My publishing journey: Revising the novel (again and again and again)

There is a certain trend within the huge volume of writing about publishing on the Internet, which I think of as being the writing advice equivalent of grimdark. The people who give grimdark writing advice point out how incredibly difficult it is to get a foothold in publishing. They explain at length how small the rewards are, how disheartening the challenges, how huge and cold and indifferent the world is when you are a writer who is just starting out — and even worse, when you are a writer who is getting established. When you are a writer who was successful but whose sales have begun to decline. When you are a writer full stop.

When you read this type of advice you get the impression that in order to be a published author you need to be made entirely of bones and steel. You need to be willing to rip out all your own tender feelings with your own teeth and burn them on a pyre along with every first draft of everything you have ever written. You basically need to be a sort of combo of the meanest Transformer and Godzilla.

I don’t mean to suggest that this type of advice is not true. But as with all single depictions of the world, it only shows one aspect and it’s only true for some people some of the time. (The triumphalist stories of glorious, easy success are also only true for some people some of the time, of course.) If you’ve read my fiction it’s probably pretty obvious that I’m of the “pine woods are as real as pig-sties” school of thought, but I’m also conscious that nobody will believe in the scent of pine unless there’s a smell of pig-sties lurking underneath it. Because the real world has both — but probably more pig-sties.

Anyway, this is a rambly way to say that I’m going to talk about the hard part. I have tried in this series to be encouraging and optimistic, because I feel like the kind of tough love that is all “suck it up! become a killer writing machine! you will never make it if you don’t write every day while swallowing raw egg yolks and juggling live babies, all at the same time!” is often likeliest to discourage people from traditionally marginalised backgrounds, who are more likely not to trust themselves and their abilities. If the approach lights a fire under anyone’s ass it’s probably going to be the asses of privileged entitled people, which, frankly, are warm enough already.

But I guess part of being encouraging is being honest about the hard parts. If you have ever said to me, “I’ve always wanted to write but I’m too busy” and seen my face twitch slightly, I will explain why here.

I mean, I totally know how you feel! You have my genuine sympathy! I know balancing life and obligation and art is hard! But here is how I feel.

After I signed with my agent, we worked on revisions to Sorcerer to the Crown for more than a year before submitting it to publishers. I had the occasional month off here and there, when I would toil anxiously on Space Villette, but most of the time I was working on Sorcerer.

I ran a tracked-changes comparison of the version of Sorcerer I submitted to agents and the version that ultimately went to editors. The total number of changes comes up as 5,297, which surprises me a bit. I’d’ve thought it would be more. But here’s what that looks like, at 11% magnification:

Screen Shot 2015-07-14 at 00.21.35

Each rectangle is a page, obviously. The red bits are changes. The black text is the original.

You cannot imagine how satisfying it is to see this! I may feel even happier than when I first held the typeset version of the book in my hands.

I’m sure I would have found the process challenging anyway, whatever the circumstances. I’d never done that sort of revision before — as I said, I’d already rewritten the book once and done another edit pass before sending it out to agents, but I’d never worked with a really thorough editor on a project of this length and scale. It was very instructive!

It was also hard. It was really hard. I was revising the book from, say, July 2013 to September 2014. My job kind of exploded in 2014 (I was of course working a full-time job while writing the first draft of the novel, querying agents, etc). There was one day during that period when I got to work at my usual 9.30 am start time, worked till 4 am, woke up at 8 am and went straight back into it. That was a one-off, but there were some pretty bad weeks, which turned into pretty bad months.

I was working on the novel the entire time. I’d come home at 11 pm or 12 midnight or 1 am and I would take a shower and I would boot up my laptop and I would write or edit one sentence of my book before I was allowed to go to bed.

Did I want to write? Did I fly on gilded wings of inspiration straight to the words I needed to fix the teetering wreck of my manuscript? Of course I bloody didn’t. All I wanted was to go to sleep for a week. But if I was going to let being busy stop me from writing then I would never write. I had to carve out a space in my life for art or it would slip through my fingers. I felt desperate and hunted all the time, but I would’ve felt worse if I hadn’t been writing.

(This is really important. You should maybe not insist on writing or any other pursuit if it is bad for your mental health. Although writing was kind of bad for my wrists, it was really good for my mental health, and sometimes it was even fun, so I kept doing it.)

If I hadn’t stuck it out, I might not have sold this book. I’m glad the book sold, obviously. And everything else is much better now. Things got quieter anyway at my day job, and then I went part-time and that improved things even more. Sorcerer to the Crown went through another round of edits with my editor, and then I was finally allowed to go away and work on other stories. I have no complaints, though I am convinced that I never want to have a year like 2014 again.

I am sure every writer who has had any sort of success has a similar story of rintangan dihadapi and so on. This is mine, and it is pretty minor so far as these things go. I don’t mean to expand too much upon how hard I was working — many people work harder, for longer hours, in worse conditions, for less reward. I was physically comfortable, apart from the RSI. There was some crying, but to be honest that is often true for stressed lawyers even when they are not trying to finish novels at the same time. There were no family conflicts, no tragedies, and I had an enormous amount of emotional and practical support throughout — my husband deserves his dedication on Sorcerer to the Crown twice, three times, four times over.

But man, do not ever tell me that you would love to write but you are too busy to do it. Just don’t say it to me. I will turn into a combo of the meanest Transformer and Godzilla, and nobody wants that to happen.


Previous Publishing Journey posts

Mission statement: Ten things I believe about writing
Breaking through writer’s block, or, how I started writing and publishing short stories
How I published a short story collection
Writing with a day job, part 1: Why I don’t write full-time
Writing with a day job, part 2: Work/work balance
Networking, part 1: Social media and connection
Networking, part 2: Thoughts on conventions
How I wrote three novels and binned two of them
Querying agents
Signing with a literary agent
My query letter for Sorcerer to the Crown

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