Chasing that first book deal (the guide sheet)

My first book, Chasing Sisyphus, came out in 2017. It’s a suspenseful sci-fi romance and, well, there was nothing romantic about getting that book written. For years, I’d tried and failed to finish a decent story, let alone getting one published. If I wanted to achieve my goal of being a published author, I’d need to put the romance on hold until I sorted out the rest of my shit.

This post is a guide, based on the path I took, which will hopefully help new writers get their first book into the wild. You can read my full story here:

You don’t have to read it to understand this guide, but for context, it’s better if you do. So, grab a drink, pen and paper (or word processor and keyboard) and follow the prompts.

Mindset

Let’s look at the ideas, habits and obstacles that might be standing in your way…

What are some of your ideas about what it means to “be a published author”? Do you have any high expectations that could possibly be unrealistic? Do you have any prejudices that prevent you from acting on good opportunities? Given the resources available to you today, which of those ideas, expectations or prejudices could you tweak in order to get closer to your goal of getting published?

Which of your writing habits might be stopping you from finishing your manuscript? Are you a perfectionist? Are you time-poor? Do you despise research? Are you dealing with chronic illness, injury, mental health issues, children, unsupportive friends…? You don’t have to feel bad about any of this, but you do have to be honest. None of this is your fault. Your habits are the way they are because they served you in the past, but you’re looking to the future now.

Finally, how willing are you to change your mindset to get your book published? And why do you feel this way? It’s OK if you’re not willing. The world is full of possibility and people just like you may be achieving that goal you want without having to change. But if you are willing, then great! Here’s what to do next:

  • List 5 things you can do/change/address/learn this week to make your goal more achievable.
  • Of those 5 things, pick 1 to start doing today.

Audience

All right, now let’s look at who’s gonna be reading your work…

What does “writing for yourself” mean to you? What do you love about writing? What factors matter most to you when it comes to telling stories? What kinds of stories are satisfying for you to tell? What feeling of reward will you personally get from telling this particular story?

Who do you want your book to appeal to? You don’t have to be clear about this yet—just “(insert genre) readers” and “(insert genre) publishers” will do—but you do have to pick a target audience that’s more specific than “everyone”. Reason being that when it comes to writing and publicising your book, you’ll burn yourself out trying to please everyone. Do yourself a favour and establish some boundaries at the start. You can always change this later if you want to.

What does your target audience (yay, you have one now!) want to read? What are the norms, expectations and tropes in the genre you’re aiming for (eg. epic space battles, happily ever after, graphic sex, particular prose styles)? Do the things you enjoy writing fit this framework, or do you need to pick a different framework? Or do you need to learn to enjoy writing in the framework you’ve chosen? What story elements do audiences appreciate today? What story elements are no longer enjoyable to read?

  • With all this in mind, make your list of things about your target audience and genre that you can go research.
  • From that list, pick 5 items that are most immediately relevant to you.
  • And now pick 2 that you can start researching today.

Publisher shortlisting

This section can come before or after the next section—it’s up to you and where your head’s at in terms of story and market awareness.

Here’s what to consider if, like me, you prefer to take the non-agented “direct submission” route.

  • Who are the publishers (or imprints) that play in your space (genre, audience, etc.)?
  • What sorts of content do they publish?
  • Do they have any specific requirements for story content?
  • How comfortable do you feel adhering to their submission guidelines?
  • What can you learn about them from their website and social media profiles?
  • What are people saying about them? (check online forums and social media)
  • How do they compensate their authors?
  • What would be expected of you if you become a signed author?
  • How do you feel about the other authors contracted to them?

Note that some considerations are worth caring a lot about (ie. don’t waste energy on a publisher who doesn’t do your genre), while others will be open to negotiation (eg. you don’t like a particular author signed to that publisher, but you might still be open to having your name next to theirs). This is totally up to you and will likely determine who makes it onto your shortlist.

Drafting your story

This is a huge rabbit hole, but this guide aims to get your idea out of your head and onto the page, in a format you can query with. So, with that in mind…

If you’re a pantser… Use what you know about storytelling, genre and any recommendations from your shortlisted publishers to determine the critical story elements you just can’t do without. List them in the order you’d like to see them happen and commit to writing your story down. Tell your Inner Editor and Inner Critic to take a recess while you sprint your way to The End. Promise them their time to shine during your revision process.

If you’re a plotter/planner… Choose the simplest and quickest planning system you can find. While the likes of Snowflake Method and StoryGrid will help you come up with an amazing piece of work, if you don’t already know how to use them, you can really get lost in the nuts and bolts of figuring them out. For your first draft of your first book, go quick and simple. You can always refer back to whatever system you adore once your first draft is done.

My very basic chapter-by-chapter outline template is available via Google Drive if you’d like to pinch it ☺️

Query checklist

This one’s straightforward—or at least, it should be.

For each publisher you submit to:

  • Review their submission guidelines
  • Check that your story content aligns with any requirements
  • Check that your manuscript is formatted (fonts, margins, spacings, etc.) to their specifications
  • Prepare your synopsis according to any requirements
  • Write your query letter, addressing it to the acquisitions editor (if applicable)

Tl;dr: follow the publisher’s instructions.

Final thoughts…

  • Committing to your writing doesn’t mean you have to become a workaholic. It means engaging your Rider just a bit more, rather than waiting for your Elephant to stumble upon the path.
  • A good story is both satisfying for you to tell and satisfying for your readers to read. You’re not a sellout for writing what an audience wants to read.
  • Respect the people you’re querying, whether they’re agents, publishers, other writers, readers or critics.
  • You don’t need to be perfect on your first go. You just need to have a go.
  • You don’t have to be an amazing writer on your first go, but you must be willing to learn.
  • If you discover along the way you’re not enjoying this, it’s perfectly OK to stop ❤️

Breathing life into a flat sci-fi romance

This post is a deep-dive into the revision process for It Starts With A Kiss. For just the highlights, check out the “Behind The Rewrite” edition on Shortcuts For Writers.

I hate first drafting. I really do. As cathartic as it is to get a story onto the page, it can be so disheartening to read through chapters of rough dreck, knowing that’s what you’ve got to show for hours of slaving over a hot keyboard.

That said, I love having a first draft. And while revising can be tedious at times, this is the stage where you get to really put your knowledge into practice.

To date, my most popular book, It Starts With A Kiss (“Kiss”), is the one I enjoyed drafting the least. Before revision, it was flat and vapid; the draft seemed to suck the life out of the story I wanted to tell. It took four rounds of reboots and rewrites to turn it into a piece of work I was comfortable sending out.

Oh, gosh, my rewrites… Let me show you them.

1. Shaping realistic characters

Hot take: people are inconsistent. While usually predictable, they can still surprise you with unexpected decisions. And they’re not perfect. Sometimes the archetypal Innocent develops a nasty streak to keep their fears at bay. Sometimes the Rebel is so obsessed with being unique, they don’t realise they’re just conforming to an adjacent ideology.

Using archetypes can speed up the first draft process, because we’re so used to seeing them in fiction and the “economy of thought” saves us from getting bogged down by details early on. But these exaggerated personality profiles are just that—profiles. And depending on the kind of story you’re telling, they may hinder your ability to write characters people can relate to.

Where this stuck out for me was when Celeste stood at the door to Eleanor’s quarters, deciding whether or not to knock. I realised then that it would be too easy to portray a “blameless protagonist”, free of vice and vitriol. But as nice as it would be to imagine anyone could be that good, it’s not very interesting to read about. And looking at what most people are like, it’s not realistic either. Even the best of us have flaws.

The truth of character emerges most strongly at critical points throughout a story, where the character needs to make a decision they can’t take back. But as inconsistent as people can be, one thing they do consistently is express the truth of who they are in any given moment. Well ahead of any scene (let’s say two or three scenes at least) where a character must make an important choice, make sure you express and explore the rationale that leads to the beliefs that drive that choice. Armed with a sense of your character’s personality and disposition, readers will appreciate that your character couldn’t help but make that critical decision because that’s just who they are.

This is why it was important to show Celeste talking about Eleanor as well as to her in earlier chapters. Celeste isn’t the stereotypical mild-mannered geek who’s open to being bullied, like the kind you see in teen movies. This isn’t that kind of story. Realistic Celeste is grown-up and strong-willed, and so not only does it make sense why she made that decision at the door, the truth of her character emerges as well to set up even more intense moments later in the book.

Of all the characters in “Kiss”, Martin was the easiest and most fun to write. I suppose it’s because he wasn’t a central character that I didn’t feel so precious about him. He started out as a bit of a himbo in the first draft, but in fixing other aspects of the story, the bits that made him more human (and less stereotypical) began to shine through. So when he got his two turning points in the second half of the book, they ended up being more than just a convenient way to bump my Plot A along.

2. Writing natural dialogue

Dialogue can make or break a book’s immersion factor. I’ve come across novels where the dialogue was too thinly veiled a way to insert an infodump. It dulls the story and turns the characters into talking cardboard cutouts. I’m embarrassed to say my original draft of this office romance committed that offence. In case your draft is struggling with this too, here’s my advice:

Workplace banter is easy if you’ve ever been mates with your colleagues. Pay attention to what’s said during small-talk, break room conversation, and end-of-day heart-to-hearts, and you’ll collect a whole series worth of great material that you can adapt to your own office romance stories, while still having it sound like stuff actual people would say.

Of course, it takes more than whizzy words to write good dialogue, so take note of the non-verbal stuff too, like tone of voice, facial expression and body language. And consider that people from different backgrounds and disciplines will borrow from other lexicons they’re familiar with. Sometimes they just can’t help it, even if they consciously edit themselves for the audience they’re speaking to. Every type of conversation has a special flavour that demonstrates the dynamic between characters and how they, individually and together, relate to the circumstances around them.

So, when re-written Owen mashes his hand into Celeste’s face, you can tell it’s because they’ve been friends long enough for that to be okay. When re-written Laks bosses everyone around in the function room, you know it’s different to when Eleanor does it. It’s evident in what she says, how she says it and, most importantly, how everyone else responds to it.

If you don’t have personal “banter” to inspire your dialogue in certain scenes, look for movies, TV shows and reality shows that match the genres, characters, setting, pacing or vibe of your story. In addition to my own workplace friendships, I referenced my friends, family and in-laws for specific social dynamics (such as Betina’s dynamic with Dave), and Fresh Meat for how a diverse cast of characters could bounce off each other in a story-driven setting.

3. Fixing the tone of voice

You can’t tell a happy story with a sad tone of voice. Well, you can, but it wouldn’t be the same story. If you’ve ever seen 10 Things I Hate About Commandments, you’ll know what I mean. Otherwise, there are so many more re-cut trailers that demonstrate how this works (or doesn’t work).

Even though “Kiss” was always intended to be a romantic comedy, the prose style was far too jolly and saccharine in its early stages. This meant that every negative encounter hit like a ton of bricks, even the mildly unpleasant ones. With the wrong tone, the manuscript lacked the internal cohesiveness it needed to emotionally connect with my readers.

What I learned from this was that I couldn’t just write a story. I had to re-set my mental state and emotions to be in the story. I’m certain there are better writers out there who can accomplish crisp, pitch-perfect prose at the drop of a hat. But well, the rest of us have to get by somehow…

For me, this means compiling a soundtrack. Not just “a writing playlist”, but a playlist specific to the story and its unique setting. Sometimes it can also mean turning the lights down, writing only at certain times of day, wearing certain clothes or fabrics, andfinding a writing totem. Every writer will have different sensory needs for getting into the zone of a particular story, if not getting into the zone of writing anything at all.

4. Not shying away from science

This was a dilemma. Over the years, I’ve found you can only include so much technical realism before your work becomes unbelievably boring or just plain unbelievable. (And when it comes to violent stories, there may be a “duty of care” involved too.) You know that scene in “Kiss” where Eleanor stares blankly at Celeste during a technical explanation? I’ve seen that look way too many times from non-technical people who asked a technical question but didn’t really want to know the answer.

So, let’s talk about when people want to know the answer. Some genres have it made in the shade. Contemporary romance? Skip the technical, no sweat. Haunted house horror? No one cares, just gimme the scares. Sci-fi romance, though, especially in the nerd-first space I wanted “Kiss” to occupy, I knew I’d be dealing with a lot of technical diversity in my readership.

The first version of “Kiss” had far less of the nerdy stuff. At the time, I was trying to emulate the contemporary stories I’d immersed myself in, ones with broader appeal that stuck with general language. Not to disparage contemporary romance at all, but for this specific sci-fi romance, it failed. And in light of a lifeless first draft, it became clear that what makes each romance novel special and unique is the characters.

It Starts With A Kiss is a story about two engineers who came together through their work on a futuristic space station. The technical stuff comes part and parcel with who they are and the choices they’d made leading up to the start of the book. It didn’t feel right to tread only half a step into the science, but I didn’t want to go as far as the Honor Harrington novels (because JFC 😳). Getting the balance right hinged on how big a role the technical stuff plays in the characters’ own views, and how much was worth showing to the reader.

So when Celeste rambles about outdated firmware and electromigration in old components—genuine concerns for software developers and electrical engineers—it’s because that’s what she sees when she looks at the world. As far as she’s concerned, this is the situation she’s dealing with, even if non-technical folk gloss over it or decide it’s nonsense because they don’t understand it. This is just who she is, and just who many of my sources of inspiration for her character are.

Personally, I love listening to my nerdy friends talk about deeply nerdy shit, even if it goes way over my head. I love to soak up their words and perspectives and come away from the conversation either exposed to a new concept or having a better appreciation for who they are as individuals. I’ve come across so many nerdy folk who don’t get much support in a “normie” world. So, giving the technical stuff a little more juice in the rewrite was my way of saying to all of them, hey, I see you and I think you’re great.

5. Building the wider universe

All of my stories are contained within their own worlds, but most of these worlds belong to a greater milieu with a timeline and events. “Kiss” is my third Alliance Worlds book, but actually the first book in the chronology of the universe…though this isn’t at all relevant to the story.

So how do you pull off large-scale worldbuilding in such a way that it’s enriched by existing lore while also contributing to the wider universe, when it has nothing to do with what your book is about? Turns out, you shouldn’t, really. Otherwise you end up with yet another infodump.

But you can drop hints.

For example, towards the end of “Kiss”, when Eleanor has her big spiel, I could have let her allude to other companies as an abstract concept. It does just as good a job at getting her harsh point across, if that’s all we needed to do. But in the final published version of the book, Elle names a specific company that’s tied to the wider universe. For my new readers, it’s flavour text, giving them a more specific taste of the Halcyon Aries world.

For readers familiar with my other work, it gives them a sense of place that exists beyond the covers of this book, making the experience of this story and all the other stories a little richer.

It Starts With A Kiss was tricky to write for all sorts of reasons, but these particular revisions ended up breathing life into a manuscript I was on the verge of giving up on. What’s especially satisfying is that so much of the positive feedback I’ve gotten for this story has been around these key areas.

Of course, I look back and wonder if I’d be capable of doing a better job of it with the gift of hindsight and these extra months’ worth of learning about storycraft. I’d like to hope so, but I’ve resigned to never finding out.

There are just too many other stories still to tell.