Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Guest blog post by Melanie Welsh

As part of the launch of Mistress of the Storm in paperback, Melanie has kindle written a post about writing. I'd like to thank her for an insightful, personal post, which is beneficial to new writers, and I'll pass the rest of the post over to her. 

Getting from book to publication

In January 2007 I made a New Year’s Resolution. I decided to finally act on my life’s dream and try to secure a book deal. It wasn’t brilliant timing. Our first son was about 9 months old, and I had a very busy job.

Publishing is a complex industry that often feels shrouded in mystery. But the one thing my husband, our friends and family were all very clear on is that book contracts are hard to come by. So I agreed with my husband that he would help me find the time to try - but that if it didn’t work I would pack up the dream and get on with doing something more constructive.

This post is a whistle-stop tour of my experience. I’m ashamed to say it will tell you a lot more about my shocking lack of patience and tendency to go a bit mad when pregnant, than anything else. And I should also point out that no two authors follow the same route. A friend of mine recently got signed to an agent and found a publishing deal with Simon & Schuster in the same week (I only gnashed my teeth for a couple of hours).

Back to 2007 then. I’d read that as few as 1 in 100 manuscripts submitted direct to a publishing house actually made it to publication. I didn’t like those odds so I looked for an agent first. I crossed my fingers and sent off the first three chapters plus a synopsis to three companies I’d been told were good – and very luckily found a place almost immediately. Now all we had to do was get a publishing deal…

There is an article, written by my now publisher David Fickling, on the Guardian website, in which he discusses the process of getting published and makes the following comment:

“Nowadays, professionally speaking, your champion will in all likelihood be either a commissioning editor in a largish publishing house, or a literary agent. Getting your typescript to either and having them actually read it are necessarily tortuous and difficult.”

During the summer and autumn of 2008 I would open that article repeatedly and stare at it mournfully. Because by then I knew my manuscript had been submitted to David Fickling Books and that they were reading it. DFB are the home of Philip Pullman, John Boyne and Siobhan Dowd to name just three. And of all the publishers, they were the ones I didn’t even dare to dream of being considered by.

Waiting to hear what someone you admire thinks of your novel, is like being eight years old on December 24th: agony. In the meantime I was expecting our second son. And in a fit of pregnancy-insanity-fuelled superstition, I refused to tell my agent. I was terrified that if either she or DFB found out, they would delay their decision still further. And I needed to know.

So of course, it was about five days after Ben was born that DFB rang to say they liked the book and wanted to meet me. Could I get to Oxford? Apologies to the squeamish, but it’s not easy getting out and about when you’re breastfeeding.
‘We’d like to meet in four weeks time,’ they said.
‘Perfect,’ I replied.
Wild horses could not have kept me away.

Luckily for me, Bella and Hannah were more than worth the effort. They are both charming, funny and (most importantly for me) very nice. And even more fortunately, they decided to sign not just my first book, but the whole series of four.

That is one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had – talking to people you respect, who like a book that you’ve written. I’ve compared notes with my friend and he agrees that it feels as if a massive practical joke is being played on you. But once I’d got over the disbelief it was the best Christmas of my life (even taking into account that our son Ben had colic and we were getting a maximum of three hours sleep per night).

There’s been so much I’ve had to learn along the way to actually publishing a book, and I can’t see that changing any time soon. Bella and Hannah took a big gamble with me – the manuscript they signed was a very different beast to the book that now sits on the shelf in shops.

Working with book editors was – of course – a completely new experience. I can’t deny that the process is sometimes frustrating and it’s frightening too because this is your life’s dream and you don’t know what lies ahead.

So how does that editing process work? Quite slowly. (Did I mention how impatient I am?). It takes months to finish each re-write, then you tend to meet up and discuss the story themes that are, or are not, working, possible solutions, the motivations for different characters and the ‘logic’ of the world you’ve created. Novels are lengthy and complex but must appear to be fluid and simple - working out their structure feels a bit like playing a game of chess with yourself.

It took Bella and Hannah another year to help me shape the manuscript into a publishable shape. Mistress of the Storm, the first in the Verity Gallant series, came out in July 2010 and was recently published in paperback. The second novel, Heart of Stone, is due out in January 2012.

The funny thing about finally achieving the seemingly impossible dream of becoming an author is how quickly it becomes a normal part of your life (I haven’t mentioned this yet to my friend!). Occasionally I have to remind myself that even to have got this far is an achievement. The odds against getting published – by anyone – are stacked against you. Someone told me recently that you’ve got a better chance of becoming a fighter pilot. I’ve got no idea whether that’s even vaguely accurate but it feels right at times.

So is it worth it? Absolutely. Verity is in many ways my third baby and, like a child, being with her is at times frustrating and even infuriating. But I know she makes me a better person and I can’t imagine my life without her.

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