Welcome to Kevin Klehr, whose first novel has just come out from a pro publisher, after having been picked up by them from the self-published version. He’s here to talk about the journey from self to pro publishing:
From Self-Published to Book Deal
About ten years ago I started writing a fantasy novel on Thursday nights, as that was the only free time I had (My partner, Warren, had started playing tennis on those nights).
It was handwritten in a journal and called Staging Life. I had written about five chapters when a friend bought me a ‘How to Write’ book for my birthday.
The first paragraph of this How To book clearly told me that if I was writing without my plot being clearly laid out, to stop right away! I made a chapter by chapter story outline, but this totally killed the creative process. The journal was then left in the bottom drawer.
Several years later a young man captured our hearts (no, not in the way you’re thinking). He was charming, charismatic, and just needed a little help in learning to love himself as a gay man. Warren secretly lent him my unfinished manuscript, which he returned to me enthusiastically. He demanded I finish it. So I did. Within months a novella was born.
The first draft was taken to an assessor who loved my style of writing, but pointed out some major flaws. Like the main character in The Great Gatsby, my protagonists watched drama unfold around them, but were not directly affected. Secondly, she thought that the love interest between my two main characters which happened out of the blue in the last chapter, should be the main focus of the whole novel.
Thirdly, she didn’t like my first chapter. A fantasy telling of Warwick and Allan’s life up to the point to which they die. She found two problems with this. Firstly, the real world was as fanciful as the Afterlife. No clear distinction between the two realities. Secondly, she made me realise that how they died should be one of the mysteries that should be told in flashback. Keep the audience guessing!
One thing she did like was the fact that my main character was sometimes inappropriate in social circumstances. She told me to make this his main personality flaw and pointed me toward Joe Keenan’s My Blue Heaven. In her words she said ‘turn up the ‘tude’.’ This was very good advice.
I kept using her as my assessor for two more drafts, finally taking the novella to novel length. Eight drafts later my self-published novel was finally born (after many many rejection letters from publishers).
Along the way there were two mistakes I made that might be worth mentioning for young players. The first I didn’t go through with, but it’s so important to note.
One publisher was interested in my book. When I looked over the contract, one thing that stood out was my lack of control over my own copyright. I’ve worked in broadcast media, so copyright law is something I know a bit about. In this contract, not only did they want exclusive world rights, they also wanted me to write to them and seek their permission if I wanted to write anything in the future. Plus, only they would have the right to end the contract, even if I desperately wanted to.
A lawyer also pointed out that their payment of royalties was far below the industry standard. Once I asked this publisher a few questions, they dropped the publishing deal like a hot potato.
My second mistake was using a different assessor for one of my drafts. One publisher (in fact, many) loved my writing style but not the uncommercial nature of my book. They suggested a few ideas on making the plot more sellable, after only reading the first chapter. So I decided to use them to assess my novel (as a backdoor way of getting them to read the whole manuscript).
This is my mistake – I rewrote the book taking on their ideas, but those ideas didn’t really work in the context of the whole story. My partner suggested that I simply should have sent the most recent draft, but I was desperate for a publishing deal. Five hundred dollars later they criticised the novel in its new form, making me wish I’d listened to my husband.
Even my psychic (don’t laugh, she’s extremely good) looked at me sternly while we were talking about something completely different, and asked “What did I do with that woman!” She was referring to my original assessor. I said that I was just getting another opinion to which she replied “She understands what you’re writing about!”
The book was out for three months from late September 2010, but I had problems getting local bookstores in Australia to stock it, as it was too costly for them to import from the UK. This is where fate stepped in. I researched self-publishing companies in the US, but also stumbled across a couple of publishing houses who hadn’t had the chance to reject my novel. One of them was Charles River Press.
It was Sunday. I was home alone. I read my email. There was a complimentary message from a publishing house that liked my first chapter and wanted to know if I wanted a publishing deal. I stared at the laptop screen and said “Hell, yes!” (I actually used another word for ‘Hell’, but you get the idea). Within two days I had a contract to sign.
For the first three months of 2012 I stripped back my over-written style; deleted scenes and added fresh plot twists, under the guidance of my assigned editor. I was unemployed at the time, so this was my 9 to 5 gig each working day.
Another tip for writers – trust your editor. When her first suggestions were emailed to me, I wanted to scream. “She doesn’t get the book!” I complained to my husband. But as I read the reworked novel to myself over three days, I realised she was right in her advice.
This has been a long process. Maybe eight years. I’ve both grown as a person and learned a lot along the way.