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So this is what I have in store for you today: what I learned from my experience as a first-time author. My debut book was called Philippa. It was a period drama and heavily family-centric, geared toward an all-inclusive audience, published in 2013. It’s been five years since, but I still remember it like it was yesterday. Additional details, summary, blurb, and the cover of my book can be found on my website’s book page here. It’s a quick read; you can head on there and come back to continue with this post in less than 30 seconds. I won’t use up all this space to just repeat all that minutiae again here. Instead, I’m going to utilize it to tell you the things you came here for. There are 10 important takeaways from this whole journey for me, so we’re just gonna jump right into it. I hope anybody reading finds whatever helpful information they might need from this post. Let’s get to it!
1. Not everyone is going to like your book.
This is the cold hard truth. And this was especially true for me. I knew this from the day I wrote the first word of the first chapter. That’s because I live in India, and my novel was based in England and France, following the journey of an adopted orphan as she attains womanhood, a rags to riches tale. Here in India, fictitious stories about foreign lands told by Indian authors aren’t received well. Indian sensibilities are different. Apparently, we Indians (some of us, anyway) want Indian authors to write Indian stories. Sounds exclusive and like backward prejudice, but it really isn’t. I’ll admit the Indian literary scene still has a lot to learn in terms showing of leniency to it’s own up-and-coming writers. I think the same could be said of other countries with similar attitudes. I knew I would have a tough time finding representation for my work even as I was writing Philippa. But that didn’t give me pause. I completely believed in my heart of hearts this story had to be told and that this was the only way it could be told. When I started sending it out to agents and publishers, I must have gotten about thirty back-to-back rejections. Some of them didn’t even bother replying, which is tantamount to a rejection but hurts twice as much. I don’t think I need to tell most of you how devastating it feels. Nobody was liking my work. Some called it “unsuitable” and “unrealistic”. I felt defeated and beaten down. But eventually, I did find that gem. The CEO of Siyahi Literary Consultancy got back to me with a positive response. She spearheads India’s premier author-representative agency, and her clients include some of India’s most emminent musicians, business tycoons, actors, and also masterchefs (some of whom are downright millionaires). So you can imagine how shocked I was when after months (six months of pitching my book, to be precise) I finally found someone who was as passionate about my story as I was. I won’t forget what she said. Over our first phone-call, she gushed that my book was “so sensitively and beautifully written” that she has to sign me up right away. The next day we were negotiating our contract. I know. Who would have thunk it? I still can’t believe it some times. Not everyone is going to like your book, but someone will. It’s like trying to find that right size of shoe that fits. Your representative needs to be so moved by your work that he/she is convinced to champion it. You guys need to vibe and want the same thing: the success of your book. All you have to do is hunt him/her down by exhausting every possible (and impossible) avenue.
2. The writing process is sometimes daunting, sometimes thrilling, and always unimaginable.
You’re gonna have a blast writing your book, your gonna face a lot of hurdles, but you have no idea how the process changes when you least expect it, and how it changes you without you knowing it. I wrote Philippa over a span of six months. That was the first draft, complete to 85,000 words. Out of those six months, one month was spent writing in a hospital. I was fine, but I was covering watch duty for a sick family member. My writing rituals had gone for a toss. I used to think I could only write at home, on my bed, at night. But this pushed me out of my comfort zone, when I had no choice but to write in new, unfamilar surroundings, at unusual hours, at an uncomfortable pace. It prompted me to write in new, previously avoided, settings: cafe’s, parks, libraries. And this gave me a whole new perspective on my characters. They began doing things I didn’t realize they could do. They took me down roads and showed me secrets I had no idea were there. It’s truly a journey of self-discovery. As much as I was creating these characters and writings these events, I didn’t know until later that I was the one learning from them. Generally you mould your characters, but there comes a point when the roles reverse, and they start moulding you. Forget what you thought you knew about your book. Frankly, you don’t know anything about it until you write the words “The End” and look back at the road so far.
3. Completing your book leaves you bereft.
Absolutely completely bereft, like a mother’s post-partum depression. The journey is heady and heard-pounding and heavenly, but once you end that last chapter you feel dead. Not exhausted or tired or drained, because you will feel that during the entire writing process nearly everyday. But you will feel dead because this is after all the end of something great. You have birthed your book. It has seen fruition. You have accomplished what you dreamed about all this time. Every single word and scene and character lies before you complete and finished and satisfied. But you, the writer, are simply and plainly dead. It feels like you have lost a limb, but it’s a limb that can now walk on it’s own. Don’t be scared if you cry it out. It’s okay to do that. Happy tears are good. It’s all part of the process. *sniff sniff*
4. Penning a novel is a big big big deal.
My agent told me this in our first talk. My book was set in the 19th century (1868 to 1888, to be precise, from Philippa’s birth to her twentieth birthday). My agent was very impressed with my portrayal of the atmosphere of that time period. I had done extensive research, painstakingly included and excluded all the necessary and unnecessary details. But yet my book was very rough around the edges, like a discordant guitar in need of some fine-tuning. That’s where editors come in. My agent handed me over to her editorial team, who picked apart my book left, right, and centre, like ravenous vultures, who started refining all the nuances, perfecting every imperfection, tying all the loose knots. There couldn’t be one word out of line. We couldn’t leave in a single sentence that didn’t belong in the text. As much as it is gruelling, this entire editing process was a science, one that I was in awe of and learned so much from. Even after I completed my first draft I didn’t know I had so much more to figure out in terms of my writing. Writing a book is a huge deal, and every thing about it has to be as close to perfection as it can be. Which is why you gotta have tough skin. You will have to say goodbye to certain portions/characters, include/exclude and write/rewrite major chunks. Your word count will jump up, it jump down, and astronomically so. It’s an immense feat. It feels like butchering and mutilating your original work, your heart will crumble a million times from guilt and regret, but by the end you will realize what an idiot you were to think the original first draft was anywhere near perfect. When my text was finally ready for publication, it was the Kohinoor, compared to the original version which was a cubic zirconia. And you realize that along with the book, you yourself have undergone an evolution too. You become a better writer than you were and you finally understand what is writing and what isn’t. For example, the professional editing process teaches you how to do more with less. Before, I could write a scene with 100 words and it would be pretty dope. But editing taught me how to write that exact same scene using just 50 words and at the same time also achieve the most powerful impact that can blow your socks off.
5. Patience is king.
You need to be Gandhi. Or Mother Theresa. The road to publication is a long and tiresome one. I completed writing my book, and eighteen long months later, when I was 21, it saw publication. It doesn’t seem like a huge amount of time when I put it like that, but to the impatient, keen, and excited young author, it can seem like a lifetime. I think I was lucky. It tends to take much longer for other authors depending on the length of their books and material and style. But you’ve got to have patience. Time will move agonizingly slowly and it’ll scrape against you like sandpaper. You’ve got to be resilient. Each rejection will be like a stake through the heart, each person who says no to you will become your new enemy. But you mustn’t lose focus. Keep your eye on the prize. Work and sweat and believe. Patience is a virtue, and it’ll also be your best friend throughout this whole process. A never-give-up attitude will stand you in good stead.
6. You need to know what you’re writing about, inside and out.
The advice that authors usually give to young writers is that you should write what you know. That’s a very cliched statement, though helpful. I would like to qualify that and say that you should not just write what you know, but write how you know. Write in the fashion that you would want to read. If you were to go to a store and pick up a book, imagine you are reading the style of language that you always fall in love with, and then write in that style. Having said that, it should come naturally and should not be forced. Do not emulate, copy, or be a derivative. Get your voice right, try all the different styles, write alot to explore what style suits you the most, what feels organic, easy as pie. Take your time to discover your niche. It cannot be half-baked. You need to maintain the same tone throughout, just like an actor who will fail if he can’t keep in character. If you don’t have a strong command over your own language style, everything falls apart. The reader will find it patchy and inconsistent and will struggle to follow what you mean to express and confusion isn’t a good thing. You don’t want people turned off by your work. This is different from having an excellent grasp on the language proper. I’m talking about the language style. Your agents/publishers will be the first to tell you that your writing needs work before you can even consider publication.
7. Finally seeing your book available to the public is the best feeling ever.
I don’t think I need to elaborate on this. It’s a dream come true. It’s the best day of your life. It’s the day you’ve won. You’re living on cloud nine now. Relish it. Appreciate it. Take all your humility and gratitude and ecstacy and hold on tight. Don’t spend it all in one moment. You’re gonna need it after this day.
8. The biggest challenge is not writing the book or finding representation/publishers. The biggest challenge is dealing with the critical response.
Like I said, India wasn’t the best market for my book. Most would say it was very out of place. Critical response from readers and reveiwers will tear you apart if you haven’t developed that tough skin by now. Yet, I’m happy to say Philippa performed better than we had hoped. I received a write-up in the national newspaper (DNA, a snapshot of which can also be found here). My book was a recommended read in the fiction category. On balance, reader and critics’ response was generally favourable. Only a small modicum of it was unfavourable, and I don’t think that’s worth dwelling upon. I’d rather not give them the satisfaction. There’s a difference between being open to critiques/feedback and improving yourself based on it, and being open to hate. There’s no room for hate here. I won’t sit here and lie to you by playing victim to horrible critical response. Overall, luck has been good to be. God has favoured me. My book performed quite well despite having so many reasons not to, against all odds.
9. Expectations should be kept to a miniminum.
Don’t have an inflated sense of importance for your book. I know you can’t help but dream of becoming an overnight success. You want to become a bestselling author. You want interviews with talk show hosts and book readings and signing events. But the reality is this only happens for about 5% of all authors. Yes, authors who have been published, not writers in general. You can be confident, just don’t be overconfident. Going in, I knew I had to keep my expectations low, and I did. I knew better than to get my hopes up. People wouldn’t exactly be jumping at the oppourtunity of representing my book idea, much less publishing it. However as you know, my book did perform better than expected. Keeping the expectations low makes sure that you are insured against disappointment and low sales. There’s nothing wrong in being hopeful and being a believer in your imminent success, but just don’t let it become everything. You can’t ever have your entire life/career/livelihood riding on this one publishing miracle. That’s a dream that only comes true for about 1% of all authors. And generally, if you indeed have a masterpiece on your hands, your agents/publishers will be the first to tell you. If they do, you can take their word for it. They might even sign you up for future book deals on the spot. You’ll see plenty of success thanks to all your hard work.
10. Get ready for a lot of teasing.
This last one is the most important lesson of all. I wish someone told me how much you will get teased if you get published. Everyone you know (family, friends, pets, doesn’t matter who) is going to pull your leg every chance they get. Writer jokes galore. “When’s the next book coming out? Can I have an autograph? Is that character you wrote based on me?” No Susan, that intelligent character isn’t based on you. These people can be so annoying. And you’re expected to be a know-it-all, to know the answer to every damn question in the universe just because you’re now published. What the hell? It doesn’t work like that, people! Get that straight. I’m still the same person I was before. I didn’t suddenly become Isaac Newton because my name was slapped in front of book cover. Jeez. You guys need to stop. *rant over*
As you can probably tell, the focus of this post was mostly on the post-book writing process and not pre-book writing. Usually people would tell you to not procrastinate and how writing can feel boring at times and how you can take a break if you want and write at your own lesiure and that the job won’t get done if you constantly face writer’s block and how to overcome writer’s block if it hits you. All this had not been touched upon in this post. I think there are several other bloggers who have concentrated heavily and expertly on these topics and it would be best to advise you to read those posts. They cover the dos and don’ts and offer better advice on the book-writing process than I could.
So yeah, those have been my top ten takeaways. I hope you guys found this week’s post interesting and informative. If it has raised any questions, feel free to leave them for me in the comments and if I have the answers I will sure give them to you. I only had a brief stint in the publishing world, years ago. I might not know everything and anything about the reader’s market, so I hope I can answer your queries with my limited knowledge.
On a completely unrelated note, I want to inform you guys that next Thursday’s post is going to be a very special one. There’s going to be a big announcement! I will be introducing something new to the blog, so I hope you guys check-in same time same place next week and find out what it is. Hint: it’s big. Mark your calendars, y’all!
If this is your first visit to my blog, do make sure to follow. Of course only if you liked what you read today. Follow if you feel like it. Or not. I’m not pressuring you or anything. I wouldn’t do that.
Or would I?
Until next week! This is me, signing out!
© Amaan Khan, June 14, 2018.