Friday, June 1, 2012

Be the Architect of Your Novel


Part three of a three-part series

By T. Dawn Richard

Author of the May List Mystery Series

Before building a house it’s important to decide where you want to live, the size, style, and use of the house, how many people will live in the house, and how it will be decorated. When writing a novel you also need to determine the genre, the span of the story, how many characters will “live” in your book (or die, if you’re writing murder mysteries) and how you will decorate it with carefully selected words to evoke strong emotions.

The plans are drawn, either in intimate detail or more loosely written as a roadmap to help you move from beginning to end of your story and then it’s time to build. Sometimes you will find it necessary to tear down a few walls or restructure your novel but you finally finish the story and you’re ready to become the real estate agent of your novel. In other words, it’s time to find a publisher.

When I wrote my first novel ten years ago I knew little about the way the publishing world works, and there are still aspects of publishing that mystify me; but there is one thing that hasn’t changed—the publishing business is just that, a business.

In my first contract I noticed that my book was called “The Work” which meant my baby which I had toiled to create, something I had brought to life, was now a piece of property looking for a buyer. And that’s okay. Writing is work. And writers should be compensated for their hard work. Something writers struggle with is getting paid for doing something they love; something so very personal that it’s an extension of who they are, and many writers are so eager to see their work in print that they jump at the first chance to publish.

Not so fast. Imagine spending two years designing and building a house, and when it’s finished, standing back to admire your work. And then … you hand over the keys to the first person who says, “I love it!”

A good real estate agent studies the market, mows the lawn, polishes the brass, vacuums the carpets and lights an apple pie candle to entice buyers and to encourage the best price for the house. Writers, too, must present their work in the best possible light. Study the market, understand what agents and publishers are looking for, polish that manuscript so there are absolutely no typos or loose ends, edit, edit and edit again, and then have a well-trusted writer friend look through your manuscript to be sure it’s ready to present to the professionals.

Things have changed since the days of typing up a manuscript (complete with coffee stains on the cover sheet) wrapping it in brown paper and mailing it off hoping it will land on an enthusiastic editor’s desk. And things continue to change rapidly. Now many agents and editors will accept submissions by email. And an old fashioned typewritten or hand-written manuscript is seen as an amateur attempt. Computers have taken over the world. Personally, I have found it to make life a whole lot easier.

If you are not sure of correct manuscript formatting rules, refer to guidelines which can readily be found on the Internet. And do follow the rules. Editors are pleased when they see you have taken the time to learn how to format a manuscript correctly. Usually the standard format is Times New Roman font with a 12 point type, one inch margins all the way around, double-spaced, with chapter headings about a third of the way down the page. Five space indent at the beginning of each paragraph. You can set your computer to do this automatically. It’s easier to set all of these things before you begin to write your novel than to go back and make changes after.

Once you’re confident your novel is in great shape. Do you look for an agent or go directly to a publishing house? Since many publishers prefer to work with an agent, and some won’t even consider a novel that is un-agented, it’s not a bad idea to find representation. The American Authors Representatives (AAR) organization is a great place to look for an agent since they are held to a very high standard. You should never pay an agent to represent you. Agents work on commission and if they don’t sell your work, they don’t get paid, which means they are very motivated to sell your novel.

But finding an agent isn’t an easy task and it takes confidence and patience. First, you must find the agent who represents the type of novel you have written. If you look at the AAR site on the Internet, you will see a long list of agents and what they will accept, whether or not they represent the genre of work you have finished (and by all means, finish your book before looking for an agent) and they may or may not give guidelines for formatting.

Some want to see a query letter only, or the first few chapters of your novel, or they may want the whole thing.   If you can imagine, agents are inundated with mountains of submissions. It is impossible to read everything, so your first pages must draw them in and make them want to read more. Make those first pages count! If the agent only wants to see a query, do your research and learn how to write a query letter that will make an agent salivate. First impressions are so important! If your novel fails to interest an agent the first time, it’s unlikely they will look at it a second time.

Good agents are invaluable. They have relationships with publishers, know the market, and can understand and negotiate contracts. I highly recommend learning about the agent’s role before even considering an agent. A book by Richard Curtis entitled “How to Be Your Own Literary Agent” should be a must-read for all aspiring novelists. Martin P. Levin also wrote a book called “Be Your Own Literary Agent” and although these books were written in 2003 and 2002 respectively, they include timely information. Another book helpful to writers is “Editors on Editing: What writers need to know about what editors do” by Gerald C. Gross. 1994.

The more you, the author, can learn about the publishing industry, the better equipped you will be to tackle the market.

Often, the question arises about copyright and what an author should do to protect work before submitting to agents or editors. I don’t practice law, but my research found a site which is worth visiting. It states that in the United States, since 1978 there has been no formal requirement to mark your work with the copyright symbol, in fact, there are no formalities at all. Copyright is created in a work once it is fixed into a tangible medium of expression. This means your novel is protected the second you hit the “save” button. However, registering your work does provide you with extra protections. A work is protected by copyright the moment it is created, but if you want to enforce that copyright in a court, you need to register it. For the full article, visit

I feel I've barely scratched the surface of how an author can go from idea to book-on-the-shelf. Writing is exciting, frustrating, exhilarating, heart-breaking and cathartic. Going from thinking of your book as a work of art to a “product” can feel uncomfortable (and make you a little crazy) but never fear, understanding the business will ease some of the angst.

After the sale? (high fives and celebration all around) it’s time to go out and market your work. The more creative you can be, the better, because publishers rarely foot the bill for authors to promote their books unless you are one of the lucky few enormously successful best-selling authors, which I believe you can be! And why not?

One last note: Don’t forget there are dozens of ways to sell one piece of work. Books can be sold separately as hard cover, trade paperback, mass market paperback, large print, audio, e-books, motion picture, book club, etc. Each separate contract will garner a new advance and royalties. This is where an agent will protect you and negotiate in your best interest. Don’t forget to look for a reversion clause in your contract in the event the publisher stops printing your book. You want to get your rights back after a time. Whether you sell all rights or only specific rights is a personal and individual decision, but know your options.

From concept to design, to hard work, and finally to finished product! Get out your signing pen. You’re an author!

Spokane author T. Dawn Richard is a full time writer and author of the May List Mystery Series. Her first book, Death for Dessert, was published in 2003, followed byDigging up Otis, and A Wrinkle in Crime. She completed her fourth book in the series, Par for the Corpse, in 2009. Kirkus Reviews called her "A kind of geriatric Janet Evanovich" because of her quirky senior citizen characters. Richard has recently completed two screenplays and has several other projects in the works. Her books are available on Amazon.

1 comment:

Jennifer Lamont Leo said...

Thanks for all the practical information in this series. So many things to think about.