Thursday, June 23, 2011

Can you learn from my mistakes?

Building a career in publishing can be a really tough job, and often it's a long haul too. I'm in a good position now, contracted for a couple of years, (which is the most security a writer can ever bank on) and I work with some terrific people in the industry.

Being where I'm at enables me to look back at my journey. I recently shared some of my thoughts over at the Genreality blog and I'm reposting it here in case it's useful to anyone who calls by. If you want to ask any questions, please do!

Hi folks, it’s wonderful to be here at Genreality to share some of my writing journey. Can anyone learn from it, I wonder? Hmm. Well, I’m pretty sure someone can learn from my mistakes. ;-)

My first paid work was contracted almost fifteen years ago, and it was a short story for the UK Black Lace line. Since then I’ve had short fiction published in over eighty anthologies. I’ve published ten novels, four of which were trade paper books with New York publishing houses. Most recently I received a new two book contract, this time with the mass-market publishing line HQN. It’s been a winding road, and it’s been quite a journey. I’m now a full time author and I work with some terrific people. I really couldn’t wish for better, but as I look back I confess I take a deep breath and shudder, because I can see the missteps and blundering errors I made along the way, things that took me two steps back after one step forward. For a while there it was quite a catalogue of disasters. How on earth did I manage to stagger through this far?!

Hard work and the love of writing kept me at it, basically. I love to learn and I was constantly learning and honing my craft. I adore the storytelling. I also had tenacity on my side, and…a huge great dollop of luck. Yes, luck. Lucky breaks happen when we submit at the right time for that editor, and we can’t know when that is going to be. I’m hesitant to give aspiring authors advice as a result of my mixed fortunes, but I figured I can share some of the advice I read that worked for me, and some that didn’t.

The first thing I quickly learned was that some of the things you read about publishing may never apply to your individual path. There’s no one way to do this, even though some people might seem to suggest there is. (Their way being the best way, of course ;-) Here are some bits of advice I read that made me fret: “follow the market,” “brand yourself,” and “write the book of your heart.” I heard these things over and over around the time I started to submit novels for consideration. Follow the market — okay, we need to know what editors are buying, but it was actually luck that I was writing the right sub genre when it was required. And yes, the best thing we can do is write the book of our heart because it’ll be the best piece of writing we can do. If we’re enjoying the writing the reader will enjoy it too. If we’re not enjoying it, it shows. That makes sense. But what if the book of my heart doesn’t fit the market, and how could I brand myself when I was writing lots of different subgenres?

Other writers out there had these great slogans about their work but I couldn’t find anything that represented mine. The best thing I could do was to pick out the most consistent theme in my work and offer that as a brand. My work is characterised by eroticism and strong storytelling. That’s the closest I ever got to a brand because I’ve written erotic fantasy, paranormal romance, contemporary erotica, historical romance, even a bit of futuristic. I write a lot of cross genre stories too. My next publication, for example, is a historical paranormal erotic romance set in Scotland. (The Harlot) I’ve written different lengths for different markets in different countries. I’ve sold to the biggest romance publisher in the world and I’ve also had my work published in Penthouse and Bust. Branding what I was doing wasn’t ever going to be easy. Bottom line is I just want to write good stories that readers enjoy. The good news is I got through anyway.

Another piece of advice I read was to make a five-year plan. What, like a five-year dream, I wondered to myself. ;o) I mean, come on..! This isn’t like a regular job where we can study for qualifications and move forward as a matter of course. I was working in an area where things change all the time, not only markets but the whole face of publishing is forever changing. I’m a realistic type and I knew I might never be contracted by a big house. The whole concept of a five-year plan seemed alien to me. The important thing here is to aim high but to keep one foot on the ground, because if we get carried away with the dream the rejections hit very hard (and yes I have a box full of them, it’s been a big learning curve,) and that eats away at our motivation to write. We can make a five-year plan but we need to consider it a guiding star rather than a goal because we need to be flexible and ready to change when the industry changes.

One of the best pieces of advice I read (and I really do want to reiterate this one) is to investigate a publisher as much as you can before you submit, and be wary of new publishers with no history. Yeah, I could really understand that. Trouble is, it’s so tempting. New publishers are eager to fill their slots and things move so much quicker. Very tempting for a new author, and I confess I fell for it. Several times over. Hence the missteps and errors I mentioned earlier. Let me explain.

The first time I erred I’d read the warnings but I figured this one was reasonably safe because it was an established publisher who was opening a new erotic line. My first novel was contracted and I celebrated….and then waited. And waited, and waited. My work was totally locked in, and a year later the line was cancelled having never opened. I didn’t even hear this devastating news directly from the publisher or editor. I heard it from another author. I was never officially notified. I had to contact them and beg for my rights back. In retrospect I consider it a lucky escape. At the time I was gutted about the lost year.

Then a year or so later I did it again. I know, can you believe it?! An exciting new line from a publisher who was interested in fantasy and paranormal romance. I was dazzled by promises of mass-market titles and audio books and exciting growth and development plans. I plunged in and was fast tracked. Shortly after my two titles went to print the line changed direction completely from short fantasy romance to big urban fantasy, and my books and those of several other authors were suddenly wallflowers in warehouses. These things happen, publishing is a business after all. But once again I was a casualty of publishing and it was a huge disappointment. Luckily I did manage to get the rights back and those stories have better homes now.

Then I heard about this exciting new e-publisher starting up in my own country. No way, I said! Not falling for that one again. But…it was here in the UK, and it did sound exciting, and they were actively looking for authors. I held back for a long while, and when I did investigate I went in with extreme caution. I submitted a short story that was a rights returned project. That meant I could investigate without committing any writing time. Yup, finally got the old brain in gear by this point. ;o) As it happens, that new publisher turned out to be a terrific one. I’m still working with them years later and have a substantial backlist there.

On balance I would reiterate this gem of advice: always investigate publishers thoroughly, research on the net and be brave and email other authors asking questions. If there is negativity there you’ll soon hear about it. If it’s a new publisher on the block, be doubly cautious. Let some other fool tread the path first, someone like me. ;o)

In closing, here are some of the best bits of advice I can offer to new writers. Keep your head in the clouds but your feet on the floor. Never stop learning. Love what you do, it’s the love of the craft that will keep you going through the hard times. And my favourite: “read, write, submit, repeat.” If you’re not in you can’t win. Good luck!


Savannah Chase said...

I think this is great advice. We always need to grow and learn..I think I soak in new stuff because I want to learn...

Saskia Walker said...

Thanks, Savannah. That's it isn't it, the enjoyment of learning. Writing gives so much back.