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, EUGENE LAMBERT, about his journey to publication.
From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal?
In one sense it’s got be almost thirty years. I was living in the US when I started writing, so that’s the 80s. My first short story won a national writing competition and I thought ‘wow, I can do this writing thing!’ Little did I know what lay ahead. Life intervened, I returned to the UK and only returned to writing about ten years ago. My first novel manuscript took me about five years to complete.
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 certainly agree about persevering and having thick skin. To be honest though, I think I’ve always been a bit bloody-minded and determined in everything I’ve done. I never actually thought about giving up, but that was probably good fortune. At each stage of my writing journey, I’ve had just enough encouragement to keep me going. For example, my first novel manuscript was rejected a few times but before I could perhaps become despondent it got me onto the wonderful MA in Writing For Young People at Bath Spa. I was also fortunate enough to secure my agent just prior to graduation, so I didn’t have to leave the security blanket of academia and set out alone!
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 the classic jump up and down moment – which was slightly unfortunate as I was in the middle of a crowded restaurant (in Cannes, during the film festival, would you believe?). When you’ve worked so hard, and for so many years, it’s a truly exciting moment. As well as a huge relief, because all my friends and family knew what I was doing, and I felt serious self-inflicted pressure to deliver. To hear it was a trilogy deal on offer, that was the icing on the cake. Over two years have gone by since that day, and – cliché alert - it still feels like a dream come true! Of course, with writing contracts come new challenges such as editors with deadlines, etc., but seeing my book in bookshops is still something that makes my heart leap inside me.
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?
Actually, because my manuscript was written during the two years of my MA, it was already the product of much feedback from my fellow students and the tutors. The Egmont editing process took about a month and a half total. That’s said, only having three weeks to do the first comprehensive edit was a shock to my system. I was working so hard that I decided I didn’t have time to shave, thus I ended up bearded by the time I was done! But this is the reality of working with professional editors who have tight deadlines themselves.
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?
Again, having done the MA, I am well used to taking on board others’ comments and suggestions. So far with my editor I’ve never felt like I’ve lost control – more like I’m being challenged to really think things through. That’s also because it’s evident she’s experienced and knows what she’s talking about. We’ve certainly never argued, but we’ve gone back on forth on a few things. I’ve won some and lost some, which is as it should be. And it’s not just the prose you can end up debating, there’s the cover and the tagline and the blurb. My advice? Keep your powder dry and only fight editorial battles with your editor when it really, really, really matters to you. As a debut author you can’t be too precious. And if it turns out that you become as highly regarded as (say) Neil Gaiman, then in years to come you can always publish your ‘Author’s Preferred Text’ edition!
Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story?
Funnily enough, The Sign of One grew in size post-edit. That was mainly because my editor wanted a little more exposition and back-story to make it more easily accessible to readers who weren’t SF regulars.
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)?
The artwork was done by Egmont’s in-house team, initially for a pre-publication poster at the Frankfurt Book Fair. As soon as I saw it, I thought it was amazing and told them so. The only quibbles I had actually with the first blurb and tagline and they were happy to work with me on that, to produce the versions you see today.
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?
Sadly, I already know it doesn’t get any easier. I’m currently editing the second book in the trilogy and – if anything – I found writing this one harder. Also, I’d hoped that all the anxieties and self-doubt would melt away now that I’m published. Alas, that didn’t happen.
Sorry to be the bearer of such grim news. ;-)
Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with?
I suppose the self-promotion and social media aspect. My parents raised me to be modest and not to shout about my achievements, but that’s part of being a published writer these days. Can’t say I enjoy it…
What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal?
Lessons plural? Hmmm. I’m feeling dense now. Actually the only one I can think of is based upon me feeling fortunate to have signed with Egmont. Whilst they’re not throwing their entire corporate marketing budget behind my books (and who can blame them?), they are definitely outperforming the publishers of some of my writing buddies. Since The Sign of One came out they’ve lined me up with some good gigs, including being on a panel with the legend that is Malorie Blackman at YALC 2016. Events like this are A. fun, and B. help raise my author profile. So one lesson learnt is that not all publishers are equal. Hang on … I did learn another lesson, and that is never to chuck any of your writing. Almost the fist scene I wrote for The Sign of One on my MA was cut a long time ago – but after a little bit of a rewrite it made a great prologue for the sequel, Into The No-Zone. Archive it, but don’t delete it.
What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time?
In true Hitchiker’s Guide fashion, I would say DON’T PANIC! The editor’s role, as explained to me by my editor, is to help you write the best book you can write. Sometimes, confronted by a sea of ‘red’ marks, it can be hard to appreciate that, especially at first glance. Also, and as previously mentioned, keep your ‘powder’ dry. It’s a give-and-take process and an editor is more likely to compromise on stuff you really care about, if you give way on other stuff. As a debut author, I also think it’s prudent to demonstrate to the publisher/editor that you are somebody they can work with long-term. If that takes a few editorial sacrifices then so be it. What you probably don’t want is your editor flinching every time he/she hears your name mentioned!
Now that your first book is out – what next?
I’m working on the edits for the second book in my trilogy, Into The No-Zone, which will be published in April 2017. Also, I’m off soon to give a talk at the Jersey Festival of Books. My first international gig!