At what point is your novel a success? Is it a sales total or sell-through percentage? Is it a number of starred reviews? A four-figure advance? A five-figure advance? How much confidence must you have in your writing before you quit your day job? Have you even thought about setting goals for your book?
If the only quality benchmarks you’ve contemplated are those set by publishers or other literary gatekeepers, then buckle up, buttercup—you’re in for a wild ride. None of those external milestones are within your control. Viewed from this framework, the success of your books is entirely out of your hands.
Consider instead a writing career shaped by benchmarks that help you develop as an author. Instead of measuring your book against other books, hold it up to your own publishing and creative goals. Once you understand what you’re really hoping for—and what you and book need—you’ll be able to tell whether your books are carrying you where you want to go.
When your eyes are bigger than your stomach
Instead of stoically enduring the vague disappointment that your book didn’t even brush the outskirts of turning you into the next Margaret Atwood, define achievable expectations from your very first book. No author can or should plan to become a literary sensation. That’s planning to become the exception to the rule—a sweet dream, but not a very smart business plan.
Nobody really knows why some mediocre books take off yet some brilliant works languish. Agents aren’t in control; publishers aren’t in control. Nobody’s in control. So if you’re going to invest yourself in writing a book, you need goals that make sense in the context of your own writing career.
Your goals must make sense in the context of your own writing career.
- A career-launcher that allows you to quit your day job
- A contender for Reese’s book club list
- The gateway to a movie deal
- A blockbuster bestseller
- A bucket-list achievement
- A literary novel that will be published by a prestigious small press
- Something else that lets you measure yourself against other authors
The problem with goals like these is their sheer scope. Most would make worthy goals for a literary superstar at the peak of their career.
Start where you are. Completing your first manuscript is a huge creative milestone for many aspiring authors, but the book itself is unlikely to be a publishable success without the experience you’ll gain writing your next manuscripts. If you’ve pinned all your hopes on your freshman effort, what next? Do you abandon your dream because you couldn’t accelerate from 0 to 60 in five seconds or less your first time out of the garage?
Unless your book happens to hit the right desk at the right moment to strike it big, you’re going to need a more granular plan.
Who’s in control of your goals?
What you need now are goals fit for debut authors and emerging authors and midlist authors. Break your ultimate goals into smaller segments.
What milestones would represent a significant step at this point?
- Being signed by an agent
- Winning a literary prize
- Being published in a prestigious literary journal
- Being listed on a major book club reading list
- Getting 100 reader reviews on GoodReads or Amazon
- Earning back your editing and production costs
- Other benchmarks that compare your progress against your baseline
These examples may be too humble for some authors or overly demanding for others. Wherever you set the bar, goals like these that are relevant to the current stage of your writing career will organically steer you toward your next destination.
They say most so-called debut authors actually debut with their fourth manuscripts, not their first. Like anything else worth doing, writing novels—and selling them—takes practice. I’m a big fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s notion that it takes about 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery of a skill or field of endeavor. The only way to become a better novelist is to keep writing novels with an eye toward building your readership and mastering your craft.
Setting goals for your novel
Instead of dreaming about what you may achieve through luck or as a seasoned author later in your writing career, home in on what each book can achieve in its own right.
Ask yourself if the story you’ve created stands up to the time you spent writing it:
- Did you capture your idea and bottle it in these pages?
- Have you used story structure and form to deliver the story in the most compelling way possible?
- Does your story bring something fresh to the table?
The trick to sticking the landing is finishing enough manuscripts to learn the best ways to move through a story. Ask yourself questions like these:
Are you learning the best ways to move through a story?
- Does every scene forge a new link in the chain of progressively escalating complications?
- Do the elements of the story support the concept and themes? Does the story lead to the destination you had in mind?
- Is your story singing with dramatic tension?
- Are you confidently wielding the tools of narrative technique (point of view, dialogue, exposition, description …) to weave the story?
After writing and revision, you can smooth the manuscript over via editing or work with an editor/coach to stretch even further creatively. Review your project’s development:
- Did you try something new in this manuscript? Did you pull it off?
- Did you explore something you probably won’t choose to do again?
- Did you successfully rise to meet your editor’s prompts and challenges?
- Are you relying on your editor to repair fundamental issues with grammar, spelling, punctuation, usage, and style?
Setting goals for reader reaction
Subjective reactions are more valuable to your creative process than the cold ping of external validation points. All your work is for naught if you can’t manage to reach your target readers, so don’t wait till you’re nearly done editing your book before finding out what readers think. Most authors put off getting feedback until it’s too late to do much about it. They’ve already invested so much time and money that they’re more likely to brick over problems than rip them out to build an integrally strong story.
Find out what readers think earlier in the process—and then do something about it.
Get more eyes on your work earlier in the process. Critique partners, writing groups, alpha and beta readers—this is where you find out what to capitalize on and what to repair or remove. Does the story confuse readers? Do they keep bringing up grammar and spelling issues? Are there parts many readers are skipping? Are readers falling love with a particular character?
Find out. And then do something about it.
Friends and family members are too prejudiced by their relationship to you to provide accurate feedback. Consider too that readers all have different tastes, and your friends and family may not be the least bit interested in the kind of novel you’ve written. Reading your book would be a gigantic chore for them.
Is your book any good?
Still, I know you’re wondering—there’s gotta be a way to tell whether your book is good enough to be published, right? There is, and I’m going to share it with you now. The secret method of finding out whether your book is good enough to publish: Go forth and try to get it published. If you query dozens of agents over months or years and virtually no one is interested, you have your answer. Your book is not currently publishable.
Rejection on that scale is not to say that your book is necessarily “not good” or even “bad.” It just means nobody in the marketplace wants it right now, which leads you logically to the next question: If it’s not publishable right now, is your book any good?
The responsibility for educating yourself about what makes a book solid is yours.
That question says more about you than it does about your book. As an author, you are responsible for making yourself knowledgeable enough to suss out whether a novel works at the most basic level. If you feel lost, unequipped with the depth and sensibilities to go about this task, you have some reading (and writing) to do.
Hone your authorial sensibilities. Get busy on the 10 types of books anyone who writes fiction should be reading. Learn how to read like a novelist. Read reader reviews, both positive and negative, of everything you read.
It’s impossible for any writer to be completely objective about their own writing, but every author should be familiar with what readers are enjoying most from their genres. Why do these books do such a good job scratching readers’ itch? As K.M. Weiland suggests, the parts of your story readers like best aren’t always what you think.
The ultimate goal of any author is to meet and hopefully exceed reader expectations. This challenge presents you with a delicious prospect: coming to understand those expectations by reading other novels and listening to reviews and opinions from readers. Follow the path blazed by other books to discover your book’s own place in the market.
Happy reading—and successful writing.
Want more advice like this? Sign up and get Baker’s Dozen, 13 things for your writing, fresh out of the editorial oven every month.
If you’re looking for an editor to accelerate your journey from new writer to emerging author, that editor could be me. Let’s work together: short-term coaching for story development, long-term coaching for honing your writing, or story or line editing (my editing specialties). Let’s talk.