How to Become a Novelist

Novelist create entire worlds, telling full-length, complex stories. They grip their audience: for entertainment, philosophical inquiries, political or sociological points, etc. They go on tours, reading from their latest book and meeting their fans.

It is an incredibly challenging career, one which—like actor, athlete, or broadcaster—one has to break into based on talent. The would-be novelist must impress upon editors at publishing houses that his or her work merits publication.

old fashioned type writer

Novelists can be broken into the various genres in which they write:

  • Literary- stories about a variety of everyday people in realistic situations, usually exploring perplexing issues about human life.
  • Crime- intriguing tales about criminals or those who are trying to catch them.
  • Mystery- puzzles about who committed a crime, often a murder, that invite the reader to try to solve the mystery.
  • Thriller- rollicking stories about espionage.
  • Horror- stories of psychopaths, people with troubled minds, haunting circumstances, etc.
  • Fantasy- lands other than our own, where various exotic creatures dwell.
  • Science Fiction- stories set on other planets or perhaps in the future; often exploring the application of science and technology and asking philosophical questions.
  • Romance- glamorous tales of passionate love.

Skills and Education

Most aspiring novelists have recognized in themselves a sense of creativity. As children, they had a special enthusiasm for make believe, and are often daydreaming. In addition, many gain a desire for writing novels from reading them. Almost all aspiring novelists have an intense love for a particular genre of fiction, and want to emulate what they’ve read.


The novelist is a master of combining ideas. He or she weaves together scenes from the lives of various characters, highlighting strategic moments that together form a story. The theme of the book comes from the arrangement of material and the selection of proper details, images, etc.

Diverse Educational Backgrounds

The novelist can come from as diverse an educational background as any profession. As you can see, there is no (and can be no) degree requirement or formal education for a novelist. Many have Bachelor’s Degrees, and during their education, develop various thinking skills that can aid in constructing a novel.

Many authors of literary fiction major in English or, less commonly, journalism or communications, or even linguistics. Authors of other genres may have similar undergraduate education backgrounds. However, some of the genres benefit from knowledge in the area, which is often gained through work or life experience. For example, crime novelists often have backgrounds in law enforcement or as lawyers. Science fiction novelists often work in science and technology fields.

MFA in Creative Writing

The MFA (Master’s of Fine Arts) in Creative Writing came about in the 1960’s and has become increasingly common since then. These programs are usually two years, and involve the students working with noted literary fiction writers and critiquing their works with their fellow students.

magazines on table

Admission to MFA programs requires the submission of a portfolio of works. The MFA carries some degree of prestige in the writing world, and sometimes is used as an indication of skill by editors of literary journals and publishing house editors. It is widely perceived that those receiving manuscripts take notice of the MFA credential and read favorably as a result. However, having one’s manuscript accepted is always a competitive enterprise, and it always runs into the subjective judgment of the reader.

A Writer’s Life and Work

One of the difficulties that a fiction writer runs into is finding time to write while earning a living. Before the novelist publishes her or his first work, he has to have some full-time job. As mentioned above, this job might be in any field. There is no job that leads to work as or success as a novelist. One must complete a manuscript and have it accepted for publication.

To sell a novel or any other full-length piece of fiction, a writer must first acquire an agent. A popular misconception is that writers hire an agent. In fact, no legitimate agent takes fees upfront for their work. The agent makes money by taking a percentage of the advance (more on this below) from the publishing company. This is what makes the system work. The publishing house knows that the agent is attempting to sell the novel knowing he or she won’t make any unless the book is sold. Since the agent must therefore be careful in selecting a novel to represent, many publishing houses will read only manuscripts sent by agents.

If a publishing house wants to publish the book, it buys the copyright (which automatically belongs to the writer) to the work from the writer. At this point, the publisher writes a check called an advance. This is an advance on royalties, which are then calculated on a dollars or cents-per-book-sold basis. The advance is the author’s to keep. If the book sells enough that the calculated royalties are earned, the writer then begins to earn royalties for all future sales.

A “standard” advance for a literary title from a lesser-known author is roughly $20,000-$30,000. Well-known and successful authors such as Stephen King, Toni Morrison, and Robert Ludlum see advances of three or four hundred thousand dollars.

Some writers work other jobs either full or part time during their writing careers. It is common for literary writers to work as professors of Creative Writing at universities and community colleges. Writers also supplement their writing income by staffing writing camps and seminars and by doing readings and signings.

The reputation one builds as a fiction writer sometimes leads to opportunities to write freelance articles for various publications, including book reviews.

Outlook and Future

The publishing industry is difficult at the present time. The economy in recent years has been hard on it, and many publishing houses laid off executives and published less titles. The field is as competitive as ever. The recent closure of book chains and the diminishment of book stores hasn’t helped.


book in painting

This guide has focused on “traditional” publishing with publishing houses. These companies can seek and acquire publicity for a book, as well as giving it the prestige of its brand. Traditionally, self-publishing has been regarded with great suspicious, thought of as the provenance of lesser-skilled writers who couldn’t get published elsewhere.

However, self-publishing is now widely done in electronic form, with very easy methods for getting one’s book out there. This, combined with a narrowed window for publishing traditionally, has driven more and more people to self-publishing. Some authors who had published a book or two traditionally but who faced difficulties placing subsequent books turned to self-publishing.

The difficulty the self-publisher faces is getting publicity for the book. The marketplace is crowded and readers have a hard time knowing which books are worth their money. Some self-published authors put their books out there and try to market them through blogs and social media, only to find sluggish sales.


Novelists pursue their craft due to passion for it and a love of storytelling. As they develop as writers, they become enamored of the difficult process of constructing, crafting, and polishing such a large and difficult project. The work is its own reward.

Writers justifiably want readers, and it is also rewarding to send one’s work out into the public. For this reason, for the right, very talented individuals, fiction writing is one of the most rewarding careers.