As I might have mentioned once or twice, I am (hopefully) getting close to finishing my first novel, Storytellers, historical suspense with fantasy elements set in Iceland between 1885-1920. Here’s an honest confession about my delusions…

 

Drafts

Having read approximately 15823098 articles on writing, I was under the impression that a book is written in three drafts. The first is for the writer. The second is for beta-readers. The third is when everything gets fixed, becomes perfect, and I get my first Pulitzer Prize.

Things didn’t turn out that way.

On January 1, 2017, I started working on the first draft of the story I’ve been carrying in my head ever since I dreamt it years earlier. I vomited rather than wrote that first draft. It took me two weeks to produce roughly a hundred thousand words. At this point, I didn’t know yet where the book would be set, so I went for generic “village” and “ocean” terms. But of course, I was already starting to get obsessed with Iceland. When I read Independent People and Wasteland With WordsI realised it was the perfect setting. In fact, it seemed as if Gods created Iceland with the sole purpose of helping me write the novel.

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As mentioned previously, I am working on two books at once.

The first, ‘Storyteller’, is the novel set in Iceland between 1885-1920. I believe we are in final editing stages before querying agents. I would like to try traditional publishing for this one, which most probably means I have to have lots of patience. I am aiming at American market, which means my road to $ucce$$ is going to look like this (based on research and partly guesswork):

I have to find an agent. I know of people who had three rejections. I know of people who had more than 100. The process lasts a very long time, because there are many writers, not just me (shocking!) who would like to be published. Imagine you are an agent, and you receive 100 book proposals a week. Obviously, nobody has this sort of time – heck, I’m reading two books at once, and I’m on fourth day with Amanda Palmer’s ‘The Art of Asking’. (Recommended!) Therefore, agents require queries.

A query is basically a short summary of what the book is about, and why someone would be willing to read it. The query can’t be too long. Each agency (sometimes each agent) has requirements of some sorts. Those requirements need to be met, because otherwise you are not sending a query, you are sending proof that you are nowhere near published yet, and you already don’t care. Those go in the trash. This initial selection process is often done by interns, who have to go through 100 queries a week, and sometimes more. I am not jealous of their job.

The next thing to include (depending, again, on agent’s requirements) are sample pages. Five of them. Which means first five pages must be interesting enough for someone to want to read further. This is, of course, assuming the query didn’t land my manuscript in the trash already. When you get 100 books a week, and remember this is a conservative estimate, that means 500 pages to read in case all queries are murderously good. Some agents find time to respond with critique. Most, I guess, don’t. (Which is partly because enraged writers “respond” to them…) If my first pages are good enough, I will receive a request for partial (say, first 50 pages), or full (well, duh, full manuscript). And then I will WAIT, since agents tend to have a pile of books that they requested half a year ago. Which is because agents don’t just read the book within half an hour, then press the magical “publish” button. They actually have other things to do than read my masterpiece!!! Do they KNOW who I am?! (No. They don’t.) I am important and so is my work! But…so is everybody else’s.

Once I found an agent, which may take a month or a year or longer, the search begins for an interested editor at a publishing house. Again, editors receive a lot of manuscripts, although less than agents (whose job, among others, is to make sure the editor doesn’t receive 100 half-baked books per month just from this one agent). That editor must be interested in my genre, which for ‘Storyteller’ is historical fiction with fantasy elements. Sending a fantastic historical fiction to someone specialised in non-fiction is a waste of time, both editor’s and agent’s. And, dare I say, mine. Therefore I do the research to find an agent interested in my genre, after which the agent has to find an editor interested in my genre. This can last up to EIGHTEEN YEARS. So I may be in the situation where I have a super enthusiastic agent totally in love with my book, and then wait for years until the right editor falls in love with it as well. Largely because a genre might go out of fashion for a while, and there is nothing anybody can do about it, unless 100000 readers suddenly send a petition demanding immediate release of my book.

This is not the end.

Traditional publishing process takes many months. First of all, the publisher’s editor will request more edits from me, because that’s their job – make the book as good and marketable as possible.

Marketing plans need to be prepared. Cover designed. Layout done and approved. Galley copies read and corrected, because typos exist no matter what. Advanced review copies (ARCs) distributed among reviewers. I don’t even know what else, since I didn’t quite get that far yet. What I do know is that my book will not be published a day after the editor receives the manuscript from the agent.

All this means that if I pursue traditional publishing, I will wait for years before the book is out. Which is a part of how it works. First, though, I will have to deal with tons of rejections. Again, it’s not personal unless I have proven that I am a horrible person to work with (beginning with ignoring the agent’s requests – which are not what they are to make my life difficult, but rather to make the agent’s life easier). It’s just how things work. The editor might say the book is fabulous, then ask to add vampires and zombie babies to the book. It happens. Publishing is a business. Piracy is hurting it a lot. Competition is stiffer than ever.

I estimate if I am lucky ‘Storyteller’ might be released in 2020. At which point I better have another book ready to go. Because if I now take a two-year break and wait for ‘Storyteller’ to be published, I will find myself in a spot where I have no follow-up of any sort. Before I have a follow-up, it will be 2022. Before it gets published… etc.

The second novel, tentatively called ‘God of Fire’, is urban fantasy, where a bunch of Norse Gods decide a nerdy graphic designer from Amsterdam is the only person that can save the universe. No pressure. I finished the second draft, and sent it to beta readers. I made a mistake of asking on my Polish blog’s fanpage whether that one lady who commented on my old YouTube clip could contact me. Now I have 28 beta readers. Their feedback might come in all forms and shapes, including “I died of boredom on page 60”. I will be using this feedback to rewrite the whole thing until I feel it is good enough…to start working with an editor. (FYI, regarding ‘Storyteller’… So far I’ve been working with Crystal Clear Resources for 10 months, while writing the book took nine months.) There is a chance that feedback will be overwhelmingly negative, and then I will scrap the whole thing. This is why beta readers are incredibly important. I can’t objectively judge my writing.

Once I have that feedback, I estimate research and rewrites will take at least six months. And then I will be hitting the editor for help again before…that’s right! Querying!

All this, for some reason, makes me feel happy. I am not under pressure of any sort right now. I can go on writing, then querying and writing, then waiting and writing. Right now nobody except my potential readers is waiting for me to deliver anything. There are no deadlines. And if I run out of agents willing to look at my query, then I can self-publish and pray for the best. (Which is, by the way, why most authors who don’t publish one book per month on Amazon have day jobs.) Again, without deadlines.

I have no idea how this all is going to go. But that, too, is exciting. It will be considerably less exciting after my 100th rejection, I suppose. But I am not there yet. I will keep you posted.

Photo: working hard on research. If you like this picture, why not check our photo book on Etsy?

I’ve been thinking about this post for a while already. I decided to finally write it when I read – on the fantastic Writing About Writing page by Chris Breechen – the following question a reader asked:

Casey asks:

Why can’t I sell my work? My friends all say it’s great.  I do fine if I submit it to some tiny zine that can’t [sic] promises its writers only exposure and glory, but I always get rejected at the places that pay. Even places that pay just a few cents a word reject me. Help!  This is so frustrating!! Am I just not as good as I think I am?

I am very aware of the fact that my book might not be as good or as life-changing as I like to think it is. There might be no readers interested in what I’m writing. Most people in the world don’t share my obsession with Iceland, its history, Norse Gods, or even (gasp!) blacksmithing. And that’s OK. In fact, I find this thought liberating.

I feel asking my friends to serve as beta-readers was a mistake. Most of our friends can’t find in themselves to tell us our writing sucks. One of them told me she never even read the first sentence, paralysed by the fear she would have to tell me the book is shit. In other words, by asking friends to tell me if they like the book I actually decreased the number of people willing to read it. I like to think (confirmed by the editor I work with) that I’m good at accepting constructive criticism. But I might just be saying that. I might just be deluding myself. I know that there were at least four of my beta readers who wouldn’t have lied to me when they said that they enjoyed the second draft I sent them, then provided me with actual constructive feedback. I thought they were wrong on many counts. A few rewrites later I have incorporated all of their remarks. They were right. All of them said they enjoyed the book. So did my husband. Assuming they were not just being nice, that means five readers interested in its final version, and all of those five will get the book for free. Which means selling 0 copies. I put the purchase a private island filled with Porsches on the backburner for now.

I used to not write anything, because of two fears. Fear of failure is kind of self-explanatory. Fear of success is perhaps less obvious, but a success means inevitable criticism from people who won’t like my writing. And there is no single book universally loved by everyone. Not even my personal favourites.

An international bestseller from last year, whose author is swimming in prizes has been recommended to me by quite a bunch of people whose tastes I trust. I managed about 1/3, suffering from second-hand embarrassment through every page. I decided to stop, despite people telling me “it will get better”. Because I have 300 unread books on my e-reader. Judging by the reviews, this book is exquisite. Judging by my experience…it isn’t. Not for me. I did not leave a negative review, because there was a chance it would have gotten better had I continued. I am sure she wrote the best book she could, as evidenced by all the praise from both critics and readers. That book was not good enough for me to bother reading it, and it takes a lot for me to give up on a book – in the last year it only happened twice, and the second one was also an acclaimed (and very, very, very long) bestseller.

In 2013, 304,912 books were published in the United States. That means 5863 books a week. Even if somehow the NYT bestseller list completely changed every single week, without any book staying in top 100 longer than seven days, it would mean 5763 books A WEEK wouldn’t see the top 100. Average sales of a debut novel published by one of the Big Five (is it Big Four by now?) are between 1,000 and 20,000. Anything over 10,000 is considered a very good result. Smaller press will get 250 to 5000 sales. (Source.) Having spent – so far – almost 18 months writing, researching, interviewing people, writing this blog, trying to get potential readers to notice my existence I had and still have to be aware that in the US alone 304,912 books (perhaps more in 2017) are competing for that attention. That’s excluding many, many books writers slaved over for years that never found a publisher, not even an agent.

The top selling book in 2014 was “50 Shades of Grey” with 8 million sales. The amount of bad reviews that book received was staggering. The amount of $100 notes in which E.L.James rolls daily, cackling (I like to imagine successful writers do that all the time) is also staggering. My fear of success came from believing that I would get the same amount of bad reviews. My fear of failure came from worrying I won’t sell 8 million books. None of those fears are realistic, if only because in order to get so many bad reviews one needs to sell 8 million books first, and none out of the 304,912 books published in 2013 managed to do so. (I’m aware I am comparing 2013 data with 2014 data.) Those both fears can be squashed by a calming thought that my book will never be published, I will never need to worry about any reviews, sales or lack thereof, so I can focus on writing and nothing else.

I happen to love doing research, editing, revising, watching the book turn from a shapeless blog into a sculpture of David. You’d think that’s not a very modest comparison, but truth is – personally I have zero interest in the sculpture of David. Does Michelangelo spend his days turning in his grave because of the fact I can’t be bothered to even look at pictures of his masterpiece? I sure hope not, because that would be a whole new level of creepy.

I have two favourite works of art, both placed in Reykjavik. One is the statue of Leifur Eiríksson, one is the Sun Voyager.

I don’t know how many people would name the statue of Leifur Eiríksson their favourite work of art, especially as it stands in front of the real landmark of Reykjavik, the rocket-shaped church Hallgrímskirkja. Perhaps 250 people? You can review EVERYTHING on the Internet now, and this statue averages 4.0 stars out of five. (Why the hell would anybody feel the need to give a statue a three-star review is beyond me.) I don’t think Alexander Stirling Calder, who designed it 90 years ago worried about his TripAdvisor reviews, or that the number of people wanting to take pictures of it might be smaller than of those in awe with Hallgrímskirkja.

When I look at my brother Leifur here, I realise how little I am actually risking. He got on a ship, fully aware he might never return (this is not something I have to worry about while writing), that he might waste time and resources, discover nothing, become a laughing stock among his peers – if he even makes it back at all. But he had an America to discover, so he went on the journey, and got rewarded. The worst that can happen to me is not a pile of rejections. The worst would be to stop writing. Leifur could have turned and announced “actually I think farming is my true calling”.

Will I ever get paid for my work? No idea. Am I as good as I hope I am? No idea. Does that bother me? Yes, sometimes. I get the “I am the absolute worst writer in the universe ever” thoughts a lot. I wait for them to pass, then – sighing – I go back to my two novels in progress (one nearing completion, one in second draft stage). I read an article recently where a published writer said she gave her book 100 rejections, then almost stopped, but a friend forced her to try a bit longer. The 112th agent signed her. Average time between the first time one starts properly writing and gets published is ten years. Average, not longest. Instead of being paralysed by the “what if I don’t sell eight millions” thought, I look at the e-mail in which the editor praises my work (I printed it out, laminated, then put next to replica of Sun Voyager in the spot where I write). Then I go back to writing. There will be tears at the querying stage, especially after 113th rejection. I’ll have the same thoughts as Casey over and over again. I’ll worry about that when I get there. I’ve got 8.5 years before I need to worry about sales figures.

Chris has this advice for Casey:

Casey, you’re doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. You’re putting your name out there and you’re working to improve your writing.

His advice is not addressed to me, but I’ll take it anyway.