Falling Without a Parachute: Lessons Learned from My First Novel
In October of 2013, I was having a bad year. I was jobless, living in a place I hated, and lacking hope. It was one of my lowest points, that quickly became of my highest because that month I sold my first novel, Falling Sky. A lifelong dream of mine had come true. I was going to be a published author. And yet there was just one persistently buzzing fly in the ointment — I hadn't finished the book.
I knew at that time it was going to be sink or swim. Or, perhaps more appropriately for a book with airships in it, fall or fly. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned and advice I might give my past self now that I have the benefit of hindsight. Maybe it will be useful to you as well.
Reuse and Recycle
Falling Sky grew out of a short story I wrote. Back in 2008 I attended the Clarion West Writers Workshop, a six week workshop of intensive writing where we were expected to write a complete short story every week for 6 weeks and have each one critiqued by the others in the class and the guest teacher for that week. We did exercises instead of a story for the 1st week, so the second week was really my first trial by fire. We weren't allowed to bring stories with us, but we were allowed to bring prompts. I had one, basically a sentence or two, and decided to do something with that. It was just the earliest seed of an idea. A young man, floating in some kind of airship, waking up after a night of drinking, hungry. I knew he wanted to go down to the ground to look for food, but something was preventing him. Something kept him, and possibly others, up in the sky for their own safety. That was all I had.
The night before my story was due, I feverishly took that seed and tried to grow it into a story. Based on some advice from 1st week teacher, Paul Park, I went in a science fiction direction, and so the airships became actual airships — zeppelins and blimps and dirigibles, but modern. I posited a world where fuel became so expensive that airships replaced airplanes for carrying passengers and freight.
And what was keeping them in the sky and off of the ground? I thought about it and came up with a simple answer — disease. A disease so virulent and infectious that people would seek to avoid it however they could.
Stories need characters, of course, so soon Ben Gold and his airship, The Cherub, introduced themselves and became part of it. Then the scientist, Miranda. And, like many post-apocalyptic stories, it ended up being about survival, and what one would do to live in such a world.
The story got some good feedback in the critique session, but one piece of advice kept recurring — that I should expand the short into a novel. My fellow classmates felt that there was enough there to expand into something a lot larger. Even our teacher for that week, Mary Rosenblum, concurred. So, even though it wasn’t something I had thought of, I resolved to do exactly that. Of course it ended up taking years…
Steal from Your Betters (and Feel Free to Experiment)
The delay in writing the Falling Sky novel was partly to do with competing projects, but also partly because I couldn’t find the spark I needed to start the story. I couldn't find my entrance into it. The short story was told in third person, past tense — pretty standard — but that just didn't inspire anything in me for a larger work. I had no sense of what the story would be, where it would go, what it would involve.
Then I ended up reading something like seven or eight books by Charlie Huston in quick succession, crime stories that were told in first person, present tense. It was fresh, it was immediate, and it helped bring the voice across in a way that I hadn't really experienced before. I suddenly wanted to try the same thing. And when I took that narrative voice and applied it to the world of Falling Sky, I got my spark. I not only had my way into the story, I was off and running. And the story soon followed. By using that little trick, I not only was able to write the novel, I couldn’t wait to.
Agents Are Very Helpful
This book would likely not have sold if not for my agent at the time. As I mentioned earlier, the novel wasn’t finished. But Joe Monti had asked to look at it, so he knew what it was about, and when an editor he knew mentioned needing a book for his lineup, and preferably a post-apocalyptic one, Joe had something handy. It seems like a case of being in the right place at the right time, but my agent was the one in that position. Would the novel have sold eventually even if he hadn’t been involved? Possibly. But the deal got my career started earlier than I’d expected.
Know What You're Shooting For
If I had to do it all over again, I’d try to at least have an ending before selling a novel. I'm what they call a pantser. I don't outline. I don’t plan. I sit down and see where the words take me and hope for the best. Only now I had a publisher, who was putting up real money, and they needed an ending. A proper ending.
I don't remember exactly when I came upon that ending but it certainly was late in the process. As you can imagine, this caused me considerable angst. A decent ending is essential to a good story. I’d rather not publish something at all than put it out there with a strong opening, a solid arc, and a complete failure at the end. I still have resentment toward Lost and Battlestar Galactica.
I’m not saying that I necessarily would have written the whole novel before selling it (though that would be nice, too) but I wish I had at least had a target. I wish that I had figured out what the ending should be so I could plant that signpost in the ground and head toward it. Sure, signposts can and often will change before you reach them. But at least I would have felt more confident in my course. As it was, I was happy with what my subconscious eventually offered to me. It was a lucky stroke. But I’d prefer not to rely on luck.
Your Editor is (or Should Be) Your Friend
Unlike some publishers, Pyr, my publisher, moves quickly. I signed the contract for Falling Sky in October 2013, I turned the final manuscript in in March 2014, and the book was released in October 2014. Only one year passed between the book deal and the book. That meant that the timelines were tight. And since it was unfinished, that meant that I didn’t have time to show the manuscript to anyone before I turned it in. I’m a member of a pretty amazing writing group with members who are published authors in their own right. Not being able to show the novel to them was worrying.
That meant I had to rely on my editor as he was the only person outside my agent and me to see the manuscript. And luckily for me, he was able to help. What I turned in to Pyr was the whole book, and nothing in terms of content really changed from that version to the final one, but the story arc wasn't fully realized. Ben's journey was muddy, his motivations as depicted were unclear. I had made one of the key mistakes of writing — too much was still in my head and not on the page.
Lou Anders, my editor, helped me bring those moments out. He helped me shape the story so it peaked in the right places. Looking at the traditional story model, the three act structure, I had all the acts, but the beats were in the wrong place, so he helped me shift the manuscript accordingly.
What I ended up turning in at the end was a much stronger novel, and I've taken those lessons forward with me when looking at other novels or even short stories.
Turning in the completed manuscript wasn’t the whole of the process, though. Even after the manuscript was accepted, there was copyediting and proofing to go through, and I was already sick of looking at the damned book. I felt numb at the thought of reading it.
Be Prepared to Have Input
One of the things I’d heard previously from published authors was that the cover was out of your control. The publisher would take care of that and you’d be lucky to be able to offer any suggestions at all. One nice thing about working with a smaller publisher is that you have a bit more input. Early on in the process, my agent and my editor were discussing the cover and suggested (the amazing) Chris McGrath and wanted to know what I thought. I was floored. I never would have expected to score such a cover artist for my first rodeo.
They also asked my input into what the main character should look like. I think any writer would have a good visual sense of their main character, but I had to try to find photo reference to help translate that for Chris. I had a sense of the kind of jacket Ben would wear but when Googling samples, I couldn’t find an exact match. This may seem like a great thing, but it was something I wasn’t prepared for and I had to scramble to put an example together. But it was worth it — I love the cover of the book and Chris knocked it out of the park.
Know Your Schedule
Once you’re in production, everything is on a very strict schedule. Make sure you know what it is. In my case, my copyeditor would send me several chapters at a time with a set deadline. It was up to me to make the time for it. Of course by then I was working at a new job, commuting 2 hours each way. It became something of a challenge. But I had to get it done. And I had to get it done right. Copyediting is really the last chance to make substantive changes. You want to be able to catch any lingering mistakes or rough parts or just bad writing.
That being the case…
Try To Give Yourself some Time between Activities
What do I mean? Remember I mentioned above about feeling numb to the story? Not being able to tell what is reading well and what isn’t? After looking at the same words again and again, you get used to them. Their arrangements. Their rhythms. And yet sometimes all it takes is a short break — a week or more if you have it, days if you don’t — and some of that freshness can come back. I didn’t carve out that time myself with my first book, but (spoilers for the Book 2 process) I can confirm that it works.
So you turn in your manuscript and you finish your copyedits and your proofs. You’re done, right?
Not even close. Now you have to promote the book, and let's face it, many writers aren't necessarily good at promotion. We just want to shut ourselves away and write and let other people handle those details. Isn’t that what a publisher is for? Yes. I had a publicist assigned to me, but that publicist also works for other authors on other books, and, especially at a small press, they have limited resources. More and more these days, unless you're a big deal, you have to take a big part of the promotion on yourself.
Find Something the Excites You
I'm of the opinion that you’re going to be better at promotion if you utilize an approach you are passionate about or at least interested in. If you love to tweet, for example, and enjoy having conversations via Twitter, then of course use that as a main avenue of promotion. That enjoyment will come through and you'll likely have other tweets and not just those promoting you and your novel.
If you hate Twitter, however, that might not be the best route for you. In my own promotion, I felt that I started getting tired of the static questionnaire interviews that you sometimes get with blogs. I'm not knocking the practice — it's pretty much the easiest way to do it — but I prefer my discussions more interactive. For me, I really enjoy podcast interviews. And so I started seeking out more of those and doing as many as I could. With my new book I'm hoping to do some more. I enjoy it, I’m more engaged, and I think that comes across to anyone listening.
But Don't Just Promote
No one wants to be subjected to an endless cycle of "Me, me, me." Promotion means talking about your own work, of course, but that can't be all you talk about. If that's all you're putting out into the world, people will quickly get turned off. Vary your message. Talk about other peoples' work, promote someone else. If you want to stay as on point as possible, talk about your influences or what might have inspired your book. Talk about the genre and other authors or even other media that relates to what you're doing. Shifting the focus away from yourself will prevent promotion fatigue in your readers and yourself.
Ignore the Numbers
Some people will disagree with me here, and sure, your mileage may vary, but finding out that I could get Bookscan numbers through Amazon’s Author Central was a big mistake. For a couple of weeks, I just kept visiting the page and checking to see what the numbers said.
The problem (for people like me at least) is that it becomes an ego trap. The numbers always seemed smaller than I anticipated. And that led to doubt, depression and distraction (the 3 D’s). Never mind that Bookscan numbers aren’t necessarily accurate. They don’t take into account libraries, book clubs, independent booksellers and the majority of ebooks. What it may be able to do is give you a sense of how sales react to different tactics, but that was beyond me on my first book.
As a first time author especially, the most reliable data you’re going to get is going to be your first royalty statement and that’s not likely to come for a year or so because of the way book accounting works (they have to wait to figure in returns).
I found my happiness and peace of mind increased when I walked away from the numbers and focused instead on my next project.
Remember - You Wrote a Book!
My final word is, try to enjoy it. You only ever get one first novel and you don’t want to waste that time obsessing about sales or reviews or tweeting to everyone and their mother that it exists. If you’re lucky, you’ll start to hear from people who read and liked your book, and those comments will go a long, long way. But in any event, feel proud of the fact that you wrote a book, and it got published and now it’s out there in the world as an actual thing (even if that’s digital).
Enjoy it while you can because if you want to continue to be a writer, you’re going to have to write the next thing. For me that happened very soon. But more on that next time…
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