Business of Art | Survive and Thrive as a Novelist
Get your creative juices flowing with this breakdown of the novel-writing life.
Writing a novel is fairly daunting, but you don’t have to feel alone throughout the process! We spoke with Brittney Morris, best-selling author of SLAY (Simon Pulse 2019) and four-time National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) winner, and Esmé Weijun Wang, award-winning author of The Collective Schizophrenias: Essays (Graywolf Press 2019) and The Border of Paradise: A Novel (The Unnamed Press 2016), to get their insights on writing and publishing a novel.
On Staying Organized
While there’s no one right way to approach novel-writing, it helps to know yourself and how you work best. Morris’s key to staying organized begins in the planning stages. “I keep a bulleted chapter outline at the bottom of the draft with target word counts for each,” she says. She also creates a basic story outline by giving each scene (Exposition, Inciting Incident, Rising Tension, Climax, Resolution) one line of summarization.
Wang used writing app Scrivener for her first and second novels, but mostly just writes a lot and then outlines from there. She also keeps multiple bound books around with photographs that she flips through as she works, which helps to set the tone and mood for her writing. In addition, she keeps what she calls “electricity documents,” which are bits that pique her interest that are organized by topic.
If you need tools, structure, community, and encouragement along the way, consider participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Held annually in November, NaNoWriMo helps people track their progress, set milestones, connect with other writers in a vast community, and participate in events that are designed to make sure you finish your novel. Added bonus: it’s free!
On Finding an Agent
Finding an agent is only half of the battle. You’ll want to find someone who understands you and your work. For Wang, the right agent for her was not her first agent. “That’s important to know, I think—sometimes people can be so grateful to have an agent that they stay too long in a relationship that’s not working,” she said. “Having said that, I found my current agent through a referral, and I don’t think she would’ve signed me if not for where I was in my career when that referral happened. So I needed to go through that first agent relationship, in order for that second one to happen,” she added.
Morris cold-queried her dream agents after finding some success at #PitMad, a pitch party on Twitter where writers tweet a 280-character pitch for their completed, polished, and unpublished manuscripts. Morris clicked with her current agent right away, and felt that she could be open and honest with her about her writing and career. “And above all else, she really got my vision for SLAY.” For those seeking agents, Morris advises that writers “make sure they share your content interests or at least are open to yours.”
On Not Giving Up
Novel-writing and publishing takes time, and won’t happen overnight. “I’ve shared this number a lot by now, but: my first novel was rejected 41 times. My agent gave up on it. I sent it out myself, and the first press I sent it to (Unnamed Press, thank you for ever) took it. The whole process took years,” said Wang. “In terms of takeaways…I did actually believe in that book. And I did not want to give up on it. That was what got me through,” she added.
Morris went through 100 query rejections across three novels before getting her first offer. “I wish I’d started the process with more self-compassion, because querying can take such a long time, and sub can take just as long.”
Wang, who lives with late-stage Lyme disease and schizoaffective disorder, offers additional resources for writers who face challenges in their daily lives in her The Unexpected Shape blog. “Just because you have limitations—whether they be caregiving responsibilities, disability, chronic illness, or any other life circumstance that causes you to feel fenced in—doesn’t mean you can’t kick ass, too,” she writes on her website. Her posts include tools for freelancers, tips for creating a healthy writing practice, and advice for finding your writing voice.
“Don’t forget to read, read, read. And let the process of writing take as long as it needs to. Literature is not a sack race,” says Wang.
Morris offered: “Know that your work is worth fighting for, at every stage. Be patient with yourself. You have time. Surround yourself with people who believe in you, and trust that your novel will find its place in the world when its ready.”
– Amy Aronoff, Senior Communications Officer
This article draws inspiration from #ArtistHotline, an initiative dedicated to creating an ongoing online conversation around the professional side of artistic practice. Our goal is to help artists discover the resources needed, online and off, to develop sustainable careers. You can follow NYFA at @nyfacurrent on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. Find Brittney Morris and Esmé Weijun Wang tweeting at @BrittneyMMorris and @esmewang.
Have an arts career question? You can contact NYFA staff directly via the NYFA Source Hotline at (800) 232-2789, from Monday – Friday, 3:00 – 5:00 PM EST or email [email protected].
This initiative is supported by the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation.
Image: Tyler Coburn (Fellow in Interdisciplinary Work ’18), I’m that angel, 2012-, book and performance in data center