The Learning Curve - Insights from Debut Authors
by Nicky Schmidt
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, Tatum Flynn, about her journey to publication.
From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal?
TOO LONG. Actually, I first sat down to write a novel in late 2010, and got my book deal exactly three years later in November 2013. I think that's average-to-shortish, and I feel quite lucky it didn't take longer. Of course, at the time, it felt like FOREVER, and many chocolate digestives were inhaled.
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?
Yes. I am actually an alligator now. True fact. Honestly, I didn't really think about giving up, though I did have a period after I queried my first novel in 2011 when I felt a bit stuck. I'd had contrasting feedback from agents, knew it needed some work, but wasn't quite sure what that work should be. So I put it aside and tried to write something new, but couldn't settle on any one story. Finally after about a year of faffing, I went back to the very first idea I'd had, about Lucifer's youngest son, and that one was the charm. Having said that - it still took me over 100 queries to get an agent with The D'Evil Diaries, and I was on the verge of moving onto the next book when my ship came in.
What made me keep going was (a) I was lucky enough to get some quite complimentary feedback from agents right off the bat, which buoyed me tremendously, and (b) my dad and my crit partner NK Traver listened to all my wailing and kept me sane and plied with gifs and cupcakes.
How did you feel when you first landed your deal? Did it feel like the world had changed?
How long did the excitement last? YES, EVERYTHING CHANGED WHEN THE FIRE NATION ATTACKED. Ok, the world didn't quite stop on its axis, but I was thrilled, of course. However, because I'd done everything a bit backwards, the moments I remember most from 2013 came earlier in the year. I'd gone on the brilliant annual SCBWI retreat when I'd just started querying The D'Evil Diaries in spring 2013, and the editor there liked my first chapter and asked to see the rest. That already had me swinging from the chandelier with excitement. Then a few months later I heard back from her asking me to go in and meet the team, where I learnt the book was heading to acquisitions, and around the same time I had my first offer of rep. Cue a good couple of weeks of daft grinning and celebratory Pina Coladas. As for the excitement lasting - at the moment I'm a few weeks away from my release date and am ramping up to maximum excitement levels all over again, a year and a half later, so it's lasted pretty well :)
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?
No, it didn't turn out that way for me; I certainly did work with my editor, but she didn't ask me to cut or rework anything, it was just a matter of adding and clarifying a bit, so it didn't take me long. I did more revising alone and with my critique partners before I got my deal.
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?
You overestimate how much control I have over my characters. Lucifer especially can be rather belligerent. No, it's not like losing control at all - I was excited to have a professional editor's input! I wanted to make it as good as possible. Plus I have the nicest editor ever, and she always said that it was up to me which of her comments I took on board.
Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story?
Well, the story begins with a homicidal tree now, which can only be an improvement. Homicidal trees have been sadly overlooked in children's literature. The whole book's definitely sparklier overall for my editor's input, although apart from an additional chapter at the beginning I don't think there were any big changes.
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 got to see early iterations of my cover and had a little input on that, and I had even more input on the illustrations, which was brilliant. I'd never even imagined my book would be illustrated, so getting to ask for - sometimes quite large - tweaks was a huge bonus. For example I requested and received a drawing of the main city, Pandemonium, which was so exciting to see. Both my cover and inner illustrations were done by the super talented Dave Shephard, and I'm really thrilled with how they turned out.
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?
Hahahahaha NOPE. For whatever reason, my second book, HELL'S BELLES, came a lot less easily than my debut, even though you'd think it might be easier because I already had the world and characters to work with. But I hear that happens to a lot of writers. Maybe it's just the shock of deadlines, who knows. As for my career - who knows whether it'll be easier from now on? It partly depends on how well the first books do, and partly on how good my next, as yet unwritten, book turns out...
Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with?
Oh the NOISE, my dear, and the PEOPLE. So many fans begging for my autograph, it's just crazy. Luckily I live on a private island now so most of them drown before they can reach me. Honestly, I can't think of anything that came as a big surprise, because I researched things like mad whilst I was querying. Plus I was already on Twitter, Tumblr, Goodreads and my blog, and had done interviews before, so none of that was really new. The biggest surprises were probably the nice things - learning that the book would be illustrated was exciting and unforeseen. And getting my first trade review had me shrieking loud enough to frighten the cat. Perhaps that contracts generally take several months to get signed? (And thus the first instalment of your advance takes several months to get to you, so stock up on Ramen.) And that overall things are very slow, until they're not. I haven't done any school visits yet, mind you, I think that's going to be a pretty steep learning curve...
What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal?
Writer friends are PRICELESS. Especially ones in the same stage as you or a year or so ahead. You can learn so much from them, and they're the best support ever for when you're beating your head against the wall and subsisting on bourbon. If you don't have any, buy some. But I guess I knew that before I got my deal. Perhaps that things can and will go wrong sometimes. Your second book will be harder to write than you imagined. Or your acquiring editor will leave the day your book was supposed to go to acquisitions. Or you'll have to compromise on the title. And looking at people I know who were with Strange Chemistry and Egmont USA - sometimes things go *really* wrong. But most of the time these things will shake out fine in the end, so try not to waste energy on things you can't control. Just concentrate on the words.
What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time?
Try to get her to take you for drinks on expenses. No, seriously, and most importantly: be nice. Secondly: try to keep a balance between ego and insecurity, between thinking your work is perfect already and WHY DOES SHE WANT THESE CHANGES DAMMIT and being too down on yourself and thinking OH GOD I SUCK BECAUSE SHE WANTS ME TO CHANGE THAT ONE THING. While you should be receptive, remember you don't have to take all changes on board (unless they've been specified before the deal). It's your book, in the end.
Now that your first book is out – what next?
I have a two-book contract so my sequel HELL'S BELLES will be out in January 2016. After that I have tons of ideas, but at the moment I'm working on another funny MG fantasy, this time about a family of ghosts, so we'll see where that leads me...