I know the road to publication isn’t easy. Most writers are so focused on getting published, they rarely think beyond that. What happens when you get an agent? What happens once the book is sold? We think we work hard on our novels prior to publication, but what about after?
Lisa shares a bit of her journey to publication with us. Some of this was previously published on her blog, The Paper Tiger. Lisa also agreed to answer some of my questions which you will find at the end of the article.
Writing a novel is a lot of work. Okay, I've known that for a while. I've written a few. This last one, the one that got me an agent and then a deal, took so much time and effort that I'd joke it was written in dog years. And that it was trying to kill me, I was pretty sure. That last bit might not have been a joke.
The part that I'd only previously known on an intellectual level is that getting published is also a lot of work. I mean, this should be obvious, and I sort of knew it, but until I went through it, I didn't actually know it.
All of the sudden, you're getting paid for your work. And people are depending on you. Your agent. Your editor. Your PR person. An entire infrastructure. You've signed a contract, and you have to deliver, quality work, on time. There are hard deadlines. Publication schedules. Catalogs for the upcoming season. I think that's the first time I really absorbed that the whole thing was real, when I downloaded Soho's catalog, read all of the book descriptions, the author bios. Wow, I thought. I'm going to be in one of these. Me and my book. Shit.
There's the book itself. Editorial revisions. Line edits. A galley proof yet to come. And then there's everything else that comes with being an author in the modern world. A bio. Photos. A new website. Marketing ideas. Where am I known? Who do I know? How can I help my own chances of success?
It's that whole notion of thinking of yourself and your work as a product, as a brand. Most of us writer types are introverts, and we can all fulminate against this cultural trend of marketing uber alles (and I have), but this is the reality. It's a part of our job, as authors. And if there's one thing this whole experience has brought home to me, it's that being a published author is a job.
Well, duh, right? And I've taken that sort of workman's approach to my writing in general for the past few years. A writing book I've often recommended to people suffering from creative blocks is Steven Pressfield's The War of Art. It's a little repetitive and has its metaphysical aspects which may or may not be helpful to a lot of people. But one of the basic messages I appreciated very much is, you have to think of your creative work as a job. Meaning, you can't wait around for the Muses to inspire you. Because what's the first rule of a job? You show up. Whether you're inspired or not. Whether you want to or not. Eventually that kind of discipline rewards you with productive output.
It worked for me, anyway. I'm not one of these writers who has to write, who churns out thousands of words at a sitting. It takes a lot of effort for me, a lot of the time. Ultimately I'm happier when I'm writing than when I'm not writing, so I make myself do it, whether I feel like it or not.You can carry over a lot of other things from thinking of your writing as a job.
You have to work with other people. At times you have to put aside your ego and listen to what others have to say about your work and accept their criticism. You have to distinguish between trivialities and the things that really matter to the integrity of your work.
This experience has given me new sympathy for publishers—and agents—and the reluctance they might have to take on debut authors. Though I think if you write a good book, it's pretty clear that you have some discipline, still, there's always that risk that a new novelist isn't going to be able to work to deadline, or work and play well with others, that she might be a big pain in the ass, and not worth the investment of time and money. Because that's the other thing you need to understand, if you don't know this already: agents and publishers are making a significant investment in you, of their own time and potential income.
Me, I take a lot of pride in my craftsmanship, and as I've gone through this process, I've realized that I also take a lot of pride in doing a good job. In getting the work done right, on time, or even ahead of schedule. This is a job that I really enjoy. One where I show up. One that I might even be good at. I like that.
- How long you've been writing with the view to getting published?
I've always taken my writing really seriously, but it's hard for me to determine when I became serious about being published. Early on I wrote some prose mostly for fun that got me some publishing interest, but I was too embarrassed to follow through with it. For a long time I focused on screenplays and teleplays, but they were pretty idiosyncratic and strange for the most part. Even though I'd tell myself I wanted that career, I wondered about my seeming inability to make the necessary compromises in what I was writing to have it (the one time I did a screenplay project for hire, I really didn't enjoy the process very much).
I then wrote a novel for fun, just as a way to keep my writing chops up, while I focused on that spec screenplay that was going to earn me six figures. I found out that I really liked writing novels way more than spec screenplays, so I kept going with that. I actually had some publishing interest in that book as well, but I always figured it was a serious long-shot (500 pages long! Sort of unclassifiable, semi-steam punk speculative fiction without any elves or dwarves!), and I gave up on subbing that when the editor who had liked it somewhat eventually passed. So ROCK PAPER TIGER was the first novel I wrote where from the beginning I had getting published in mind. And then, of course, the early drafts turned out weird and unclassifiable!
- How long were you shopping for an agent. Did you get many rejections before Nathan Bransford took you on?
It felt like forever, but it really wasn't that long. I think I had five or six passes before I tried Nathan Bransford of Curtis Brown. But I was already pretty discouraged. The responses I'd gotten from agents (when I got personalized responses) were contradictory, and I was convinced that I'd written yet another unclassifiable, unsalable, weird book.
I only tried Nathan because, when I was about to throw the book in a metaphoric drawer, one of the members of my writing group suggested I try him - "He has a blog, and he likes novels set in foreign countries." I did my research on what he was looking for - something which I strongly urge anyone who is querying agents to do rather than just sending out queries en masse - pounded out a new query letter over a rather large glass of wine, and sent it off.
- Once you were accepted by him, what did you have to go through to strike the deal?
Nathan felt that my book had a lot of potential but needed some revisions before it was ready for submission. He had a direction in mind and offered to reconsider the MS if I wanted to rewrite along those lines. I agreed with his critique - he really echoed things that I'd suspected but couldn't see as clearly as I needed to do the work on my own. So I did a series of rewrites with feedback from Nathan, who in addition to his agenting savvy is a great editor. By the time we got to a certain point in the process, when it became clear that I could get the book where it needed to be, he offered me representation.
I know that some writers might be wary of doing so much work with no guarantee of a contract at the end, but I think this was a really great way for both of us to test out the author/agent relationship and see how we worked together. Believe me, you want to have a good working relationship with your agent when you go through revisions and then the submission and publication process! And I'm sure that agents feel the same way about the writers they sign. It's a marathon, not a sprint.
- How did working with an agent change your perspective of publishing?
Working with Nathan and then being signed by him and Curtis Brown was life-changing for me. I do not exaggerate, corny as it sounds. I felt validated for my writing in a way that I hadn't before. Here's someone whose job depends on recognizing talent and whose income depends on making smart choices about who he signs.
For me, long accustomed to writing stuff that was too eccentric to sell, it was a huge confidence booster, and another big step in being able to separate myself from my work, to see it as a product, not some deep reflection of my soul or what have you. That may sound a little crass, but it's absolutely necessary to have that attitude to work as a professional author. You have to learn how to accept criticism without it taking it so personally.
- I know you love things Chinese. You've been learning the language, you've visited China many times. How much influence has your studies of/love of China influence your writing of Rock Paper Tiger?
Well, most of the book is set in contemporary China. That was a sort of commercial calculation on my part - I knew that people are interested in China, and that not that many American fiction writers have used modern China as a setting. I felt that I had the familiarity to write it with some authority.
China is a fascinating place it's a lot of fun to drop in some of the surreal details that are a part of the daily scenery there. (as an aside, I look for those details in any location I set a book - I'm planning a California road trip novel at some point, and believe me, there's plenty of surrealism here to go around!)
- Can you tell me a bit about the story itself?
Iraq war vet Ellie Cooper is down and out in Beijing, trying to lose herself in the alien worlds of performance artists and online gamers. When a chance encounter with a Uighur fugitive drops her down a rabbit hole of conspiracies, Ellie must decide whom to trust among the artists, dealers, collectors and operatives claiming to be on her side – in particular, a mysterious organization operating within a popular online game.
- When will Rock Paper Tiger be released?
June 2010, by Soho Press - who have been an absolute pleasure to work with. My editor, Katie Herman, did an amazing job on my book - and the care they've taken with things like the cover - have I mentioned how much I love the cover? - it's been a great experience. Also one that has really changed my perspective on what being a professional novelist is all about. Which is pretty much the topic of my post!
- Lisa, thank you for taking the time to answer a few of my questions. I loved your article. It makes sense and gives an insider's view of what happens once you've been sold as well as choices you have to make for your career as a novelist.
I wish you the very best with this book and can't wait until I can read it!
Lisa Brackmann has worked as an executive at a major motion picture studio, an issues researcher in a presidential campaign, and as the singer/songwriter/bassist in an LA rock band. She's lived and traveled extensively in China. A southern California native, Brackmann currently splits her time between Venice, California and Beijing, China.