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, PETER BUNZL, about his journey to publication.
From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal?
It took me three years to write Cogheart. But I’d been writing fiction for five years prior to that – things I never sent out because I wasn’t happy with them, which are now stuffed in drawers. I also wrote short films – many of which got made - and various other bits and bobs.
It is said that writers have to be persevering and have a tough skin – did you find you grew in en-durance and perseverance? Did you ever think about giving up? What made you keep going?
Way back when I was sending out screenplays, I received a lot of rejections. A friend told me not to take the knock-backs personally – not everyone will like your idea, but the more submissions you make the better your odds. The same goes for manuscripts. It helps to have a great story you believe in, and when you’ve got that, and you’ve done everything you can to make it sing, send it. Then, whatever happens, know your idea is strong.
Early in my second round of agent submissions, I got a couple of full requests and nice personal replies, and that helped me hold my nerve through some rejections and near-misses until I found my awesome agent Jo Williamson, who loved my story and saw potential in 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?
About a month after Cogheart went on submission we had interest in the manuscript, which seems relatively quick. Jo took me to meet various editors and, a week later, we had five offers, which was truly astounding. I then had a crazy few days where I had to make a decision. I chose Usborne because I loved their take on the story, and all the visuals and ideas that filled their pitch.
When the deal finally went through, and I was sure it was really real, I woke up every morning with a smile on my face thinking: Oh my God! My book is going to be published! After a month, I began to wake up thinking: Bloody hell! I have to do more edits! Now I wake up thinking: Aaaargh! I have to write a sequel!
But there have been brilliant moments: seeing the gorgeous cover art for the first time, and the proofs, all the nice things people have said about the book. Pretty soon it will be in shops and I’m sure that will be another heart-in-mouth experience.
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?
Because I’d done a big structural pass on the book with Jo before we sent it out, there wasn’t much plot stuff to fix with Rebecca and Becky, my editors at Usborne. I had to rewrite the ending somewhat, but the main thing they've brought to the fore is the character arcs. Having my heroes think and reassess their plans in quiet moments of defeat, and giving them big emotional reactions to the life-changing things that happen.
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 con-trol and did you ever argue with your editor?
I haven’t argued with my editors thus far! I might have written a few sarcastic remarks on the copy edit manuscript, but I gave each query and suggestion serious consideration, and agreed with nearly all of them. If it’s some detail they don’t quite get, or a confusing plot point, you have to try and make it clear in the text.
Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story?
Adding nuanced thoughts and emotions to the characters has brought them to life more. Some-times I miss those reaction beats in early drafts, but an editor asks the questions that help you pick them up. If the changes make everything more believable they’re worth doing.
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)?
When I first met Rebecca and Becky I took along some children’s book artwork I loved. I also put together a Pinterest board of visuals for the designer. Then I was lucky enough to see a rough cover and gave some feedback on that.
I love Kath Millichope’s final design. It has such a strong feeling of movement and adventure, and features stunning illustrations by Becca Stadtlander, who’s also done the chapter headers and the map. The look has loads in common with my own visual style, and I had great fun creating a special animations from the cover artwork that you can see at cogheart.com.
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?
Currently I am writing a sequel to Cogheart, which was commissioned at the same time as the first book. It’s been easier in the sense that the characters, the elements and the genre are already in place, but it’s still hard to come up with an exciting new concept which fits that world, and then put the story together on a much tighter deadline.
Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with?
All the publicity, especially the events and the public speaking – I thought authors got to spend all their time sitting in their writing cave tapping away on a keyboard, or scritching on paper with a pen… Oh, how wrong I was!
What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal?
Patience. The publishing industry is so slow. When you get your deal everyone’s excited about your book and lots of stuff is happening, then there are fallow periods when you think nothing’s going on and you start to worry. Meanwhile, everyone else’s book is coming out to much fanfare and excitement, but you have to wait…
There’s nothing you can do about that, you just have to accept it and get on with writing the next one. And there are lots of things going on behind the scenes - you’re just not told about them until it’s time for you to know.
What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time?
If you don’t understand something in your editor’s comments, or you’re not sure you agree with their suggestion, have a chat with them about it. This is hard for me, I always feel they’re too busy and I’ll be bothering them. But they love your book and they want to hear your thoughts and discuss them.
Now that your first book is out – what next?
I plan to celebrate, do some events, then finish writing the sequel.
|Photo credit: Thomas Butler|