The Learning Curve - Insights from Debut Authors
|Photo by Erica Abi-Karam|
For many the road to publication is long and fraught. For others, a publishing deal comes relatively easily. Those who are still trudging the path may find it hard to imagine what it’s like to be a debut author, and authors with a few books to their name may only dimly recall the original experience.
So what is it like? Does life change? Do dreams become reality and with a deal to your name does it all become plain sailing? And what is the process from slushpile to contract to published novel actually like? I asked Jeannie Waudby about her journey to publication.
From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal?
I began writing stories as a young child, starting a novel with my sister at nine and another at thirteen. That book fell victim to extreme editing when I threw it away in the bin outside and the bins were emptied before I had second thoughts and went to get it. I didn’t seriously start another novel until about eighteen years ago when I wrote a many-drafted children’s story. I sent it out and although I had some interest in it, I’ve put it to one side. ONE OF US, then called K CHILD, was begun nearly eight years ago. I sent it out in two batches, and two people asked for the full manuscript the first time. Although I submitted a first draft, (not a great idea, obviously), it wasn’t really wasted because from this I knew where to go with the rewrite. When I submitted it the second time round, I planned to send it out in batches until I had tried everywhere. But Chicken House took it.
It is said that writers have to persevere and have a tough skin – did you find you grew in endurance and perseverance? Did you ever think about giving up? What made you keep going?
Perseverence is the thing I’ve needed more than anything - not just for when rejections roll in, but even more to withstand the voice in the back of my head, telling me that it’s rubbish. There are many times when I’ve felt like giving up, but several things stopped me. One: I think I need to write to be happy. Two: I’ve now invested so many hours in writing that it would be a waste not to carry on. Three: I’m a member of two brilliant critique groups: one face-to-face and the other online, and the friendship, encouragement and support from all those people has kept me going. Four: I haven’t yet managed to write the beautiful book I can imagine. If I keep going there’s a chance I might write it one day.
How did you feel when you first landed your deal? Did it feel like the world had changed? How long did the excitement last?
Although the email saying that Chicken House wanted to buy my book was headed: GOOD NEWS, I had to get my daughter to open it for me. Even then I only believed it when my family assured me it was real. I probably did some jumping, shrieking and crying. It was very, very nice and it still makes me happy to remember it. We celebrated with a beer. The best thing about getting a deal was the sense of relief, after all those years. I would say the excitement has stayed with me.
If you think about the amount of work you did on your story pre-deal, how much more work did you have to do once you’d landed your deal – did you realise the real work had only just begun and how surprised where you by that?
I don’t think anything is as hard as revising your novel on your own. In some ways working with an editor is easier because it’s focussed. It is hard work, but also very interesting. I quite like having external deadlines so the editing process has been more fun than arduous. ONE OF US was originally going to come out in January 2014 as CROSS THE LINE, but it’s going through another edit and has a new title and cover. So I’ve worked on the book with two editors and I’ve learnt a lot from both of them: things that I will take with me when I edit my new book.
As the creator of your story, having always been in control of your characters and your plot, how did you find taking on board someone else’s comments and suggestions – was it like losing control and did you ever argue with your editor?
I think it’s a bit of a shock the first time you see suggestions in your manuscript, and it feels different from listening to someone talking about your story. It does take some time to get used to, and there have been a few things that I thought I couldn’t change. However, I was often surprised how even quite big changes could happen without compromising the integrity of the story. Also that a lot of the suggestions actually came from deeper down in the book itself.
Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story?
I think the book is better now – tighter and more accessible. I prefer the new title and I think it captures something at the heart of the story. The biggest change for me this time round was the geography. Three locations in different places have become one city. It took me ages to get my head round it, because the original places were so clear in my mind. In the end I had to draw maps. But now I prefer the new, divided city and it also feels like a real place to me. I think this change strengthens the story without losing anything that mattered.
How have you found working with illustrators and cover designers? How much involvement have you had with the graphic content of your book (covers or illustrations)?
I didn’t work directly with the cover designer, but I made a mood board and gave my ideas on how I imagined the cover, and he came up with something that has elements of both a thriller and a love story. This cover feels right to me because I often pick blue and black books if I’m in a hurry in the library, as they usually have excitement and a love story/emotional arc.
Do you think that having had your first book published, your writing life will be easier and your career will be on track? Do you think it will all be easier the second time round?
I don’t think anything is easy in publishing at the moment! What has changed for me is finding the time to write every day and powering through the doubts. I don’t worry about how good the writing is in a first draft because I know it’s not set in stone and I have more confidence that I’ll be able to get the story into shape later on. When I first joined SCBWI, two people said to me at my first Professional Series talk that it’s best to forget about getting published and concentrate on writing the book, and that has stayed with me.
Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with?
I haven’t started doing school visits yet, but I hope to when the book is out. I think I’ll enjoy that because I teach adults in a college so it’ll be nice to be able to spend time with teenagers, talking about books. I think it’s great if authors, school libraries and bookshops can work together: a symbiotic relationship. When I got my book deal I didn’t have an agent so I joined the Society of Authors and they were brilliant. They advised me on the contract very quickly and efficiently. The thing that was most challenging for me was having to fill in a tax return. I’ve done two now and made mistakes in both. I prefer to do it offline as then they send it back telling you where you’ve gone wrong. (It’s probably because of people like me that they try to get everyone to fill it in online.)
What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal?
I think I’ve realised that you have a deal for the book in question. Future books are separate entities and they have to find their own way out there. The actual work of writing a new book and then pulling it into shape is really no different from how it was before, and it’s still the hardest thing and the one that matters most.
What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time?
I’ve been very lucky with both my editors in that I feel that we have a shared understanding of the essence of the story. Once you are working with an editor in some ways the book belongs to both of you now, so it’s good to keep an open mind because even changes that feel huge can turn out to be less difficult when you actually try them. Now and again there will be something you really can’t bear to change (maybe even quite a little thing). So it’s worth letting go of other things that don’t matter to you so much.
Now that your first book is out – what next?
I’ve almost finished a first draft of a new book, which I’m hoping to start editing this summer. I also have a first draft of another novel that I want to pull into shape. Then there is one in my head that I love but haven’t begun yet. So I have lots to work on. It’s good combining my part-time job with writing because as a teacher I enjoy spending time with people.
Jeannie Waudby’s book, ONE OF US, will be available from Amazon in February 2015.
You can find out more about One of US at The Chicken House And you can learn more about Jeannie on the Chicken House site
SCBWI-BI “member abroad”, Nicky Schmidt is an ex scriptwriter, copywriter, and marketing, brand and communications director who "retired" early to follow a dream. Although she still occasionally consults on marketing, communications and brand strategies, mostly she writes YA fiction (some of which leans towards New Adult) in the magical realism and supernatural genres. When not off in some other world, Nicky also writes freelance articles - mostly lifestyle and travel - for which she does her own photography. Her work has been published in several South African magazines and newspapers. As well as being a regular feature writer for Words & Pictures, Nicky also runs the SCBWI-BI YA e-critique group. Nicky lives in Cape Town with her husband and two rescue Golden Retrievers.