- by Elaine Isaak
It wasn’t so long ago that I was polishing up the manuscript that became my first published novel. I was dreaming about who to send it to, how long it would take to show up at my local bookstore, and how much money I would make from it. (I had done a lot of research on all of these points so my dreams were fairly realistic, actually)
Writing a novel, as I am not the only one to observe, is like climbing a mountain. You do some preparation, you take smaller hikes until you’re ready to tackle the big one. You set out optimistically, often before dawn. Your friends cheer you on, but they also think you are a bit insane. Some parts are just plain slogging: putting one foot in front of the other even when you think you can’t manage another step. Other times, you are skipping through fields of alpine flowers, thrilled with your progress and eager to reach the summit. Finally, the moment arrives! Not only have you completed the work of the writing and revising, you’ve just been accepted by a publisher. Yes! You have made it! But in the midst of your celebration, the chill wind of the summit whips you around and you find before you. . . a whole new mountain.As a beginning novelist, with perhaps a few short stories or local sales in your backpack, you thought that writing and selling your novel would put you there, at the top of the world. But instead of climbing Everest, you look down and realize that you’ve been working on Mount Monadnock this entire time. Sure, it was a great climb. You learned a lot and pushed yourself to go higher than you had ever been before. Your hard work has paid off in the form of a contract, and you have every right to be proud. It just that you might not have known about the work still to come. Not just another mountain, but a whole range of them.
Many of us have written more than one manuscript before selling the first. That first contract may even be a multi-book contract, locking in your advance for a few more titles. Perhaps you have already written one or more of these contracted works. Bravo! Except that each one must be edited by several stages of editorial. Suppose you have written a series or, if you are a fantasy writer, the inevitable trilogy, and the editor asks for a major plot shift in the first book. Now, the others need to be rewritten to be in alignment with the first. Would it be easier to start from scratch? Yikes! Another mountain.
Or perhaps you’ve only finished the first book, with all the luxury of time and attention that we lavish on a first child. Now, the second needs to be written not only under deadline pressure, but also with a few other people looking over your shoulder. Your editor wants to know what it will be like (and may or may not want to have input). Your agent hopes it is as good as the first, or better. The sales staff want to know if it is a related work and the publisher want so put it in their schedule for next year–or they may have already done so, including the page count of a work you haven’t started yet.
Then there is the promotion and marketing of the first book. As a new author, chances are your publisher won’t be giving you a book tour or a television interview circuit. It’s up to you to contact bookstores, local newspapers, any contacts you may have to get the word out in advance of the title. Will you make bookmarks, postcards, a video? Will you start a blog? Do you already have yourname.com and/or your booktitle? The publisher will ask you to fill out a long document detailing how these things will come to be: published authors to write blurbs for you, suggested back cover copy, reviewers to get copies, press connections, old schools, hometowns and colleges where you might speak. . .
Then, if all goes well, there are the readers. Those people, for so long, imaginary, who now have your book in their hands. Hopefully. If you turned the book in on time, and the schedule worked out, the cover looked enticing, the sales staff were excited, the bookstores placed enough orders, you didn’t hit the shelves during the wrong time of year, or during an economic downturn, people could find the book, they liked what they saw enough to pick it up, they didn’t trash you on Amazon or on their blogs—the readers are now looking forward to your next book. They have certain expectations for what it might be like. At the very least they (and the agent, editor, sales staff and booksellers) hope it will be the same genre. Will you fulfill their expectations, or confound them? How far do you follow your muse, and how much do you compromise in the interest of selling more books and perhaps satisfying more readers? Mountain after mountain after mountain. . .
I am not really trying to discourage the would-be novelist from climbing that first slope, but rather to provide a more complete panorama of a career as a novelist. I would encourage you to tighten your laces and be sure you have a good base camp to rest and reflect on the various stages of this journey. Like a Boy Scout, be prepared for the journey to last longer and get tougher just when you think you’ve reached the top. Enjoy the view, chat with the others who reached it before you. If you’ve made it this far, you are stronger than most. And maybe knowing the mountains that still lie before you, brace yourself against the wind, and don’t forget to savor the summit.