Burnt Snow, my first novel, was released in 2010 by Pan MacMillan Australia. White Rain, the sequel, is due soon. As part of a trilogy about witches, earth magic, curses, love and revenge, this blog archives my research into the world of the witches - as well as my own magical saga as a new author.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

10 Things I Didn't Know About Writing a Book Before I Wrote a Book

Again, I apologise for my absence before my last post. I don't know if you missed me... but my dad did - a couple of days before my last blog, a cute email arrived reading: "Your mother and I have noticed you have not been posting your blog, but you are on Twitter. Yo, lady, what gives?" (he is so down with the street-talk, Dad).
What gave was that I had to retreat to the Organic Vegetable Cave to complete the first re-edit of my book. My book! Burnt Snow! First re-edit! Done! A little Twitter I can justify, but a blog takes - ahem - significantly more focus.

The "Michelle Ozolins" Page in my Burnt Snow Character Scrapbook

Not to mention, I've also started co-presenting a radio book club for Australia's ABC network. It's all getting a bit exciting: you can read about the radio show, and even make recommendations about what we read here.

But to give readers of this blog a thorough understanding of just what's been occupying my time, I present to you a special Book of the Witch literary feature:

10 Things I Didn't Know About Writing a Book
Before I Wrote a Book

1. Getting a Book Deal Doesn’t Write the Book For You
Burnt Snow was sent off by my agent to publishers when it was at 50,000 words; it’s true that publishers don’t need more than that to make a decision and my agent didn’t want me wasting my time. The deal process is agonizing, even if it is handled by an agent. There’s waiting for the thing to be read, reports at their end, meetings at their end, further enquiries, offers, meetings about offers, meetings about your book that you have to go to (that their marketing person also goes to), people come in, drop out, come back again. Money gets offered. Rights get negotiated. Choices have to be made – what they can afford, which publisher you want to go with. And after it all, after the meetings and the contracts and the money and the rights, they hand you a deadline, which comes as a bit of a shock. After all this effort, it’s overwhelming to think you have to finish the bloody book.

2. The Way You Work is the Way You Work: Stop Fighting It
It took Joseph Heller 8 years to write Catch-22 while he worked his day-job in an advertising agency. It took David Guterson 10 years, around the peripheries of his job as a teacher, to write Snow Falling on Cedars. Writing around your need for an income is admirable - and takes enormous discipline. I can’t do it, so while writing Burnt Snow I had to forgo an income and live on my credit card in disgusting poverty because I can’t – I just can’t – get any writing done without warming up for two hours. Sure, once I get through two hours of excruciating, staring-at-the-computer despair, something clicks and I can churn out 1000 words an hour until I pass out at my desk, but it makes working around anything difficult. Knowing how you write and reorganizing your life around it is how you ACTUALLY get the thing done.

3. Commercial Publishing Companies are NOT Charitable Organisations
Your book may indeed be a brave and brilliant reinvestigation of everything we know about the English language. You may have done several creative writing degrees, sailed through your PhD with structural flair and have difficult and uncomfortable truths about existence to share with the world. That’s awesome, but commercial publishers are still under NO obligation to publish your book, even if you’re really, really clever and really, really talented. If their books do not sell, their company fails and they lose their jobs. So when you present them with your book, their interest is in how they can sell it, and how many they can sell. From my experience, they ask:
  • Who is the target market for this book? (tip: if YOU are lucky enough to get asked this question in person, the answer is not “people like me”, because that equates precisely to 1. You are a unique and beautiful individual, remember?)
  • Are you familiar with other books in this genre? (tip: the answer to this question is YES, you CERTAINLY should be, because otherwise how do you articulate what the Unique Selling Point of your book is?)
  • What IS the Unique Selling Point of this book? (they don’t ask this directly, but answering it anyway is VERY important)
  • What do you understand of the commercial publishing industry? (the answer here is to know that it’s super-competitive, high-risk and with extremely tight margins, meaning that you will pledge to work like a lunatic within the meager resources of the company to make your book successful).
4. Knowing How To Answer a Marketing Question Does Not Undermine Your Credibility as a Writer
Do not, for one minute, think that there is a separation between literary excellence and marketing; literary excellence is marketing. The reason why a lot of talented fiction writers fail to sell a book is because:
  • They have not thought about their market and can't actually articulate who would read the book except themselves. Not exactly a flag-flyer for a publishing option, this.
  • They think that their book is so awesome, everyone will just flock to it. This is not borne out by reality. I think White Noise by Don Dellilo is one of the greatest books ever written - and even though it's sold well, and for 25 years, not everyone has either heard about it or read it, get me?
  • They think they are smarter than the people who are reading the genre they are writing for, and believe they can cynically exploit an established market. The reverse usually proves to be true, as a patronising attitude is rewarded with staggering indifference, from publishers, readers and everyone else.
When you sit in the room with the people who are about to dedicate literally years of their professional life to your project, who are risking vast amounts of money and resources on getting your story out to the world, the heavy, heavy reality of what is involved here lands like a punch to the head. The obligation is to make something fantastic that your market will want to read, and it's the most demanding challenge to your literary skill in the world.

5. You Should Pencil in Some Thinking Time
When I was an undergraduate, I studied English Literature with a man called Richard Harland, who is now a full-time author. Richard came back to the university a couple of times after he left to give masterclasses on writing. One of the things he spoke about was how in his writing practise, he scheduled in thinking time; he would sit in a comfy chair for a couple of hours each afternoon, thinking about what he would write the next morning. Research shows that sleeping on a problem is one of the best ways to solve it, and doing some quality thinking for a defined period in the day will certainly help this. Narrative is HARD. Characterisation is TRICKY. Working your brain properly is the only way to survive.

6. Your Thinking Time is NOT Your Down Time 
It says in the Bible that the Sabbath should be a day of rest and it’s advice for healthy living. You can’t and shouldn’t work 7 days a week. Your brain needs rest. If you don’t spend a whole day NOT writing your book, you will enjoy it more when you get back to it. If you live breathe and eat your book 24/7 you will start to hate it and it will hate you back; your writing will become internal if you have no external stimuli, and internal writing is inaccessible to any reader who isn’t you. Whether you take your Sabbath in church, at the pool, or dressing up as a poodle, it is very, very necessary for your mental health and writing clarity.

7. The Printing Budget of a Fiction Book is Actually only 1% of its Total Budget 
This is one of the reasons the publishers are so worried about the impact of the iPad, the Kindle and digital downloading on the book market. If the digital books were only going to be priced 1% less than the print version, there’s be no problem – but the digital booksellers (like Amazon and soon Apple) have been trying to drive down the price of new books as downloads as being up to 33% cheaper than the print version. Which may be great for consumers price-wise, but which will lead to a staggering drop in either variety or quality as publishers struggle to make money on books by reducing their main cost-centre: labour. Editing labour and marketing labour.
A good book is as easy to read as it is emotionally engaging and intellectually challenging. This is such a difficult trick to pull off that it relies on an army of readers, senior editors, junior editors, copy editors and proof-readers to get right. Everything is scrutinised; are the characters consistent? Is the door of this room in the same place on page 43 as page 3? You have used the world “sentimental” eight times on one page. This comma doesn’t belong here. We are confused about the motivations of the central character…
This is also why vanity publishing is a risky proposition; people train and work through the ranks for years to become senior editors; do you really have comparable experience? Will your book be as good as it can be without it?

8. Your Editorial Report is Not Going to Fit In An Email
I was offered three deals from three different companies, and went with the team that I felt I had the best “click” with. They loved my book, they were enthusiastic about me. I knew there were fun times ahead.
Then I got the editorial report. 10,000 words of it. I almost fell off my chair. Pages and pages of criticism – everything from the fundamental story structure to questions about characterization, feedback on my writing style and some flat out rejections of plot points.
It’s about making the book better, but, like any recovery, it takes time. I sat on the couch with a printout of the manuscript and a biro and went through it page-by-page. It took me a month.

9. You Finishing the First Draft is Not the End. It is the Beginning.
I’m learning there are lots of beginnings in this business. I thought that everything was over when we got the deal – then I remembered I had to write the book. I thought everything was over when I finished the draft – then I got the editorial report. I thought everything was over when I incorporated all the changes… but, of course, there’ll be another report. And another draft. And then an uncorrected proof. And then a corrected proof. And even when Burnt Snow goes off to the printers, it will not be over… The marketing cycle will just be beginning. And then there’s TWO MORE BOOKS in the series to go. “You know, you and I are embarking on a three-year relationship?” said my publisher. I’ve had boyfriends that didn’t last that long. Oh, my!

10. Did I Mention That It’s Really Hard Work?
I had a burst of inspiration for Burnt Snow – an idea that crystallized into magic, literally. The words poured onto the keyboard in the first two weeks. At the beginning of the story, everything is possible.
But this process is demanding. The story goes places you don’t expect it to, and you have to keep up. Characters develop complex personalities and all of a sudden the thing you wanted them to do at a certain point in the novel they aren’t likely to do anymore. Outside of the actual story and plotting and characterization, there’s all the technical stuff. Is it okay to repeatedly use the word ‘said’? Are there other words for ‘face’? Which is the best preposition for the verb? Is the tense consistent? Is there a tonal shift in this metaphor?
It takes months, years - even with help - to get this right. It costs money in lost work, it costs time in dedication. You have to think in at least 10 directions… and your communication skills aren’t just for the page; they’re for the meetings, the questions, the conversations, the blogs (!), the tweets, the festivals, talks and workshops. It is a commitment of life, for life.
But, of course, this is what I’ve trained for. And I love. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Is that a good enough explanation, Dad?!


Meri quoteth: said...

Nicely impressive and might I say very LONG blog post on the realities of publishing. Bravo to you Missy.

I heard somewhere that writing a first novel is like jumping off a cliff and then building the wings as you go down... Great analogy IMO.

Van Badham said...

I love and respect the analogy, Meri. As for length, I get SO many enquiries from people about books and deals and publishing that I'm trying to create an online resource of all these articles so I can just point people at them. "Ah, yes, I covered this on March 15, 2010, my dear!"

There seems to be such a vast ocean between people who dream of being writers and what happens on the other side the least I can do is run a little ferry service, oui??

Van Badham said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Great read, Van!

ian.swerts said...

Wonderful post, a must-read for everyone ever thinking about writing a book. Funny how all these things also seem to be true for making a film...

Keep those posts coming!

Captain Antwerp

Van Badham said...

Aw, thanks guys. New blog is up now - it's all about Eostre, fertility goddesses and, um, egg-painting. Enjoy. xx