Don’t Stop Me Now

By Brett Battles

I heard somewhere that it takes 10 years and writing 4 novels on average before someone becomes published. Don’t know if this is true at all…in fact, not even sure it’s something that can be accurately measured. Because in there you’d need to consider those who’ve written for years, have produced a dozen novels or more, and yet are still not published.

But for argument sake, let’s pretend it’s true. In a way, it’s almost right on for me. That is if we consider the 10 years to mean 10 years of solidly working at developing your writing career. My 10 years was split up over 17 or so. But the novels are right on. While my first published novel, THE CLEANER, was the third book I had written, I actually finished a fourth before THE CLEANER was sold. So there…for me 10 years, 4 novels. According to the 10/4 rule, I’m the average.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the total is for the years and novels. It could be 5 years and 2 novels, or 12 and 5, or even 9 and 6. The point isn’t the numbers themselves, it’s what they represent. And what they represent is the desire and the dedication to the craft of writing. What it means is that if you want it – want to be published – you can’t give up. Persistence.

So if you believe in this rule does that mean you’ll get published? No. But you’re chances are much better than if you give up after you finish your first manuscript. The thing is – and there are exceptions, of course – that first novel is your tester novel. It’s the one that proves you can actually do it. Looking back on my first manuscript, I cringe at the stilted dialogue, the forced scenes, and the stitched together plot. At the time I thought it was pretty damn good. Good enough even to send out to agents. Thankfully no one bit. That novel now sits buried in the storage area under my parents’ house, never to be retrieved again. In fact, if I do find it, I just might burn it. (It sucks. Take my word for it.)

But it also served its purpose. It was my training novel, the start of my personal college degree in writing. And looking back, that’s exactly what I needed it to be.

Even the best baseball players don’t start playing in the major leagues without ever having played a game before. The analogy can be carried to almost any profession. Those that are good, worked at it. Even those with a natural talent need experience and practice.

Take acting for example. George Clooney, one of today’s top actors and a pretty good one by my account (see BROTHER WHERE ART THOU? Or GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK or SYRIANA for starters), didn’t come out of the gate in Oscar nomination form. According to his first role was as an uncredited village extra in the 1978 TV mini-series CENTENNIAL. He followed that up with some other television work including stints on FACTS OF LIFE, HUNTER, MURDER SHE WROTE, and GOLDEN GIRLS. Sure he was working, but he was also not yet at the top of his form. And I can guarantee you that when he wasn’t doing these bit parts, he was probably taking classes, doing scenes with other actors, and maybe even appearing in some small theater plays to build experience. He worked at his craft. He worked like we all have to if we want to achieve success we desire.

So what does that mean for the aspiring novelist? If you don’t sell your first, write your second. If you don’t sell your second, write your third. If you don’t sell your third, or your fourth, or your fifth, you keep writing, and you keep writing.

Each step of the way you should be examining what you did before, and then working to improve on that. Did you have a tendency to over describe? Or under describe? Have you killed all your darlings? Meaning have you gotten rid of all those cute phrase that you loved, but are ultimately getting in the way of your prose? Is your dialogue believable? Or does it sound tinny, and unnatural? And while we’re on dialogue…are you using your dialogue to tell your reader things that would be better shown? Do you have scenes that you like, but are unnecessary to the plot of your story? I could go on and on.

The point is write, and write again, and write again, each time using the opportunity to improve. Don’t get dejected when a book doesn’t sell…sure, give yourself a day or two to be bummed, but then move on. That book becomes training and experience, and you should do everything in your power to make your next manuscript better because of it. (And once you get published…this shouldn’t end. Each book should build upon the last.)

Hope this all made sense…I’m not trying to preach. It’s just this is the method I used to finally reach my goal, and to keep myself focused on the way.

Remember, we’re all going to be different. Some will take longer and some shorter. And, let’s be honest, some will may never get there. The best advice I can give is to write a good book. And – sorry if I’m repeating a theme here – write another, and another, and never giving up.

So tell me what you think of the 10/4 rule. And those of you who are published what did it take you? And those of you who aren’t yet, where are you at in relations to this? And remember, there’s no bad answer. We each take our own road.


Today’s Song: DON’T STOP ME NOW • Queen • Off of JAZZ from 1978

17 thoughts on “Don’t Stop Me Now

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    This is a really, really fine and important post, Brett – definitely one I’m going to be linking for aspiring authors. Thank you for putting it all so perfectly.

    THE HARROWING was my first novel ever – BUT – I’d been a professional screenwriter for almost ten years and I’d written dozens of scripts before I ever sat down to write a novel. And I sold my first script – BUT -I’d been a theater director and written and produced plays and musical revues for years. In other words – I put in WAY more writing than 4 novels before I wrote my first novel. Years and years and years of it.

    The spear-carrier analogy for Clooney is a good one. In any art you work at your craft constantly – in every capacity. The work that does sell sells because of the work you do CONSTANTLY.

  2. Bryon Quertermous

    Can I get an Amen for Brother Brett? I needed to hear this today. Part of me agrees that it’s not really the hard and fast number that matters, just that it takes time and dedication. But part of me really hopes it right on the money because I’m closing in on 10 years and I’m about 80 pages into my fourth novel.

  3. Dave Zeltserman

    My first novel sold 12 years after I wrote it–and that was first to an Italian publisher before selling it to a small US house (Point Blank Press). Those 12 years also included 7 years of taking a break (well, quitting actually). While my second book also sold, it took me until my 3rd book to break into a good house, which when not counting my breaks works out to my 8th year of writing.

  4. Pari Noskin Taichert

    I wrote my first full manuscript nearly 14 years ago. I got an unscrupulous agent with it and in a way that was good, because IT was bad. Because SHE was bad, she probably didn’t litter the western world with it. Whew!

    I finished another full manuscript a few years after that. I didn’t get an agent that time AND that’s also good.

    During those years, both my parents died and I had two babies. So I was pretty busy, but I didn’t give up. When I could, I wrote and went to writers’ meetings and learned as much as I could.

    CLOVIS sold in 2002 — more than seven years after I began writing full-length fiction. It wasn’t published for another 1 1/2 years.

    I’ve been at this long enough now that my hair is turning gray 😉

  5. Louise Ure

    I’m one of the lucky ones: one year, one book.

    But I look back on my lifetime of reading good books as training, so maybe I’ve been working at it longer than any of you pups!

  6. JT Ellison

    I’m pretty lucky too – 2 years – 1.5 books (a novella, then a novel) But I never, ever stopped once I started. The most important statement in this fabulous post is:

    If you don’t sell your first, write your second. If you don’t sell your second, write your third. If you don’t sell your third, or your fourth, or your fifth, you keep writing, and you keep writing.

    Seriously, forward momentum is the trick to getting published. When you’re submitting one, start working on the next. Never sit stagnant, submitting to one agent and waiting the three months to hear back. Multiple submit, and work on the next one.

  7. Stacey Cochran

    Very interesting post, Brett, and it’s cool to see everyone’s answers so far.

    I’ll be the first to admit that I’m slow. A perpetual slacker in middle and high school, I was the first in my family to earn a graduate degree in college.

    I remember vividly when I made the decision to “become a writer.”

    While I sent out my first “manuscript” to Random House when I was seventeen, I didn’t really start working fulltime towards it until I was 21…. somewhere around 1994-95.

    Since then, it’s been pretty much my fulltime occupation.

    So I’m at 13-14 years, eleven novels… and still unpublished.

  8. Dave Zeltserman

    Stacey, when you do break through, you’re going to have all these other books that you’re going to be able to sell to your publisher. I was recently talking to an author in a similar situation where she went years being unpublished, then all of a sudden had her break and then had 4 books under contract that would be coming out in a 1-year period while publishing under her name and a pseudonym.

  9. Stacey Cochran

    Thank you, Dave.

    And the thing is, they’re all very mainstream suspense novels…. very commercial.

    When I think realistically about it, I tell myself it’ll take until I’m probably around 40-45. I’m 34 now, so probably somewhere around novel 15-20.

    It seems fair.

    Plus, I enjoy the fulltime writing process anyways… published or no.

    I appreciate the positive words, man.

  10. Dana King

    Thanks, Brett. A thought-provoking and, for me, timely post. I have six novels written, and one about 75% finished. I have an agent, and I keep getting the most generous rejections. (My favorite: Too good to go to paperback, not original enough for a series. I also hear “I would have snapped this up ten years ago.” So it goes.)

    I having trouble getting revved up to do the preparatory work for the next book, mostly due to frustration. I’ve been moving closer lately, and you’ve given me a nice shove.

  11. Rob Gregory Browne

    Like, Alex, my first was the one that sold. What you see with KISS HER GOODBYE is pretty much what came out of the word processor my first time out.

    But, also like Alex, I spent many years as a screenwriter — which, I’ve discovered, is great training ground for a wannabe novelist. It teaches you structure, dialogue, and how to hone your narrative to the essentials.

    What it doesn’t really teach you is voice. And that’s something I’ve been developing since I was seventeen years old.

    I’m always amused by people who, without any prior writing experience, try to write a novel and think they’ll get it published. It takes a lot of years and a lot of hard work to get to the “publishable” point. Unless you’re some kind of literary genius — and there are a few of those around…

  12. Tom Barclay

    Thanks, Brett. This is pretty much what I was asking about at your book release reception two weeks ago.

    Funny thing – I mentioned to my mentor that CLEANER reads as if you’d been at the job for twenty years. She said, “Maybe he *has* been doing it for twenty years.”

    JT, I think you’re smack-dab right about forward momentum.

  13. Richard Maguire

    In the late 80s I wrote a Cold War thriller set in Scandanavia. I found a a very good agent who felt sure he could sell it. What happened? The Berlin Wall fell and no one was interested in a novel by a first-time writer set during what suddenly seemed like a bygone era, no matter how intriguing the plot was. (And I’d done lots of research.) Some years later an agent with a major client list was interested in some one-hour radio dramas I’d had produced by a national broadcaster and encouraged me to write a legal thriller. Result? He liked the characters but said the plot was not commercial enough and he passed. (I later mined a subplot and it was produced as a radio play.)

    After that, I lost all interest in writing fiction. I felt I was wasting my time, and had disappointed two very good agents. That, surely, is the flip side of the coin. I mean, simply, that for some writers rejection can be fatal.

  14. Liz

    Thanks Bret, you put a new meaning to the phrase, each one teach one, seems you’ve been teaching many. Thanks for the great advice.

  15. Allison Brennan

    Great post, Brett. Like most writers, I’ve always written, but there’s a big difference between writing for fun and writing toward publication. For most of my life, I wrote for fun. Never finished anything. In fact, when I “got serious” about writing, I had over 100 beginnings and no endings. And that was just on a computer I’d had for two years. Doesn’t count the stories I started on my old clunky mac, or wrote long hand, or typed out on the IBM Selectric my mom gave me when her real estate office upgraded to computers when I was 13.

    When I got serious, I was over 30, just had my third child, and realized I hadn’t done what I’d wanted to in my life–be a published author. And I only had myself to blame because I didn’t take myself seriously. So — after that point, I wrote five books in two years, selling book #5. The first three will never be published. #4 is a completely different genre (more science fiction suspense) and I do love that story, so when I get to the point in my career where I can publish something completely different, I’ll bring it out.

    Anyway, I agree with everyone who said it’s hard to quantify. I could say I sold after two years and five books; or I could say I sold after 25 years. I’m going with the two. 🙂

  16. I.J.Parker

    First off: I just read THE CLEANER and thought it superb. My compliments.

    As to the topic: It took 16 years, and by then 4 novels were on offer. The publisher picked numbers 2 and 4. I’m lousy at marketing and pretty much hung up on research. Finally, after another 3 years another publisher started at the beginning. Sometimes I think they’ll never catch up.

  17. Brett Battles

    Thanks, everyone for chiming in. And special thanks to Allison Brennan and I.J. Parker for dropping by. (I.J., double thanks for sharing your thoughts about THE CLEANER!)


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