The Writer’s Journey

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I’ve already talked here at Magical Words about writing, about the query process and the path to first publication.  I think there’s a lot less said about what comes after attaining that first book contract, and consequently, most authors don’t really know what to expect.  Certain things can come as a rude shock.  It’s not just getting published, but staying published that builds a writing career.

So, I’m going to touch on a few things here.  Long-term thinking and career-building start even before you sign that first contract, when terms are being discussed and contract language haggled.  It’s extremely important to have an agent who knows publishing contracts backward and forward who can look at things like option language (what you have to show next to your publisher and when they have to respond), competitive works, grant of rights, reversion, royalties and other percentages, etc.  Just for example, if you’re obligated to show any next work to your publisher and they’re not obligated to make a decision on the material for, say, some months after publication of the last book under contract, it’s going to be difficult building up momentum in terms of the frequency of your publications.  But let’s assume you’ve read all the savvy advice here already about that and that you already have a representative to fight the good fight in terms of contract language.  One thing you’re going to be asked to supply is the deadline that you’ll need to hit for revisions and for future books (if it’s a multi-work contract).  Your agent will probably advise you that it will take longer than you think and that you should plan accordingly.  I can’t emphasize enough what important advice this is.  For one thing, while you’re writing your next book, you’re going to be sent at least one and probably two passes with revision requests from the editor.  Then you’ll have the copyedited manuscript to go over,  and page proofs…you’ll likely have to stop the forward momentum on your work-in-progress each time to deal with these stages of the book you thought you’d put to bed.  If you’re anything like me, it’ll take a day or more to get back up to speed again and switch gears from one storyline back to another (or one voice to another if you’re writing two different series).  For another, unexpected things sometimes arise…anything from illness to writers’ block.  No editor ever protest receiving a book early, even if he or she isn’t able to get to it right away.  Late, however, can sometimes cause problems with production schedules and that all-important momentum previously mentioned.

Next, I want to talk about staying published.  Often authors work so hard on that first book and get so much feedback and so many critiques that it’s been massaged and massaged into miraculous shape.  Just because a publisher has bought a second, maybe even third book on the strength of the first doesn’t mean that you get to sit back and take it easy.  You don’t get to turn in a rough draft and put it all on the pro to figure out what you meant to make it onto the page.  This is not to say that your work has to be perfect.  You do need to surrender the manuscript at some point.  (Personally, I love Rachel Caine’s Surrender the Manuscript posts and pirate flag, because that too is an important part of the process.)  However, you want to turn in something that’s as good as you can make it, knowing that your editor and in many cases your agent as well will give feedback that will make it even better.  You want to keep up the excitement that your advocates feel for your work by doing your best, but also you want to let us focus on those things you maybe didn’t see for yourself rather than waste effort telling you things you already know but didn’t have the time or energy to do before turning the manuscript in.  That’s not to say that you can’t reach out for help if something is stumping you.  Often, your editor and agent will be happy to brainstorm with you or read over a particularly tricky section to provide feedback.

Of course, most authors—of fiction, especially—intend not just to get published, but to continue being published, which means a few things: 1) you have to invest in your career by working alongside your publisher to promote your work; 2) you can never just “phone it in.”  Whether you’re writing a guest blog or the proposal for a new book, you’ve got to be creative, original, engaging, etc.  Don’t just pull old manuscripts out of the closet and expect them to sell as is.  They might, of course, but chances are you’ve grown as a writer and going back might not be the best way forward…at least not without revamping based on all you’ve learned already via the editorial process.  Getting published the first time doesn’t guarantee that you’ll remain that way if you don’t find your audience and earn their loyalty.  It was true when I started in publishing and it’s maybe truer than ever today—the biggest seller of books is word of mouth.  It trumps ads, social media, interviews, reviews…everything.  That means that if you addict your readers and deliver on your promises to them time after time, they’ll tell ten people and they’ll tell ten people

                And so on

                                And so on

                                                AND SO ON….

Until you become a sensation.

It’s hard work all along the process.  You get to celebrate and then get straight back to work.  As one of my authors, Rob Thurman, said recently on Twitter, “Yes…want to be a writer? Truly? Great! You work on X-mas. You work on Thanksgiving. You work on the goddamn toilet.”  So true.  So, so true.

To misquote the Peace Corps, it’s the toughest job you’ll ever love…then hate…then love again.  Yup, those aren’t just your feelings toward the latest manuscript.

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12 comments to The Writer’s Journey

  • […] I’m over at Magical Words today talking about “The Writer’s Journey.” […]

  • Great advice, Lucienne, particularly about momentum of subsequent books. It’s one thing to polish up a first ms in however long it takes, and another to clean up the next book on a deadline. I hope that when I get to that point, I can not sacrifice any quality for timeliness.

    Thanks for your contributions here at MW, and all the best in the new year.
    NGD

  • Thank you for such a useful post, Lucienne. This is why we include in query letters what we’re currently writing as well, isn’t it? To show that we can get right back to work after finishing that one novel. So maybe it’s a useful practice to develop good writing habits now, before we get published, so it doesn’t come as a shock to us when the blessed occasion actually arrives.

  • One of the biggest challenges for me, and something for which I was utterly unprepared when I first started writing, is the stream of interruptions that you mention here as we work on book 2 or 3. As you say, revisions, copyedits, proofs, jacket copy, etc. all come to us as we’re trying to build creative momentum on the newest volume, and all of these things demand our attention. We can’t give short shrift to any of them, and the constant shifting from one project to another can stall progress on the newer books. The hardest and most valuable thing I’ve had to learn over my career is how to make those transitions smoothly, without losing time and energy. Great post, Lucienne.

  • henderson

    Lucienne,

    I am struck by this sentence in the first paragraph of your very informative post: “Just for example,if you’re obligated to show any next work to your publisher and they’re not obligated to make a decision on the material for, say, some months after publication of the last book under contract, it’s going to be difficult building up momentum in terms of the frequency of your publications.”

    If this accurate, I find this disconcerting and troubling about how much control a publishing company can have over a writer’s livelihood. Does this mean a writer cannot have a new book published unless the current publisher agrees? I can understand this if it is the next book under contract such as part of trilogy. I just wander if the book is something different and not at all related to the first published book. Does the publisher still have a right of first refusal before the author can query other publishers about the new book? Or, can the first publisher have language in the contract that prevents the author having his/her work published by other publishers if the author is still under contract with the first publisher?

  • Henderson, yes, it’s possible. We’re getting into contract negotiations here, but this is one of the reason good option language is so important. Broad language might very well say that you’re obligated to show your next work (without specifying genre or series) to the publisher and that they don’t have to consider it until the last book under contract is published. Agents work to get the option as specific as possible and to start the clock ticking on option material once all the works on the contract have been accepted rather than published. There are other clauses that you have to watch out for as well, like the non-compete clause, which may say that you will not publish or arrange publication for any other work until these have been published. The boilerplate which will be sent to an unagented writer is quite different than the contract that will be negotiated by an agent who knows what’s negotiable and what battles to pick.

  • Henderson, I’m sure that Lucienne will be able to give you a more informed answer than I can, but the short response to your question is, yes, a publisher can do all those things if you sign a contract without the professional input of a good agent. Option clauses in contracts can be narrow — covering, say, any future book in a given series — or very broad — covering any future book of any sort that the author writes. And some contracts also have non-competition clauses that limit an author’s right to put out other books with other publishers while working on a book covered by the contract in question. Again, Lucienne knows far more about this than I do and can give you a more detailed answer, but contracts can be very tricky. That’s why I’m so glad Lucienne is my agent. :)

  • Looks like we were answering at the same time….

  • In these days of e-publishing and short shelf-lives, has reversion language been changing? I know past reversion clauses have usually been based on the time a book is out of print; is this changing, now, to a set amount of time post publication or perhaps when a book’s income drops below a certain level? What are the author’s options on this?

  • Lyn, that all depends. Digital-first presses tend to have a different approach to reversion language where there might be a term after which rights can revert unless everyone agrees to continue. Traditional houses tend to approach with a sales threshold, where a certain amount of time from first publication, reversion of rights can be requested if sales fall below a certain monetary or unit amount. Actual language will vary from publisher to publisher and sometimes agency to agency depending on what specifics have been haggled out. It’s important to have either a term limit or sales threshold that must be met or the agreement will terminate. It’s also becoming increasingly important to define what rights reversion means…whether the publisher has the right to sell of certain editions and under what conditions/for how long.

  • This is a business and the more I learn, the more I understand why having an agent is going to be pivotal in starting and maintaining a writing career. As a writer, you have to surround yourself with people that are honest and have your best interest at heart. Not getting into details, if you don’t, you can definitely be taken advantage of. Thank you for your post.

  • Good advice. I know I have a tendency to ride the wave of a success a little too long. You lose momentum that way and also stumble when it comes time to get back to it.