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, Abbie Rushton, about her journey to publication.
From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal?
I’ve been writing and have known I wanted to be a writer since I was a child. I’ve probably been writing seriously, with a view to being published, since 2008, when I moved house and joined a wonderful local writing group. Seeing the successes of other members who got publishing deals really inspired me to finish my first novel.
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’ve always been very driven / stubborn so once I set my mind to something, I just keep going! However, I did sometimes think about giving up. After I won Undiscovered Voices in 2010 and got an agent, it felt like I was one step closer, but that book (too early for the dystopian craze) didn’t sell. I quickly wrote a second book (too late for the dystopian craze) that I sent to my agent, but then decided I wasn’t happy with, so she never sent it out. I put so much into my third book, I didn’t quite know what I’d do if it didn’t sell. I didn’t feel like I had any more to give; that if it wasn’t good enough, then I wasn’t good enough.
What made me keep going? Lots of things. The support from my writing group, my agent’s unwavering belief, the fact that I wanted it SO, SO MUCH!
How did you feel when you first landed your deal? Did it feel like the world had changed? How long did the excitement last?
It’s an incredible, intense moment. The first thing I felt was relief. All those sacrificed weekends, those long, solitary hours at the computer had finally paid off. Then it’s just sheer jump-around-the-room joy!
The excitement doesn’t really go away. There are so many other exciting moments: seeing the cover for the first time, holding a proof copy, the first review, being able to walk into a bookshop and find it on the shelves.
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?
My book had already been redrafted several times before it went out on submission, following feedback from my writing group and my agent, who really pushed me to make it the best it could be.
I’m a book editor by day so I was lucky enough to have an insight into the whole process and had a fair idea of what to expect.
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 was nervous about being edited as I was so used to being on the other side of the table, but I absolutely loved the experience. It was wonderful that someone else was engaging and connecting so strongly with my work, that she was as invested in it as me, and it was just lovely to have someone holding my hand and taking some of the responsibility for the book – it wasn’t all on me anymore! I found the whole process wonderfully creative and collaborative, and I learnt a lot as an editor and writer from it.
Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story?
I agreed with about 95% of my editor’s comments. A good editor is so valuable and I really lucked out with mine! My book is much stronger for her input.
How have you found working with illustrators and cover designers? How much involvement have you had with the graphic content of your book?
None whatsoever, but I wasn’t expecting to. The cover just arrived in my inbox out of the blue. Fortunately, I adored it. Better than I could’ve imagined, it encapsulated everything in the book that was important to me.
I did ask for some minor tweaks (‘That character’s hair is curly, not straight!’). I work closely with designers in the day job, so I knew that what I was asking wasn’t major and could easily be amended. To be honest, even if they hadn’t made those small changes, I still would’ve been thrilled with it.
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?
No. Having seen members of my writing group suffer with the pressure of the dreaded second book, I knew it was going to be tough. It’s incredible that everyone from my publisher is so enthusiastic about my first book, but the expectation is very high for the second book.
Also, there’s the deadline. I spent about two years writing UNSPEAKABLE, pretty much at my own pace. I had a year to write the second book, but also had the inconvenience of a wedding slap bang in the middle of that!
Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with?
Tax returns! Urgh.
Also a host of fun new stresses and worries: having to appear at public events when you’re not used to it; feeling a strong compulsion to check reviews, but at the same time not really wanting to look; the first time you read a bad review – so cutting.
What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal?
Probably the amount of time I’ve had to invest in promotion, whether it’s been taking time off work to attend events, or Tweeting / Instagramming when I can. It’s certainly not easy to fit it in around a full-time job and still feel like you’re giving 100% to both parts of your life.
What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time?
Remember that they’re on your side – they’re your biggest champion. They adore your book and are as invested in it as you. Also, they’re experienced professionals who’ve trained for years to get where they are. Trust them.
Now that your first book is out – what next?
Book 2. Onwards and upwards! Because I was so busy with wedding planning last year, I’ve written the first draft of Book 2 in about 5 months (of weekends). It’s been intense. After Book 2, a little rest and a nice cup of tea!
You can also follow Abbie on Instagram: abbietheauthor
Abbie’s novel, Unspeakable can be bought via Amazon.