Writing a Novel: 5 Lessons From One Author’s First Book Deal

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If you’ve ever dreamed of getting a book deal, don’t be dissuaded by the talk about how no major house is publishing debut fiction anymore, or that you need insider contacts to get published.

I got a deal with a top publisher within a year of starting my novel.

With some determination and a thick skin — I got rejected by 60 agents along the way — you can get published from the slush pile as well.

Here I share my best lessons learned on the journey:

1. The bigger your idea, the more you’ll be rejected

One of the biggest conflicts every debut novelist has to endure is figuring out how to approach your genre.

If you write a predictable novel — yet another damaged CIA agent story or young-adult dystopian fiction — you’ll find it hard to get published because you’re competing for the same audience as established authors in the genre.

On the other hand, the bigger and more unexpected your story, the less willing a major publisher will be to take a chance on it.

My novel, about a man confronting his questions about mortality, is less self-help and more of an adventure story. There is no established, clear-cut genre for such a book. As a result, I consistently got lukewarm responses from literary agents.

Both approaches are hard, and ultimately, you can only write what you can write. But if you do go with the latter approach of a big, unexpected idea, do know that there is light at the end of the rejection tunnel.

Identify literary agents who deal with high-concept fiction versus genre fiction on Publisher’s Marketplace, and query until you find a match.

Once you do, the agent will know exactly which editors to pitch your book to at the major publishing houses.

For perspective, it took me eight months of rejections to find my agent, but only six days after that to land multiple offers from the top-five publishing houses.

2. You don’t need a platform to get a literary agent

I’ve always had a corporate career, so I wasn’t exposed to the writing community in New York until I got a book deal. I’m glad I wasn’t, because I would’ve probably been sucked into wasting time on rite-of-passage activities I’ve heard other writers talk about — activities that don’t move the needle at all.

For instance, take the idea of building a platform.

I don’t think a random blog post here, one Facebook post there, and a few Twitter updates constitute a platform that will attract a major publisher. To build an authentic platform, you need to devote genuine attention to it and touch hundreds of people’s lives with your words. And that’s hard to do when you’re trying to write an impactful novel.

Hanging out at book readings with other unpublished novelists who are hoping to get noticed by agents or publishers is another killer waste of time. I advocate a rather monastic approach to meaningful fiction: Commit your full undistracted mental energy to it.

Make your novel and pitch shine so much that it stands out of the slush pile. Every editor will tell you that debut fiction eventually sells on the strength of the idea and the writing.

If you can build an authentic platform around it, that’s a nice bonus. But your platform should never come at the expense of your writing.

3. Your novel should combine meaning with entertainment

You’ve thought about your idea for years. You’re convinced it’s the one story that has to be told.

But it may be too meaningful.

I was so possessed with Eastern mysticism while writing The Yoga of Max’s Discontent that early drafts of my novel looked like a Ph.D. thesis on meditation. The result: Rejections.

My story hadn’t liberated itself from the author.

In subsequent drafts, I focused on the character’s journey from drug dens in the Bronx to hidden yoga ashrams in India. Without trying to communicate any message, I allowed his journey to open windows to new secret worlds for my protagonist — and for my readers.

Success immediately followed. Are you able to immerse your reader in an alternate reality, or is there too much of your own voice and your own motivation present in the story?

Good fiction liberates itself from its creator. It does have meaning, thanks to the protagonist’s lofty, all-consuming goal, but it’s simultaneously entertaining because it opens windows to exciting new worlds for readers.

Just think of Harry Potter, a story layered with meaning about a kid realizing the depths of his own potential, yet constructing an elaborate secret world right from the start. The moment I was able to combine the two, I got multiple agent representation offers.

4. Hiring a professional editor is the best money you can spend

Jake Morrissey, my editor at Random House, accepts fewer than 0.5 percent of manuscripts that land on his desk, despite them being vetted by top literary agents.

With odds like these, there’s zero room for error when your manuscript finally makes it to a top agent’s desk. That’s why I highly recommend hiring a professional editor to polish your manuscript at two stages of the writing process:

  • A developmental editor for broad comments on story, structure, and character trajectory right after your initial drafts
  • A line editor or copy editor when you’re done with your final, final draft to polish sentences, grammar, and copy

Like in any endeavor, in writing you have to spend money to make money. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be $50,000 on an MFA.

I spent $700 on a developmental editor after two drafts of my novel, and then $2300 on a line editor after I got a stream of rejections from literary agents.

Not only did they both shine new light on my manuscript; they also taught me a lot about the craft of writing which will guide every book I write in the future. My publishing deal was an excellent return on the investment.

If you’re trying to break into the “A” league, don’t rely on friends and family. Invest in a professional editor to elevate your game.

5. Modify your query and manuscript when it’s not working

I’ve seen a lot of “failure porn” in the writing industry — writers celebrating how Harry Potter was rejected 12 times, Chicken Soup for the Soul was rejected 134 times — as some kind of proof the publishing industry doesn’t know what it’s doing.

But if you’re querying the right people and getting rejected again and again, you have to consider the possibility that your query or your manuscript may require work.

The moment I changed a significant portion of my query, my response rate doubled. After completely revamping the first 30 pages of my manuscript so readers were thrown into the story’s secret world right away, I got three agent representation offers in just one week.

Based on my trial and experimentation over eight months of querying, I’ve arrived at the following method:

  • Submit your query in batches of 12
  • Set your goal at a query acceptance target of 25 percent. If three or more agents out of the 12 you queried ask to review your partial or full manuscript, then you know your query is working. If you get zero positive responses in 12 submissions, rework the query.
  • At least one agent among every 10 who read your manuscript should extend an offer. If they don’t, you need to rework your manuscript, especially the beginning.

How to survive the querying process

Now, a final tip to speed up the inevitable rejections in the query process: Create a sense of urgency in the submission process.

This is the exact follow-up letter I’d send to all the agents in my round of 12 if I got a bite from another agent:         

Dear (Agent Name),

No intention to hurry you whatsoever as I know it takes more time to evaluate a query and I fully respect your process.

I just wanted to keep you in the loop that two of the agents I sent my first set of queries to responded with a request for a full manuscript, somewhat surprisingly for my understanding of the longer timelines in the U.S. publishing process.

Since you were at the top of my desired list because of your confluence of interests in commercial fiction and religion/spirituality, I was really eager for your response. If at all your time allows, I would be very grateful if you could tell me of your interest.

Thank you,
Karan

Eighty percent of the time, agents would respond immediately, cutting down wait time and getting more eyes on my manuscript.

Ignore the rules that say you need to wait six weeks or six months before following up with an agent.

Agents are drowning in queries. Create your own hype — your own scarcity triggers — to rise to the top of the pile. This principle may well be the key to the whole journey of getting a top debut publishing deal in record time.

Ignore the rules. Write a big story. Believe in your own hype. Create scarcity. Selling debut fiction is hard, but it’s also democratic — you can break in on your own steam!

Novelists, what are the most important lessons you’ve learned on your writing journey?

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Karan Bajaj is the author of The Yoga of Max's Discontent. You can access his step-by-step methodology from idea to writing structures to query letters in his wr... .

Website | @realkaranbajaj

Karan Bajaj

Featured resource

How to Get a Top 5 Book Deal

Fewer than one percent of novels get a publishing deal from a top publishing house. Increase your odds with this step-by-step method, which includes writing structures, querying techniques, and agent contacts.

Comments

  1. Excellent article, with level-headed, practical advice for aspiring novelists!

    As a professional editor, I am especially grateful for your realistic approach to the subject of getting editorial assistance. I hear in your tone not a trace of regret for spending $3000 on freelance editing, a prospect that would have made many new authors balk. Some books may require less, others more, but this figure can at least get authors into the right ballpark of expectations.

    Books, especially first books, take time, effort, and even money to create. A realistic budget for all of these from the start can spare much disappointment down the road.

    I wish you all success with your books!

    Trish O’Connor
    Epiclesis Consulting LLC
    Editorial Services and Authors’ Resources
    http://www.epiclesisconsulting.com
    http://www.epiclesisconsulting.etsy.com

  2. Thank you for sharing your success story. Re-blogging to help other debut authors.

  3. Thanks,I needed to get advice on writing n getting a novel published….

  4. Thanks!

  5. Definitely agree that an editor means so much for your book and the way you write future books that it doesn’t make sense to go cheap at this stage of the writing process. Enjoyed this in-depth post!

  6. I like the way you quoted the exact figures of money you spent on editing. It’s freeing to hear from the mouth of someone who has just done what I want to do. Now I have a good idea of how much money I need to save for my work in progress. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Congrats on your quick book deal! You accomplished in one year what it took me five years to do — complete a novel and get published.

    However, a comment to point 2. No, you don’t need a platform as a fiction writer to get an agents attention … but if you move beyond “random posts here and there” and put a plan to what you’re doing, starting a platform early is anything BUT a waste of time; it can be the foundation of your longer-term writing career success. I’m a marketing pro who’s been platforming for years, and I still wish I’d started earlier under my pen name.

    Just wanted to lend a counterpoint for anyone who is questioning their platforming efforts after this article. Very interesting perspectives here, though.

  8. Great advice. I agree about the “monastic” approach to writing. I went to one convention after college and, while it was fun—I was thrilled to hear Kathryn Harrison read—I didn’t see how it would help me write.

    I also agree about editing. Although I’m a freelance copyeditor (mostly non-fiction) and good at editing my own work, an objective outsider (a developmental editor, especially) will see things that I just can’t. So the expense will be well worth it, especially for my first novel, which I’m working on right now.

    I also like your advice about queries—thanks.

  9. considering how many agents are very strict about their rules before they will even look at your submission, i don’t think it’s a good idea to advise writers to “ignore the rules.” you should clarify that a little.

  10. thanks a ton Karan, will be reading the article minutely.

  11. Excellent feedback. The publishing process is daunting in itself and having feedback that is real and practical truly helps. There are so many things that I wish I had known what I started the self-publishing journey. There is certainly more to it than meets the eye.

    Thanks,
    Sheri

  12. Thanks Karan it’s really great.

  13. A nice article, but be sure to do your research in your genre. This particularly applies to the editing advice. $3000 for editing can be an exorbitant sum for some writers and may very well overshadow the advance you’ll be offered for your first novel. , A few typos in a manuscript aren’t likely to turn off an agent from a genuinely good manuscript. Nor will it dissuade a publisher who will sic an editor on it anyway. As looking as it’s only a few.

    Are grammatical mistakes a turnoff? Definitely, and if they stand in the way of the story, that’s an even bigger problem. Will an editor make your novel better? Likely. Is it absolutely necessary? No. Plot and character and voice and setting and pacing and description are all much higher on the list than grammar. When was the last time you read a book and thought “this has really good grammar”?

    I owned a truck. The truck had potential, but it needed work — dents, headliner, malfunctioning window, and eventually a bad transmission. So I sold the truck to a mechanic, and I didn’t get much for it. Yes, I could heave paid to fix the problems first, but it would have cost me more than the truck was worth in good condition. By selling the truck as-is, I made money instead of losing money. Then the buyer, who was equipped to fix the truck, also made a profit.

    If hiring editors is feasible in your reality, by all means, do it. Just remember Yog’s Law: Money Flows Toward the Writer. The biggest red flag is if an agent recommends an editor — especially a specific editor. Agents and publishers should make their money from selling your book, not from fees or kickbacks for editing services.

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