Exactly as the title suggests, the twenty-first and final draft of Storytellers arrived from my editor this morning.
The dream I had many years ago inspired the first draft. I was somewhat sick, but not too sick to type, so I wrote it down within the first two weeks of January 2017. At the end of September 2017 I sent what was in my head the final version to the editor, asking only for grammar and spelling corrections. Sixteen months later we both declared the book ready. January 1, 2017 – January 28, 2019. Exactly two years and twenty-eight days.
Obviously, I didn’t spend every single day working on those drafts. When the book was with the editor, I busied myself writing an outline for another book that didn’t work, two drafts for God of Fire which is now in my “perhaps one day in the far future” folder, and recently started rewriting the Norse mythology as a character-driven epic fantasy series. I don’t mind revealing that, because the idea is the easiest part of writing a book…
It all starts with the idea. Many people say they have no ideas. I believe this, generally, to not be true. If you ever looked at your ex and thought “I wish you’d fall into a sewer during the first walk with your new girlfriend”, you came up with an idea you could elaborate on. You, or rather your heroine who would definitely not be you at all, could curse the ex – every time he went on a date, something awful would happen to him. Instead of a werewolf, he could be a wererat or a werecockroach. If you had a conversation and came up with the perfect answer half an hour earlier, you came up with an idea you could write down. Once you had enough of those mini-ideas, you could start writing.
There are two sorts of writers: plotters and pantsers. Plotters generally know what is going to happen. They create outlines, synopses, etc. Pantsers, on the other hand, just write. One of the reasons I knew God of Fire wasn’t working was that it refused to follow any of my outlines. I’d manage to enforce it through 4-5 chapters, at which point the characters would basically go “meh – not doing that”. It is true that the characters often dictate the writer what to do or refuse to follow instructions. They do, after all, have personalities. For a writer who is any good at what she does, those personalities have to differ from each other – and from the writer’s. I created a bunch of strong characters that weren’t particularly interested in the story I wanted to cast them in. The new one – so far – works, even though I’m pantsing most of it while keeping an eye on the Sagas and doing research as I go.
Twenty-one drafts? How can you even?
The first draft is basically rubbish. You write whatever comes to mind. It’s perfectly fine to write “fight scene here” or, in my case, “” – I can later search for the phrase to easily find out what needs to be replaced or researched. The second draft should start taking form. Sometimes the second draft is actually fourth or so, but in any case it’s the one that you can send to beta readers and get their opinions. Once you gathered those opinions, you use them (or not) to write the final draft, the “third” one, which is more or less the finished book. The end.
Sounds easy, right? LOL NOPE.
My third draft was actually, I believe, the ninth. I was absolutely convinced it was perfect and I felt ready to start querying agents. The only problem I could see was the slow beginning and the word count of 112 thousand words (average book fits between 80-100 thousand). The first chapter – out of 21 – took thirty pages in Word. I was young and naive then (stop with the chuckling), and when I sent it to the editor in September 2017 I asked if it would be okay to explain in my pitches that “it starts slowly, but then gets better”. There’s a catch, though…
A query is a short description of the book, complete with your bio, ideally personalised for every agent. When you send a query, the agent can do the following:
- Reject you with a form email saying “thank you, I’m sure your book is lovely, but I’m afraid it is not what we are looking for”. This is translated to English as “please stop wasting my time”.
- Reject you, but with personalised remarks – “I feel this book might improve if you added a cute baby and turned the vampires into kittens”. This is good. It means your query stood out enough to be, you know, read. Agents get lots of queries. Lots. Getting an actual reaction with real words in it is by itself a validation, and if you follow the advice the agent might want to read the next revision. (Changing names using the replace function and replacing “Joe’s cow” with “Joe’s cute kitten” is not a revision.)
- Request a partial. This depends on the agent’s requirements. But the partial is always the beginning. First 20, 30, 50 pages. You know, the ones that in my case were described as “a bit slow, but…”. If you send a boring partial, the agent will not bother with…
- Requesting a full. That’s nearly the Holy Grail. It means that the partial, or sometimes even a query, was interesting enough for the agent to want to actually read the whole book. Mind, it doesn’t mean they will read it, because if it has amazing 50 pages at the beginning, then soggy 200 in the middle nobody is going to go through that.
Bear in mind there are a lot of agents. They have their own tastes. They sometimes have a bad day and will delete your query because their inbox has 1500+ unread e-mails and the agent has a migraine. And even if an agent adores you, that’s still only the first step. Harry Potter – my favourite example – was rejected by “more or less every major publishing house in the UK” – and that’s after JK Rowling found an agent!
Obviously, none of this needs to concern you if you just want to be a Published Author with a book bearing your name on the cover. Self-publish and no gatekeeper will stop you. Nobody will force you to get a proofreader, an editor, a cover designer. You might not get any readers, but then…who am I to say I will?
Back to twenty-one drafts…
The editor pointed out a few things she felt could have done with improvement. One of those things was pacing – which meant, for instance, that an introduction that takes thirty pages before we even get anywhere might need a bit of shortening. I listened. The editor came up with more corrections once she realised I could take creative criticism. My goals began to change. From wanting to be a Published Author I became someone who wanted to write the best book he could. Now that I have the finished manuscript here I am still tempted to tinker with it further.
I was expecting to finish with draft twenty. At this point thirty pages were condensed to eleven. I won a competition on Kristen Lamb’s site – critique of the first chapter. It transpired I did a very good job at making those eleven pages exciting and fast-paced. Except for the fact that I have two timelines, “Now” (1920) and “Then” (1885-1890). “Then” is a story being told by one of the protagonists introduced on the first eleven pages. Kristen pointed out that she was just getting interested in the fates of Gunnar and Sigurd when suddenly I plopped in pages of description at the beginning of the “Then” story. I confirmed this with one of my beta-readers, who admitted she only became interested in the “Then” story when the female lead appeared.
So I chopped off the entire part before Juana’s appearance. The book, surprisingly, didn’t suffer much. I scattered about ten percent of the information in the further chapters, as some bits were crucial to understand what was going on. The remaining ninety percent just went. (By the way, Megan The Editor suggested around draft twelve that perhaps this part is a bit slow. She was right. She is mostly right.) Draft twenty-one’s first chapter is now ten pages long. It doesn’t sound like much until you realise that going down from eleven to ten pages meant removing ten percent of the content.
And then…we were done.
Guess what’s in “additional files”…
It was partly at my request. I could see how I was evolving as a writer, how useful Megan’s remarks were, how much they shaped the story which largely remained the same (although I completely changed the ending around draft eighteen). I could also see that left to my own devices I would still be working on Storytellers on my deathbed. Draft twenty-one is the one that’s going to be published. Soon. Because…
I decided to self-publish Storytellers.
The traditional agent-editor-publisher system is often referred to as “gatekeepers”. It’s a not very nice word suggesting that they do all they can to stop your book from ever seeing the light of day. The gatekeepers themselves prefer to explain that they are looking for quality material. Traditionally published book will be available in bookstores, and gain you the recognition of being a Real Published Author, as well as the confirmation that your writing exudes quality.
This would totally appeal to me had it not been for the fact that the creative endeavours of Kim Kardashian, Snooki from Jersey Shore, and Miley Cyrus were clearly deemed quality literature. There were sizeable advances. Truth was, there was a platform – as in, those people were famous. It doesn’t matter what Miley Cyrus or her ghostwriter is going to actually put together. It says “Miley Cyrus” on the cover. Many, many more people will want to read Miley’s book (disclaimer: I haven’t read Miley’s book) than that of a brand new, unknown author. Kim Kardashian doesn’t query agents or send them partials of her selfie book. I could have the new Twilight (Gods forbid) on my hands and still have to jump through the hoops.
Found via a Goodreads’ special list…
I made the final decision when I found out that 1) the publisher was unlikely to help me with promotion beyond possibly sending out review copies and organising book tours like it’s 1995, and 2) when on Twitter an author boasted about how she spent nine years searching for an agent, the agent spent four years searching for an interested editor, and her book will be out this year. That’s fourteen years. I don’t know whether I will be alive in fourteen years. Traditional publishing is not a fast process. And if you were unlucky enough to write the absolute best book about sparkly vampires fourteen years ago, you will not find a publisher for it today. Maybe in twenty years. But not today.
Self-publishing gives the writer complete control over everything. This can be dangerous, because it allows to tinker with the book after it’s published. Print-on-demand, however, means no extra stock and no chance of the book going out of print. I designed the cover instead of being presented with one and having nothing to say. I picked the release date (to be confirmed, because see the previous post). I will be doing the promotion myself, same as I would if I were to publish traditionally. My books will probably (although they might!) never make it to brick-and-mortar bookstores, but let’s be honest, most traditionally published writers end up with two copies of their new release stuck under the relevant section in alphabetical order. If they’re lucky. It would be nice to have a permanent display of 100 copies of my book in every Waterstones. I’m sure E.L. James’s publisher can afford that…
I’m aware this post is long and somewhat meandering, but I don’t finish novels every day. Let me indulge a bit here.
The process doesn’t end the moment I get the final manuscript from the proofreader. I need to come up with a short blurb that will entice the potential buyer into at least checking the free sample on Amazong. The book needs artwork. It also needs reviews and promotion. And that’s before we move into the formats other than e-book. A paper book needs proper layout. (It helps to have fourteen years of experience as a graphic designer…) The cover must look good both when printed and as a tiny black-and-white thumbnail. Review copies must be sent out. Social media. Press, if I’m lucky enough. Trailers. In my case, a soundtrack album. And an audiobook. Deciding whether to go for Kindle Unlimited or publish wide in all e-book stores I can think of. Choosing the price – this is surprisingly difficult and important. Getting proof copies to ensure people won’t end up e-mailing me to tell me how they couldn’t read the book because the font was too small/illegible/too artsy-fartsy/the cover was wrongly cut/etc.
At the same time, I need to find time to write. Blog posts and guest posts, for instance. But more importantly the next book. (Unless you’re George R.R. Martin. Then you don’t.) I need time to, you know, have a life. I’ve mentioned a few days ago that life decided to occupy a lot of time for me, and it’s not like life respects my plans or ideas. I need to finally finish that Vikings book, since the Vikings posts drive half of the traffic to my blog right now and I desperately need a giveaway to lure people into subscribing to my newsletter. I need to start sending newsletters. I need to write those newsletters. Twitter just isn’t the same without me. My Facebook page keeps telling me that I’m not entertaining the fans often enough.
I am not done – with Storytellers and anything else I will write next.
In fact, I barely started.