Jan 02 2010

Eight Facts About Writing That Surprise Prospective Novelists

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

1. Even if you get published, you will get paid much, much less than you can imagine. A 75,000 word manuscript takes 2000+ hours and typically sells for around $5000. That’s not even close to minimum wage, particularly when you consider the work you put in after getting published. If you plan on eating food more expensive than Kibbles and Bits, get a day job.

 

2. Most novelists don’t get their first novels published. According to a Tobias Buckell survey, only 35% of published authors broke out with their first novel.  This shouldn’t be too surprising–look at what you were writing 2-3 years ago. You’ve gotten a lot better, right? You’ll probably feel the same way about what you’re writing now in 2-3 years. It may take a novel manuscript or two to develop professional-grade writing skills.  (Keep practicing and you’ll get there!)

 

3. Novel publishing is freakishly competitive, particularly compared to English courses. In an English class, most of the papers will get A’s and the teacher will usually explain to everybody else what they need to fix so that they will get A’s. In contrast, publishers reject over 99% of submissions and the vast majority of submissions are rejected without any specific feedback.  Thanks for submitting–we enjoyed your manuscript, but not enough to tell you what to fix.  (By the way, if the publisher does tell you what to fix, you’re almost certainly on the right track.  Publishers would probably only spend extra time to write an individualized rejection if you had potential).

 

4. Even after you’ve finished your novel manuscript, it will take you years before the book is actually on shelves. A novel publisher usually takes at least 3-6 months to evaluate its submissions. After you finally get the offer, you have to get through editing/rewriting, cover design, any advance publicity and promotional work, etc.  Processes that involve a lot of people are usually slow.

 

5. Almost all novel sales are made through brick-and-mortar stores and A-list websites like Amazon. Unfortunately, authors’ websites are usually insignificant.

 

6. When your novel gets published, expect no control over what the cover looks like. They may show it to you before it gets printed.  Or not.  If this is very important for you, you have a few options.  For example, get some professional-grade visual design skills. They may take your artistic input more seriously if you’re visually experienced. Failing that, you can self-publish your novel, which would give you complete control over the cover. Or you can get a huge audience.  If J.K. Rowling wanted an exploding alien on her cover, the publisher would ask green or gray. Alternately, you can write comic books.  Comic book writers and graphic novelists have significantly more influence over their covers. UPDATE: Good news–Steve Laube disagrees here.
UPDATE 2: More good news–my (nonfiction) publisher sent me a draft cover for Learning to Write Superhero Stories and was very helpful when I suggested taking the cover in a different direction. (I’m not a professional illustrator by any means, but I do have some design experience from my marketing work and from SN). I’m really happy with how the cover turned out.

 

7.  The most important factor determining whether a book will get published is whether the publisher thinks it will sell well. For a novel, that usually means five to ten thousand sales.   Another consideration is whether the book is stylistically similar to what the publisher has worked on before.  You could have the most awesome superhero comic book for kids ever, but it would still get laughed out of the office at Avatar Press.  “Umm, you do know we do extremely adult stuff, right?”  Pick your publishers carefully!

 

 

8. Publishers tend to prefer particular kinds of stories but hate ripoffs. The authors that get published build on what the publishers already have. To get published, you need to convince several professionals that your submission fits their company’s style but adds something to their lineup.  In contrast, “this is a second-rate knockoff of our biggest work” is not a route to success.

 

Please read this article’s sequel, Another Eight Facts About Writing That Surprise Prospective Novelists, here!

24 responses so far

24 Responses to “Eight Facts About Writing That Surprise Prospective Novelists”

  1. [...] Hero Nation burst your bubble with Eight Facts About Writing That Surprise Young Novelists, starting with that fact that most authors make less than minimum wage, when all is said and [...]

  2. [...] Hero Nation burst your bubble with Eight Facts About Writing That Surprise Young Novelists, starting with that fact that most authors make less than minimum wage, when all is said and [...]

  3. Read On The Webon 05 Jan 2010 at 8:49 am

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  4. NicKennyon 15 Jul 2010 at 4:08 pm

    Right, here is the plot summary of my novel. Please take it into account that this is a very rough draft. But don’t be afraid to tell me what you think. The story is something of a superhero-arthurian-semi religious mix.

    A young man, the main villian, hires a group of hitmen to kill a teenager (the main character) and refuses to reveal the reasons why to the hitmen, just warning them that it won’t be easy. The hitmen attempt to do so, but fail to kill the main character, Adam, who either kills them or beats them up, not decided. However, Adam’s friend is seemingly killed in the crossfire and Adam goes into hiding with his talking, metal dog Sidney (his parents having gone missing an undecided amount of time before the novel. He later is rescued from a group of people trying to kill him by the villian (though he doesn’t know that he’s bad at the time) and his friend who reveals that she has regeneration powers. The villian soon enough after tries to kill him, revealing that he is a necromancer, a person who gains the abilities of a person by killing and performing a ritual on that person and that Adams parents were both killed by the villians father. Adam escapes and the rest of the book is about Adam’s struggle to defeat the villian along with the help of several other superpowered people that he befriends throughout the story.

    Any questions that you have I’ll answer. I appreciate that I have left some obvious gaps in the plot but, as i said, this is a rough draft. Any thoughts or views on this story are welcome.

  5. B. Macon 15 Jul 2010 at 5:33 pm

    I thought this was okay. I have some suggestions.

    1. I’d highly recommend focusing this more on the main character and any other major characters rather than minor ones. If a character IS major, you need to show that. For example, why mention the dog? Does he do anything important? Is his relationship with Adam important? If so, show that. If not, I’d recommend taking the talking metal dog out of a super-brief summary like this because, so far, it sounds like he is a distraction from the star.

    2. Speaking of making this a bit more focused on the main character, I’d recommend starting with the hero surviving an assassination, which is probably the inciting event.

    3. This is probably going to sound strange, but what’s the villain’s ultimate goal? (He isn’t just amassing superpowers for the hell of it, is he?) I suspect that giving him a concrete goal will raise the stakes.

    4. After the hero escapes from the villain, what’s his incentive to try hunting down the villain rather than walk away from the plot? Anything sturdier than revenge?

    5. On the topic of revenge, I think it’s slightly corny that his parents got killed by the villain’s necromantic father. One alternative that strikes me as more interesting would be to have the hero‘s parents be the evil necromancers. This would give the villain a somewhat more justifiable reason to want revenge (because his parents died in the fight, too?) I think that’d make him a bit more three-dimensional.

    6. What are the character’s personalities like? Except for some of their capabilities/superpowers, we don’t really know anything about what the hero is like, or his lady friend, or his dog. And the villain sounds kind of one-dimensionally evil. He’s trying to kill people and drain their powers for apparently no other reason than that superpowers are pretty sweet. (Agreed). Now, Heroes made that quite compelling with Sylar the power-sucking serial killer, but 1) for almost all of the first season, it looked like he had a grand plan to nuke New York and 2) he had a hell of a lot of style and personality.

    7. Are there any relationships worth mentioning in the story? IE: between the protagonist and his dog? What about between the hero and his lady friend?

  6. NicKennyon 16 Jul 2010 at 6:08 am

    Right. to B. Mac “I thought this was okay. I have some suggestions.”

    1. I originally planned for Sidney (the dog) to be a major character in the story but as time went on I gradually relegated him to a minor one. I appreciate that he perhaps isn’t right for the story but I’m reluctant to completely cut him out of the story. He was to have been made by Adam’s parents to protect Adam should anything happen to them. (Adam’s mother being a sorceress (sounds better than witch) and his father having the ability to give life to inanimate objects.)

    2. I get were you’re coming from but I liked the idea of beginning with an introduction involving the villian and the hitmen with Chapter One involving the hit.

    3. The villian’s plans are to absorb enough powers until he’s capable of overthrowing the Grand Council, the twelve most powerful people with abilities in the world and then to rule the world. And to get revenge. Although, at the end of the novel it’s discovered that he was really being manipulated by two minor characters who were previously thought to be his henchmen.

    4. Well, revenge is a strong motive but there are several others. His friend who gets shot, is later brainwashed into despising Adam, believing that he fled and left her to die. Of course she’s not aware that the villian had ordered the hit. And for a couple of chapters, Adam does flee until he realises that eventually he won’t be able to run anymore and that his conscience won’t allow him to let the villian continue to murder people and absorb their abilities.

    5. I’ve actually been thinking about that but I don’t think I’ll go with it for it would mess up with most main stroyline. And since I’ve planned for them to have been King Arthur and Guinevere it would destroy my plot. Although I’ve thought about making Adam’s parents having killed the villians father, so he then swears revenge and enlists the help of the aforesaid supervillians, one who will have the ability to control shadows, making them sharp, solid or whatever, and the other will be able to control minds.

    6. Personality is going to take a while. I’ll write up the cast of characters and their personalities in a bit.

    7. Again, i’ll write up a character summary. The main romantic aspect of the novel is between Adam and his friend (Grace) whom he planned to ask out the day of the attack. His relationship with his dog is strained as Sidney is generally incompetant, defensive and annoyingly sarcastic but very loyal.

  7. Markon 01 Jan 2011 at 9:21 am

    Hi,

    I stumbled upon your site after researching superhero novels online. I am a big fan of superheroes and would love to write my own novel.

    I started writing and getting my story organized. I currently have 40 pages of writing and 9,000 words.

    After reading this post, I became a little discouraged that if I get published I may only make $5,000 from my work. This investment doesn’t seem worth it. Why do people spend so much time writing a novel if they don’t get paid much for it? It just seem like a huge waste of time to me.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t plan on leaving my full-time job to write this book. I have a college degree and plan to get my MBA soon, so writing my novel is a side project, but it still doesn’t seem worth it for the amount of effort (late nights, rewrites, frustration, time not spent with family, investment costs including editor and illustration costs, etc. )

    I may decide to write the novel anyway just because I really love superheroes and want to create my own story. Would love to get your thoughts on what I wrote.

  8. B. Macon 01 Jan 2011 at 10:10 am

    “I may decide to write the novel anyway just because I really love superheroes and want to create my own story. Would love to get your thoughts on what I wrote.” Sure thing! I can be reached at superheronation-at-gmail-dot-com.

    “After reading this post, I became a little discouraged that if I get published I may only make $5,000 from my work. This investment doesn’t seem worth it.” In terms of just money per hour, novel-writing is almost assuredly not worth your time. It’s a labor of love. I’d only recommend novel-writing for someone that’s both excited by storytelling AND able to hold down a day job or otherwise financially secure. If you’d like to go into writing without taking a vast paycut, I’d recommend nonfiction* or corporate writing.

    Novel publishers generally pay advances of around $1 for each projected sale. Some strategies to pump up your advances:
    –Write a more compelling story. If I had to guess on ONE thing that was most important to pushing a novel into a multi-publisher bidding war (besides the author being famous), it’d probably be an exciting premise. Number two, gripping characters.
    –Write a dynamite query.
    –Get a literary agent.
    –Build a larger audience/platform. (IE: premarket aggressively, build up an audience through other media, etc).
    –Develop yourself and your bio.

    PS: If you get professionally published, you don’t need to spend anything on editors or illustrators. The publisher does that for you.



    *According to an agent Justine Larbalestier spoke with, first-time nonfiction advances average ~$30,000. I think it’s because there are barriers to entry for nonfiction that limit the supply of would-be nonfiction writers. Almost every sort of nonfiction requires some skill set or particular set of knowledge in addition to writing. In contrast, ANYONE that has a story they’d like to tell can send off a novel manuscript.

    PPS: I would highly recommend this article by John Scalzi.

  9. Genaieon 07 Jan 2011 at 9:42 pm

    I am starting a story but it seems a little weird or something like that, so I was wondering what you thought of it.

    The story is about a boy named Caleb who is starting to develop super powers. He struggles to control and hide his power. His closest friend is murdered on a day when they were supposed to be together (can’t decide who killed him yet), and Caleb is blamed. He is forced to go to court and his powers are exposed. Although no one would guess it was him, he panics and ends up killing almost everyone there. The more he has to hide in the shadows or sleep on the cold ground more and more anger grows in him. Caleb meets this girl and he pretends he cares nothing about her. While all that is happening a group of people who also have powers takes him in. They are very cautious of him, so they teach him how to control his powers but not how to make them better. Caleb gets angry over that and leaves the group. Also in that period of time Caleb makes another friend who despises the group, and he leaves with him. He also feeds Caleb’s anger. The group decides they are a threat and might expose people with power to the rest of the normal population. People are sent to go and kill them, but they are easily defeated by Caleb. Caleb’s friend is killed easily, and that didn’t affect Caleb much. The leader went to kill Caleb himself. The leader ended up killing Caleb, but it wasn’t easy.

    Sorry if this sound like a bunch of random events. I’m not good at summarizing.

  10. B. Macon 07 Jan 2011 at 10:48 pm

    What sort of major choices would Caleb make along the way? So far, I’m sort of getting the impression that the plot is more a series of things that happens to him than something he tries to affect. Giving him key decisions is one way to ensure that he’s a proactive player. I think his decision to leave the group has a lot of potential there.



    “The group decides they are a threat and might expose people with power to the rest of the normal population.” Hmm… If so, you might want to be careful about how you write the accidental courtroom massacre scene. Otherwise, I think that the superhumans will already be exposed to the general population.



    The story ends with Caleb getting killed, which I didn’t see coming. I like that. However, even though he dies, I think the ending will be more satisfying if he’s accomplished something. One possibility that comes to mind would be something with the girl. Perhaps he dies to ensure that she survives?



    Does Caleb develop over the course of the story? The most obvious possibility would be Caleb growing from a scared kid on the run into a more collected, worldly survivor. Another possibility would be a personality change caused by his relationship with the girl he pretends not to care about. (For example, if he sacrifices himself to save the girl, he may have developed from selfish to selfless).

  11. Genaieon 08 Jan 2011 at 12:01 pm

    I was thinking about what you said. I got an idea on how Caleb would have to save the girl. The girl (Ellie) could have the power of prophecy. The group thinks she has to die because there was only one other time there was a person with the power of prophecy, and it almost ended the world. Caleb doesn’t want Ellie to die because he loves her, so he gets her somewhere safe and fights the leader.

    I think it would some what of a let down to have both the leader and Caleb die so only Caleb dies.

    The court room scene I’m still stuck on. maybe Caleb could get away without having to use his powers but that would be boring. Or I might cut out the whole scene.

    thanks for all your help

  12. Markon 19 Aug 2011 at 2:21 pm

    Hello,

    I am looking to write an original superhero novel. Is there a market for this? The ones that I have seen are based on existing characters (Marvel DC), and quite frankly are a major bore, probably because we’ve all seen/read the comics. My story is on the darker side, but not so dark that it borderlines horror. It is accessible to a Batman, Spawn, silver Surfer and The Matrix type of audience. I know, I mentioned a broad range of characters. Would something like this fly in the market? How about short stories? Or a series of short stories about the same character? I really want to write, but if I am to target a specific market, what should I do? I appreciate any advice.

    Thank you,
    Mark

  13. Damzoon 19 Aug 2011 at 2:36 pm

    Hi Mark, Welcome to SN, Okay as you probably know, there are quite a few superhero novel publishers in comparison to comic books. I think you should get your story straight before thinking about the market.

    Maybe if we see what your story is about we can help you determine where your story fits into. If your are afraid of copyright issues see http://www.superheronation.com/2010/08/14/copyright-information-for-writers/.

    Also write the novel in the way that suits you.

  14. Mynaon 19 Aug 2011 at 2:57 pm

    Welcome to SupeheroNation!

    To add on to what Cool D/Damzo said:

    I think there’s a market for dark superhero works, even as novels (somewhat) but you’d have to be more specific about what you’re writing. Some superhero works can double as sci-fi, which might make them more appealing to publishers. Superhero novels that carry more than just action are also more appealing. There are definite trends. However that doesn’t mean change your novel to fit the trends. If your novel isn’t superhero sci-fi, it doesn’t have to be. As for short stories and short story compilations I have no idea if there’s a market for those, but you could ask someone who works in publishing. :)

  15. Markon 19 Aug 2011 at 7:26 pm

    Hi Damzo/Myna,

    Thanks for your comments, they are very helpful. My story is definitely a superhero story, but I initially wrote it in the vein of James O’Barr (The Crow), and David Mack (Kabuki:Circle of Blood). Since then, I felt my growth as a writer demanded that I be less inspired by inspirational style and more true to what the story itself was (and eventually come into my own style). It is a superhero story with cosmic undertones, but it fully takes place on Earth. And currently I am leaning to a more mainstream story. I am very inspired by the psychological aspects of the story and therefore want to go for that angle. While it does have a lot of action, it is definitely a story with several growth stages of the main character. It is not X-Men or Green Lantern, but definitely a one man against the odds like Batman type of feel, and there’s a Superman feel as well. But with a novel I can go where a comic book can’t. There are capes, and villains with great mythos’. There are visually stunning powers, there’s sci-fi and there’s ‘magic’, for lack of a better term. I’d say it’s a superhero sci-fi fantasy. But it is well contained within the confines of what is created. I would like to write the story freely and I can see the first book being in the 300-500 page length. If you can offer more comments I would be gratetful. :)

    -Mark

  16. Mynaon 19 Aug 2011 at 7:57 pm

    The best advice I can give is: write the story that needs to be written. Don’t ‘go mainstream’ just for the sake of being mainstream (and hell, to quote Wings, superheroes are so close to mainstream by now anyway that it would be accepted by an audience. General readership, at least in the West, is probably pretty familiar with superhero and superhero themes, ’cause DC and Marvel are so big in popular culture.) So I wouldn’t worry about forcing the story mainstream.

    Btw, sci-fi/fantasy/superhero genre? Sounds completely AWESOME.

  17. Markon 20 Aug 2011 at 12:55 am

    Thanks for your honest words, and for the compliment! :) Writing the story that needs to be written…better advice there could not be.

    Curious, could you or anyone else recommend me any original superhero novels? I wouldn’t mind reading 3-5 novels (or more) to get a feel for what is being done in this genre.

  18. B. Macon 20 Aug 2011 at 1:02 am

    “I am looking to write an original superhero novel. Is there a market for this?” There have been a few notable successes, but I think it’d be something of a tougher sell than a more conventional work like a detective/mystery or romance or epic fantasy, which have many bestsellers every year. With a more standard work, publishers know from experience that these books can sell. In contrast, superhero novels don’t usually generate exciting sales figures. (I think Kavalier and Clay, the Wild Card series, Hero and Soon I Will Be Invincible sold pretty well, but K&C is the only one I’ve seen referred to as a bestseller).

    If your story’s really well-written, a publisher might give it a go anyway, but I suspect you will have to work harder to impress novel-publishing professionals than somebody writing a more marketable work would.

    “My story is on the darker side, but not so dark that it borderlines horror. It is accessible to a Batman, Spawn, Silver Surfer and The Matrix type of audience.” Let’s pretend that your query and manuscript have reached a somewhat typical publisher’s assistant (a ~25 year old woman that reads many novels but no comic books). Of the stories you’ve mentioned, she’s heard of Batman and The Matrix, but Spawn and Silver Surfer are COMPLETELY lost on her. She’s never heard of any good or bestselling Batman or Matrix novels. Again, I think it’d come down to the quality of your writing, but I don’t think this is making a good impression. (Please focus on selling YOUR story rather than comparing it to works the reader might not like or be familiar with).

    If your work gets as far as the acquisition committee, then I think one major concern you’d have to overcome is “Will this work for people that actually read novels?” One stereotype is that superhero fans do not read many novels (it doesn’t help that superhero novels don’t sell very well). One reason that I think Kavalier and Clay succeeded was that it was a serious, intelligent/deep work by an author with really strong literary credentials. It had so much appeal to people that weren’t traditional superhero fans that it somehow won a Pulitzer.

    One aspect that I think would help would be developing story elements besides action. I would HIGHLY recommend reading at least 20 novels incorporate fights and chases into a bigger, interesting plot. In particular, I’d recommend looking at Point of Impact, Day of the Jackal, Patriot Games, The Maltese Falcon, Bitter Seeds and Silence of the Lambs. What do the main characters do in the 90%+ of pages where they aren’t shooting somebody? What, if anything, do you find memorable and interesting about the main characters? What stands out about the settings and the side-characters? What pushes you to keep (or stop) reading? What stands out about how the characters interact with other characters? Granted, you probably don’t know many FBI profilers or presidential assassins, but is there anything about the characters or the story that reminds you of somebody you know or an experience you’ve had?



    I don’t know much about the short story market, but that’s another option. I’d recommend looking at the Corrupts Absolutely Anthology, which is looking for a “more realistic portrayal of metahumans.” Jersey Devil Press says, “We like dark, we like ridiculous” and its submission guidelines on Duotrope specifically mention superhero fantasy and superhero sci-fi. For more possible ideas, I’d recommend checking out my list here.



    “I can see the first book being in the 300-500 page length.” When you pitch to publishers, please give them the word-count rather than page-count. Page-count doesn’t mean a lot to somebody that doesn’t know which type-setting settings you used. I think 80,000-90,000 words is pretty standard.

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  20. Jack Durishon 26 Aug 2012 at 6:22 pm

    I think that the 8 points mentioned here applied to traditional publishing even before epublishing took root. The truth is that writing/publishing/selling is far more depressing in today’s world.

  21. B. McKenzieon 27 Aug 2012 at 2:21 am

    “I think that the 8 points mentioned here applied to traditional publishing even before epublishing took root.” Agreed, although I’m not sure #1 has always applied. It might have been generally easier to make a living as a novelist before the advent of radio/movies/TV.

  22. [...] Eight Facts About Writing That Surprise Prospective Novelists - Some frank talk from another author. He exaggerates #4 and I disagree with #6. But #3 had me nodding in emphatic agreement. [...]

  23. Mickyon 27 Mar 2014 at 7:20 am

    Although your initial paycheck will be around $5,000 roughly a year later, after the hardback comes out, the paperback rights for the same or different publisher sell for much more depending on how well the book did. That money, which you will be payed a percentage of, is where a writer makes the money he can make a living from.

    An example of this would be like Stephen King’s “Carrie” . He wrote the book, he got paid around $4,000 and then a year after the hardback was on the shelf (and he was in the middle of writing Salem’s Lot) he received a check from the publishers for the paperback rights. The rights were purchased for $400,000.00 . Half of which went to him. ($200,000.00) And that was his first novel.

    Plus, you must remember royalties.

    Although you may not get paid a ton of money right away, you can make a good living off being a writer. You must simply “keep going” with it. You may even be able to make a REALLY good living.

  24. B. McKenzieon 27 Mar 2014 at 6:31 pm

    [CAUTION: PROBABLY DEPRESSING, ESPECIALLY TO ANYONE WHO ASPIRES TO BE A FULL-TIME NOVELIST].

    If you can sell hundreds of thousands of copies, the pay will work out really well for you. Authors that can sell hundreds of thousands of copies are very, very rare. Of every 1,000 published novelists, I’d estimate less than 5 of them have a book that sells more than 100,000 copies.



    In my own case, I’ve found that the economics of fiction-writing are completely brutal (both for the writer and for the publisher). E.g. let’s say I could sell (a pretty optimistic) 5,000 – 10,000 copies of a novel in 2,000 hours of work (a full-time year). If my advance worked out to about $1 per projected sale, I’d probably be looking at about $2.50 – $5 per hour. Moreover, finding a publisher willing to pay even that much is generally an extraordinarily unpleasant task. Any time you spend finding a publisher is unpaid work and the publisher implicitly expects you to go through an unpaid write-submit-rewrite cycle until you’ve gotten good enough to publish. On average, this unpaid training cycle takes approximately 10 years (according to a survey by Jim Hines). Virtually every other industry offers paid entry-level jobs beyond perhaps 3-6 months of unpaid internships.

    Personally, I’ve found nonfiction to be much kinder. I work in marketing (e.g. website copy for medical machinery companies). At my agency, clients pay about $150/hour for nonfiction writing. More importantly, it’s a pretty awesome team and authors’ contributions are taken seriously both in-house and by clients. In contrast, the average fiction-publisher can only afford to spend a few minutes, if that, on the average unsolicited submission. The money/resources just aren’t there for a more personal approach. I doubt things get all that much better for most authors that actually do get published.

    In conclusion, don’t quit your day job.

    PS: Authors only get paid royalties if they clear their advance. I’m under the impression that most authors don’t.

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