The joy of seeing your first novel in print is hard to beat.
It is not unusual for authors to shed a tear when they hold a copy of their first book, and I understand why. After a gestation of almost three years, my debut novel, “A Slice of Bakewell Tart”, finally went on sale in August 2021. It was a milestone moment, but at that point, it only existed on Kindle, which isn’t very different to reading it on my PC. The actual thrill came when I received the first printed paperback. Then it felt very real. I finally felt like a published author, an odd thing to say, perhaps as a content writer!
From writer to author
My career has revolved around words and producing articles for publication, but nothing compares to publishing your first novel. At least not for me. Although I make my living by writing for clients, I had never felt as vulnerable as when I pressed ‘publish’ on my book. One of the reasons was because it was fiction, a genre that was virgin territory for me as a writer, but the other was because it felt more personal. Was I a credible storyteller? Were the characters believable and the dialogue natural? Did my book have all the ingredients to sustain and entertain the reader?
Gratifyingly the reaction has been very positive. I have enjoyed steady sales and generally five-star reviews. As I didn’t set out to be a best-selling author, I class sales as a bonus. I intended to see if I could write a book that people enjoyed reading, and I have achieved that goal. Sadly my mum passed away before the book hit the shelves, but she read the first draft and was amused by what was a working title. Bakewell Tart was a staple during my childhood, something she baked regularly. It was an in-joke, but I grew fond of the title and decided to stick with it. It seems my audience likes it too.
Transitioning from fact to fiction
So how does a copywriter become a novelist? I suppose storytelling is at the heart of most writing, but if you are going to write a novel, you need to have an idea of the story you want to tell. Some writers start with a fully-fledged book in their head, whilst others have a rough idea and are happy to see where their writing takes them. These are often referred to as ‘plotters’ and ‘pansters.’ At the outset, I thought I would be a plotter as I usually like to make copious lists and notes.
However, as I embraced the writing process, I did find that the characters encouraged me to go in a particular direction which was a new and intriguing experience. I learned the importance of keeping track of the details – your characters’ dates of birth, where they live, and so on. You get to the end of your first draft only to find that Mike was 32 at the start of the book but turned into James, who must now be 45 by the end! It is surprisingly easy to trip yourself up.
Drawing on real life
Most authors draw upon their own experiences often the advice you will read, ‘write about what you know.’ My mum was adopted at the age of five from an orphanage. We only had scant information about her birth mother and nothing of her father. This lack of not knowing about her true identity haunted her, and she went to her grave feeling like a ‘waif and stray,’ as this was the name of the organisation that arranged her adoption. I knew that adoption was something I wanted to explore in my book. Other real-life incidents pepper the story, but they are reimagined.
After a lifetime of writing non-fiction, the biggest challenge of writing fiction is creating characters. Whilst it is tempting to draw on people you know, I found it more interesting to develop my protagonists from scratch. To be plausible, they need to have a healthy dose of flaws and challenges, but it is a fine line not to make them seem like caricatures. To me, it was essential to like my characters. They may do things I disapprove of, but I like the people who inhabit the world I created for the most part.
And then comes the editing.
Writing a novel is nowhere near as hard as editing it! You have to edit for sense, accuracy, grammar, holes in your plot, and spot inconsistencies. It feels endless. You could, of course, employ someone to do this for you, but as a first-timer, this seemed inappropriate. In hindsight, it wasn’t. It was more to do with my imposter syndrome, thinking that I wasn’t a real author, simply someone writing a book they hoped others would like to read! I know it makes no sense, but I am sure I am not the only first-time author that has felt that way.
As I planned to self-publish, I had not had any feedback on my manuscript other than from family members – and I don’t think they count, given they are usually going to like anything you put in front of them out of familial loyalty. So I enlisted the help of a group of beta readers. You have to pick carefully and brief them thoroughly. They must understand that you want honest feedback, not simply platitudes. You need their challenges to help you get your book to the best possible state.
Around this time, I also gained feedback from a published author, and she took issue with the central tenet of my plot. Although hers was a lone voice, I couldn’t ignore it. I valued her feedback and felt compelled to do something about it. That meant rewriting about a third of the book!
Having got to this stage in about eighteen months, it ended up taking about a further year to rewrite the book and bring it to a conclusion. Rewriting several chapters and changing the plot was a mammoth personal challenge. In my day job, I like my first draft to be as good as possible and only require a tweak to take on board a client’s comments. However, I admit that the finished article is all the better for the rewrite.
Getting the book to market
The final piece of the puzzle was publication. Having decided to go down the self-publishing route, Amazon was the easiest option. There was a definite learning curve when it came to figuring out the optimum size of the book, choosing a cover design and laying out the text, but Amazon has plenty of self-help guides to aid the process. Within a couple of days, you can have your novel on sale in Kindle and paperback format. I made the schoolgirl error of publishing the book before receiving a hard copy proof, but that wasn’t the end of the world.
As I said at the start, nothing compares to the feeling of holding your printed book for the first time and the only thing that topped it was when my local bookstore agreed to sell it. I know the numbers will not be huge, but the fact that something I have written is available in my local bookshop fills me with immense pride and satisfaction.