The value of perseverance in writing and creating: A personal account

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Recently I went from having no publishing offers to having to decide between two – I know, the irony! This is for a novel I wrote in two very different versions, and after deciding that the first one was best, going on to rewrite it many times.

My writing pathway to finding a publisher

My process over more than ten years included the following steps:

  • Redrafting my manuscript over again
  • Engaging editors for the first and part of the second-to-last major redrafts
  • Paying a mentor (a costly and negative experience)
  • Reading countless writing books and doing my best to apply the learning
  • Undertaking many writing-related courses in person and online, including on poetry, book publishing and creativity
  • Submitting my manuscript, garnering interest but being rejected many times
  • Nearly giving up a few times, before picking myself up off the floor and starting over
  • Taking on the feedback for two advanced drafts from my long-suffering writing group.

It’s often said that a writer’s first two novels are their learner books and that the third is publishable. Alternatively, people talk about writers needing to practice their craft for ten years before reaching a publishable standard. For me, redrafting the same story in various forms was how I progressed my craft. I didn’t want to let go of my story, focusing instead on improving it ad nauseam. And so ten years passed by…

Until finally, it paid off. (Although I’m well aware that having found a publisher, I haven’t achieved publishing success yet. But that’s a whole other journey.)

It was nothing! (Lies)

It would be easy to look back and say that it was worth it, or even that it was fun or easy. Ten years – nothing! But the truth is that like all writing, it was both wondrous and torturous, easy and impossible. For years there was rejection after rejection, no promise of publication (ever!) and no guarantee of any return for my hours of toil, the income I forewent or the money I spent on my book.

And yet writing and creating was and remains the only thing that makes me feel professionally fulfilled. I actually become restless and irritable if I don’t write creatively.

Key things I did to find a publisher

After I announced the two offers on a Facebook writing group, a couple of writing colleagues contacted me to ask how I found a publisher? Some had achieved agent interest, which after a time had waned.

While I’m no expert, I answered them because writers need the camaraderie of others to help pick them up when they’re feeling uncertain. These are the key things I told them. They’re simple and probably obvious, but nonetheless powerful, and sometimes we need to remind ourselves:

  • Always be open to improving your craft and never be complacent or arrogant – Too often authors become attached to their work. Get some distance and reevaulate after a break. Kill your darlings etc.
  • Believe in your story (or let it go and move on) – If you don’t, who else will? Believe in it to your core
  • Believe in your abilities – Again, if you don’t, no one else will. This doesn’t mean you can’t learn new things. Writing is an art, but it’s technical and involves a lot of craft
  • Find your publisher fit, only going where you’re wanted – Whether that’s a large publisher, an independent one, or a small one. What’s their speciality, do they love your kind of work and genre, what are their values? Alignment is key. Publishing is business but it’s also a relationship
  • Get philosophical (or zen, or something similar) – While I’d got to a point where I believed – paradoxically and blindly – that I’d find a publisher, I honestly didn’t care anymore. I knew in my gut that my story was good and that was enough, so I sent it out and let go. Me and my story were ready and, amazingly, the world responded
  • Above all, persevere! As Churchill said, never give in. When you’re ready, dust yourself off and continue. Logically, you must to get there, in the end.

Are you ready to be published?

‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.’ Maya Angelou

The state of book publishing (in Australia)

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Publishing in Australia

The novel I’m trying to get published now is an Australian story, with universal themes and appeal of course, but there’s much in the subject matter that Australians will relate to. This means I’m touting it in Australia first before looking elsewhere.

But getting anything new published in Australia can be challenging. It has been for a long time, but with foreign competition, it’s even more difficult.

Some publishing facts (and some opinion too):

  • Big W is reportedly the single biggest book retailer in Australia, so if you don’t write commercial fiction of 70-90,000 words that Big W wants to sell, you may be at a disadvantage
  • The price of books has gone down with overseas competition, putting greater commercial pressure on publishers
  • If you write literary fiction (my novel is literary-commercial crossover) places reserved for new voices are very limited, as in maybe 5 novels per year one publisher claimed. Yes – 5!!
  • Fulfilling publishers’ commercial requirements seems more front of house than ever with increased competition
  • Character and plot rule, so if you’re attempting to push the boundaries and break some rules, your first novel may be considered too risky, but then again maybe not if you’re brilliant
  • All this competition has in my view pushed the Australian mainstream publishing industry towards conservatism. I find a lot of new Australian formulaic and disappointing
  • That said, small, independent publishers are taking risks that are paying off. These are the books I tend to find inspiring. Perhaps this is where the future lies for Australian writers whose work may not satisfy mainstream commercial criteria?
  • The pool of book readers isn’t growing in Australia
  • Bricks and mortar booksellers are the key to sales for debut novels by Australian authors
  • Around a third of trade (commercial) books published in Australia are fiction
  • Print books remain the most popular, with e-book sales decreasing before plateauing
  • How many times have I heard publishers say they’re looking for the next Bryce Courtenay or Andy Griffiths or Fleur McDonald? Interestingly, I’ve only ever once  heard them say they’re looking for the next Patrick White or Geraldine Brooks.

So what can you do to get published?

Should you tailor your fiction to what you think publishers want? Should you cut your text back to fit the word length, make your characters more mainstream, latch on to the latest trend and write in that genre?

Not unless that’s where your passion lies or it will improve your work. Your writing must be the best you can make it, which demands authenticity and tenacity. Writing is testing at the best of times, let alone if you’re not working on something that fires you up, even during the dark times. First and foremost, love what you’re doing.

Don’t compromise, improve your work

Instead focus on making your manuscript the best it can be. Then continue to seek a publisher until you find someone who believes in your work. There are alternative publishing routes you might consider too, which I discuss here.

Publishing is a business, but never forget that writing is an art.

 

How to get your [debut] novel published

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‘There has never been a tougher time to be a debut novelist.’
Kate Kellaway

‘Publishers seem enormously scared of too much originality. Many of the first novels we had to read this year appeared to be watered-down copies of something else.’ 
Kate Saunders on reading for the Orange Prize

So you’ve written a novel. What a feat! First, congratulate yourself. What do you do with it now?

Make sure it’s the best you can make it. Take it through a writing group, editor, beta readers and refine it ad nauseam. Writing is mostly rewriting. Remember that with agents or publishers you usually only get one chance per manuscript.

Then how do you get published in the current environment, which is saturated with good writing and where writing has been devalued (by Amazon – thanks!) many other forms of entertainment are on offer and publishers are by nature conservative?

As you ponder which method to try first, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • How important is artistic control to you?
  • How much do you value acceptance and prestige?
  • What’s your financial situation?
  • How important are royalties and advances to you?
  • How much time do you have?
  • What’s your tolerance for risk?
  • Are you a multitasker, entrepreneur and social creature?
  • Do you hope to make a living from writing?

1. Get an agent

Find an agent who’s interested in your genre and approach them. Some are on twitter and put call outs for specific kinds of work, some check writing groups on Facebook (so always behave professionally), and others can be found through website searches. Their websites will tell you if they’re looking and what they’re looking for. Don’t be restricted to your country if someone overseas specialises in your type of work.

Going down the agent route can be time consuming as they have lists to manage. The minimum wait to hear back is at least six months. But agents can work well for authors. I have two friends who write sci-fi and have been published this way.

2. Traditional publishing

Traditional publishing is for books aimed at a general audience. Often they’re published by multinational or larger independent publishers who have minimum sales targets. In Australia, a very small market, this means around 10,000 books. But with overseas and other rights, possibly more.

Publishing new authors is always a risk and publishers must be confident they’ll achieve commercial success now and in the future. Publishing a book takes around 18 months of work, so the decision to go with a new author isn’t taken lightly.

Check websites to see if a publisher accepts unsolicited manuscripts (meaning you haven’t been published before and don’t have an agent) and follow their submission guidelines to the letter. A few offer one day a week when they’ll look at a small sample of work and contact you if they want more. Sometimes approaching a publisher, even if they’re not accepting unsolicited manuscripts, can work too. But you’ll need to have a great hook to peak their interest so they read your synopsis. Make sure you’ve refined these along with your bio and similar books list to perfection. First impressions are everything. 

3. Independent publishers

These publishers almost always specialise in certain kinds of books that appeal to niche audiences. Often, you can approach them directly, which is a bonus. But as a result, it can take a while for them to consider your work. Check writers’ centres websites and manuals of independent publishers in your country. Again, make sure you satisfy their submission requirements and your approach is professional.

Be aware that independent publishers have limited resources, which will mean more work for you in terms of building your brand on social media etc. to generate sales. ON the other hand, they go outside traditional boundaries and in Australia are wining major prizes.

4. Self-publishing

Some people are avoiding the long wait of traditional publishing routes and self publishing. The many advantages include that you have full control, enjoy direct access to your audience, earn a bigger chunk of the retail dollar of your book and you can publish fast. It can be especially useful if your novel falls outside the bounds of typical publishing because of its nice audience, regionality, it’s experimental, has an unusual theme and so on.

But you’ll need to be the type of person who’s happy to drive the process deciding everything from the cover, editing, branding, what format to use (online only, if so with whom, or print to order etc.). Remember, you won’t be able to submit your self-published work into established prizes, although smaller self-publishing awards exist.

Genre books tend to do better than literary novels with self publishing. I have a friend who makes a living this way. She’s a fast commercial writer, highly disciplined and writes in the urban fantasy and chick lit areas.

5. Hybrid publishing

This is the middle ground between traditional and self-publishing. Usually this means the author pays up front to some extent.

Partnership publishing models offer authors willing to pay access to expertise, distribution, review sites and selling into the marketplace under a publishing banner that has a good reputation with booksellers. The manuscript will be vetted before being accepted or rejected, and will be subjected to the usual processes such as editing. This model is financially risky as the author’s investment may not be recouped. Publishers mostly don’t earn out their investments on books they acquire and partnership publishing is no different.

Alternatively, there’s vanity publishing, closely akin to self publishing, where an author pays a business to publish their work but not under their imprint. This won’t necessarily help your book succeed and is really about a business selling you a service for a profit. They usually don’t vet your work or care about editorial quality.

6. Form your own publishing company

This involves a lot of work, but if you’re an entrepreneur type and self-publishing doesn’t offer the kind of ‘legitimacy’ or recognition you desire, perhaps this is for you.

Going down this path means you’ll be responsible for choosing your genre and market, taking care of the registration aspects, creating a business and marketing plan, establishing distribution channels, knowing about bookshops and libraries, developing a network of reliable professionals such as cover designers, editors/proofreaders, getting on top of legal stuff like rights and options. Phew!

But this offers the opportunity to grow. Ask yourself, do you love the business of publishing? Will it allow you time to write?

7. Whatever you decide, network

Join your local writers’ centre, go to writers’ festivals, attend workshops and courses, and so on. In short, get to know the publishing industry and make valuable connections. From there you can decide what means suits you best. Having a name or being given a business card by an editor (a rare invitation to contact them) is a foot in the door.

 

 

 

 

Waiting to be published

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So you’ve completed your manuscript. Before you send it off to publishers, make sure it’s the best it can be. Not just the best it can be right now, but best FULL STOP. Often we get impatient and send our manuscripts out into the world too early when we should put them away for a couple of months before reviewing them again, send them off to a professional for an assessment or do yet another draft. But let’s say you’ve done all that and your book is the best it can be. You truly believe in it.

You compile a list of publishers and you send it to them. You’ve spent the time you need to write each personalised letter, hone your pitch, nail your marketing strategy, write gripping synopses of varying lengths and a fascinating author bio. Off your MS goes into the wilderness (with a touch of that true belief).

Now you wait. Perhaps you get bites for more of your MS. Perhaps you succeed quickly – someone wants to publish your book. Yay you. Congratulations! But if you’re one of the majority who either hear nothing back (“assume if you haven’t heard from us within three months that we’re not interested”) or get outright rejections, then what?

  1. Sulk
    This is a normal human reaction. Allow yourself a set time, say one day, to sulk during which time you’re allowed to indulge in all your self-doubting thoughts such as what a crap writer you are, you’re never going to get published, you’ve wasted your time and you’re definitely going to give up.But once your twenty-four hours are up, it’s time to stop the tantrums and get on with it. You have a choice to make. Do you want to write or not? Ask yourself why you’re writing and who you’re writing for? If the answer is anything other than you’re writing because you need to and that you’re doing it for yourself, then you might need to have a good hard think about your motives. Good writing comes from truth and honesty, from baring your soul, not from dreams of fame and certainty. This is not that kind of career. Writing demands vulnerability because that’s the creative process.
  2. Get detailed feedback
    If you don’t want to give up on your story yet, you could take on board the feedback you’ve received from editors and begin a re-draft. For deeper feedback before you begin re-drafting, get a manuscript assessment done. You should end up with a thorough twelve-page report that assesses everything about your novel from structural issues, voice, character, style and so on. These can be very helpful. This is a lot cheaper than hiring an editor, which is another option. If you can afford an editor, they will take you through your MS line by line as well as giving you a detailed report. Just make sure they believe sufficiently in your writing and your story before, and that your MS is ready. Going down the editor path costs thousands of dollars so getting the right person at the right time is critical.
  3. Retire your story
    No one else can tell you if your story is worth persisting with or not. But perhaps, after much thought, you’ve realised this was your learner book and that you don’t want to salvage it. Perhaps you know in your gut it’s time to let it go. For many published authors their third book is the one that gets published. Say thank you to your story before putting it away for good. Also, pat yourself on the back for having finished a novel. That’s not something that a lot of people do, even though many try. Now you’re free to start the next story bringing along everything you learnt from your first. This might be a good time to do a course or read a new book on writing, something that inspires and strengthens you.
  4. Self publish
    If you’re satisfied your story is the best it can be and really do believe in it, perhaps self-publishing is the right option for you. It’s a bit of a learning curve, but there are many free and paid websites, eBooks and courses full of step-by-step how-to advice, including on how to market your book. Marketing is a skill you’ll need no matter which way you publish as most publishers don’t have large marketing budgets these days. You can publish an eBook only or give people the option of buying a print-to-order hard copy. If you decide to hire someone to do the work for you, be very cautious. Most such companies, including some owned by the big publishing companies, do very little for thousands of dollars. They’re in that side of the business to make money, and by all reports they’re raking it in. Do your research first.

The important thing is not to be beaten in the process of getting published. You may view not finding a traditional publisher as failure, but failure is simply another form of feedback. Use it wisely and keep moving ahead.