The Inescapable Villain of Time

We’ve all felt the anxious pressure of a deadline looming. That sweaty palm, sleepless night dread that you will never get anything finished. It’s terrifying, and it makes you wish you’d never signed up to do this crazy thing you said you would.

Deadlines are something authors, like the rest of the world, routinely face. Manuscript in by this date, have your draft done soon, we need it! We absolutely must publish on that date! The more famous your work is, the bigger the expectation, both from your publisher, and your rabid fans. Your first book might be relatively free from stress, but for sequels or follow up works, there’s often a weight of expectation that you publish again in a certain amount of time, lest the world forget about you.

With some of my own personal anticipated sequels due to come out soon, as well as a number of our Odyssey authors working on sequels, I’ve begun to question the influence of a looming deadline on the work that is produced.

One maxim that is so oft repeated many don’t remember where it came from, is the idea that ‘You can’t rush Art.’ It is undeniably true. You can spot a shabby, hurried novel from a mile away. There are continuity issues, the plot doesn’t make sense, or a key detail has been left out. Additionally, the creative process can be notoriously fickle. Some days you may be blocked, and blocked hard. There’s nothing you can do to force the process, you just have to wait.

So writing requires time and patience. That’s accepted. But is there a limit to how much time and patience a publisher needs to have? This is a particular problem with sequels. Many readers don’t like to buy the beginnings of a series until they will be assured that it will end. The consequence of this is that publishers will often need assurances of further books, so they can be confident in your ability to remain in the market. Without this, your first novel could be stellar, but it may be too much of a risk to publish.

As you continue on in the journey of writing a series, or even just a set of stand alone books in succession, the need to remain relevant and continually have something fresh to put out there only grows. If you develop a following, your readers will be waiting for new reading material. Make them wait too long, and they could easily forget about you, and move on to pastures with more books in them.

In light of this, it’s easy to see why publishers need to impose deadlines on their authors. Publishing is a business, and to an extent, writing is too. In order to make money in this business, the name of the game is producing books. Deadlines help a publisher launch your book at the best possible time, and give the writer something to work towards. We all know how easy it is to languish in an endless cycle of words if we don’t have a particular goal in mind.

The key, as always, is balance. Writers need to be given the freedom to write, and the flexibility to adapt, for when things don’t turn out as expected. Publishers need assurances that their time and investment in you will eventually come to fruition. Oppressive deadlines that allow no room for movement will always impact on the quality of the work produced. Books are not like business reports; their structure is flexible and ever changing. So too should be the deadlines they are bound by.

The Un-Conventional Pitch

Authors and editors alike are always interested in how the manuscript gets into the publisher’s hands – authors because they want theirs to be read, editors because it means things to edit – yay!

Traditionally, publishers receive manuscripts in two ways, depending on their preference and, usually, the size of the organisation. Most of the big publishing houses use literary agents, who write letters of recommendation, extolling the virtues of this particular client’s work. The person in charge of the slush pile (often your lowly intern!) reads the letter, and if interested, may actually set eyes on the manuscript.

The other way to do it, usually a more common method for smaller publishing houses, is through unsolicited manuscripts. This involves the author emailing or submitting the manuscript online whenever they choose. It is not based on the request of a publisher or the advice of a literary agent.

This is the method that Odyssey uses. Authors upload their manuscript through our submission portal in order for us to see it. We require them to include a synopsis, a biography, an ‘elevator pitch’ (how they’d pitch the book in the time it takes to ride an elevator) and the first four chapters of the manuscript.

Each of these methods work fine, indeed, at least for Odyssey, it’s how we discover most of our authors. But it does have its downsides. Both styles of submission are very impersonal; they consist of a letter, an email, or a summary. They give no scope for your impassioned defence of your work. All you can do is try and type as much as you can into that little box, and hope it’s enough to sell your work.

However, particularly with small publishers, a third option seems to be emerging.

As I noted in my blog post on the Supanova Pop Culture Convention a few weeks ago, going around these conventions with Odyssey, I have seen a number of authors willing to come up and make themselves, and their work, personally known to my boss.

Nowhere was this more evident than at the Conflux Science Fiction Convention Odyssey attended in Canberra over the October long weekend. Conflux provided an option for authors they called PitchFest, which gave them a chance to pitch a particular work to my boss in 10 minutes.

The session worked thus: after brief introductions, they began by covering their title and synopsis. The publisher could then ask for clarifications, and even request the author elaborate on details they found interesting. Then they went over their author platforms, while the publisher made sure they understood the way Odyssey works, and knew what it would be like to work with a small press.

I considered this opportunity an excellent way to bring publisher and author together in a way that allows for a more personal and in depth interaction about the work. It was also a great way for everyone to get their names out there, and for authors to have a go at pitching their work.

Aside from this more formal aspect of it, I also found, as I have with every convention I have attended this year, that interest can also be expressed very casually. Throughout the day, a number of authors stopped by to discuss publishing with us, some interested in how Odyssey worked, others wanting to quiz our authors on what is what like to be published with us. Our boss was always open to informal sessions over coffee, and, as always, we found a few interesting manuscripts over the weekend.

So it seems that any and all opportunities to make yourself and your manuscript stand out should be enthusiastically undertaken by authors. Networking is key, as you get a chance to both formally and informally meet different publishers, and figure out which one is best for you. Some authors we have met at previous conventions are now part of the Odyssey family. If you can, I would always recommend taking a chance on the unconventional pitch

Publication Day Jitters

It’s crazy. In just three days, a book I found in the slush pile will be published. I’m nervous as all hell. Probably not as nervous as the author, Belinda, but still bloody nervous.

My main worry is whether I have done a good job with the editing. Have I allowed the author’s voice to cut through? At the end of the day, my thoughts as an editor rest with whether I’ve enabled the author to tell their story in the best way possible. That’s a very nerve-racking concern, particularly for one’s first-time fully editing a manuscript for publication. Did I mention that I’m nervous? Probably. This is a huge moment and will remain important to me for the rest of my life. I will always remember Hero as the first book, and that’s really special. (Thanks Belinda, for writing a story that moved me to do this.)

This kind of privilege – to acquire a book and see it through is such a huge thing to take on at a junior level. And yet, this is common in the US industry. Low level editors in most houses spend their time acquiring books at a fairly steady rate. In the Australian industry, acquiring titles is the field of senior editors (commissioning editors) and publishers. Below that, editors work on the books that their house has acquired, and may occasionally pass things up the chain.

These two distinct models of editorial careers are interesting, but do they change the content of what is published? If low-level editors acquire books as well as the upper-levels, would that not encourage more diversity? I believe so, and I also think that it represents a significantly different caliber of on-the-job training for editors. It would be more about creating a confident, individual professional over a competent, focused operative. While both systems have their merits, perhaps it’s better to have editors working on acquisition from the early stage of their careers. I know I certainly don’t want to stop picking something from the slush and running with it because I believe in it.

Hero very much fits that description. I first knew it was a good book because when I picked it up, I had been going through one of those awful phases where everything I picked up might have been a good book but it wasn’t grabbing me. Hero grabbed me immediately. I was skeptical at first glance, but then I read the first page, and the second, and then I couldn’t stop. They say there are books that you literally cannot put down and I always thought that was a weird or silly statement.

But now I get it.

There are books that, regardless of your capacity for reading at the time, sink their claws into you and pull you through them. They are the books that make reading as natural as breathing.

Hero is just that sort of book.

Back to my nerves. In a recent book about editing, the author stated that confidence was an editor’s “stock in trade”. Whoops. Though the larger part of me is very confident that we’ve got a good read, there is always the self-doubt at my own choices. But I know this is a good book, I’m just a mess of nerves. So perhaps I could be an okay editor and maybe I’m just a rubbish stock broker. But I think I can live with that.