The Learning Curve - Insights from Debut AuthorsNicky 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, Sue Wallman, about her journey to publication.
From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal?
Like a lot of writers, I’ve written stories ever since I can remember, but I know exactly when I decided to seriously try to get a publishing deal for children’s fiction. It was January 2007, and I received an offer from Scholastic for a two-book deal in May 2015. It felt like a long time. I knew that as well as writing at the required level there’s an element of luck to getting a deal which you can’t control, and that was always at the back of my mind.
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’d tried writing romantic fiction and I’d given up, mostly because of rejection but also because at the time I was knee-deep in toddlers/babies with a part-time job and no energy to spare. This time round I was much more determined. There was plenty of rejection. I gained an agent, lost an agent. There was more rejection. I found another agent, won a competition (the Baileys Women’s Prize First Chapter Award) and failed two acquisition meetings. I cried bitter tears and wrote another book (my fifth). It was painful how badly I wanted a publishing deal. Book five made 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?
When Becky (Bagnell), my agent, phoned me to tell me about the offer, I was standing up and I almost sank to my knees. I was elated, but most of all I felt tremendous relief. I’ll never forget that moment.
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?
I’d worked on Lying About Last Summer a lot before Scholastic saw it so there wasn’t heaps to do. After I’d sent the book to Becky, she’d suggested radical changes, and then I won a manuscript critique with editor Natalie Doherty as a SCBWI raffle prize at the conference. Natalie came up with fresh insights which made my heart sink because I’d thought the manuscript was ready, but I could see they’d make the book better. So I re-worked it again – I pretended I was in one of those film sequences where music plays and the main character is working away feverishly and it all comes right in the end.
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?
To be honest I was grateful to have someone engage at such a micro level with my manuscript, and I loved how my editors, Lucy and Lena, cared as much as I did about my characters. I’d been a journalist, so I was used to people wanting changes and it didn’t feel alien. There were a few suggestions that I didn’t do – when I explained why, that was fine. There was some discussion about logistics at one point and I drew a couple of maps to illustrate how I saw it in my head. I also added in more weather as requested!
Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story?
It made it much stronger.
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 had a bit of involvement with the copy on the back but I had nothing to do with the actual cover which was designed by Sean Williams. When I was sent it, I felt very nervous before opening the attachment in case I hated it (the accompanying email said that everyone in the office loved it!) Fortunately I thought it was perfect and I felt very proud showing to people.
A week or so after seeing the cover, I was with my family at a pizza restaurant.
My eighteen year old daughter looked at me and said, “Nice cover.”
“I’m glad you like it,” I said. “I think it’s really clever. I love how you wouldn’t necessary think that pinky-red colour at the edge was blood, and the bold type is...”
“Mum, we’ve finished the conversation about your book,” she said. “I was talking about the music.”
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?
Hahaha. I do hope so, but I’ve read enough blogposts to know that the ups and downs of publishing continue. I’ve already written the first draft of my next book – I had a tight deadline. It was only easier from the point of view that I knew my editors liked the concept.
Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with?
Publicity. The problem of how much of my life to share! The problem of going on about my book too much – or missing an opportunity because of being too reserved. At the time of writing this, I haven’t done a school visit yet – my stomach goes into a nasty spin whenever I think about them, but I’ve been to some great SCBWI workshops on publicity and school visits and I’m keen to do a good job.
What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal?
That this would be quite tricky without an agent. Not only did Becky negotiate a good contract, she explains everything and is generally very optimistic.
What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time?
I don’t think anyone needs advice from me. They’ll be fine!
Now that your first book is out – what next?
I need to whip my next book into shape and come up with a new idea for the book after that. I’ve found the ideas stage really hard each time I’ve had to start something new. I panic that I can’t come up with a strong enough idea/plot. I also want to spend some time appreciating this moment of being a debut author.
To buy the book.