Why an Aspiring Novelist Needs a Bunch of Books that are Good to Go

Most writers I meet are desperately trying to get a first novel published. Most will fail. Here’s the bleak truth: almost no writer gets a book deal on the basis of a first novel alone.

“Yeah, but…” sez you, “how come I see first novels published all the time?”

Because, gentle writer-friends, the “debut” book is NOT the writer’s first novel. It’s probably her third. Or fifth. Or tenth. It’s simply her first novel that got published--the one that finally got an agent’s attention AND could withstand the nasty scrutiny of a bunch of snarky editors and marketing people looking for reasons to reject it. (Remember: finding representation is just a first step to another set of rejections—this time of your agent’s pitch.)

So does that mean you should just toss that first novel into the shredder?


OK, a lot of us will realize, after we learn to write better, that the first novel was just a practice piece. But others write excellent beginning novels that don't get picked up--mostly because they aren't the high-concept, breakout, hits-the-current-trend-at-the-perfect-spot-in-the-curve material publishers require these days.

So what you need to do after that first round of rejections is put the first novel in a drawer and write another. And another. And keep querying. And keep getting rejections.

No, don’t jump off that bridge!

You’re not facing defeat; you’re BUILDING INVENTORY. You wouldn’t open a store with only one item to sell, would you?

I recently read an interview with agent Jenny Bent in the online zine Women On Writing. The interviewer asks if agents prefer writers with more than one book “in the works.” Here’s what Jenny said: “Absolutely. It’s pretty much essential. They want an author for the long haul, not just one book. And these days, they want to release them pretty close together because the thinking is that this is the best way to build an author.”

Think about it: writing another novel in a few months while you’re also focusing on marketing your debut book (and keeping your day job) could send you on screamy-meemy overload. So isn’t it nice you’ll have that drawer full of manuscripts?

One caveat: DON’T make all those books part of a series. (A major mistake I made.) If you can’t sell #1, nobody’s going to want to buy #3 or #4 as a breakthrough “debut.” The best thing to do is write all your books as stand-alone titles.

But DO write them in the same genre. Develop a personal style or setting that can be established as your “brand,” but don’t use the same characters or a continuing storyline.

Then, when that agent call comes, and she asks what else you’re working on, you can deliver your already perfected pitch for the novel-in-the-drawer (and all its little friends) and you might even get yourself a multiple-book deal.

Remember—to be a published writer, you have to be in it for the long haul. So, in spite of all the rejections you’re getting on that first novel, go write another and start building your inventory.