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, Mike Revell, about his journey to publication.
From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal?
The first time I finished a book was in 2009, and I sent that out to every agent I could think of. They all rejected me. Then I wrote another book, and my agent, Gemma, signed me on the strength of it – but that was rejected by every publisher it was sent to. Stonebird is my debut novel, but it’s actually my third book, so although it sold very quickly, the actual journey to publication took about five 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 never once thought about giving up. I knew deep down that being an author wasn’t just what I wanted to do, but what I needed to do. So every rejection just made me more determined. If a query got rejected, I sent out two more. If a book got rejected, I wanted to write another that couldn’t be turned down. You absolutely have to keep going! So many wonderful books wouldn’t exist if their author gave up at the first hurdle, including David Almond’s Skellig, which is loved by so many people around the world.
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 actually missed the call a couple of times, because I was having lunch with a friend. It was only afterwards, when I rang my agent back, that she told me the news – and I’ll never forget the immediate soaring feeling that gripped me. I was walking through the park at the time, and everything burst into life. The rustling trees, the blades of grass around me, the birds hopping along the riverbank. Everything seemed so clear and magical. The excitement hasn’t left me yet! I still can’t get over the fact that I have an actual book in actual shops.
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 there would be some editing to do, and I loved every minute of it. The first draft of the book came out in a splurge, but going through it with my editor, Sarah, helped shape it into something far greater than it was before. I love that stage of the publishing process, where it becomes more and more refined, and starts to look and feel like a proper book. What I wasn’t prepared for was the copyediting – that’s a lot of work!
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 really saw it as losing control. Sarah has such great vision, and after working on the book for months, I was so close to it that I couldn’t see what needed fixing, or what needed pulling out into the open. I work closely with Gemma on my first drafts, so I’m used to my work being critiqued. I’m lucky to have people around me whose comments and suggestions are helpful, but also sympathetic to the story.
Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story?
Having an editor is such a valuable asset. Stonebird was made far better because of Sarah’s work.
How have you found working with illustrators and cover designers? How much involvement have you had with the graphic content of your book ?
I got to see the early cover concepts, and give my feedback on which design I thought looked best. Quercus told me that they were thinking about asking Frances Castle to do the imagery, and showed me some of her work, which I loved. There was such magic in her combination of bold colours and traditional feel. As the cover took shape, they showed me how it was progressing, and asked for my opinions on it – but, honestly, it was gorgeous all the way through. It’s amazing to see someone take the words you’ve written and bring them to life!
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’ve just finished the first draft of my second book, and it was a LOT harder to write than Stonebird. For ages, I didn’t know what I was doing, or I didn’t feel like it was going anywhere. It was almost as if I forgot how to write at all. Then, slowly, it came together. Now I’m getting ready to forget how to write a third time. I don’t think it will ever get easier... but it’s a joyous struggle, and I wouldn’t have it any other way!
Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with?
Admin suddenly explodes. With emails, Twitter, promotion and school visits, there is a very real danger of losing lots of hours between the cracks. Time you normally spend writing vanishes between your fingers, and it can be hard to focus on the job. You have to dedicate yourself to sitting down and forcing the words out sometimes, rather than relying on waiting for inspiration to strike.
What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal?
One of the biggest things I’ve learned is the importance of school visits. They’re a great way to sell books, because you’re there to talk about them and sign them and the excitement around it all is palpable, but they’re also a wonderful way of interacting with your audience. You spend so much time behind a desk putting words on the page that it’s easy to forget who the story is for, but once it’s out there, it’s such a rewarding experience to engage with readers.
What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time?
Listen, don’t worry, and don’t get overly attached to anything. Your editor will know what they’re doing, and they LOVE your book – otherwise they wouldn’t have bought it. They want to make it the best thing it can be. If a cut is suggested or an amendment proposed, it’s probably for a good reason, and if you really don’t like it, you can say so. After all, it’s your book!
Now that your first book is out – what next?
My second book will be out in Spring 2016. It’s about a boy who gets sucked into every story his dad writes, and has to live the words on the page. I’m currently planning book three now!
You can follow Mike on Twitter @RevellWriting
Stonebird can be bought via Amazon.