Nicky SchmidtThe 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 debut author, Nicole Burstein, about her journey to publication.
From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal?
There are two answers to this: firstly, I’ve always been writing stories. I begged my parents for a typewriter then I was five or six, and was touch-typing and competing with my Mum (a trained secretary) for typing speed by the time I was 10. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be a writer. The second answer is that in the summer of 2009, after another job rejection (I hated my job at the time, copy-writing for radio PR company), I decided that I was going to give novel writing a real shot. I moved back in with my parents, started my Masters in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, and haven’t stopped going for it since then.
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 always set myself short-term goals that I thought would be achievable. The first was to get through my Masters. After that, I set myself the goals of completing a whole novel, and after that securing an agent. Each goal was tough in its own right, so I felt a sense of achievement at every stage. I also made sure to listen to the advice of people around me, so I was aware that I would have to develop a tough skin. That first novel I wrote after my Masters didn’t go anywhere and resulted in a depressingly large pile of rejection letters. But I did find I had support out there, even if that novel wasn’t going to be the one to break through, so I knew that I had to keep going.
How did you feel when you first landed your deal? Did it feel like the world had changed? How long did the excitement last?
If anything, I think all my nerves and worries intensified. Are they sure? What if they’ve made a mistake? What if this is all one giant practical joke??? And then the whole process of securing the deal took longer than I thought – I couldn’t tell anyone for about a month! So I had a long time to process everything before it all went official. When I was a little girl I promised myself that the first thing I would buy with the money from a book deal was a complete set of The Chronicles of Narnia. I think that finally being able to own and keep those books was the most amazing thing – it was like giving my younger self a high five!
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 think that doing a Masters in Creative Writing, as well as working in a large bookshop, prepared me for the realities of getting a book deal. I wasn’t surprised. I knew that pre-deal my book wasn’t perfect, and if anything, I was excited to meet my editor for the first time and see if we were on the same page with the revisions. A lot of problems and worries go away once you sign a deal: it’s very validating for one thing. However, all those problems and worries quickly get replaced with brand new ones. The pressure is intense, which is why I think it’s so important to surround yourself with supportive friends and family, as well as have an agent to look out for you.
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 never argued with my editors – I absolutely adore Charlie and Chloe at Andersen – but there was a draft that went very wrong. I was so eager to please (“thank you for the book deal! I’ll do whatever you say!”) that I let myself go in a direction that wasn’t right. I honestly thought they’d cancel the deal because the draft was so bad! I learnt a valuable lesson from that draft – that as much as you want to be the ‘nice author’ who is ‘a pleasure to work with’ it’s ok to stand up for yourself. The chances are that you’ll be right, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen and test out the ideas of others. Sometimes you have to go down a few dead-ends before you find your way to the centre of the maze!
Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story?
In the case of the terrible draft, I ended up pretty much scrapping six months of work and going back to the basics. I revisited my original manuscript, and brought back to it all the new stuff I had learned. The story stayed unchanged, but I feel that the writing became much sharper and focussed.
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)?
The illustrator for my cover is a lovely man called John Riordan. He’s quite well known within the indie comic book world, so I feel hugely fortunate that my publishers secured him! As for the general feel of the cover, I was consulted every step of the way. I had cover approval in my contract, and distinctly remember saying “I love yellow!” in my first meeting with my editor. I love the result!
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?
If anything, the writing life becomes harder. There’s the difficult second novel to do (I have a two book deal with Andersen) and then there’s the problem of what happens next, career-wise. I have lots of ideas, but they’re wildly different from the world of superheroes, so I’m pretty nervous. I’ve always said that I’m in this for the long game, however, so anticipate a few set-backs. My biggest aim right now is getting to a stage where I’m earning enough to finally move back out of my parents house!
Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with?
I think that if I wasn’t already a keen user of Twitter, then I would find that aspect of being an author today the hardest. Social engagement is a huge part of being an author today, but at the same time you have to remember to hold some things back. I used to put EVERYTHING on Twitter, but now I’m a lot more restrained. Hopefully, what you see online is an elegant swan, when in reality my legs are flapping around like crazy underneath!
What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal?
Patience. Seriously, everything takes far, far longer in the publishing world than I ever thought possible. From the submission process itself, to finally getting the deal and waiting to see what happens next with international deals etc. It’ll be over a year and a half between signing my deal and my publication date – and that’s a long time! If you’re the kind of person who likes things to happen NOW NOW NOW, then maybe you should rethink entering this industry. It’s a slow slog, but one that’s definitely worth it in the end.
What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time?
Listen – always listen – but make sure that you’re staying true to your work. Know what your goals are within your work, and how you would like things to be. A good editor will help you realise those goals, not change them.
Now that your first book is out – what next?
Writing the next one! It’s a sequel to Othergirl, set in the same world of superheroes but with whole new characters. My editor has only seen the first three chapters, so I’m pretty nervous about it!
You can find out more about Nicole Burstein on her website.
You can follow Nicole on Twitter
For more information and to purchase a copy of Other Girl visit Amazon
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.