10 Lessons Learned Behind the Scenes of a Book Deal (Part 2)

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A few short months ago, I wrote about my path to getting an agent and a publisher, and promised to share my experiences leading up to the publication of my debut novel, ALMOST MISSED YOU, due out in 2017 from St. Martin’s Press.

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You might think that as the editor of Writer’s Digest magazine—and given my earlier years spent editing nonfiction books—I would know more or less what to expect from the process. But I discovered that there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes on the author’s side (perhaps even more so with a “Big 5” publisher)—emotions to navigate, new steps to take—that I haven’t seen discussed much elsewhere.

So let’s take a look at what I’ve learned in my early months as a debut novelist-in-progress—and how it might help you know what to expect and how to position yourself for success. I’ve outlined 10 lessons overall—last week's post featured the first 5, looking at what to expect right after you sign (10 Lessons Learned Behind the Scenes of a Book Deal, Part 1), and today we'll look at 6-10.

6. Don’t react to your revision letter until you’ve reread your novel.

We’ve all heard the advice to sit with feedback before we react. But it’s never more important than now, when it’s officially game time. When I received my first ever revision letter (in which your editor outlines what changes he or she would like to see—ranging from characters further developed, to plot holes filled, to subtle stylistic smooth-overs—before the manuscript is officially accepted for publication), there were a few points I wasn’t initially sure I agreed were necessary, but by the time I’d worked my way back through the novel with them in mind, for every single one I had a moment of “Well, I guess in this spot I could add/lose/change/finesse this one thing…”

You’ll be glad you waited until after those moments to discuss your overall revision strategy with your editor.

7. Have a phone call with your editor.

Some people have a conditional phone call with their editor when there’s first interest in their book. But I wasn’t one of them—we were introduced via email by my agent, after the deal was done.

In her revision letter, my editor offered a phone call if I wanted one. But the requested changes were fairly minor—I didn’t have many questions, and those I did have seemed easy enough to clarify via email. Then I had lunch with a friend who said, “But this is the editor you’ll be working with long-term, right? You’d be crazy not to take her up on it!”

I asked for a 15-minute “quick check in” call and ended up spending a highly enjoyable and informative 45 minutes on the line with my editor chatting, getting to know each other, and learning what to expect from the process. My friend was right. I’d have been crazy to pass that up.

If you’re offered a phone call, take it.

8. Be prepared to make sacrifices.

I got my revision letter just before the holidays, which was a good news/bad news scenario: The good was that I had some vacation days on the calendar, and the bad was that my Christmas vacation wasn’t going to be much of a vacation.

The hardest part wasn’t even trying to get ready to host the holidays—including family coming in from out of state—cleaning, shopping, baking and wrapping with a corner of my mind on my manuscript. The hardest part was the three days after Christmas that I set aside to take my kids to daycare so I could focus on the revision. It wasn’t just that I felt guilty—it was that I missed those cozy days we’d usually spend playing with their new toys, watching movies, eating leftover cookies.

But those days enabled me to minimize January weekend and evening hours away from my family at the laptop. And they allowed me to meet my deadline without losing my mind.

Sometimes, something’s gotta give. This isn’t business as before—an elusive goal you’re working toward. This is a real job now. Your priorities are going to have to shift from time to time.

9. Wash, rinse, repeat is not just for hair.

Judging from some of the questions I’ve gotten over the past month or two, I think some people are under the impression that a revision pass is just that—one pass. For me, it was more like four:

First, a read-through looking for all the areas relevant to points raised in the revision letter--making some changes, but also notes on what my overall plan would be to address the points raised.

Second, a pass through to more cohesively implement my revision plan, one chapter at a time.

Third, a week away from the manuscript to try to get enough distance to be able to reevaluate it objectively. I used this time to complete lingering fact checks. I had a nurse friend read my ER scene to make sure nothing rang untrue; I arranged a call with a retired FBI Special Agent to verify procedural plot points; I input corrections based on these checks before doing my final read. (Note: My editor didn’t request that I do these things, but they sure made me feel better.)

Fourth, a final read-through to check continuity and cohesiveness.

Every author is different, but in my case this really did seem to be the bare minimum I would have been comfortable with—and this was for a fairly minor revision. If you think that sounds like a lot of work to do in roughly six weeks—with a full-time job, a holiday season, two small kids and your daughter’s second birthday all falling in that window—you’re right.

10. Waiting happens at all stages—not just initial submissions.

I beat my deadline by a few days, which felt like a triumph—and now, I wait. I’m trying not to dwell on where my editor’s feedback will fall in what I presume to be the spectrum of revision responses:

  1. This is the best work I have ever seen from a debut author. Where have you been all my editorial life?
  2. This does the job nicely, thank you!
  3. Nice work, overall—just a few points I think we should revisit once more …
  4. What did you DO TO IT? This book used to be good.

I am really, really hoping to hear anything but the last one!

In the meantime, I’m learning, as we all do, to not stop (tempting though those evening gin and tonics might be) but simply shift gears. I’m building an online home at JessicaStrawser.com (I'd be honored if you'd stop by and have a look), launching a Facebook Author Page and, of course, working on the next book.

More on all that in a future post.

What have been your most valuable lessons throughout your own first forays into publishing—whether that’s a byline, a book deal or a self-publishing project? Leave a comment below to join the conversation. After all, the writing journey, like so many other journeys, is better if it’s shared.

On Facebook? Let’s connect!
On Twitter? Give me a shout!

Yours in writing,
Jessica Strawser
Editor, Writer’s Digest magazine
Subscribe today—your writing will thank you. 

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