9 Lessons from a Sophomore Novelist

With the completion of my second novel, THE JERICHO DECEPTION—a thriller that explores how a secret CIA mind-control operation in the Egyptian desert threatens to start a modern day Holy War (hitting stores now!) - I thought it might be helpful to share some of the lessons I’ve learned through the tough struggles of publishing my first two books.

1. The second book is easier, but it’s still hard.
My first novel, THE BREATH OF GOD, took me six years to write and get published. After many heart-breaking rejections from both agents and publishers (including landing a big NY agent who couldn’t sell the book to a major publisher as he’d expected), mind-numbing rewrites, and endless waiting for responses, I finally got a publishing deal from a small press excited about my book. After it achieved critical and popular success, my publisher anxiously awaited my second book. While writing JERICHO went more smoothly because I avoided many of the rookie mistakes of the first book, I still spent three years (working part-time) researching, outlining, writing, and rewriting. And did I mention rewriting?  The easiest part of writing a novel is coming up with a cool idea for a story. The hardest part is finishing the first draft. That’s why so many people dream of writing “the Great American Novel,” but then never do. As Hemingway famously said, “The first draft of anything is shit,” and so it takes discipline and countless hours of labor to improve the book until it’s publishable.

2. Your editor is your best friend.
For both of my novels, I used professional editors, or as they are sometimes called, book doctors. These women provided insight and discipline to my writing that went far beyond what I was able to do on my own, and I come with three Ivy League degrees! While a former English teacher, or a good friend who writes for a newspaper, or a relative who reads nonstop might provide some helpful criticism, there is no substitute for a professional who has worked in the publishing business. In both of my books, I cut, added, and altered characters, scenes, and chapters—dramatic changes I wouldn’t have had the stomach to make without the tough advice from my editors.

3. Conflict is the key to interested readers.
Readers keep turning pages because they want to know what is going to happen next to your characters. This axiom is true whether one is writing thrillers (my genre), romance, or literary fiction. The genre of narrative non-fiction has seen so much success because it also employs this tool. Conflict doesn’t have to be physical or mortal; it can be psychological or romantic. Conflict can occur between characters or internally within a character. Whenever a part of your story seems to slow down (probably somewhere in the middle), examine each scene and see where you can add conflict. How are your protagonist’s goals being thwarted? Put up obstacles. Have characters say one thing, but think something else. Try to begin each chapter with a question that draws in the reader. End each one with a mini-cliffhanger that forces the reader to continue to the next chapter. When it comes to conflict, the more the better.

4. Story and character rule over theme and message.
Because both of my novels revolve around philosophical themes and touch on issues of spirituality and religion, I struggled with this advice in my early drafts. Some tough advice I received early on was “if you want to educate people, write non-fiction.” That axiom doesn’t preclude fiction from being heavy with theme, symbolism, and meaning—most great fiction is—but the story and characters must be even more important. People read fiction to be entertained. Your characters must drive the story, bringing the themes along with them organically. The danger with violating this rule is that the writing can verge on pedantic and preachy, which will quickly turn off the reader.

5. Details matter.
Do your research! Readers are willing to suspend belief (put faith?) in a novel when the author treats the non-fictional parts of the story with a journalistic care for accuracy. Then, the truly fictional parts of your story will seem much more plausible. You do not need pages of detailed description (leave that to Tom Wolfe); just include a few choice ones, but make sure they are precise. If you are going to refer to a medical procedure, speak to a doctor. If your protagonist is an FBI agent who holds a criminology degree from Harvard, choose again: Harvard doesn’t offer criminology as a major. Because my novels are set in exotic locations (India, Bhutan, Egypt, Dubai), I travelled to each of these places to absorb details impossible to capture through only web research. Some great advice given to me was to engage all five senses when trying to describe a location. Move past the visual to the smells, sounds, and feel for the places. Those kinds of details will add realism to your writing and transport your readers into your scenes.

6. Delete your adverbs.
This may seem picky, but it is an easy way to make your writing more powerful. Overuse of adverbs points to a weakness in your verbs. Why write “She walked quickly away from the mysterious man” instead of she hurriedshe ran, or she rushed? When I am editing my work (I do not edit when I am writing my initial draft — I try to get everything out first), I examine every single adverb and question whether it is necessary, or whether I could substitute a better verb instead.

7. Limit Point of View to one character per chapter/section.
Beginning writers often struggle with POV, and this struggle can make for confusing and disjointed reading. While there are many variations of types of POV a writer may use, I think that it is simpler for new authors to stick with either a limited 3rd person view or a first person view. I write in the 3rd person and limit the number of POVs in the novel to a handful. I also write each chapter from one perspective at a time, so as not to confuse the reader as to whose head we are in.

8. Be as dedicated to your marketing as you are to your writing.
In today’s world of self-publishing where anyone and everyone can become “an author,” rising above the noise has become increasingly difficult. Just as I schedule time each day to write, I also schedule time to interact with fans and to build my readership base. We all know the outlets: Twitter, Facebook, blogging, etc. I do them all. I have taken a page from the non-fiction world in which platform is king. I decided with my first novel to begin building a platform, not focused on my book, but around me as an author. I was the brand, and the book was merely the first product. As an author, you are now considered an “expert” on the subject about which you write, so why not speak and blog about the themes and topics in your novel?

9. Keep writing!
Like wine, writing improves with age and experience. Writing is a craft and like most worthwhile activities requires practice. But most of all, write because the creative process brings you joy, inspiration, and fulfillment. That’s why I do it.

Jeffrey Small, Jr. is the author of the best selling thriller, The Breath of God, which won the Nautilus Book Award Gold Medal for Best Fiction and was hailed as "a thought-provoking masterpiece" by RT Book Reviews, "visionary fiction" by Library Journal, and "a fast-paced adventure" by Kirkus.  His second novel, The Jericho Deception, arrives in late April 2013. He is also a popular blogger on Huffington Post, and an acclaimed speaker on religious and spirituality topics. http://www.jeffreysmall.com/JeffreySmall.com/Home.html


  1. Thanks Jeff for your insights into writing. I am writing my first novel. I have my premise and arc of the story. Currently creating characters and setting. Examining your books for story development. My first book, A Dream is a Wish the Heart Makes", is non-fiction. Took me two years to write, one more year to self-publish. www.angelleaping.com


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