How it started… how it’s going…

Someone asked me last week, what it was like to be a debut author. It’s weird, because to be honest, I don’t feel very debut-like anymore, although as far as the glacial timelines of the publishing industry go, it’s entirely possible I could be considered ‘new’ for another 23 years. But the initial excitement and sense of achievement of publishing a novel is certainly in the past; and while I’m still learning a lot about my role as a published writer, it’s quite an interesting question to answer, six months in, with the benefit of quite a bit of hindsight. Now the euphoria has worn off, what does it really feel like to be a debut author?

Well, firstly, I’m a bit knackered. Every debut author will know (or very quickly find out) that the lion’s share of day in-day out marketing and publicity comes down to you; publishers simply don’t/can’t invest the same amount of time and energy in debuts by unknown authors as they do if you’re, say, Richard Osman or Dawn French. Trying to get noticed or stand out from the crowd is incredibly difficult; longer tail ‘reach’ feels like the holy grail. I can’t even begin to calculate how many hours I have spent campaigning to get into bookshops, do signings, appear in the local news or on the occasional radio show in the hope of selling a few more copies; social media is easier, but even so, to get followers up in the thousands could send you mad or die trying. And, after the initial few months, I’m possibly not alone in having the niggling thought that no matter how hard you work, it might not be gaining you any traction at all in terms of book sales. Not that you know one way or the other; there’s no way of knowing how your book is selling for at least six months so you are pretty much working in an informational void, with no idea if anything you are doing is paying off at all. Still, you can’t stop; you have to keep pushing, and hoping, and praying that it does.

But as time passes and people move onto the ‘next big thing’, it’s hard to keep the momentum going. And here’s where it gets tricky, as a debut author, to remain sane and grounded about your work. You have A LOT of other debut authors to compare yourself to and with each passing day you watch more and more of them launch into the world. We’re all making out like we’re so popular and successful and supportive in order to try and convince readers to give us a spin, but deep down in places we don’t like to talk about at parties, we’re all still really wondering if our books are shit in comparison to everyone else’s and that’s why we’ve only got 573 followers on Twitter and no one will answer our emails about appearing at book festivals. I’m not going to sugar coat how difficult that can be sometimes – I think it’s important to be honest with myself and a good thing, to check my ego and say, wow, you did an amazing thing but other people do it better, or got luckier than you, or both. But I recognise that in comparison to a lot of other authors whose books never see the light of day, I’m very lucky too, and I’m not saying I’ve been hard done by – I’m just saying it’s hard.

There’s a lot to celebrate, of course. Reviews, for one thing. Fan mail, too. I’ve had some amazing messages from complete strangers who felt compelled to write and tell me how much they loved the book. That I inspired someone to do that, to actually reach out, is a massive compliment and incredibly meaningful. I’ve been very fortunate to have a stonking set of reviews and actually only a few negative ones (my top three favourite 3* reviews, btw, are: 1. awarded for ‘ an unnecessary sex scene’, 2. ‘it’s not as good as Motherland’, and 3. ‘I’m going back to Ken Follett’). The variety of these comments will tell you that what readers like or want is very subjective so you can’t set too much store by them – and anyway, reviews aren’t really about feeding your ego – they’re more about feeding algorithms; still, it’s comforting to read what people are saying and know you didn’t write a complete load of rubbish. But ultimately, it IS about algorithms… so it’s hard to remain relentlessly upbeat about a product that you believe in and have invested so much of yourself in that almost everyone says is great when they read it, when you’re watching your Amazon sales nosedive because you haven’t hit the number of reviews that would propel you to be ‘noticed’ by a computer. That’s the other thing I’ve learned – don’t be shy about asking people to leave reviews!

Although I might sound a bit jaded I should point out that there’s still a boat load of things that make me buzz, that I don’t think I’ll ever tire of. Seeing my book on the shelves in a book shop. Friends messaging me to tell me they’ve seen my book on the shelves in a book shop. Getting on ‘the table’ in Waterstones. Being asked to talk about my book, the writing process, and yes, about being a debut author. God, I love the talking. I could do it all day long. When I’m not busy writing, of course (just in case my agent is reading this, I am actually writing too, I promise).

As I move from being debut author to an author with a debut novel (and I do think there is a distinction to be made) it’s great to take the time and consider all the stuff I’ve learned so far – which is A LOT. Next time – and there will be a next time, I am determined of that – my expectations will be set. I will know how to do a book launch, who to call, I’ll know what the publisher does and what my agent does and what I have to do and I’ll know a whole bunch of hugely supportive bookshops, radio stations, magazines and social media pals who will help me to get my book out into the world. I will reap the benefits of the hard work I put in this time around and cross my fingers and hope for that tiny little bit of luck that will get me on the shelves of Waterstones without having to go in and ask, appear on the supermarket top 10 or get me an invitation to a book festival where I can share all the things I’ve learned with other new authors too.

What’s it really like to be a debut author? Exhilarating, exhausting, joyous, tough… but most of all, memorable. But I have the sneaky feeling it’s like that every time; and that’s why I’m hoping to do it all over again.

Mad (wo)men

With just under two months left to go until publication day, I thought I’d reflect on the journey so far. It hardly seems real, still, that my book will be in the actual shops in eight weeks’ time. The creative process has been relatively smooth sailing, if I’m honest. The hard stuff is all the rest of it!

Being published for the first time is a strange situation: you go from lolling about in your writing bubble bath to being thrown into the publishing equivalent of a lazy river, constantly wondering whether you should kick your legs a bit to influence the outcome or just go with the flow. Throughout the past six months I have been constantly second guessing whether I should be more or less assertive with my publisher, or more or less proactive; not wanting to appear a control freak or tread on any toes, and at the same time trying to prove myself a competent, commercially savvy and enthusiastic individual who wants to work hard to sell my books. As an author, you have to be calm, patient and understanding that while your book matters to your publisher, they have a million things to juggle; and accept the fact that you’re a long way from the top of the pile, and that to get that vital airspace with bookshops and bloggers and influencers to propel you a little further up the food chain means pitching yourself against authors who are better, faster, more experienced, more known, with bigger budgets and better relationships with which to gain traction. It’s not easy. And I’ve found negotiating the choppy waters is all the more difficult because, like a lot of writers out there with their first book deal, I have absolutely no idea who does what.

Google ‘how to get an agent’ or ‘how to get a book deal’ and you’ll get a million articles. Try searching ‘who does what when you publish a book’ and the answers are less consistent. It’s quite a minefield, and from conversations with other authors, appears to vary from publisher to publisher, agent to agent, and author to author. Thankfully, I have an amazing, hands on agent who’s willing to steer a rather green debut author through the confusion of their first publication. But I’m sure it’s not the same for everyone.

One thing that’s very consistent though, is that authors need to market their own books. Although I was expecting to take on a lot of the responsibility to sell mine – I’ve read a million articles telling me as much – nothing really prepared me for how much there would be to learn and to do in order to make even the tiniest dent on the consciousness of the nation. Plus, I massively underestimated the sheer quantity of time it would take. Before this month, I thought doing social media was just a case of chucking a few tweets out a couple of times a week. Now I seem to be in a constant battle between being a writer who writes actual books and a marketeer promoting the one I’ve already written.

In truth, keeping up with the demands of social media admin in order to grow my online presence, generating book signings and organising launch events has become an almost full time job. To help me get some new ideas to help with promoting the book, I went on a marketing course for authors, which was great in terms of really focusing on my brand, but also made me aware of just how much there was to do. Today, I have a spangly website and several promises of book signings, and I’m feeling rather chuffed to have increased from 300 to a massive 434 Twitter followers (please do follow me, by the way, @Writerfaye – I’d quite like to make it 500 by the end of the week). But the amount of work that’s gone into it in the past four weeks or so feels faintly ridiculous and I have begun to wonder how anyone has the time to do this and write.

There’s a rumour that publishing a book in the good old days was vastly different. Allegedly, there was a time when the publisher did all of your marketing while you quaffed champagne and signed the occasional book. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. But I do know, that as a 21st Century debut author it’s very definitely not like that – and while confusing and fairly exhausting on occasions, that doesn’t always make it a bad thing. If I wasn’t before, I am super, super invested in my book now. I am not afraid to walk into a bookshop anymore and talk to them about stocking my book, or asking about an event. It’s yielded far better results than emailing, although taken about ten times the amount of time and effort. The @womenwritersnet and @debutsuk2021 groups on Twitter have really changed how I interact and I’ve learned a lot from other writers promoting their work too.

Whether it really makes a difference or not is quite impossibly to say, at this stage. But I keep telling myself it will! And honestly, after the last year and a half, I’m so excited to talk to strangers again I don’t really care. In talking to people and putting myself out there, on social media and in real life, I feel like I’ve tapped into a new community who really cares about books and writers.

Publishing a book is long, and crazy. I’m sure I’ll look back on this post in a few months and there will have been a whole other set of learning too. But to anyone reading this and wondering, is it really worth it, I would say yes. With bells on. Writers learn for a living: every edit is a lesson in how to be better. As I see it, the end part of the process is just an extension of this. So I embrace the next few months, and cross my fingers that it all pays off. If nothing else… WHAT a ride!

That difficult second album

It’s been a funny six months since I got my literary agent. Time seems to have slowed down, or is passing in larger chunks, I’m not sure which. I no longer speak about the process of writing in weeks, but in months, or years even. At a micro-level, things are happening. My first novel has been edited once more (with feeling!) and safely delivered to my agent. She loves it. I love it. It’s gone, out of the door, on submission to publishers; all I can do now is wait, anywhere between four weeks and four years, to find someone else who enjoys it enough to put it into print.

In the meantime, my agent asked me what I was going to do next.
‘The sequel’, I said. Easy. I have an outline of the next book in the series, and in my head, it seemed like the natural next step to start writing it. Just incase I get a two-book deal, my inner voice mutters hopefully. I am more subtle with my out loud voice. ‘That makes, sense, right?’
‘Do you have any other ideas to pitch?’ she replied, indicating it didn’t. I ran through my library of half-started/half-finished novels: a middle grade ghost story, a YA fantasy, a fully blown sci-fi novel that’s been in my head for about five years now. But I knew none of that would be useful to an agent that’s just signed me to write commercial women’s fiction.

‘I have one idea,’ I ventured. ‘But it’s literally a single sentence.’ And I pitched her a thought I’d had in a particularly dark, hormonally driven moment a few months ago that hasn’t gone away. A back of a fag packet idea that I had no notion of how to execute on.

Of course, she loved it. I mean, REALLY loved it. ‘I LOVE that idea,’ she said. ‘You have to write it. Now.’
‘But I don’t have a clue what it’s about. I literally have just that one idea.’
‘You’ll get there. Go away and think about it over summer. I can’t wait to read it.’

16uwxlSummer lasted quite a while as far as I was concerned. July and August were spent reading lots of commercial fiction, because the voice I wanted for this book, I knew, would be in stark contrast to my first novel. Not all women’s commercial fiction is created equal and there’s a startling range of writing styles, some of which I’d really rather never read again. But a few stood out as the sort of book I wanted to give a go; Elinor Oliphant, Three Things About Elsie plus half a back catalogue of Liane Moriaty later, I knew what I wanted my book to feel like, even if I didn’t have a story yet.

I waited, patiently, for inspiration to hit. The one idea played in my head like a broken record and I was sure that I had the rest of it tucked away somewhere, but August became September and still, I had nothing. The terror of putting pen to paper and coming up with anything close to meaningful began to overshadow my ability to write and by October, procrastination and self doubt had crept so far into my head that I’d given them house keys and a drawer. Since July, I’d written approximately 5000 words, with no direction or real sense of what the story was at all.

I don’t know why today was different. I’d been on Twitter, the writer’s equivalent of prozac, and got lost in a series of posts and articles that I could vaguely pass off as research. But then suddenly, an idea popped into my head. And it was so obvious, and so easy, that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it before. What sweet relief! Suddenly all the other ideas began to arrive and I began the glorious business of putting together a plot. By midday, I had a couple of A4 pages that were starting to look suspiciously like a story.

Writers talk a lot about their process. Articles – indeed, entire books – have been devoted to the subject of how to write. My MA peers, when we meet, represent the entire gamut of book writing methodology, from blow by blow post it note plotting, to 1000 words a day for the whole of November NO MATTER WHAT, to my rather less precise notion that I’ll write when I have time and the mood takes me and the ideas will happen when they happen.

I had begun to doubt my own process, believing, quite wrongly, that I should be ‘better’ second time around, about the structure and methodology of writing a novel. Turns out that I should trust my instincts. It took me 40 years to come up with the idea for the first book, and only six months to come up with second. I’m on a roll.

 

What I learned about pitching at the London Book Fair

Being ready can take a long time
I started writing The PTA Assassin two and a half years ago. When it was done, I followed up with the first edit. Then a second one. Then a massive third edit took place last year when I paid someone professional to look at it. Since then it’s undergone a copy edit too, and after all that I’m confident it’s in a reasonably good state for submission.

I actually started submitting 18 months ago, sometime before the third edit, and I look back now and I’m not surprised I was rejected out of hand by everyone. It was horrible. POV was all over the map, my grammar was inexcusable in places and the climax at the end was about as dangerous as a Blue Peter advent calendar.

After a diligent manuscript review by my wonderful mentor at PWA, however, it was looking in much better shape. I got my synopsis together, brushed up my cover letter and started all over again with new agents. This time, I got some positive responses. Twice now, it’s made it off the slush pile, although not quite converted to a deal yet. Undaunted, I headed to the London Book Fair this week to meet with an agent face to face.

The Elevator Pitch
‘What’s your book about?’
So many other writers have asked me this at the LBF this week, and it’s been a brilliant way of polishing up my elevator pitch. By the time it came to meet an agent for my one-to-one session on Thursday, I could have told my 2-minute version of The PTA Assassin to her in my sleep. So instead of worrying about ‘knowing my subject’, I focused on preparing the other things an agent might be looking for when they met me – knowing around my subject.

Say it out loud before you go
I got on well with the agent I met, and she instantly warmed to the idea of the book. I have to say, that helped a lot. She asked me about the genre, the audience it’s aimed at, what books are most like the one I’ve written. Of course, nerves got the better of me at this point. I managed to a) forget Janet Evanovich’s name and then oh! the joy of remembering it, swiftly followed by b) not be able to say it properly the first five times I tried. Still, we got there in the end. I felt a bit of an idiot though. Note to self: Learn how to actually pronounce out loud the name of the person you’ve read books by since you were in your twenties and written repeatedly into your cover letter for the past two years.

Make a connection
The agent asked who my main character was, and what she was like. ‘She’s like Bridget Jones but with a gun,’ I said. ‘But more competent than Bridget.’ ‘So in a film, she’d have Melissa McCarthy playing her?’ the agent said. ‘No, I think she’s more of an Olivia Coleman,’ I replied. We laughed. ‘Got it,’ she said. It was a brilliantly fast way of getting on the same page and giving her a vision to work with. You don’t get that in an email submission.

Know what you want
She asked if there was a sequel and if I intended it to be a trilogy or a series. ‘It’s a series’ I said, although noted that there’s only a finite amount of research one can pick up on the internet about MI5 so there were limitations. We talked about where the PTA Assassin was set, how it ends, and where the next one picks up. ‘Don’t set it too far after the first one,’ said the agent, ‘or she’ll be 107 by the fifth book.’ I like the way she thinks. She asked what else I write, and what I do for a living currently. She asked briefly about another book I was writing but when I couldn’t describe it without stuttering, I asked if I could pitch that another time when I could remember what it was about and she laughed and agreed that might be best. She asked if I would be able/willing to write something at the suggestion of a publisher, rather than it being my own initial idea. We talked for 15 minutes and about half of that wasn’t about my book. It felt comfortable and not at all scary. Dare I say fun?

Please-Like-Me-Meme-Girl-FaceStay positive
She’s asked for my manuscript. Obviously I was totally cool about it and didn’t say ‘Really?’ in a high pitched squeak of excitement (honest). But even if she decides that ultimately it’s not for her, I learned a ton about pitching from that meeting. Getting face to face time was great for me. It wouldn’t suit everyone, I’m sure, but for me it was great to be able to express myself and convey my sense of humour – humour that the book contains, too. You just can’t do that on a cover letter without sounding like a total prat.

I don’t know what will happen. I don’t know yet, if I’ll ever get an agent or end up self publishing. But even if you self publish, you still have to pitch your book to people to get them to buy the damn thing. There will be signings and launches and PR to do and every time, you’ll need to convince people that your book is worth reading. So I would say to anyone out there who’s in the same position, to practice, practice, practice, and get good at telling people about what you wrote. You never know who might want to read it.