The Trials of Getting Your Novel Published – Part 5

Getting through the publishing process, or not? (from October 2020)

It’s taken weeks to get over the trauma of the structural edit of The Draftsman. And in between then and now, life and the outside world have weaseled their ways into brain and heart to make it even harder to think fiction.

This might be a natural part of the process. You think about characters, you eventually consider what they do and don’t do and then you get the whole thing down on the page and suddenly without any warning it’s all gone, forgotten about. Then people ask you about the story, the characters and what they do, and what happens in the end. It’s not polite to offer the first response that comes to mind, but it is polite to smile and say “thanks for asking” and then to change the subject. Sometimes this works. If it doesn’t you can tell the truth. “It’s been so long, I’ve forgotten what it’s about”. It’s only a little lie.

So fab, you send in your structural edit. And fab you wait, and you wait some more and some more and eventually you forget about it again. Then you see a diary note: “deadline for structural edit to Unbound” oh bugger. Then hang on, not oh bugger at all you say to yourself. Then slightly louder you say to the cuckoo clock “I sent that in, and I’ve heard not a whisper. Did they even get it? (who knows) Should I nag? (probably not) Can I resist the urge to ask? No I cannot.” And yes, they did get it. Pull some more teeth with another question: what happens next? 

After the structural edit?

A good structural editor will check for holes and that they are all in the right places.

Fortunately this is an easy question to answer, so the answer comes within weeks. What happens next is that the structural edit is reviewed and the editor puts together another set of queries and questions. These are so that the author can clarify why Mrs Himplestanger says she hates cheese in chapter two, but tucks into a cheese fondue in chapter nine. Oops. These are the sorts of things that authors really should notice, but often don’t. And why is that a surprise? Who knows about cheese or not when you’re forty thousand words away?

And while the structural editor is once more doing their wonderful thing, and you’re dreading having to read the bloody book yet again, you have other tasks to fulfil. The publisher wants a Style Sheet completed. This has nothing to do with formatting or paragraph properties but everything to do with “character lists and timelines”.

Character lists and timelines

I am not entirely confident that I can pull this together for The Draftsman, but I am trying. The trouble is that every time I take a stab at character lists and timelines, something terribly important needs doing and gets in the way. I have to straighten my speaker wires, polish my collection of novelty USB sticks and take an urgent inventory of the household rice collection (four varieties, all in good supply and all very surprisingly in date). Once the excitement of such activities wears off the character lists and timelines spreadsheet beckons once again. But then faced with a menacing array of empty Excel spreadsheet cells, arranging pens and pencils in size order on a far corner of the desk is suddenly an absolute must to do. And this vital task can take so long because the naughty pencils keep rolling off the desk. Then there’s the fringes on the rug to comb out, and the dead flies to line up and measure, and those spiders won’t spin their webs without a song or two to help them along. And so it goes. Thinking about it, there will be a couple of weeks before the structural edit second edition comes back with some important changes. Perhaps I’ll wait for that instead. Just in case.

A structural edit? What? Thank you Helen Francis

I have heard that when starting out as a novelist, getting your manuscript finished is the easy bit. I always thought that a little bit silly, because you’ve sweat blood over the thing, spent months or even years on it. But I’m beginning to see there is some sense to this. For a start there’s all the additional prep, the formating and understanding the process. Then there’s the cover design and blurb to sort, both of which are easy and exciting. But then comes the structural edit. This is not nearly so easy or as exciting, and sweating blood plays no part. 

structural edit has to ensure that the plot makes sense, so if it doesn’t you’re faced with some heavy duty rewrites and rearranging. The structural edit also checks that the characters in the novel are believable and consistent, and that you haven’t overloaded them with tropes that undermine or distract the reader. As important is a check on the consistency of voice and point of view, of tense and credibility in terms of dialogue. These are all things you think you’ve addressed during your umpteenth rewrite, prior to submitting the manuscript to the publisher. But no matter how thoroughly you think you have gone through your work, you’re bound to have missed stuff. This is why editors are so vital and so lauded by their authors. They can literally help to spin gold from dross.

I’m now working on implementing the structural editor’s recommendations for The Draftsman, wrestling with the dross and trying to find the gold. In the process I’m learning a lot about writing. I’m struggling to resolve all the queries and suggestions to make The Draftsman better. Struggling, but at it.

Without seriously competent editing advice, this never could have happened.

Helen Francis did the first big edit of the Draftsman for Unbound, the publisher. She has given me a mix of mild critique and several excellent suggestions to improve the narrative. Helen has also pointed out that I use far too many pointless and distracting adjectives. Both my mother and my sister noticed this after they briefly skimmed some early chapters, but I thought I knew better. Ms Francis agrees with them. I was wrong. Now the adjectives thing is making me wonder why I thought I needed them in the first place. It might be that using too many adjectives is a way to avoid getting to the point. That’s probably because I wasn’t quite sure what that point should be or even what happened next in the story. More likely it’s a tendency to hide behind excess words because I don’t trust myself. This isn’t surprising because I trust virtually no one, so why should I trust me? There’s no habit for the trust thing.

Fixing all the points raised in the structural edit is extremely demanding and quite frankly exhausting. It’s at this stage that you understand that your book really is going to be published, and even if you might not agree with your editor’s suggestions, together you’re creating something that people will buy, a viable product. You might have to completely rethink how you present your characters. You might need to focus on how much or how little you want readers to get to know them and their role in the story, beyond helping to drive the plot. And yes, you must decide how many adjectives to use and which ones.

There is some real risk involved in this process. You need to make sure that the story doesn’t distort in the course of the rewriting and edits. This is almost harder than writing the thing in the first place, because you’re probably now working on some other work, one that’s completely different. Keeping within the bounds of the book is tough and it’s very tempting to bring in all sorts of other ideas as part of the structural editing process. You find there are lots of possible new digressions, subplots and thoughts you have in the middle of the night and think will made a massive improvement. Resist: they’re bound to go nowhere. Keep them far away from your editing process, keep them for another day, maybe as notes for a different story. Stay focused wholly on the work in hand.

And remember that you have to watch that fictional characters don’t start to change on the page. If you aren’t careful, this can happen almost without you realising it. Be disciplined and make sure to keep your face out of the narrative pie. Taking suggested edits one at a time and considering each one in the context of the paragraph, chapter and overall work, is slow and tedious work. It’s a first for me so I’m finding that process difficult. The structural editing thing is pushing me beyond what I thought were the limits of my abilities. Or perhaps I should say beyond whatever it is that feeds my sense of limits. I know I’ll get it done and in the end The Draftsman will be a much better product. Thank you Helen Francis.

(from July 2020)

Picture this

It’s a peculiar sensation to see first cover visuals for your first novel. They’ve got the story’s title and your name – your name – writ large. And one of them is a perfect expression of what the book’s about. It jumps at your throat, it’s gorgeous, professional and an image that you couldn’t ever think of, not in a million years. 

The sensation’s almost as good as the moment when a publisher’s email says “I’d like to see more” although only almost. That feeling shimmers and shines for a very long time, forever maybe. It’s so powerful that it’s almost impossible to answer the email. And then you can’t find the file you need and when you do you can’t open it. You can’t spell the name of the person who wants to see more of your work, or indeed your own name because you can’t spell at all. All the words have dried up and blown away under your hot frantic panting, your overexcited breath. Worse, you have totally forgotten what the story’s about and how many words it is. Because you can’t find the file again, it’s impossible to find out, and because you’ve inadvertently deleted the precious email you can’t send the requested material in any case.

……..a massive thank you to John Walsh for providing this cover endorsement!

After some minor moments your blood pressure’s so high it’s making your eyes go funny. And the banging in your veins and pulsating brain drowns out your own voice, and you can’t hear yourself saying no, no I haven’t really deleted it, it’s still in the bin, still on the mail server and still on the automatic back up. It’s data, it still exists, it does, it must, it has to. It’s got to still be there somewhere. Except you’re still panting to the point of hyperventilation, your eyes are still being weird and you can’t really see the details on the screen so it’s impossible right now to try and retrieve the email.

If you reach this point, for any important email, not just the one from a potential publisher, the best thing to do is to go to the window, open it, look down, look up, make sure to stay inside and not jump, and wait until your face starts to hurt with the cold. This only works in winter, so in summer you have to actually leave the building; try to do this calmly so as not to terrify colleagues and other members of your household. Once outside pretend to be exercising very slowly until you can be sure that your vision is not made up entirely of darting silver spears and unpredictable colour flicks. If the sun’s shining, don’t look at it. Keep your eyes down.

Once your eyes are being sort of normal and you are relatively calm, stay away from your desk for a few more minutes and think of restful things, like the majesty of snow clad mountains or sleeping puppies. If you go back to your desk too soon, there is a very real risk that the demon will roar once more and the whole scary scenario will repeat itself. You must prioritise finding the important email, reading it carefully, understanding the questions and systematically answering them like a grown-up. Panic and hysterics have no place in this process.

The cover designs are exciting and tell me that publication of the Draftsman is really happening. Tears will be in order when I see the first edits come back from Unbound. That someone has taken the time and trouble to fix my text somehow means more to me than a publisher wanting to read it. I know it’s what they’re paid to do, but still it’s all quite wonderful. Each step of the way makes a change, transforms, recreates and confirms. Not just for the book, but for me too.

Where the sun’s always setting. Or is it always rising?

The trials of getting your novel published part 2: Some more of the journey (January 2020)

Last week seemed overrun with other peoples’ work, technical stuff, reading fiction (a 723 page work of historical fiction completed over an immersive four days), wrestling with social media and of course keeping the website alive and active (hah).

There was also a bit of helpful wrestling with a fellow author at Unbound whose book, Draca, is due out on the 14th May 2020. Geoff Gudgion is bravely considering a London book launch and this brings to mind all sorts of wild imaginings. The most important thing isn’t the venue or how much nosh and booze to order, but who will be there and making sure they’re the best candidates for the job of promoting the book.

It got me thinking about whether I should do the same for The Draftsman which is supposedly due out in May or June. A needling steely voice in my head says yes, but the rest of me, limp and weedy, says no. Why is that? Money? Publisher’s support? Neither. The reason is that despite 30+ years experience with press conferences, speaking and running seminars, I find the whole idea of a book launch quite terrifying.

Think about it. You have to invite people to show up (having found them first). What if they don’t, and how do you bear yet more rejection? Then, with as much gushing sincerity and enthusiasm, you have to welcome those few brave souls who do come, and hope that none of them are people you already know. What do you say to them? How do you talk about yourself without sounding like an American (sorry Americans, but I know you know what I mean)? How do you talk about your book in a way that doesn’t come across as either unbelievably pretentious, embarrassed by it, or just plain bombastic? And if you are able to raise a modicum of passion about what you want to say what tone do your strike? How do you keep from ranting and scaring everyone? How do you avoid making idiotic jokes that no one will understand? How do you keep yourself from necking too much wine before, during and especially after the presentation?

Martinis are always an excellent option too.

When I reached that point in the anxious wondering about having a book launch, I went for the nearest slab of Cote d’or Belgian chocolate rather than imagine any more of the awfulness. It’s fine, wonderful even, that Geoff is getting on with it, and in a way a launch would be okay for me to try. But mostly it just wouldn’t without involving a lot of chocolate and champagne first, and that really wouldn’t do. But maybe that’s the germ of an idea for how to manage it? Don’t manage it, succumb to the chocolate and champagne, bite the nails until they bleed, don’t speak or see anyone that you care about in case you lose it. Instead accept that you will turn into a screaming wild banshee for a little while and go for it. Get a list from Unbound of all their peeps who cover book launches and who have a proven track record of getting their stuff published. Get a venue willing to dish up just chocolate and champagne. (You could also contact Ann Cater who organises blog tours.) Get people along to talk together about what they do and what they look for in new releases. Encourage them to sit and sprawl on comfy furniture. Ply them and yourself with ample gobs of chocolate and champagne (you might have had enough by now and be onto the gin instead). Chat some more about what they want to write about and then lie as much as necessary about the book. All that remains is to finish the remnants of chocolate and champagne and probably gin (shame to waste it) and job done!

The trials of getting your novel published part 1: The journey so far

Let’s ignore the dramas of writing, rewriting, fear of writing, panic when your brain is just not up to the task. And especially let’s not talk about the contact problem, the one where your bottom refuses utterly to make contact with the chair. Let’s assume you’ve safely gathered in all the words you need and that you have your work of fiction, collection of poems or short stories, whatever, ready to sell. This is a massive assumption, one that immediately alienates a whole slew of potential readers of this blog who still sail the rough seas of WIP. The intention isn’t to alienate though. This blog might help you feel less alone and more like carrying on nurturing your ideas, meeting people who don’t yet exist and harvesting the right crop of words to get them and their doings onto the page. Once they are captured, here’s what you can expect.

Manuscript in hand, you need to sell it so the obvious place to start is with a literary agent. Of course, an agent, that rare and fickly breed of wonderful salespeople, will take somefinding. The name agent is really not accurate in the wider context of commerce. Agents are sales men and women looking for what they can most successfully pitch to buyers in an open market. These buyers are the commissioning editors and publishers who will take a punt on a title and/or an author in the hope that the book will sell. Depending on how confident they are the publisher will then invest, one hopes, enough money to get the book edited, designed, produced, printed and distributed to as many outlets as possible. 

Would you buy this book? Would you sell it?

This is a mammoth task at every step of the way. Pity the poor editors wrestling with some 100,000 words, most of which are superfluous, choking a brilliant storyline in confusion. The designers have to decide what the book should look like, what cover best reflects the contents, what typeface, leading, page layout and so on. And they might even have to read the thing. The production and printing will be the easiest bit, because these are automated processes: spit digital files in and printed book blocks out. 

But the hardest bit, the bit that makes all the difference and the bit that only a worthy publisher can do is the distribution part. This is about sales, persuading book sellers to buy your book so that they can sell it to your hoardes of adoring fans. This has to be harder than writing the thing in the first place, and hats off to the amassed armies of people who do this. You are the people who bridge the gap between the author and the reader and you are the people who make sure that the market gets the works it wants, across the market and that’s a tough call.

Laurel Lindström Unagented but happy.

For the author and the aspirants wrestling with an unruly WIP, the trick is find an agent willing to take a chance but with so many of us, hopes of success are meagre at best. The only option is to work and work some more to make your book either as commercial as possible, or as unique as you are. For most of us the latter is the preferred course, but it’s unlikely to get you an agent any time soon.

Where does getting your novel published actually start?

Obviously with writing the thing in the first place. But then what? Most first time wannabee authors, me included, haven’t a clue about the publishing business. We all think that the most important thing of all is the manuscript, but that is niaïve and foolish. Very foolish.

It’s foolish because the most important thing about the book business, as with any other business, is sales. Sales dictates how every other part of the complex machine that is fiction publishing functions. You think it’s just a simple process of designing a cover, getting an ISBN number, plus a bit of editing argy bargy and some layout and your work is ready for the press. However the process that leads to you holding a copy of your printed novel in your grateful clammy hands, is entirely sales driven. This is something to keep in mind when you are working, and even if that idea offends your sense of art and ego, it’s fundamental to getting your work published.

Take the agent thing to start with. Most literary agents are totally overwhelmed by us wannabees, some receiving upwards of 500 submissions a week. Who can read all those synopses without help from a willing intern or three? If they’ve a stack of lovingly completed entire manuscripts agents and their minions generally skim, having dutifully read the first and last chapters. It’s a bit like being able to tell a decent wine from a crap one. That first sniff says it all.

And that isn’t even slightly fair because many first time authors work so hard at their words. Many however start off without warming up properly, without brutal focus on what they are trying to convey. They jump into their texts with no limbering up or stretching, no mental or emotional preparation and absolutely no objectivity. They may have plenty of the self-critical variety of objectivity, the beat-me-with-a-biscuit-until-it-hurts sort which is not the same as a rigorous editor in your head telling you what works and what doesn’t.

The excitement you feel when you see your first cover is matched only by the exhaustion of getting the edits right.

Ruthlessness from the very start is mandatory. If a sentence is too long cut it, even though you love the sound of all those luscious words. Remember that your work is not an extension of you, and just because you’re agonising over it and struggling, that doesn’t necessarily make it any good. Usually the opposite is true. Good writing hurts not because of you and your personal agonisings, but because it’s hard to use words as building blocks for an abstract construction, a story that takes flight beyond you and your ideas.

Someone once asked me what advice I would give to people starting out as fiction writers, as if I had any authority. Of course I don’t but thirty plus years of writing and earning a decent living at it have taught me that you, author, are not important. But the work is, so do your best to keep your face out of the pie. 

This probably all sounds mean and unsupportive, but writing is about entertainment, engagement and expressing something that others will find meaningful, for whatever reason. If the work doesn’t achieve this on some level, interest will be sparse. And it comes back to sales. Much as we distain commerce in art, it is a reality that has to be respected because ultimately the market doesn’t lie.