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, Ruth Fitzgerald, about her journey to publication.
From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal?
I have always loved writing and have characters buzzing around in my head most of the time. However, about 15 years ago, I started to consider trying to get some of my stories published. I began submitting short stories to women’s magazines, with no success. After a while I realised that it wasn’t enough just to have all these voices in my head, I really needed to learn more about the craft of writing and began a series of short writing courses, eventually culminating in an online MA in Creative Writing with Manchester Metropolitan University. I signed with Little, Brown in 2013, so it has been a long process.
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 think you have to be willing to invest the time and commitment. I have school age children and run my own business so carving out the time wasn’t easy. Luckily, my family are very supportive. The writing courses helped me a lot, as I could feel and see my writing was improving. Unfortunately, there was still no long line of publishers standing at my front door so I needed to get better informed about how to ‘be a writer’.
I joined SCBWI, inundated children’s authors with friend requests on Facebook, joined the local Children’s Book Group and did everything else I could think of to immerse myself in the world of children’s writing. I even set up and ran a primary school Out of School Club for a couple of years to ensure I really knew what children sounded like! After all this effort I’d like to say that my first attempt at a book was an instant success. Unfortunately, it was rejected by everyone I sent it to! However, being a member of SCBWI, I realised this is most people’s experience but you really do need to keep on trying.
It was difficult to motivate myself to write a second book, all that time and energy for possibly nothing again, but my children really inspired me. I kept thinking how great it would be for them to have a mum who was a writer – although I’m not sure they feel the same! I sold my first story to a women’s magazine in 2010. I remember sitting in front of the email with my hands clasped over my mouth so I wouldn’t scream the house down! A couple of days later I found out I’d been shortlisted in a writing competition. This gave me the motivation to try writing another book. By this time I had begun to read much more current children’s literature. I realised the first book that I’d written sounded old fashioned and derivative, I discovered some brilliant children’s writers and realised I still had a long way to go.
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 had written about three-quarters of Emily Sparkes and the Friendship Fiasco when I met my fantastic agent, Gemma Cooper, at a SCBWI event. I did actually stalk her a bit as I’d read on her blog that she was looking for ‘voicey, middle grade characters’. I had to screw up all my courage to read her the first couple of pages of my story during her workshop, but amazingly, she loved it! She asked me to send her the rest and I raced home to finish writing it in a week.
A few days later we met up in a coffee shop and she offered to represent me – I nearly fell off my chair, in fact I didn’t believe she was serious for a while, I think she asked me about three times before I understood what she was saying! A few months of editing followed before she submitted it to various publishers. I think that was the most terrifying bit – what if no one wants it after all this work? But then I got the magic phone call from Gemma, ‘Now don’t get too excited but…’ In the end we had more than one interested publisher and Gemma negotiated with them. To be honest, at that point I was so scared they would change their minds I would have accepted a peanut butter sandwich and a pat on the back, so it was brilliant to have Gemma there to make sure I got the right deal. I think I drank more champagne that week than the Ab Fab girls at a New Year’s party but it was a very exciting time!
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?
As well as being a great agent, Gemma is a very talented editor, she has a great ear for voice and really understands pacing which I generally have a problem with due to my tendency to slip into stream of consciousness ramblings! It took a few months of whizzing chapters back and forth before we were both happy for it to go on submission. I suppose I really thought that was it, so I was surprised at the amount of work that goes into a book following a deal. There are rewrites, line edits, copy edits – and my real bugbear, chapter titles!
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 am so very lucky to have the editor I do, Kate Agar at Little, Brown. She has such insightful ideas and often understands what I am trying to say better than I do. Whether it’s a small tweak or a major rewrite, I think a skilled editor helps you fix the things you know aren’t quite working but don’t know why. And it would be impossible to argue with Kate, she’s too lovely!
Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story?
The whole editing process helped with tightening the pace of Emily Sparkes and the Friendship Fiasco to maintain reader’s interest without losing any of the plot. It’s amazing how much you can cut from a book! Having an editor helps you see where you are keeping a line or an episode in the story just because you like it, not because it is moving the story on. Another one of Kate’s major suggestions concerned rewriting some chapters where the focus had shifted too much onto the adult characters. Again, this was something I hadn’t noticed until it was pointed out to me but it really helped.
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)?
To be honest, nearly all of that is arranged by the publishers, and they really do have expertise in knowing what sells. I know from running my own business that if you’ve got a specialist on your team, you should let them do what they're good at. If I’d hated the cover designs I would have protested, but I really love them – I got to tweak them a bit though, just to keep me smiling!
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 am very lucky in getting a four book deal which means a lot of work up front (all the books have to be written, at least in draft form, before the series is launched), however I do think this gives me a great platform to launch from. Even now that I have a publishing deal, spending time writing often feels like an indulgence with everything else that needs to be done in life but I am slowly training myself out of this mind-set.
Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with?
I think one of the biggest surprises for me is the sheer amount of work that goes into getting each book right. As well as all the general editing, copy edits take so much time! Copy editors have my greatest respect, I don’t know how they have the patience to go through each and every line correcting my inadequate grammar. I imagine my copy editor sitting with her head in her hands on page 114 crying, ‘When will she ever learn to use a semi-colon correctly? When? When?’ They really are unsung heroes. Ooh, I appear to be talking about editing again! Apart from editing I think the biggest challenge has been treating writing as a job and avoiding distractions when working from home. It’s hard not to feel guilty about unwashed PE kits and uncooked dinners when you’ve ‘just been writing’ all day, but I am lucky that my family are really supportive, I couldn’t do it if they weren’t.
What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal?
That if writing is what you want to do you need to be prepared to work at it constantly. That being a successful writer means you have to be prepared to dump your introverted tendencies and be available for events and signings, keep up the website and work on your own publicity. I have huge respect for writers such as Cathy Cassidy, Philip Ardagh and Steve Cole who spend so much time travelling to schools and events to meet their readers, it must be exhausting. I once stood in a queue with my daughters to meet Jacqueline Wilson at a book signing - we were 200th in the line! When we finally got to her after over 3 hours she chatted to my girls like they were the first children she’d met that day, I was amazed by her professionalism.
What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time?
Having a professional editor work on your book is such a privilege. They can really help you see your book through a reader’s eyes. I’m not saying you should back down over something that really matters to you but be prepared to accept advice, after all your editor wants your book to sell just as much as you do.
Now that your first book is out – what next?
There are three more Emily Sparkes stories planned for publication, Emily Sparkes and the Competition Calamity July 2015, Emily Sparkes and the Disco Disaster Jan 2016 and Emily Sparkes and the Backstage Blunder May 2016. I am really looking forward to meeting readers and getting their feedback. Then I need to start my next book. I always have lots of books that I’ve started writing in my head so it’s a matter of choosing which one to go with. Exciting!
You can find out more about Ruth Fitzgerald on her website.
You can also find Ruth on Twitter and Facebook
Emily Sparkes Friendship Fiasco is available from 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.