Lessons learned: writing really long fiction 160 points by wellokthen 10 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 70 comments

 I'm writing German science fiction novels as a hobby that are around 700-800 norm pages each and learned the hard way that at least in the German publishing market there are virtually no program places for science fiction, very few agencies accept manuscripts in that genre at all, and publishers rarely accept novels larger than 400 norm pages from a first-time writer.I'm currently sitting on 8 manuscripts - two of them are actually 1400 norm pages each. I'm writing on my ninth novel now and will one day give away all of them for free. The problem is that correcting and finalizing them into book form (e.g. typsetting in LaTeX) takes too much of my spare time.I'm just writing this as a friendly advise. At least for smaller markets like the German one, do not ever expect to be able to make any substantial amounts of money from your writing hobby. The trend is against it, and it's much cheaper and less risky for publishers to get a successful US writer translated than to accept a new local one. People are also reading way more English originals than they used to. Besides, agencies are looking for urban fiction, "novels for young women", gift books, etc. (Before you ask, agencies have attested me that the quality of my writing is fine, but what they say and what they think are two things and this may also play a major role.)Of course, it's still my favourite hobby. Once you start you cannot stop. I don't think that any particular lessons can be learned, because everybody writes in a different way and under different circumstances. The bottomline is that it's not hard to write a lot. ;)
 Here's a market strategy: write off-shots of your long novels as teasers. Make them tasty (as their primary reason is to give the readers a taste for the main piece), make them as close in style as possible to the main work, although you may focus on different aspects in each of them, and lastly - make them convergent (towards something that "happens" to be missing). Let's say shorter stories around some independent characters which at some point get in contact with one main work character somewhere at the end of the novel. Make that interaction stand out and the main work character larger than life in some way. The shorter novels should be easier to push onto market, maybe even independently, and should provide the necessary ground for rolling out the main work. Heck, that should be THE publishers' advice for first-time writers out there.
 I'm not a writer, but I don't get why first-time writers - as in, first time they're trying to get their works published, not that they've only now tried to write a book - try to do too much as their first project.I think they should really force themselves to start with short stories first; focus on finishing a story. That avoids a sunk cost, avoids people beating themselves up for what they believe is their life's work getting rejected by publishers (for e.g. being too long), etc.Same with software development; it's easy to write big chunks of code, it's hard to get that to production.
 I've always heard that writing a good short story is actually quite a bit harder than a novel, since you have to be fairly ruthless about what you include and leave out to have enough room for the essential components. A novel's plot can meander for a while, and it still might be good or okay. A short story's plot that meanders either isn't short anymore or doesn't go anywhere in the space it has.
 Because writers are told publishers want 100k word novels, and they won't touch 25k novellas, and the short story market is very hard to get into, and writing a good short story requires an extra level of talent and discipline beyond writing a novel, and so why not make it a trilogy anyway, because publishers love those? (In reality they don't, but they'll fall over themselves for a good trilogy if a writer is one-in-a-million good.)Writers are also told it takes two or three failed novels to write a good one.And on top of that, there are plenty of writers whose primary motivation is vanity. They care more about seeing their name on the spine of a book - as if that proves they're Someone Important. They also think the more words there are, the better they're doing, and don't understand the value of understatement or editing.Writers who view it as a business - willing to learn the required skillset, realistic about their potential, and with a product plan, a marketing and customer engagement plan, and a realistic assessment of sales outlets and likely income - are not common.
 That's because (at least in my case) starting something out of creative desire and finishing a project are stimulating different parts of the brain. First is that mind itch associated to problem solving, the second is the satisfaction of managing to walk the necessary path and do what had to be done. Those don't necessarily come together. What the average artists do is to follow their passion. Trying to "augment" that way into a more pragmatic one may lead to a loss of motivation. I've come to the conclusion that the best strategy is to tap into whatever gives me energy and let myself do as much as can be done "for free", then take that result and enter "the soldier mode" for the last part, which requires discipline. Ultimately, it boils down to considering the personal strengths and limitations when devising plans of actions, and pushing too many constraints for a first project may result in failure on exactly that planning.
 This is what my wife did. She is a physician, not an MFA graduate, so she workshopped and wrote short stories for years, and even continued to do so while she worked on her first novel. By the time she published her novel, she was quite good, and even won last year's (2017) "first novel prize[0]" for "Mikhail and Margarita" (a fictional account of the writing of Bulgokov's "Master and Margarita").
 Even a short novel is fine. Outside of the points you listed, I think shorter is better for potential readers as well.I am a pretty avid reader and would never pick up a novel by a first time published author that is 800+ pages; the time (and potentially monetary) investment is just too large. On the flip side, I do pick up books by new/unheard of to me authors that are 250-400 pages long.
 Isn't that how most writers who go through MFA programs do it? (I realize that's not a representative sample of most first-time writers). I find most short stories pretty dull, but enjoy novels. So I can understand why someone would want to start with a longer length work.
 Yes for short stories. (1) Magazines need several new stories every publishing cycle. And (2) if no one buys it, you've wasted less time.
 Sounds like excellent advice. In the Netherlands, we have spaces where you can leave and take books. You could always bind some books yourself (google 'DIY book binding'), or buy a small batch of books, and leave them at such a place.I also remember there are companies that allow you to publish and sell your work, and handle the printing and shipping. I don't remember the exact companies, but that sounds like a good fit for the poster.
 lulu.com is such a company (not affiliated but I have friend that have used it).
 Why are you typesetting them if it’s a hobby? Why not just write?I commend you for your dedication to your craft but I presume some readers would please you so have you considered self-publishing, writing short stories or serial publishing, like Scott Alexander did for Unsong with http://unsongbook.com/ or Wildbow did with Worm? https://parahumans.wordpress.com
 > Why are you typesetting them if it’s a hobby? Why not just write?Long answer: Good question. I typeset the print version of the one book I've self-published in LaTeX, because I love books and didn't want to contribute to the abysmal typesetting of KDP and bulk self-publishers.Converting to LaTeX is not that hard, the problem is that unless you write everything in Markdown or Orgmode in the first place, you'll you have to maintain two sources - one for the ebook and a LaTeX version. I'm using some special word processing software, though, so I cannot write in Markdown.My biggest conundrum is that of many hobby authors, I presume. I don't like Amazon and don't want to aid them in destroying the print book market. At the same time, for German self-publishers there are not many realistic alternatives to Amazon. So thanks a lot for the links. I am definitely looking for ways to distribute my works (for free) in alternative ways.Short answer: Yes, in the future I'll probably not typeset my books by hand if I self-publish them. It's too much work. But the decline in typesetting quality caused by self-publishers bothers me a lot. And don't even get me started on book binding, cover design, etc.
 I can't really see Amazon as anything but a boon for obscure writers, to be honest. I don't like them as a company, but as publishers, they beat traditional houses on every scale. Getting published via traditional means essentially works through networking, luck, and a bit of skill - and the amount of support the book receives is also predicated mostly on the first two. Amazon, on the other hand, offers great discoverability, especially if you write something people really like.A lot of great writers had trouble getting published using the traditional system. Nietzsche, or HP Lovecraft, or Marechera, for instance. The traditional publishing industry had a purpose - to turn manuscripts into print, with a side of helping people discover good books. They're now irrelevant for printing, and they were always terrible at the discovery thing.
 Lyx can produce both latex and ebooks from the same source document. You don't have to worry about latex technicalities while writing, and you can version it with git.(I'm not affiliated with www.Lyx.org. But I wrote my PhD and masters with it.)
 In my experience, converting to LaTex is hard, but writing in LaTex from the start is trivial. That's how I write my novels, and I don't need more than the occasional \emph{}, \ldots and \chapter{}, and remembering to use  when opening dialogue. Could you do that from Papyrus Autor?The printed book you have self-published but without KDP or bulk self-publishers, can I ask how you went about it? Did you take your LaTex / pdf file to a book printer, use some other self-publishing service...?
 No, I published it with KDP and Createspace as usual. I just wasn't very happy with it, including Createspace print quality.
 I see. Thanks!
 > learned the hard way that at least in the German publishing market there are virtually no program places for science fiction, very few agencies accept manuscripts in that genre at all, and publishers rarely accept novels larger than 400 norm pages from a first-time writerHah, this brings memories. Coming from an even smaller language market (Croatian), I've decided to learn HTML as a way to publish my writings to a wider audience. Skip 25 years and now I'm working as a senior/lead developer, without publishing anything significant in my life... :D
 Hi, I /read/ science fiction as a hobby, mostly english originals although I'm native german speaker. I'd love to get german science fiction, however, as I'm only buying DRM-free (or at most watermarked) ebooks, I'm currently relying on humblebundle.com and storybundle.com and direct-buying from various smaller publishers. This sort of rules out non-english books.As there is no humblebundle and storybundle for german books (yet), have you thought about releasing your stuff via crowd funding? Just use a crowd-funding platform and "demand" some (arbitrary) amount of money total before you openly release something on the web. I like this "payment" strategy because it does not depend on DRM.
 'Webnovels' seem to be a growing thing.Bigger in asia than they are here, these are very long stories published in serial on novel publishing platforms like webnovel.com (english language).Sometimes the publishing platforms lock new chapters to paid users only and share out the proceeds spotify style. Sometimes authors use patreon with early access to chapters as a reward.Maybe look into something like this and, if it doesn't exist in Germany, be happy and use your own writings to seed a platform like that?
 There's also a decent number of webnovels (sometimes perhaps too long to be a novel, may or may not be split into distinct books) without a unifying platform, just individual per-book sites - four that come to mind from different authors are Edally Academy, Practical Guide to Evil, Worm, and UNSONG (all different flavors of fantasy/sci-fi). At least the first and third of those are by authors who have also done other things with their own distinct sites. The sites often have links for works by other authors, as well. It might be a bit harder to break in that way than through a platform, but it's still much easier than print publishing.
 As a german, I think the biggest market in fiction by far is the fantasy market. And there are also a lot of German authors included in that market that don't get translated but are rather picked from local. But I agree with the rest of your post, if you want to live by writing fiction, good luck, because it's going to be the steepest of mountains to climb.
 I'd say crime, thrillers and such. There are many German writing authors.
 Hm, you might be right yeah.. I forgot about the slightly older, middle aged demographic. We surely love our crime series and books.
 Hyperion, probably my favorite sci-fi, was deemed too long as a single book, so it was pretty much cut in half and sold as two books.
 Do you have a source? It seems very hard to believe as thee first and second book are very, very different (I find the first book excellent, but the second only sufficient).
 Might have been an interview at the end of the audio book.
 Heh. I'm a bit on the other side of the spectrum. I love writing, but I love the craft of "book-making" even more (everything from LaTex, through Kindle, through physical book-making). So I know that I have to "leave room" for the book-making part by limiting my content within specific projects.
 You're probably already aware but if not:Andreas Eschbach is one of the very few published german authors in the (somewhat) SciFi space. And he's also a fan of Papyrus. On his web page he has for over decades a large subsection of Q&As about writing and publishing on the basis of his personal experience. http://andreaseschbach.de/schreiben/schreiben.html
 Hi! I moved to Germany a year ago and have been consuming a lot of media to learn the language.Have you considered publishing the works yourself/making them available (as ebooks) online?
 Take a look at The Martian: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Martian_(Weir_novel)#Publi...In summary, the author originally self-published to get around problems with publishers.
 Also, have you ever thought about writing your stuff in Markdown? I've made pretty good experiences with it regarding converting to epub, mobi and pdf. I'm not sure of norm page formatting though, so that might be a good reason to use LaTex instead.
 I'm writing with Papyrus Autor [1], which is pretty expensive proprietary software that, at least for the German language, has many advantages over other writing programs available. Especially the Duden spell-checking integration is much better than in any other software. IMHO, it's worth the money for that alone.If it weren't for this software, I'd definitely use Markdown and Emacs.
 Thanks for the link, I'll definitely try it out :) I'm still figuring out what works best for me, since I've written a lot of fan fiction / rpg's with other people together but have yet to write a bigger piece of fiction by myself (working on a big fantasy project right now). So I might take Papyrus up down the line when I feel the need for it.
 I'm curious. If you're using a special software for authors, why is it necessary to convert to LaTeX manually? Isn't this software capable of exporting to formats for publishing? I would imagine not a lot of authors bother with LaTeX.
 It doesn't convert to LaTeX, it's intended for creative writing, not for academic writing, and LaTeX plays no role in this market. LaTeX is really just used in academic writing.
 Have you considered translating one of them and self-publish it in digital format? Could help you gain some following and use that to be able to publish the rest.
 I'm slightly surprised that non-sequential series (eg Pratchett's discworld) are not more common. The 3rd book in a sequential series can't become the most read one, but it can in a nonsequential one. It also lessens pressure to make all the books thematically build up to a single literary work with a climactic payoff to all earlier plots. When things do add up, and chekhov's proverbial gun finally goes off in a nonsequential sequal, it's an easter egg.If the second book in your trilogy sucked, it sinks the 3rd.That doesn't mean I don't like reading series, but they do seem stressful for the author.
 I'm also slightly annoyed at sequential series. It means that when I find one of the books in the library or second-hand bookstore it's basically useless, even when it is the first one and especially when it is out of print. I might never find the others unless I made it a life quest. I don't care that much, usually, and essentially just stopped bothering.
 I loved the Star Wars prequels...That being said, I very rarely get into series unless I'm familiar with the author / director.I've just gotten tired of slogging through to the end when a book / movie / TV show series should have ended a long time ago.
 I'm actually starting to kinda dislike long series in sci-fi and fantasy, because the time commitment to finish them is just so high. I still have one more book to read in the Wheel of Time series, and after that I'm really reluctant to start another long fantasy series anytime soon. But it seems like every fantasy novel I pick up off the shelf says "Book x of the \$FOO series..." Uuuggh. I'd like to plead with fantasy and sci-fi authors to write more standalone novels that are very explicitly meant to not be part of a series.
 I don't think it's the authors doing it. It's the publishers. cstross alludes to that in his post as well.It occurs to me that a modern publishing deal for a new author isn't entirely unlike the VC deals we talk about here on HN. Yeah, the publishers might sign you for 2 books in a trilogy, but you just promised to be a unicorn in the process. The startup world is probably more friendly to serial entrepreneurs than the publishing world is to those authors, though; I haven't seen many discussions of this but I bet you basically get one chance at that deal before they move on to the next author.
 It's the publishers.That's a fair point, and I should have phrased it that way in my post. Too late to edit now, but I agree, it's not all on the authors.
 There's plenty of both. Also, it's fairly common to get trilogies, e.g. Brandon Sanderson, Ann Leckie, Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss, Robin Hobb, etc.With quite a lot of them they have larger worlds, but you can read the first book and enjoy it stand alone, the trilogy, or one of the other trilogies out of order within the larger world. You usually just miss minor appearances of known characters, or nods to earlier events.
 > Burnout is a very real thing in most creative industries, and if you work for a duration of years to decades on a single project you will experience periods of deep existential nausea and dread at the mere thought of even looking at the thing you just spent the last five years of your life on.It immediately reminded me of this great (and short) sketch by The Onion :) https://youtu.be/qXD9HnrNrvk
 Oddly enough, I believe there are a number of lessons that crossover between tech and writing. Having written a novel, and built companies, they both require similar skills in terms of planning, patience, MVP (first draft), rushing to market, incremental improvement, shipping regularly etc.
 And let's not forget the burnout. In this description it feels like you could almost replace 'novel' with 'large solo software project' and have a pretty accurate accounting of that process as well.
 For sure! I haven't had burnout with startups, but I've definitely had it with writing.
 Can you talk about rushing to market in terms of writing a book? Wouldn't a well defined marketing campaign serve better?
 IME it is important to actually complete a work in order to begin the editing, beta-reading, etc. process. Very rarely will one come across a writer who does not need to spend significant amounts of time polishing their piece- often more time to polish than the writing time. It is often more efficient to minimize time writing and maximise time editing. Marketing in fiction is often in the form of novel-swaps, blog-reviews, and book signings- in other words you need at least one piece published or in-the-publishing-process in order to hype your work.
 Well, speaking very broadly, I was referring to setting a clear definition of done, setting deadlines and getting your project out there to beta readers/testers. Both writing and building products can be over-developed. At least, that's how I see it.
 I will note that basic Buddhism and the Gnosticism appear to agree.The first noble truth of Buddhism can either be rendered as "suffering is inevitable," or "life is unsatisfactory." In my limited understanding of Gnosticism, The other three truths are that suffering is caused by a misunderstanding of our essential nature, that liberation from this suffering is possible, and that there's a path anyone can follow to attain this liberation.In Gnosticism (per Wikipedia) that all matter is evil, and the non-material, spirit-realm is good. There is an unknowable God, who gave rise to many lesser spirit beings called Aeons. The creator of the (material) universe is not the supreme god, but an inferior spirit (the Demiurge). Gnosticism does not deal with "sin," only ignorance. To achieve salvation, one needs gnosis (knowledge).Look kinda similar, do they not? While there's no evidence that Buddhist thought directly created Gnosticism, Buddhism had been around for a few centuries by the time Gnostic Christianity appeared, and even though there weren't many Buddhists in the Roman empire, there were Buddhists in Afghanistan by around the time of Alexander, and some of the monks were known to be Greek. I'd also point out that Mani (creator of Manichaeism) cited both Jesus and Buddha as inspirations. Anyway, long story short, these ideas were percolating throughout the civilized world in later classical times, so I'm not surprised that some Christians tried to incorporate them in their practices. Same thing happens today, for instance with the "Jubus" (Jewish Buddhists).
 There is a pretty good book by Karen Armstrong called "The Great Transformation" that looks at why all of this seemed to happen around the same time across different cultures and religions.
 I was curious if you were commenting on the correct story. Your comment is interesting, but seemingly unrelated to the parent story on writing long fiction.
 I really enjoyed reading this. I like Stross' nonfiction work and wasn't aware that he wrote sci-fi, which I will now have to check out.A couple things to add, as a writer and publisher:* There are all kinds of tools to help writers get going. I have twice used NaNoWriMo (https://www.nanowrimo.org) to force myself to get fiction and nonfiction ideas from outline to rough draft. I also found the writing program Scrivener (https://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener/overview) to be very good for organizing fiction chapters, characters, spinoff short stories, etc.* Short science fiction is unsurprisingly far easier to write but difficult to find a market for. The remaining publications and anthologies are swamped with quality submissions, and no one goes to Amazon to buy short stories. Some people publish to Wattpad or their own blogs, but there's a chicken/egg problem to contend with and Wattpad requires constant effort to curate an audience.* The Kindle store, especially Kindle Unlimited, has tons of scifi series, many from new authors. Unfortunately, I've found some of them to be lacking in depth and character development. I'm not sure if that's because they aren't properly edited, or they are "writing to market," i.e. giving people what they want (lots of series with keywords stuffed into the title, like "hard science fiction" or "space opera"). This is a matter of personal taste; I see that many of the same series have hundreds or even thousands of positive reviews which seem sincere.
 ”Short science fiction is unsurprisingly far easier to write but difficult to find a market for.”I strongly disagree with this statement on both counts. Short fiction is not easier to write than long fiction, especially in science fiction where an established setting change from modern defaults must occur. There is less space to explore a thoroughly designed world and often the author is forced to pick and choose for purposes of the plot. It’s not harder either; the challenges between the mediums are often quite different and shouldn’t be compared.Secondly, it is much easier imo to publish short fiction than long fiction, self publishing aside. There are dozens, maybe even over a hundred of pro and semi-pro short story markets(at least in the us market). The biggest award winning magazines still compete with Kickstarter anthologies and semipro zines, alongside markets that normally cater to nonfiction but have occasional fiction like MIT mag. Statistically if your fiction is good enough to publish for money, you will get published eventually. This is much less said for novels, whose publishers must most strongly weigh market forces and for a while and would deny good quality work because the publishing company didn’t believe it would sell (see: the dreamblood duology). There is a significant investment in the publishing of novels traditionally compared to the publishing of short fiction, and often the most well known long fiction markets do not have open calls (eg. Accepting submissions from anyone).Of course self publishing is an entirely different game and an author in this space has to often run their work as a business, including advertising and social media to keep and curate a loyal enough fan base to continue buying new work, along with a consistent production of new work to purchase. It’s not necessarily an easier path than traditional publishing, from what I understand.
 > I like Stross' nonfiction work and wasn't aware that he wrote sci-fiI'm the reverse: I only know his sci-fi, and wasn't aware he wrote nonfiction. What would you recommend?
 According to the bibliography on wikipedia the only non-fiction I can see is "The Web Architect's Handbook" - from 1996
 FYI there is an ebook freely available on his website, "Accelerando":http://www.antipope.org/charlie/blog-static/fiction/accelera...I really enjoyed it.
 Quoting:> In some cases the decline is much steeper—30-40% from episode to episode: I speak from experience. This isn't just theoretical: it's why there won't be a third book in the series beginning with "Saturn's Children" and "Neptune's Brood": they sold okay in the USA, but then I changed US publisher—and the British sales took a 40% dive between book 1 and book 2, so I couldn't fall back on the UK market.>> A series where the sales figures of book n are the same as book n-1, n-2 .. 1 are flat is worth persisting with, because it's bucking the market trend and not stagnating. And a series where the sales figures actually grow from book to book is a prize beyond compare.I don't quite agree with this. Of course there will be a falloff between entries in a series, but that does not mean that writing an additional book is a wasted effort. The potential sales of n+1 book get added to all the books coming before n, with corresponding % loss of readership between books. So, one should also add the increase in sales in all the books coming before the new release.
 I am not sure I follow you here - are you saying that when a book is added to a series, it tends to generate new readers for its predecessors? I would guess that, unless the new book significantly enhances the awareness or prestige of the series, it would have little effect on the sales of earlier episodes. Otherwise, regardless of how good it is in its own right, I doubt it is likely to attract readers who have not already read its predecessors.
 It might be of little effect, but I specifically target series. A set of nine will beat out a pair for me. I'm hooked on Brandon Sanderson partly due to the interlinking between his different series.
 Exactly. Especially in SF and Fantasy, series present a much more attractive target. You know the author has put in some love & effort into the books, and you know that the effort YOU put into learning the world and your emotional investment into the characters won't be wasted.You might of course still drop it after the 2nd or 3rd (or even during the 1st) book due to various reasons (you didn't like it, found something better, were busy, family emergency etc..), but the nth+1 book still influenced in that first sale.
 Paper book retail has complicated shelving and buying rules which make it a winner's game.A tiny percentage of the most popular writers gets reprints, new editions, and shelf space. For new writers, the process is more like a sales audition.And it's a very short audition. If a new title doesn't show serious sales momentum within a few weeks, most copies will be returned, and the odds of a follow-up title from that author go down rapidly.Virtually all of the n-ologies you see in the bigger stores are already best sellers, and the publishers and the store buyers have both said "Give us more of the same" because previous sales were strong enough.Some markets - like romance, and sometimes fantasy - have more complicated rules. Store buyers typically buy a consignment from a publisher, and authors can sometimes find themselves sneaking into a consignment without being anyone's first choice.
 As an avid sci-fi reader this is providing so many answers to my recurring frustrations whenever books series don't get a sequel. I don't think I truly understood that there were important business and human capital constraints.
 Aww, the perils of letting the market steer compensation for authors. I really enjoyed Neptune's Brood - sorry to se the series cut short by such trivialities as sales numbers.Completely understandable, obviously.Very interesting article, thank you for sharing.
 really interesting to me. i don't write, but it shares a lot of commonalities if i read this with other large / long term projects one can do (which i think a lot of IT people / programmers can relate to). thanks for sharing this interesting piece!

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