The Learning Curve - Insights from Debut AuthorsFor 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 debut author, Lindsay Littleson, about her journey to publication.
From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal?
I started writing for children in January 2014 and entered my first novel ‘The Mixed Up Summer of Lily McLean’ for the Kelpies Prize. It was shortlisted and then won, much to my enormous delight. My novel is being published on April 23rd 2015. But see below… as the truthful answer is that it took 30 odd years.
It is said that writers have to be persevering 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 wrote on and off throughout my teens, mainly terrible poetry. Then I gave up and didn’t write anything for a few years. On a whim, aged about 25, I entered a short story competition run by Cosmopolitan magazine and won the runner up prize, a cappuccino maker. I was so miffed about not winning the first prize, which was lots of cash and publication in the magazine, that I handed the cappuccino maker to my Mum, promptly gave up writing and didn’t restart for nearly 30 years. So, up to now, perseverance has not been a strong point. This time, however, I am taking writing seriously and am utterly determined to keep going. The time feels right and I am thoroughly enjoying myself. Rejection isn’t the big deal it clearly was when I was younger. Life experiences certainly lend perspective. If a short story doesn’t win a competition, or my picture book idea is rejected by an agent, I feel down in the dumps for an hour or two, eat chocolate, press delete to get rid of the offending email and move on.
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 was so excited at the Kelpies Prize awards ceremony that my winner’s speech was incoherent. Perhaps I should have practised, but that felt like tempting fate. I loved that my children were so proud and happy as we’ve been through some very difficult times. Seeing my book in a bookshop is a dream that I am still waiting to fulfil, so the excitement is still very much alive.
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?
I knew my manuscript needed editing and looked forward to making improvements, but I was worried about the workload implications, as I work full time as a primary school teacher. However, Lois at Floris books was so kind and supportive that I never felt under massive pressure. I did find that it was best, for me, to tackle her suggestions as soon as they were emailed to me and not to wait until deadlines were nearing.
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 didn’t feel hugely precious about my manuscript as I knew it wasn’t a polished jewel. It needed work and I was happy to accept that and take suggestions on board. I really enjoyed the whole process.
Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story?
I think the changes made my novel funnier and more appealing to a younger audience. Originally, I had aimed my novel at 9 years and upwards and Floris were targeting the 8-11 year age group, so the finished novel is lighter in tone, despite the fact that the main character, Lily, has to deal with some serious issues. My editor encouraged me to organise and write any changes so I never felt I was losing control of my own story.
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)?
Floris sent me the proposed cover design and asked me for my opinion. Thankfully, I loved 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?
I have gained more confidence in myself as a writer. Publication has given me a feeling of validation which might have been lacking if I had self-published my novel. But I’m certainly not taking anything for granted. It is early days for me to be talking about having a career in writing.
Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with?
I hadn’t realised how involved authors are in marketing their books. Until I signed the contract with Floris, I hadn’t really considered that aspect of being an author at all. My dream was to see a book with my name on it for sale in Waterstones. I honestly didn’t realise that it would be my job to encourage people to purchase it. In December I attended a one day course organised by the Scottish Book Trust on performance and presentation and would highly recommend the course. It really helped build my confidence and I’m now quite excited about the prospect of doing author visits to schools and festivals.
What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal?
One major lesson so far is that I need to spend less time looking at cute animal videos on Facebook and make much more effective use of social media to market my book. But I think my biggest lesson is probably still to come. I still don’t know how effectively I will manage to combine being an author with working full time as a teacher. I‘m widowed with school age kids, so a full time writing career is not a financially viable option and I love my teaching job. Listening in on the funny conversations of small kids would be much trickier without it!
What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time?
Remember that your editor has lots more experience and knowledge of the current market. Accept advice and be prepared to compromise. Work on any changes as hard as you worked to write your original submission, to ensure that the finished novel feels completely yours.
Now that your first book is out – what next?
I’ve already written a second novel, ‘Shell Hole’ which has been shortlisted for the Dundee Children’s Great War Book Competition. I would love to write a sequel to my Lily McLean novel, if Floris are interested!
You can find out more about Lindsay Littleson on the Floris Books website: and here.
You can follow Lindsay on Twitter
The Mixed Up Summer of Lily McLean will be available on Amazon from 23 April 2015
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.