. My editors — Maya Rock and Deborah Halverson. Every writer needs an editor. If you are thinking about submitting a book to agents or publishers without having it professionally edited, think again. After finishing my first book and editing it myself, I turned to Maya Rock of Fresh Ink Book Editing (https://www.freshinkbookediting.com). I thought my book was in decent shape and likely didn’t need much work. I was about to be taught a lesson. After working with Maya on The Initiation I put it down to write the sequel, The Expedition. Once I finished it, I returned to The Initiation. It’s definitely not necessary to have two editors. But I had made so many changes to the story based on Maya’s suggestions that it actually needed to be edited again, because rewriting often introduces new problems. It was an opportunity to have a fresh set of eyes opine on my story, and I worked with Deborah Halverson (www.DeborahHalverson.com). With many of the major problems worked out in the first edit, she helped me focus on really taking the story and writing to the next level, working on pacing, and deepening characters, among other things.
I can’t speak highly enough of these two professionals, and I would strongly recommend them if you need editorial help (no, I’m not getting any kind of commission and neither even know I’m writing this piece). These editors are both highly experienced in their craft, and are both published authors themselves. They made perceptive observations and offered practical solutions, not just critiques, all while being encouraging.
Okay, we’re about to get metaphysical.
10. Writing the book I wanted to read and write. There’s really two camps here: Write the book you want to read/write, or write the book other people want to read. There are legitimate defenses for both positions, and I’m not claiming mine is right. But it’s the one I believe in. Some experts suggest, as a strategy, finding out what people want to read before you pen your first word, and then writing that book. And they argue that if you instead write the book you want to read, it may not have an audience. Like, if you want to write a vampire story, you will not get published because the market is still fatigued from the Twilight tidal wave. Here are my problems with that theory. First, how the hell can you tell what masses of people will want to read in the upcoming years? Is there a website I don’t know about? (No, mswishlist.com is what agents are looking for, which, I’m sorry, is not the same thing). Second, if there’s a hot trend taking place, like historical fantasies for example, by the time you write and get your book published, two years might have passed. You’ll have missed the trend anyway.
The biggest problem is that unless you write the story you want to write, it won’t be good enough anyway. Your heart won’t be in it. Conversely, if you write the story you’re passionate about, perhaps it will be so good that it will overcome publishing trends. Maybe the market will reverse course. I wrote a post-apocalypse story in 2015 and when I perused websites like mswishlist.com, I found exactly no one looking for stories like mine. Many were actively avoiding post-apocalypse/dystopian stories. Yet here we are in 2017, and it feels like the end of the world is just around the corner. Suddenly dystopian tales like 1984 are on the bestseller list again. You never know what can happen.
11. A supportive family. I’m married and have an eleven-year-old daughter. Writing my first book took somewhere between two-thousand and ten billion hours. The support of your family is two-fold: in principle and in practice. Both my wife and daughter, and parents for that matter, did in fact take my new passion seriously. They encouraged me to follow my dream, never told me I was being silly or stupid, and pushed me when I felt like quitting. Secondly, writing a novel is very solitary and isolating. It required sacrifices, from everyone around you. That early morning at my daughter’s school I couldn’t make because I was up too late writing. The movie nights I skipped out on because I was working on my book. Besides the occasional grumble, my family was there supporting me every step of the way. I couldn’t have done this if I didn’t have them behind me. Although you can’t exactly select this item, like ordering a book on Amazon, perhaps expressing your goals to your family will help get them behind you.
12. Belief in myself. I have a math brain. I use logic in real life. I’m rational. Those traits would have me believe that writing a novel is foolish. Publishing one is insane. Despite all that, deep down, I believed I could do it. If others could, why couldn’t I? Part of me wanted to prove I could do it. Maybe it wouldn’t be published, but I was sure I could write it. While there were countless times I doubted myself, felt like a fraud, or felt like quitting, I persisted. (I’m also going to lump in persistence and a willingness to put in the work). There are so many rejections along the way, so much failure. For people who are otherwise successful, this kind of failure can be a new, terrible thing. Yet you cannot quit. You can’t give up, if this is your dream. I read, from a certified expert, that “if you’re learning how to write as you write your first book, it will not be published. Period.” That advice is probably right most of the time. The well-intentioned expert was trying to manage peoples’ expectations, because every new writer thinks they’re writing the next bestseller. It definitely got me down. I wish I could remember who said it, because ultimately it still didn’t make me abandon my dream. I still believed in myself. And my first book is being published.
13. Last but not least: practice. Writing is one of those many things (all things?) that you must practice and practice and practice before you’re good at it. And I’m not claiming to be good at it yet. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule says you must practice any skill for 10,000 hours before you’re world-class at it. Although a recent study debunked that theory, the overall point is still valuable. As a new writer, you’re plagued by not knowing what you don’t know. When I finished The Initiation, I thought it was awesome. My editor, Maya Rock, said otherwise (she didn’t say that actually; she was kind about it, but her six pages of notes suggested it), and she was right. Even after editing it, I heeded the advice of James Patterson, who says to anyone who’s finished their first book: “Write another.” In a sense, I’m contradicting what I just said above, because I didn’t exactly get my first book published (you know, the one I wrote as I learned to write). I didn’t try. Even though I felt it was good enough — good enough to sell, good enough that people would enjoy it — I trusted all the experts and got back to practicing by writing the sequel. Plus, when writing a series, it makes sense to have the first two books ready to go in case your first book does well.
In any case, “they” were right. I got much better at writing after penning another 100,000 words. When I went back to The Initiation, I couldn’t believe how crappy it was. It was like reading it with professional editor’s glasses on. I saw so many simple mistakes, missed opportunities, and instances of crummy writing. I edited it myself and then was sure it was good. My second editor, Deborah Halverson, again (kindly) pointed out the ways it wasn’t, and she, too, was right. Finally after that last edit, the book was ready for the publishing world.
From there it was query letters, emails, phone calls, referrals, etc. That’s how I did it. The publishing part is actually irrelevant — incidental — in my opinion. Writing a novel you love is the real achievement. If this math geek can do it, anyone can.
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- About Chris Babu:
I’m either a former bond trader who writes, or a writer who formerly traded bonds. I desperately hope I’m the latter. My debut young adult novel The Initiation comes out February 27th, 2018. Available for pre-order on Amazon now ( http://amzn.to/2kHwl2g). Find out more at http://chrisbabu.com