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, Rachel McIntyre, about her journey to publication.
From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal?
Not too long! I was phenomenally lucky, really. I was working long hours, was absolutely skint and lone parent to a young child when I started writing Me and Mr J. It was my first attempt at writing fiction and initially, it was a way of keeping myself sane when life was quite tough. I guess I wanted to prove I could achieve something and I certainly didn’t plan to do anything beyond that with it. But once I’d finished, I thought I had nothing to lose by sending to an agent. I was stunned when I was taken on by the brilliant Anne Clark within a couple of months and she negotiated a three book deal with Egmont shortly afterwards. All in all, it was probably about a year and a half.
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 because I got the deal fairly quickly, I didn’t really think about giving up. Finishing the book was great, getting an agent was amazing and then landing a deal was just incredible. Although I enjoyed writing, it seemed too fantastical to imagine I could make a career out of it, so every step towards that has felt like a massive achievement.
The tough skin has definitely been more of an issue since the book came out. Me and Mr J is about a teacher/pupil relationship through the eyes of the girl involved and is obviously a topic that evokes some very strong emotions. The UK and German response to the book has been fantastic, but a blogger gave the book a slating early on without reading it because she objected to the subject matter. I wasn’t prepared for that and it really knocked my confidence. Lots of nice reviews since have helped to restore it!
How did you feel when you first landed your deal? Did it feel like the world had changed? How long did the excitement last?
Even now, I still have pinch- me moments. I got “the call “when I was at work and I actually screamed down the phone in the office. (I had very understanding colleagues, so it was ok.) The deal was beyond anything I’d had dreamed of and I don’t think the excitement will ever wear off.
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?
Yes, definitely. I thought it was a pretty polished draft and there’d just be a few tinkering touches to finish it off. No. I ended up re-writing the ending completely and added about 8 thousand more words.
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?
No. Every suggestion my editor made gave me an Ah! Why didn’t I see that? moment and her pointers really helped me to understand more not only about the book, but the actual process of writing.
Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story?
Definitely, definitely improved it. I had got too close to the story and would get bogged down in the detail of a paragraph. My editor has a brilliant knack of seeing the bigger picture; she stepped back and showed me the wood when I was entirely focused on the trees.
How have you found working with illustrators and cover designers? How much involvement have you had with the graphic content of your book?
It’s interesting how the cover varies in different countries. In Germany, for example, the hardback edition has been made to look like a real diary and I liked the quirkiness of that. The UK cover has really focused on red, which I love as Lara’s red hair is such an important part of her characterisation. I didn’t have any input in either, apart from writing a red-haired character’s diary!
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 write full-time now, so I’m not fitting it in around work and being a mum, which has made life a lot less stressful. And I get more sleep! I’ll have a greater understanding of the post-publication process this time round. I’ve just finished book two and am editing it while the planning for book three gets underway, and now deadlines are involved, that can be quite daunting.
Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with?
I genuinely could not have been a less publishing-savvy utter novice. I’ve never done a writing course or worked in publishing. I didn’t know any authors, so I didn’t know that editors have to put the book before a submissions panel; that advance review copies go to bloggers; that doing self-assessment for the first time would have me a gibbering wreck; that the bulk of the marketing is through social media…
What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal?
That you have to write the book that’s in you. If you think a controversial topic needs an airing, then you have to do it, even if you know it’ll be contentious. Just be prepared for some interesting responses. Also, that things move very slowly: I got the deal in October 2013 and my book published in February 2015.
What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time?
Give them time! Reading and editing manuscripts is only a tiny part of their job and if they don’t get back to you immediately, it doesn’t mean they hate what you’ve written. They’re just busy.
Now that your first book is out – what next?
I’ve finished book two and am about to start on book three. The German edition has just come out and so I’m currently doing the promotion for that. And really enjoying it!
You can follow Rachel McIntyre on Twitter @rachinthefax You can find more about Rachel on Facebook
Rachel’s books can be found at Amazon and at Waterstones.