The Learning Curve - Insights
from Debut Authors
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 Liz De Jager about her journey to publication.
From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal?
I looked back and found thoughts and snippets for what is now Banished kicking around from around the end of 2009, beginning 2010. I wrote Banished (it was then called Grimm Tales) edited it and got longlisted for the Undiscovered Voices competition in 2011 but I didn’t make the shortlist. However, due to an agent reading Grimm and giving me some feedback (not pleasant) I threw in the towel for 3 months sulking, then thought: don’t be stupid, it’s one person’s opinion and then ended up dumping 70k and rewriting Grimm and it became Banished. I landed an agent in 2012 (during the Olympics!) and got a bookdeal in 2013 and I was published in February 2014. Retrospectively, it didn’t feel long at all but whilst going through it…it was HELL. But I made 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?
I thought about giving up all the time. It was awful. But then I started getting really impatient and grumpy and my husband would come downstairs and glare at me and shout at me for being silly and tell me to get writing. It helped me calm down. I also have really good friends, all writers, who formed an incredible support group. Of course, there are the SCBWI socials and classes. Going to these really focussed me and I felt myself bucking up and sticking to my guns.
How did you feel when you first landed your deal? Did it feel like the world had changed? How long did the excitement last?
I couldn’t believe it. I still am a bit ‘Are we even sure this is real? It’s not a joke? No one’s going to take back my contract?’ I don’t think these feelings ever go away, the doubt and self-doubt and the worry that somehow it’s a lie and someone was having you on. My world didn’t change, what did change though was the way some people treated me, especially in my dayjob, which was awkward because I think they expected me to become super wealthy and stop working or something? What larks!
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 were you by that?
Uch. So much work. It doesn’t stop. What a lot of very new writers / aspiring writers intially may not understand is how much work there is to writing. The actual writing part but also, once you’ve got an agent, keeping them informed of where you are in what you’re doing and once you’ve got a bookdeal, you’re part of a team. It’s you, your editor, the editorial department and your copywriter and very importantly: your publicity person. Everyone pulls together to help your writing be the best it can be, but in the end it still comes down to you because you have to be more focussed now and seriously pull your weight. I tend to joke with my editor, telling her she’s got the hard job but then she just pats me on the shoulder and tells me that no, really, that’s my job.
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 don’t know if anyone found this strange but that first meeting when you go in to talk to people about your book, not necessarily your agent, but an outsider, someone who’s read your book and made that character their own in their own way…that is the strangest thing. It feels surreal listening to other people talk about your writing and your characters as if they are real living breathing people. Because usually up to that point they only ever lived in your head. It’s incredible and frightening too. So yes, it was strange experiencing that but crucially, because of having really good beta readers and strong crit partners, you learn how to take critique and you listen and you take it on board. Your editor only ever wants your book to be amazing and they want – this is a business, don’t ever forget that – it to sell and for you to be a success. So they will push you and make sure that what you give them is good.
Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story?
Huge impact. I now talk to my editor about my main character’s motivations a lot, about the secondary characters because I value her input. We occasionally meet up to talk about the world development and try and keep things simple as it’s easy to go completely overboard when writing urban fantasy. She steers me to make sensible decisions and not kill off my main characters. Apparently that’s bad.
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)?
Before we even got to the edits of Banished my editor and I spent about a week emailing back and forth and chatting on the phone about imagery and covers of books we both liked, what we thought worked well and what didn’t work well and the direction Tor would like to take with the covers for the trilogy. I set up pinterest boards a long time ago and as I’m a visual writer I have to have reference points. I need to know what my characters look like, what the houses / castles / forests / locations look like that I write about. I wrote a detailed Word document explaining what my main characters looked like; supplied them with my pinterest board links and set up a private board that only my editor and their in-house designer had access to of book covers I utterly love. It was intense and frightening knowing that someone else would be interpreting my book and designing that cover. I really don’t like bragging but seriously, Banished’s cover is one incredibly pretty thing and I’m so proud of the PanMac Art department for working so hard on it.
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?
Wow, what a question! No, it’s not easier. Your first book that you write is at your leisure, without someone giving you deadlines, you get the chance to try something new and challenge yourself. With book 2, as part of a series, all that playing is gone and you now have deadlines and you need to be focussed and dedicated and it is so scary. What’s also scary is that there are now expectations: people have read book 1 and they’ve enjoyed it. So they email you, they tweet you, they Facebook you or tell you in person and there’s this impatience that they’re waiting to know what happens next. And oh gosh, that is both thrilling but also terrifying. This is basically where I am now. I’ve done book 2’s edits and am waiting for copy edits to come back and whilst that’s happening, I’m trying to figure out the start of book 3. *gulps*
Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with?
The marketing / PR thing – that’s weird! I am very good at talking to other people about their books because that’s what I did as a blogger and reviewer for eight years. So for me to go from that to being Liz the writer who has a book to sell? That was incredibly strange and I still struggle with it. The week before and after publication was insane! I did a blogtour and there were so many people sending me pictures and artwork of Banished out in bookshops and it is incredibly overwhelming. But so cool. The other thing that I had to get to grips with is the silly admin stuff: keeping receipts of books I buy for research (what a hardship) and making sure I respond in a timely way to emails from bloggers and reviewers but also make sure I do follow-up emails to my editor and publicity team. Occasionally I must also remember to tweet and not just talk nonsense but remind people I have a book out. Man, it’s hard.
What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal?
That you can’t do everything all at once. You have to structure your time and be realistic about things and to think before you say ‘yes’ to doing too many things all at once.
What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time?
Listen. Don’t just hear what you want to hear from them, but listen to what they’re telling you without prejudice. That’s so hard to do because we are no longer kids. Kids listen without prejudice. They take things in and go oh yeah, that makes sense and that’s why it would work. Unless you are incredibly talented and a savant and your prose is lyrically beautiful, you have to listen with every fibre you have inside you because you do not know what’s best. Neither does your editor, to be honest, but he / she might have a better idea than you and together you will end up having awesome ideas together.
Now that your first book is out – what next?
I’m waiting for copy-edits on book two as I’ve mentioned, but in the meantime, I’m figuring out book 3 and also giving thought as to what I want to do once the trilogy’s complete and I’m filling notebooks with what if thoughts.
Liz De Jager’s book THE BLACKHART LEGACY - BANISHED: BOOK 1 is published by Tor, an imprint of Pan Macmillan.
It is available via all good bookshops (bricks and mortar as well as online) in the UK, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
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.