Our mutual baseline is that you not only like to tell stories but are compelled to do so. Two days ago, a fourth-grader said to me, “You write for FIVE HOURS A DAY?” To spare him the embarrassment of his fainting in front of his friends, I didn’t confess it’s sometimes more. Writers write.
So, writing first. The idea for Jem, a Girl of London came from a conversation with my students about George the Third of England and whether the Revolutionary War might never have happened if George had been more sympathetic toward the Colonies. That discussion was my Big Bang. Initially, I thought to tell the story of the Revolution from the point of view of George the Third’s mistress—but then I learned that George was so happily married to Charlotte that they had 15 children. There was no mistress. But there was gout, and there was madness, and there was a little physician’s helper named Jem in the royal bedchamber who didn’t say very much. But she wanted to. She wanted somebody to tell her story.
Next, I had to discipline myself. I decided to get up every day two hours before I had to get up for work (so, 4 a.m.) and write fresh from my dreams. Those two hours were my sacred writing time. No phone, no job, no nothing but me and my story. After my precious two hours were up, I started my day.
Was it a strain to lose two hours of sleep? No! I told a wannabe writer yesterday that doing something I loved was energizing. Grabbing for myself the gift of time made me feel happier about everything else in my life, because I wasn’t giving up every waking moment to other people. Those months of sleep deprivation were glorious. Diana Gabaldon once said she wrote the first book in her Outlander series just to see if she could write a whole book. She could. I could. You can. It takes time, but you have to make the time.
Third is process. I write longhand on yellow legal pads using a fountain pen. I like a pen because I don’t have to fumble for keys or correct spelling or edit—I can just let the story flow from my brain down my arm and out the end of my pen. Many people recommend doing research first, but I didn’t because I had a rough idea of what happened when. But when Jem, a Girl of London was done, I spent about six weeks looking up whether X Y Z actually could have happened. Did I revise at this point? Oh, yes. Once the story was historically correct, I word-processed it. I edited. I gave it to Beta readers. Edited some more.
At this point, I thought I had a book, so I began the query process. If you are not a writer, the query process is basically like interviewing for a job you really want: you know your skills are a perfect match, your resume kicks ass, you’ve got an interview suit that makes you look like a million bucks. You are SO going to get this job. With queries, you don’t get the job, and they don’t tell you why. (Why query? Most publishers won't consider unagented submissions. Agents are the keepers of the gate.)
Queries work like this: 1. Find out the names of literary agents who might like your book. A literary agent is a person who represents writers to publishers and assists in the sale and deal negotiation of the same. You can find agents online and in books like Writer's Market (WM FAQs here). Research them. 2. Spend two hours tailoring each letter you send to each specific agent. 3. Comb your rejections for any clue as to why you were rejected. 4. Repeat. Shoot for at least 20 queries a month. Tweak your submissions until you find a combination of query letter and sample page/synopsis that seems to be attracting nibbles. (Yes, it IS like fishing. You need the right bait.)
The query process brought me to Step #4, which happened after Ann Behar of Scovil Galen Ghosh Literary Agency said something helpful in her rejection: “My problem with this book is that it is in the voice of an adult--Jenna, as an adult. Although it is very well written and the story is engaging, the voice must be that of a young person in order for me to be able to take it on. Children's publishers will not buy a book with an adult voice, period.” Ms. Behar forced me to consider my book not only as a baby but as a baby I wanted to sell. I rewrote Jem to remove the adult perspective. I streamlined the plot and winnowed yet more chaff from the language. (Thank you, Ann Behar.)
Despite my winnowing, the book was now twice as long as genre guidelines recommend, so I split it in half. I rewrote the first half so it would be a complete story. Querying continued, but by this time I already had queried agents most likely to represent a YA historical fantasy, which meant I couldn’t query them again. (No means No means No.)
By this point, 16 months had gone by. I cynically had decided that when agents say “I just want a really good story” what they mean is “I just want a really good story that’s a whole lot like whatever is hot right now, because I know I can sell it.” At the time, dystopian fiction with female heroines was hot (The Hunger Games, Divergent). Jem, a Girl of London is historical fantasy, so it did not appeal to any agents who had to earn a living and who knew that if they made one false move they might lose whatever perch they’d clawed their way up to. I have to confess that while I didn't expect any agent to read my query letter and sample and think I was the find of her or his career, I hoped it would happen that way. It didn't.
Leap of faith #5 was my deciding to self-publish using Amazon’s CreateSpace. Writers like Hugh Howey and John Locke went that route, but being a rebel was a huge step for an oldest child (me) who does the right thing at the right time in the right way and insists everybody else do the same. Agents advise against self-publishing. (They oughta know, right?) Still, I’d just spent 16 months hoping for a yes and getting only maybes and no thankses. I decided to be my own yes.
And that changed everything. I wanted Jem, a Girl of London to be the best it could be, and I knew if I self-published I wouldn't have a ready-made team at a publishing house to make it so. Based on recommendations by other authors on Goodreads, I hired an artist named Derek Murphy of Creativindie to create a cover and design the book. I needed an editor, too, but who should I hire? One editing consortium called Book Butchers offers three degrees of edits for fees that get higher the more you want done. The way Book Butchers works is that a writer uploads a sample of text. Editors read it and do a sample edit. You pick the editor you like. You make a partial payment. One editing consortium called Book Butchers offers three degrees of edits for fees that get higher the more you want done. The way Book Butchers works is that a writer uploads a sample of text. Editors read it and do a sample edit. You pick the editor you like. You make a partial payment. Editing ain't cheap. One editing consortium called Book Butchers charges $.02 to $.06/word depending on what you want done, which is pretty standard. Book Butchers asks writers to upload a sample of text. Their editors read it and do a sample edit. You pick the editor you like. You make a partial payment. Sample edits are a sterling way to find out what you can expect from an editor before you shell out hundreds of dollars. This post from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) outlines what else to look for (and what to avoid). Don't miss the links at the end under "Professional Resources" and "General Information."
One editing consortium called Book Butchers offers three degrees of edits for fees that get higher the more you want done. The way Book Butchers works is that a writer uploads a sample of text. Editors read it and do a sample edit. You pick the editor you like. You make a partial payment.
Ultimately, I hired a freelance editor named Mary Ellen Foley, who, as the SFWA article recommends, did a free sample edit. I knew immediately she was The One. Her tone with me was cordial and collegial. She said, for example, “if you were to engage me to edit the book, I’d need instruction: are these suggestions useful because they provide options for you to consider, or are they intrusive fiddling?” How could I NOT hire a person who used the phrase “intrusive fiddling”?
Mary Ellen blue-penciled false notes, flat prose, emotionless characters. Her questions and quibbles were about things you can’t see until someone points them out, no matter how good a writer you think you are—a bit like standing next to a sequoia and saying “But where are those big trees that are supposed to be here? All I see is this wall covered with bark.” No matter how much you’ve written or how many college degrees you’ve earned, you need an editor. Mary Ellen's deft touch on my manuscript turned it into a novel. When I got back my document from Mary Ellen, it took four, 40-hour weeks to answer her questions and quibbles. When this sixth step was done, I told Mary Ellen, “When I think of how badly this could have gone without you, I feel like you saved me from walking the plank. No. I KNOW you did.” We have stayed in touch even though she is a Very Busy Person. Because in the back-and-forth of editing, she changed from a person I hired (and would hire again in a heartbeat) to a person I liked.
Meanwhile, Derek was working on the design. He and I also went back and forth choosing a model, deciding on fonts and colors, settling upon an overall book design. I asked my Facebook followers which cover they liked and why. Derek was receptive to my ideas without stifling himself if he thought I needed to hear “NO, BAD IDEA.” (One thing I didn't know when I hired professionals is that everything takes longer than you think it should. Professionals are busy, and you aren't their only client. Plan accordingly.)
While editing and designing were going on (in England and Thailand--gotta love electronic communication!), I did other things that must be done by self-publishers (step #7). Others have written about the process of self-publishing (Christina Katz, author of Get Known Before the Book Deal, and Brandie A. Knight, author of Self-Publishing Like a Pro), to name two. One thing I had to do was to apply for a Library of Congress number, without which my book could not be purchased by libraries or schools. Find out how here.
Jem, a Girl of London went on sale January 9 on Amazon’s Kindle Direct. I ordered a proof of the print version, asked Derek to correct errors I found, and ordered a second proof that also had errors. The print version will be released by the end of the month.
My journey proves you need more than writing talent if you want to be published. You need humility. Tenacity. Patience. We write because we have to, but we seek publication because we want to connect with other people. We seek community. A poet friend recently said something to me that all writers should paste over their desks: “Never confuse writing with publishing. The worst that could happen is all the no's you get stop you from doing something you love.”
So, don’t stop doing what you love, not for any reason. Just remember, writing is the easy part.
For further information on self-publishing check out "How to publish a book on Amazon" here.
UPDATE: As of 1/21/15, Jem, a Girl of London is available both in paperback and Kindle versions.