The Learning Curve - Insights from Debut Authors
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, ALLY SHERRICK (aka Alison Smith), about her journey to publication.
From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal?
Well, if you start things from my first literary ‘success’ when I got a poem about fireworks pinned up on the classroom wall (considering the theme of Black Powder, rather spookily prescient as it turns out), then about 44 years. In reality, though, I started doing bits and pieces of creative writing – short stories and the start of longer adult novels – in the early noughties and finally gave myself permission to write more seriously after starting an MA in Writing for Children at the University of Winchester in late 2009. So if you count on from that point, about six years all told.
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?
A tough skin certainly helps but it needs to be porous too: there are plenty of wise words of advice, critical feedback and praise, which are vital to take on board if you want to be able to develop and improve your craft. Funnily enough, the ‘p’ word features in a little saying I have kept pinned up above my writer’s desk since I first came across it a few years ago. It’s from the American literary agent, Betsy Lerner, and it goes like this:
The degree of one’s perseverance is the best predictor of success.
Wise and true words. And something I keep coming back to in the inevitable moments of self-doubt. The other things that have kept me going are the faith that my husband, my family and friends have in me (including many lovely SCBWI chums) and the fact that now I’ve made proper space for it in my life, I just love writing too much ever to stop.
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 was all a bit surreal to be honest. I had sent my story out to a few agents and, although I had one who asked to see the whole thing, it never converted into anything more. So I was beginning to think Tom and his friends Cressida and white mouse Jago would have to join my first novel in the bottom drawer. But I decided to give my story one last shot and entered it in the ten word pitch competition at the SCBWI Conference in 2014 and much to my surprise and delight, I won. The prize was a review of 2, 000 words of my manuscript with the great Barry Cunningham at Chicken House. And he liked it and asked to see the whole thing and really liked that too and it went on from there.
I remember getting the news that he and the team at the Coop wanted to meet me to discuss things further when I was just about to go into a screening of Shaun the Sheep the Movie with my Dad. The film was hilarious, but I had a big grin on my face before it even started!
If I’m honest though, there’s been a big part of me that hasn’t yet quite taken it all in. Although at the time of writing, I’ve just witnessed the first editions of Black Powder coming off the press at the printer’s and have signed my first couple of copies, so it’s starting to sink in at last!
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 did a lot of work to my story before I started to send it out – about seven drafts in total. And I have my two lovely crit groups – SCBWI Woking and my Winchester Uni MA buddies – to thank for their wise and honest comments, suggestions and encouragement which helped me to keep on refining and improving it. But the editing process post the deal was extremely rigorous, and although I’ve never shied away from putting the effort in, I can honestly say it’s been one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Which is where the magic ‘p’ word comes in again...
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’d like to think I’ve always been in control of them, but actually, especially in the early stages of writing, they often had a life of their own! And given half a chance, I think they still would! But as far as working with the editorial team at Chicken House is concerned, I’ve loved it. Their approach has always been to suggest rather than to proscribe, and I can honestly say that all of their comments have been spot on. I do remember that on a couple of occasions, I did balk a little initially at what they were suggesting. But when I came back to things a few hours later, having allowed a little more time to digest them, I knew they were right about those too. And throughout the process I’ve had a very strong and clear sense that we are a team and that we are all working on making the story the best it can possibly be for the readers. A further bonus for me personally is that I’ve learnt a whole lot more about the craft of writing along the way.
Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story?
It has definitely made it much pacier at the beginning and more tense at the end and so, I hope, a much more satisfying read overall – although I guess I’ll have to wait for the first reviews to be sure of that!
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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)?
Chicken House have been brilliant about involving me at a very early stage in the evolution of the cover. They sounded me out on the work of the artist – printmaker Alexis Snell – before they commissioned it. And they shared the early visuals with me and then asked me my thoughts on two alternative colour-ways they were exploring when their designers got to work on it. I cast my vote, but was more than happy to let them make the final decision. They are the experts and know what will work best for the market. But I have been very privileged to be so involved and I am absolutely thrilled with the final result. My story in a powder keg!
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?
There’s nothing easy about the writing process, as I’ve discovered over these past few years. But it’s certainly more of a challenge time-wise working on your second book – which I’m glad to report Chicken House are also taking. For a start you still have your head in your first one when you begin writing the second, and then of course, when you’ve signed off the final proofs, the publicity work for the first title begins. I work too – although thankfully only part time – so it’s all a bit of a juggling act. I’m such an admirer of writers who have kids to look after and full time jobs to hold down. I just don’t know how they do it.
Having said all that, I’ve definitely learnt a lot from going through the editorial process with Chicken House on my first story, and I’m hoping that’s washing off a bit with the second one as I lay the first draft down.
Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with?
The technical aspects of setting up a website have been challenging. But thanks to my in-house IT expert (aka my husband!), I’ve managed to get that sorted. And the thought of doing school visits is mildly nerve-wracking. But Chicken House have been brilliant again here too and have sent me on a specially designed training course for debut authors; so although I’m still nervous about it, I feel a whole lot more confident than I did a couple of months ago. And based on what I’ve heard from other authors, I think to a large extent it’s a case of feel the fear and do it anyway.
What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal?
How much your work benefits from the hand of a professional editor and that you must keep on persevering and working hard because if you’re fortunate enough to find a publisher for your work, this is only the very start of things...
What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time?
Listen to their feedback, respect their wisdom and experience and know that you are all part of the team dedicated to making your story shine.
Now that your first book is out – what next?
Well, as mentioned above, I’m hard at work on the first draft of my next story – another historical one – this time straddling two very different time periods. And of course, the work to promote Black Powder starts in earnest in the build up to 5 November which is where all roads in my story lead ...
You can connect with and find out more about Ally Sherrick in the following places:
Website : www.allysherrick.com
Twitter : @ally_sherrick
Pinterest : allysherrick
Foyles ... And all good bookshops.