Why New Novelists Are Kinda Old, or, Hey, Publishing is Slow
From the e-mail pile today:
Whenever I hear about a “new” novelist, they turn out to be in their 30s. Why is that? It seems like you hear about new musicians and actors and other creative people in when they are in their 20s.
Excellent question. Leaving aside the mechanics of why it pays to be young in the music and acting industries, here’s what’s up with those old new novelists:
1. Writing an entire novel is something most people have to work up to. Because you know what? Writing sixty to one hundred thousand words of fiction is not something most people cannonball through, even if they assure you, with the appropriate amount of false modesty, that they’re really better at long-form fiction. Maybe they are, but they still had a long walk to get there. I’m better at long-form and it took me until I was 28 before I could do it. Meanwhile I’d been writing short for years up to that point, in the form of reviews and columns and humor pieces and (yes) occasional attempts at short fiction that I mostly abandoned after a page or two. Lots of people in their teens and early 20s start novels; rather fewer finish them.
Why? Well, some of them start novels and finish short stories, which is a surprise both for the would-be novelist and the would-be novel. Others (and this included me in my 20s) start writing something that they thought might be a book-length idea, only to find not only did it not qualify as a short story, it was better for everyone involved if the stunted, weird thing was taken behind the tool shed, whacked with a shovel and buried without anyone else knowing it ever existed.
Some others actually finish a whole novel-length pile of words whose best quality, alas, is that it gave its author a chance to exercise his or her fingers. The erstwhile author realizes that making it into a novel would require pulling it apart and starting over, and the thought of doing so fills them with same joy as they might get from sucking down a Dran-O mojito. So the not-actually-a-novel gets stuffed into the proverbial drawer or trunk, never again to see the light of day.
All of this, incidentally, is perfectly fine. Craftsmen don’t make their masterpiece the first time they approach a potter’s wheel (or whatever). Most writers aren’t going to write a brilliant or even passable novel the first time they sit down in front of a keyboard and intone (to themselves if no one else) that today is the day they will commit art, in a convenient, novel-sized package. They usually have to work up to it, one way or another. That takes time, just as learning any craft takes time.
And when people do finally manage to write something that is actually identifiable to anyone else but the author as a novel, guess what?
2. Most people’s first novels well and truly suck. Oh my, yes they do. Which again is perfectly fine. Writing anything over 60,000 words that still recognizably tells one single story is a hell of an achievement in itself. Asking that it also be good is just being mean to the author, and the novel. It’s like watching someone run their first full-length marathon, ever, and criticizing them for not finishing in the top ten. I mean, shit. That can be the goal for the second race, right?
Most first novels are no damn good. Second ones are often better, but not always, and often not by much. Third and fourth novels, the same thing. Fact is — and this should not be news at this late date — ask most debut novelists how many novels they wrote before they got one published, and you’ll find out the answer is: two, three, four — sometimes more. Debut novels are almost never first novels; they’re just the first novels you see. And all those other novels you will never know about? They took lots of time to write, too.
Which brings us to the next point:
3. The physical act of writing a novel takes a long time. Yes, we all know of the authors who can crank out a perfectly publishable novel of 60, or 80, or 100,000 words in just under six weeks. But there are two things to note. First, most of those hyperkinetic authors are not newbie novelists; they’re people who have been writing long enough that certain aspects of novel writing are encoded into their brain’s muscle memory. Second, if you’re a would-be novelist, you’ll probably never be one of those people anyway.
No, I’m not intending to insult you. Most currently published authors don’t write that quickly either. I know successful, working authors who are happy to get 250 words of fiction a day, because that’s 90,000 words a year: A full-sized novel. But consider that there are any number of writers who have trouble getting out that much out a year, because — surprise! — a novel is usually more than just sitting down and cranking out a word count. There are those little things like plot, and character, and pacing, and dialogue and so on and so forth. All of those things take time to develop.
Note also that while you’re doing all of this as a budding novelist, you are also most likely doing all the other things in your life that constitute your life: A day job, spouse and family, hobbies and friends, reading and television and video games and even (wait for it) sleep. It all adds up — and it all subtracts from the amount of time you have to write.
What all this means is that writing those three or four novels an average writer has to burn through before they write a publishable novel will likely take years.
But hey! A budding novelist has put in the time and the work and the effort and has sacrificed numerous innocent, trusting pizzas to the Gods of Writing, and has finally got a novel good enough to sell. Good for them. Now it’s time for the next point:
4. Selling a novel takes a long time. At this point, like the Game of Life
Finding an agent is a slog. One has to query the agent, wait to see if the query is accepted, and then if it is sample chapters and an outline go out in the mail. Then more waiting to see if the agent asks for more. If he or she does, it’s time to send the whole manuscript and then wait again to see if he or she thinks the writer is worth their time to represent. At any point the agent can say “no,” at which point our budding novelist will have to start over again.
But if the agent says “yes,” then comes the part where he or she starts schlepping the novel to publishers. Presuming the agent gets a publishing house interested in looking at the manuscript, it could be weeks or even months before there’s response, either positive or negative. If it’s the latter, it’s on to the next publisher.
The second path is the Path of the Slush Pile. This gets the work out there quicker but fewer publishers still accept unagented manuscripts, and as you might guess from the name “slush pile,” the rate at which editors work through the slush pile is pretty slow. Baen Books, which accepts unagented manuscripts, lists their response time as nine to twelve months: Yes, you could make a baby (if you can make a baby) before our poor theoretical writer here would hear back about their literary child. And if at the end of those nine months to a year Baen (or whomever) says no, the poor writer has to start all over again.
And along either path, there’s no assurance that the novel — despite being of publishable quality — will sell (this is where I refer you to Teresa Nielsen Hayden’s evergreen “Slushkiller” piece, which details why). This means that at some point the writer may have to give up the ghost on this particular novel and move on to try to sell the next one — which of course, they were busy writing while they were waiting for that other one to sell.
All of this — you are sensing the theme by now — takes lots of time.
But wait! Despite the myriad challenges, a novel has actually been sold! Excellent. Now guess what?
5. Publishing a novel often takes a long time. Once a book has an offer, there’s the time it takes to work through the contract . Then the editing process begins — it’s very likely the editor working with the writer will want tweaks and edits to the novel. This round of editing takes time, depending both on how much work the book needs and how well the writer takes direction during the editing process. After that comes the copy editing, with the writer required to go through the manuscript, answering copy editor queries and signing off on the edits. And beyond this is all the production stuff the writer is not directly involved with, like cover art, interior and cover desig, and so on and so forth. This, yes, takes time.
But even when that’s done there’s more waiting! That’s because the publisher will need to find a spot for the novel on its release schedule, one that allows it to highlight the work and also gives it time to secure publicity and advance reviews and all that good stuff. That spot on the release schedule may be a year or even two in the future. This is the part that really drives writers nuts: Everything’s done and yet, no book. It’s madness, I tell you.
So, let’s recap: It takes time for most people to learn how to write to novel-length. It takes time to write well at that length. It takes time to write to that length. It takes time to land a publisher and it takes time to get that novel to market. And suddenly, it makes sense why so many debut novelists just happen to be in their thirties.
You want a real world example, you say. Fine, take me. I’ll note my own path to publication has some irregularities in it, but overall it works well enough for these purposes. Ready? Here it is. The number at the end of each line tells you how old I was each step of the way:
1969 – 1997: Time spent learning to write well enough to write a novel (28).
1997: Wrote first complete novel (28)
1997 – 2001: Life intervenes and keeps me away from fiction (32).
2001: Wrote second novel (32)
2002: Offer made on second novel, now my debut novel (33)
2003: Contract signed for debut novel (33)
2004: Editing and early publicity for debut novel (35)
2005: Debut novel published (35)
2006: Won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (37)
So, eight years from first completed novel to having a debut novel in the bookstores, and four years between completing the debut novel and it being published in book form. And if you think it’s ironic to win a “Best New Writer” award at the ripe old age of 37, consider that 37 is pretty much the average age of the Campbell winners over the last 35 years. “New” does not equal “young.”
Having said all of that, it’s worth noting that a whole stack of writers have managed to get novels published while they were in their twenties — it’s not that huge a trick to do so . These debuts are not necessarily any worse (or better) than those of authors who debut in their 30s or later. Some writers are publishable more quickly, some are in the right place at the right time with the right books, and some people are simply unfathomably lucky.
Also, at this point in time there are more authors who are willing to attempt self-publishing — either online or through print-on-demand — thus avoiding the whole “finding a publisher” time suck. We could have a debate on whether this is wise, from the point of view of distribution, publicity, marketing and/or writers debuting before their work is worth reading, but that’s a debate for another entry. The fact of the matter is that if you self-publish, your debut as a novelist will undoubtedly come sooner.
But for the folks who do it the old-fashioned way — and, currently, the way that still affords them the best chance for notoriety and a chance at a long-term career as a novelist — the combination of writing skill development and the mechanics of contemporary publishing conspires to drive the age of most debut novelists into the thirties. It doesn’t seem likely to change anytime soon.