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There’s a question I get asked a lot. So I thought I’d let two Rozzes, 15 years apart, slog it out.
Young Roz, fresh-faced ghostwriter: Why don’t you write a quick series of novels that would sell shedloads and make a mint. Then you can spend the rest of your time on your, er, slower-selling books. The arty ones.
Older, wiser Roz: Hmmm. It’s not that simple.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But you’ve had the best bootcamp ever for commercial fiction writing. You’ve worked with ruthless and brilliant editors. You’ve seen your books as posters on the London Underground.
Older, wiser Roz: When I ghostwrote, I was new to professional writing. Unformed. Looking for my way. Then I started on my own novel and everything changed. Once upon a time, my goal was to please those taskmasters. I discovered I could suddenly please myself. I’d learned to drive the car; now I could take it anywhere I wanted.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Well come on, why do those books take so long? I can hammer out a ghostwritten novel in six weeks. I thought My Memories of a Future Life would be a left-field suspense. Lifeform Three was supposed to be a light futuristic romp. What on earth were you doing?
Older, wiser Roz: The books kept changing. The more I worked on them, the more they seemed to pose an irresistible mystery about life. A novel in progress isn’t just a thing I pick up at the keyboard and put down again. It travels with me. An endless conversation. A personal crusade. Keyboard-time is when I catch up with the points I honed as I watched a film, worked an editing shift, went for a run, cooked dinner, groomed a horse. That process is one of the pleasures of building a novel. And frequently the frustration. Do you know what? I don’t want to live with a book unless I can take it to its genuine limit.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Don’t over-think it. Just write to a trend.
Older, wiser Roz: Hmmm. I was chatting to a senior editor at a Big Five publisher. ‘Roz,’ he said, ‘we’re looking for another Girl On The Train. Just knock one off. The manuscripts we’re getting from agents are rubbish. We need you.’
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: I am totally going to do that.
Older, wiser Roz: Yes, you will. You’ll take a publisher’s informal hint and write a thriller that chases a trend. By the time it’s ready, the trend will be over. And anyway, I don’t read books like that.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But … bestsellers. Hot categories. Salivating now.
Older, wiser Roz: Yes, the cash doesn’t just rain out of the air if you write one manuscript. You need to feed readers regularly. You won’t just write one, you’ll write several. Even a book that is fast to draft has a lot of other time behind it – knowledge of the market, promotion activities, reading the innovators so your work is fresh enough. Have I mentioned that readers will spot if you don’t adore that genre to your very boot-soles? Writing like that is not a part-time job, it’s a dedicated role. It’s full on, full time. What bandwidth does that leave for crafting a nice book for the soul?
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: But there are surprise breakouts. I’ll take a few rejections on my determined chin, and eventually we’ll be Rowling in £££s. I’ll whack a book on Kindle when it’s invented, learn some sales-fu and watch it rain dollars.
Older, wiser Roz: Oh just buy a ticket for the lottery.
Young Roz, FF ghostwriter: Think of those Tube posters for the books we ghostwrote. Wouldn’t it be nice to see our real name there?
Older, wiser Roz: Yes, there was a time when I could dash off a genre book. I was new and eager and didn’t know what I wanted to write for myself. I’m happy to ghostwrite non-fiction, because that’s creative journalism. I like editing too; it’s the fun part of problem-solving, helping another writer with their vision. Being a supportive godmother instead of the flailing, gnashing parent.
In the professional world of publishing, there’s no such thing as writing a book for easy money. So I prefer to be careful how I spend my creative energy. Because there’s a lot I want to do.
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A report of the Frankfurt Book Fair in The Hot Sheet caught my eye this week, and I have to admit it’s got me a trifle narked. See what you think.
‘The acceptance and progress of self-publishing (or, rather, the sluggish acceptance and progress) in most countries (the US, the UK, and Germany are the exceptions) was probably best represented by Guillaume Dervieux, vice president and CEO of France’s Albin Michel publishing house. He said that self-publishing is all but anathema to “what we are doing” in the trade. In self-publishing, he said, every manuscript “is accepted and each title is invested with the minimum amount of means. We do exactly the contrary. We reject a lot of manuscripts, and we concentrate all our means and effort only on the ones we choose with passion.” ‘
Oof. (Before we go any further, let me state that I find The Hot Sheet to be a useful, worthwhile round-up of news for authors. I’ve found several important opportunities because of it. They are reporting attitudes they have observed, not their own attitude to self-publishing. That’s why I included the paragraph in full.)
Back to Mr Dervieux. Here’s the point that worried me. In self-publishing, every manuscript “is accepted and each title is invested with the minimum amount of means”.
Here are some sows, with ears.
There are many authors (indie and otherwise) who’ve sought my editorial input on a book and been sent back to the drawing board – kindly, with constructive directions. That’s what they hire me for. Some of them come back with a greatly improved script.
Anyone who’s hung around this blog will know that I frequently post about the long process of getting a manuscript right. The time taken to edit for nuance. You’ve also heard me plead for writers not to rush because we can set our own deadlines, and that is our great artistic advantage, if we want it. A book will be out for ever, and although we can nip into the back channels and edit the snarlies, we can’t edit a reader’s memory of a bad experience.
But here’s something I’ve never talked about – the care that then goes into the editorial and production process – which I think is one of Mr Dervieux’s contentions.
So, by way of example, let me take you through the editorial process for my latest book, Not Quite Lost.
For reference, Not Quite Lost is about 38,000 words.
- Rewriting/developmental editing December 2016 to April 2017
- First beta reader April 2017
- More drafting, second beta reading, start of June 2017
- More drafting, third reading, end of June 2017
- Final drafting
- Copy editing, proofing and formatting to August 2017
In parallel with this, the cover was being developed. Work on that began in January 2017. Three full designs were considered and discussed with close advisers. The final design emerged in July 2017.
And no publishing job has been done properly unless there is marketing and publicity. Preliminary work on that began in May, with 3 weeks of campaigning in August, and work is still ongoing as leads arise.
To recap, the production calendar looked like this:
- Conceptual and developmental editing from first draft to final manuscript 7 months
- Proofing & formatting 2 months
- Cover development 7 months
- Marketing/publicity 4 weeks concentrated work, then as needed
Of course, these months weren’t exclusively spent on the one task. I was doing other work in between, just as a traditional publisher would. And the breaks allowed time for new ideas to present, minds to be refreshed and new possibilities to be considered.
This is not the schedule of a book that was ‘invested with the minimum amount’, either financially or in terms of time. Indeed, I’ll wager my book had more care than it would get in a traditional publishing house. How do I know this? Because I’ve worked for them as well. Here’s a post that discusses some of the quality compromises I’ve seen in traditional publishers.
I’m heartened that Mr Dervieux chooses his projects carefully and invests each one with utmost effort. I would hope for nothing less. I hope it’s clear that I, a self-publisher, take just as much care.
Here are those pigs again.
What of Mr Dervieux’s first point, that plenty of self-publishers put sows’ ears in the sewing machine? Bien. Before I decided Not Quite Lost was fit to publish, I tried to find people to talk me out of it. Like a publisher with their editorial board. The story of that is here. And were they right to let me go ahead? The reviews can do the talking.
I realise this post has become a little ratty.
Apols, people, but Mr Dervieux’s generalisation is wildly unfair. It’s as bad as dismissing all of traditional publishing as ghostwritten celeb books or Dan Brown trudge with copycat covers and slapdash editing. Yes, of course, everyone’s mileage varies, and anyone and everyone can self-publish. Yes, self-publishing is done by amateurs. It’s also done by responsible, professional authors who nurture a book properly and take care in its production to create a book that’s worth a reader’s time.
Some of us would say that’s what it’s all about.
Thanks for the ratty, Mrs Airwolfhound on Flickr
Oh my heavens, it’s publication day. Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is no longer a tease in a tweet or a blogpost. It’s a real thing. A paperback book. A hunk of Kindle estate, or Kobo, or whatever other ebook format floats your boat. (Though there are no boats in the travels … plenty of buses, however.)
And my writer/designer friend Henry Hyde has invited me to his blog to chat about it. We cover technical stuff like developing a writing style, influences like Bill Bryson and Gavin Maxwell, and some of the main thematic stops such as the romance of old houses, impostor syndrome and 1970s Doctor Who. Do hop aboard. Oh, and you can find the book here.
Bill Bryson, Lewis Carroll logic and cryonics – interview about Not Quite Lost at Andrea Darby’s blog
I’m thrilled to be at Andrea Darby’s blog today, talking about Not Quite Lost. You might recognise her name because she was a recent guest on The Undercover Soundtrack with her novel The Husband Who Refused to Die. Andrea and I discovered we had a certain chilly, chilling interest in common – cryonics, the daring science of preserving the dead in the hope that they can be revived when science is more advanced. Andrea spent a day with a cryonics group and wove it into the plot of her novel. I interviewed the same group several years before and wrote it in my diary, and eventually it became one of the encounters in my travel doodlings.
We also discuss how the book came about (with a sideways nod to Mr Carroll), the literary figures who showed me the way (sideways nod to Mr Bryson and others). And why writing – of diaries, novels or anything else – becomes a way of life even when publishing can be troublesome. Do hop over.
It’s certainly been a new kind of writing experience, because, of course, I didn’t have the freedom to invent. (Why? It’s non-fiction. More here.) This set some interesting boundaries for revision.
The pieces that were easiest to edit were the amusing mishaps – mostly involving idiotic use of cars. Also easy were the fragments about people and places that were intriguing and mysterious. But other pieces gave me more difficulty, refused to spring into shape for a long time. They fell flat for my wise and ruthless beta-readers. ‘You lost my attention here,’ said one of them. But… but….. but… I thought. There’s something in that story.
When a piece in a novel isn’t working but my gut tells me I want it in the book, I change the circumstances, add pressures in the characters’ lives or give the event to another set of people. Clearly I couldn’t do that in Not Quite Lost. It must stick to the truth. You can change details of people to prevent them being identified, but you can’t change events. You’re stuck with them.
So what do you do?
I’ve edited memoirs and I recognised the situation. If an incident seemed to lack significance but the writer insisted on keeping it, we dug deeper. Why did it matter? There was a subsurface process, a thing that had to be uncovered and examined. These rewritten rejects often became the most surprising and beguiling parts of the story. In short-form memoir, they go by another name – the personal essay. I had failed to recognise that some of the pieces in Not Quite Lost were personal essays as well as travel tales.
This week I heard Ann Patchett being interviewed on Radio 4’s Book Club about her novel Bel Canto. One of the points discussed is how each character is like an onion, losing a layer each day until they’re down to the core.
And in the good tradition of ending explorations and arriving where we started, knowing it for the first time, we come full circle to fiction.
My diversion into narrative non-fiction has, at times, felt like writing pieces of a novel. It’s also given me a sharper view of a quality I value in literary fiction. ‘Literary’ is a slippery thing to define, and I enjoy playing with fresh interpretations. So my current favourite definition is that a literary novel is, in some ways, like a personal essay for the characters, peeling away a skin at a time.
Anyway, Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction is now on pre-order. And it looks like this.