Recently, as in a couple of days ago, the completed copies of my first novel, “The Watch”, appeared on my doorstep. After I’d finished running around the house with one of them held above my head, showing them to the cat, and yelling at people passing by on the street, I thought, for the briefest of moments, about all the work that went into getting those 256 some odd pages between two covers. And, it was substantial.
As I’ve talked about before, I am a big, big fan of the Surrey International Writers Conference (www.siwc.ca), and have been attending every year since 2007. I’ve heard it said, more than once and by several different people, that writing the book is the easy part, and the real work comes after. The first time I heard that, I had been slaving away at a really, truly awful high fantasy mansuscript – that to this day I haven’t quite finished – and the idea that there would be something harder than writing that bloody novel was severely daunting, and also, I though, complete and utter bullshit.
Then, I found out it was true.
There about a million people floating around who know far more about writing than I do - in fact, you could fit everything I know in your pockets without making a silly look bulge – but I wanted to share my first pulishing experience, in all it’s ridiculous glory and see if a few of you can relate…or at least have a laugh at my expense.
So, here is my step by step experience, to getting a novel published.
Step 1: Come up with an idea that doesn’t suck. I imagine you’re reading that and saying: “I have lots of ideas, and they’re all awesome…shit head.” Well, believe you me, I’m sure the ideas are fantastic in your head, but once they come out, half formed on paper, they are going to be cliched, already done, recently published, or just plain stupid. For me, about one idea in 10 is actually plausible and goes any further than my muddled brain.
The idea for “The Watch” came in a class at the Surrey Writer’s Conference called “Conference Idol”, where the legions of hopeful writers submit 2 pages of their work. Jack Whyte acts as narrator/moderator, and reads the entries, one by one, to a panel of 5 literary agents. Once any given agent has heard enough, they raise their hands, and once two of them are done listening they make comments about why the story wouldn’t fly. Or they rant about how much it sucked.
That first year I sat in that particular class, Jack made it through 30 or so entires. 2 of them didn’t suck, and the rest, collectively, were ripped new assholes, much to the dismay of the unfortunate, anonymous people who wrote them. The main beef most of the agents had was the story didn’t grab them in the first few lines. For the first time author, you have to have a hook that grabs the audience (in this case the agent) immediately and compels them to read more. You cannot afford to have a slow beginning, because the agent has several hundred submissions waiting after yours and cannot afford the luxury of boredom.
As I sat there, listening to the agents massacre those poor defenseless manuscripts, I came up with an idea that was vitally interesting to me: A cop in a gunfight. Then, as I sat there, I wrote the first few paragraphs that later became the opening scenes to “The Watch.”
Step 2: Write the first draft. This part, in this instance, wasn’t that difficult. Once I had the opening scene, and knew the reasoning, in the character’s world, behind it, the rest of the story just kind of fell into place. It was only a matter of getting my ass in a chair and getting it down. I was, of course, still working at the time – 12 hours shifts, two days then two nights – but on my days off I was getting down about 2000 words a day, and even on days I did work, I’d try and write for 15 minutes. So, in about 2 months I had 65,000 words, and a story with a beginning, middle and end.
Step 3: Let go of the idea that your work is gold, and write the second draft. I had a trusted friend, several of them in fact, read the first draft of the book. As I handed it to them I was always of the opinion that they were going to come back to me and say “This is freaking awesome.” Imagine my disappointment when they did not say that at all. Instead, they said “Uh, dude, this needs some work, I think.”
And you know what? They were right.
I had a dear friend tell me “You need to let it season for a while.” And what she meant, was that you are far too close to your own work to immediately edit it. It is the curse of every writer that they think everything they put down is sheer brilliance, and couldn’t possibly need to be corrected. So, on her advice, I turned my back on the novel for two full months, and let it stew in its own juices. I worked on short stories, another high fantasy novel that went nowhere, stared out the window…anything but look at the novel.
Then, when I came back to it, it was with a little perspective, and objectiveness. I still liked it – really liked it, in fact – but I could see it needed some pretty heavy editing. And so editing it received. After 2 more months I’d finished the second draft, which was now 84,000 words long, and much cleaner. I then did a final edit, looking only for grammatical mistakes and small things; no major structure/plot changes.
The next time I went to SIWC, it was with a completed, somewhat polished, manuscript in my hand. I figured I had the world by the short and curlies, and would soon be making ridiculous amounts of money for my amazing writing talent.
Step 4. Prepare for rejection. For two years I went to SIWC and pitched my story to agents. I sent it to other agents, editors, publishing houses; anyone I could think of or find who might want to read my story. Turns out, none of them did. For the most part, I received no replies at all. A couple of times I got a form letter via email, and only once I got an actual letter from a publisher which read “Your work is not right for us at this time, but thanks for submitting.” It was signed in real ink, though, which is the first piece of human contact – a sign that someone might have actually glanced at my manuscript – I had since I’d completed it.
Rejection, as any published writer will tell you, is a large part of the writing process. It is a basic fact that you are going to be rejected, and you have to get used to it. If you can’t handle rejection, then don’t be a writer. I’m sure there is a club that assembles jigsaw puzzles that would be happy to have you.
Step 5. Find a publisher. As you can see from Step 4, this is easier said than done. But, I was lucky and I found a publisher/editor that liked my work, believed in it, and wanted to put it in print. I found my publisher, Dark Dragon Publishing (www.darkdragonpublishing.com) by sheer luck, looking through the various writing related pages I “liked” on facebook. I read their submission guidelines, sent off my work, and waiting patiently…mostly because I never actually expected anyone to reply.
About 3 days later I got a reply. A positive one. My wife saw the look on my face when I read the reply email and asked me if I needed an ambulance. The email wasn’t a publishing offer, but an expression of interest, and a request for the full manuscript. If she (Fern Gould, editor) had asked me for one of my fingers, I would have happily lopped the bastard off and tossed it in the mail. No one was more surprised about the request than me.
I sent the full manuscript, and about two weeks later I had a publishing offer, a draft of a contract, and the idea that my book would actually see print.
Step 6: The editing process. When I sent my work to Dark Dragon, I was pretty convinced that it was a tight piece of literature and would need very little work. Once again, I was wrong. There were still some pretty heavy edits that needed to be done, and some flaws in the work that were pointed out to me by Fern. I sucked at describing characters (I assumed that if I knew what they looked like, then everyone should know), I had a bunch of facts that were horribly wrong, and my grasp of grammar was not as strong as I once thought. So, when she sent my manuscript back to me, about a month later, there was a great deal of red for me to go through with “track changes”.
Step 7: Find time to complete Step 6. At the same time I had signed on with Dark Dragon, I was newly married, trying to buy a house, going on our official honeymoon vacation, working, and dealing with life. I could rarely find a spare hour in the day to sit down with the corrections to the novel, and start to work on them.
When you’re writing a book, with no thought that it might actually get published, you are on your own time and the only one with any expectations is you. When you actually sign on with a publisher, you are expected (see: contractually obligated) to get the bloody thing finished in a timely fashion. You can’t step away from the computer and go watch ‘Family Guy’ for an hour just cause you feel like it. You have to bust your ass and get it done.
Step 8. Cheer wildly when the Galley arrives. Eventually I got the required edits (the first edit, then the copy edit) completed and sent back to the publisher, and several weeks later received the galley in the mail.
For those of you wondering “What the fuck is the galley?”; it’s basically a copy of how your book is going to look upon production, but needs to be edited one more time. So, when I opened the box and saw my name on the cover of a book, I didn’t know whether to shit or yell bingo. I finally started to realize that this was actually going to happen.
Step 9. Be a prick and make your publisher hate you. Yes, you read that correctly. When I went through my galley, I got a bunch of fantastic ideas for how it could be improved. I also had some suggestions to rework a couple of scenes, which actually made them better. Improving your work is certainly a good idea, but I should have come up with these ideas back in the editing process, not when the book was already in galley form.
When I sent the changes I wanted to the publisher, needless to say, she wasn’t pleased. To tell you true, I don’t blame her. In fact, I really am surprised she didn’t come to my house and kill me in my sleep. But, being the ever patient, and damn near saintly woman she is, she allowed the changes. Although that delayed the completion of the novel, because she had to build another galley and send it to me in PDF format so I could look it over again. In the end it turned out, but i really would suggest you skip step 9.
Step 10. Completion. About two days ago, another little box showed up on my doorstep: My Completed Novel. The pride, and the sheer unabased satisfaction, I felt upon opening the box and seeing my book is nigh indescribable. I was able to hold, in my hand, the sum and total of over three years work, effort and frustration. Even as I sit here, writing this overly long blog post, I cannot help but feel a little of that same satisfaction well up a little bit.
Dark Dragon Publishing is not a huge publishing house. They are not going to send me on cross country tours or hand me huge sums of money. They are not going to propel me to the New York Times bestseller list, or allow me to quit my day job (not that I really want to, anyway). But they are legit, and they have been good to me, and this is a long ride that we’ve come through together (despite Step 9).
So, there you have it; a first time novel experience. It was a long, and difficult ride, but it was infinitely rewarding and I would not trade it for the world. For those of you who are on your way to your first novel, you can view the above as a cautionary tale, and remember the difficulty you face, even after you have a book completed.
Of course, if you really want to be a writer, you’re not going to give two shits for the difficulty and you’re going to do it anyway. And you, my friend, are what will keep the publishing industry alive, and keep books in print for people to read.
Well done, and good luck.