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Guest Post: Lisa Ann O’Kane’s “Path to Publication” Series

The wonderful Lisa Ann O’Kane is currently writing about her experience as a writer thus far: from sitting down and writing that first book, to realising it doesn’t end there!; from figuring out what to do next to getting an agent, and then a publisher, Lisa is revealing all in an honest, funny, and insightful way. It’s not just worth a read for all budding writers, but also for us publishers who sometimes might forget – or not realise – how much an author may have gone through to get to the stage where we’re looking at their work, and for every author-and-book loving fan.

Join Lisa every Monday for her latest instalment, and check out her blog – Kicked, Cornered, Bitten and Chased - for the first 4 posts. For now though, here’s a little from Lisa:


Silly me, I thought writing the book would be the hardest part.

When I first began my path to publication, I believed literary accolades, fame and fortune would automatically follow. I had just WRITTEN A BOOK, after all. This feat was deserving of an arsenal of literary agents, editors, publishers and film companies fighting over me.

I also believed my transformation from a writer into an author would be a smooth, straight line. My dream agent would snatch me up, and we would sell my book to the highest bidder in an astonishing preempt the likes of which the literary world had never seen. It would only be a matter of time before film companies would be knocking at my door, and then we would have our pick of Hollywood’s brightest young actors to star in my blockbuster movie adaptation.

And then… I dunno… I would buy my parents a new house, donate to charities, raise awareness about worthwhile causes and travel the world for awhile. Maybe lay down some roots in Florida, buy a cabin in Alaska, rest on my laurels and grace my fans with a new novel every few years or so?

It sounded perfect at the time.

Nowadays, it sounds ridiculous.

When I first began my path to publication, I HAD NO IDEA HOW HARD THIS WOULD BE. I didn’t realize how much of my heart, soul and guts I would have to pour into making my dreams a reality. I also didn’t understand how gut-wrenching and terrifying and humbling the next few years of my life would be.

The light at the end of the tunnel?

I’m still standing, and my debut novel ESSENCE will be released by Strange Chemistry on June 3, 2014. (!!!)

My path to publication is nothing if not a story of persistence, and I would be honored to share it with you in the hopes you will likewise never give up on your dreams.

Please join me on my blog – Kicked, Cornered, Bitten and Chased - every Monday morning between now and then to learn more about the scrapes and scars I have acquired during my publishing journey. I also plan to post tips and resources you can utilize to make sure you don’t repeat some of my rookie mistakes.

Click here to read my first three “Path to Publication” posts, and please tune in on Monday, May 5th at 7:00am EST for my next post, “Picking the Right Literary Agent”.

Thanks in advance for your support!

What Are We Looking For in a Manuscript?

Okay, with reservations, we’re going to delve into the mystery surrounding what we’re actually looking for in a manuscript. We say “with reservations” because this is the most nebulous area of book publishing. We can tell you all these rules that we would usually swear by, but if That Book comes in – the one that you just HAVE to publish – a lot of the rules will go out of the window!

If you just bear in mind that you should take heed of these rules, except on a Wednesday when Venus is in the ascendancy i.e. these are the best we can give you and other publishers will have different ideas, then you’ll be doing okay.

*sighs* It’s already not going too well, is it?

Right, the basics first (and always bearing in mind that we want agented manuscripts, right up until that Open Door period in April!):

1. Do NOT send us a first draft, or even a second draft, of your novel. Send us the polished version. The version that you wrote, then edited, then re-edited, then sent out to beta readers for them to help edit. Although an editor will likely want to change parts of a manuscript that come into them, they are not there to do ALL the work. The quickest thing to turn us off of a book is to see flagrant spelling mistakes, sentences that don’t quite make sense and a novel that isn’t even close to being ready for publication.

2. Do NOT send us a novel that is an “homage” to another book, as in, you have pretty much used Find and Replace on character names. We have seen this sort of thing! We want to hear YOUR voice, YOUR story. Apart from being a very nasty habit and borderline illegal, plagiarism is not going to get you published.

3. Do pay attention to what we are looking for, as in, age range. At Strange Chemistry we do not publish adult novels. We do not publish middle grade or children’s books. We can’t do anything with picture books. We are exclusively publishing Young Adult novels. If you need a definition of such, then, believe me, you haven’t written a YA novel!

Now to the subjectivities…As in, the rules that can be broken on occasion, the rules that might not be rules for other publishers, the rules that are really more like suggestions!

4. We are principally looking for Voice. We don’t just mean the way you write your dialogue! Voice, for us, is where you become fully immersed in the prose of the novel and it feels completely fresh and unique – even if the subject matter is something that has been done before. Some of the recent YA novels we have read that had this Voice are Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor and Hollow Pike by James Dawson. In both cases, the books were so utterly readable.

5. We want journeys! Not travelogues, we don’t mean that… Rather, we mean character journeys or transformations. We want to meet a character in chapter one and see them change and develop as a response to what is happening in the story. For us, Katya’s World by Jonathan L Howard (coming from us in November of this year) achieved this in spades – when we first meet Katya, she is a rather shy and unassuming girl. By the end of the novel, she is completely changed and has attitude in spades! This organic development is crucial to the telling of a story. If your characters remain flat and unchanged by events, then you haven’t achieved what you could have.

6. Protagonists need to be worth reading about. The most memorable protagonists (and antagonists!) are those that leap off the page; those you identify with; those you want to spend time with. Katniss from The Hunger Games is this sort of protagonist, as is Todd from the Chaos Walking trilogy. Make sure your characters are fully fleshed and not two-dimensional. On a personal front, at Strange Chemistry we prefer our female characters to have backbone, if you please. We’re looking for Tamora Pierce-esque heroines, rather than the Bella variety.

7. Concentrate on your setting – and the whys of it. World building can add so much depth to a story. We don’t want expositional info dumps about the social and economic climate in your world, but we do want details that help us to understand why there is a story. For us, a great example is Bumped by Megan McCafferty. It received very mixed reviews, but the added slang, the advertising slogans about becoming fertile, the way in which their society dealt with teenage mothers – this all helped to bring out more of a story.

8. Never, ever, ever write what is popular now (see point 9 for where this rule can bend a little)! You’ve probably heard this one before, but it bears repeating. Publishing moves slowly. The books purchased today are most likely going to be published in eighteen months or so. Who knows whether a dystopian setting is still going to be the Big Thing at that point? We might all be reading about motorcycle gangs on Mars by then! (or, y’know, something less constrictive…) What is a phenomenon right now is going to fade away, we promise. Right now we’re seeing ghost stories and horror novels starting to creep into publishing. We’re seeing people starting to play around with other elements of SF than just dystopian. What this means is that you have to write the story that YOU are passionate about, and not worry *too* much about what the market is doing. Be aware of what is popular. More crucially, be aware of what everyone is getting tired of. But, essentially, if you’re passionate about your story and its setting, then that will shine through over someone who writes more to cash in on a current trend.

9. Perhaps try an entertaining twist on something that has been done before? Yes, we might be a little tired of vampires, or the fae, or mermaids, or dystopian settings – but if you can achieve something different with your story that gets us excited about it, then you are going to shine from the rest. If we describe a twist to booksellers, bookbuyers, bloggers etc that makes their eyes pop at the thought of the novel, we’re onto a winner.

10. However crass it sounds, we are looking for novels that are going to sell. We want marketability. We want books that we know other people will be interested in reading. If your novel is too off-the-wall or strange, it doesn’t matter how good the writing is, we are unlikely to be able to do much with it. The marketability extends to the author of the manuscript. When we find a book we’re thinking of taking to acquisitions and possibly buying, we will inevitably have a look at the author’s online presence – do they have a website? Do they talk on Twitter? Do they seem as though they’ll be decent at self promotion? Do they stand out in any way? So, alongside your novel, you’ll be selling us…well…you!

We hope that helps, and that you’re not all weeping into your cornflakes right now! Publishing is a tough industry to crack and you need to ensure that the novel you submit is the BEST it can possibly be when it hits an editor’s desk.

Over to you: Anything specific you would like to ask?

The Reading of Manuscripts

We asked on Twitter whether you wanted to hear about how we go about reading manuscripts and what we’re looking for, and heard a hearty yay from at least five people, so we’re going to go ahead and write a few posts about it.

So, the manuscripts that come into Strange Chemistry for reading are of the agented variety (although do remember our Open Door period in April when unagented authors can submit their novels!) Our preferred method is that an agent will approach us and introduce the novel before sending it through. This way we gain an idea about what the novel is about and who the author is. Some editors like to see a full synopsis of the novel – we actually don’t like this much. We prefer a teaser blurb, and then to go into the novel fresh. The reason for this is that we then experience exactly what the future reader of this novel will when they pick the book off the shelf in a bookstore. That reader won’t be given a handy dandy two page synopsis of all major events in the book – they will have to rely on the blurb and possibly the first few pages.

We do turn down some novels sent through by agents. They might not fit the remit of the imprint; they might be a middle grade tale rather than YA; they might be too similar to something we’ve already taken on or are considering. We will probably be much more discerning once the Strange Chemistry list is fuller, but at the moment we take a look at a variety of genres, styles and titles.

When we ask to see something, we are never concerned about the current title of the novel. When something comes in called POLTERGEEKS we are obviously going to be massively intrigued, so a good title will help! However, we have changed titles already. Blackwood came to us as Strange Alchemy and Katya’s World was Blood and Water – these were both decent titles, but the former was too similar to the imprint name (unfortunately!) and the latter didn’t convey as much about the SF element as we would have liked. We suggest that an author thinks hard about the best title that suits their book, but also be prepared to accept ideas for changes if need be.

Now…timings. We know that, as the author of a novel that has been accepted by a publisher for reading, you will be actively waiting for a reply. We know that it can be a desperate time waiting for the decision to come through. However… to the publisher your manuscript will inevitably join a list of novels to be considered. At the moment Strange Chemistry has over fifty manuscripts in the inbox – these are manuscripts that have been submitted through agents and accepted for reading. We try so very hard to make a quick turnaround with these submissions, but our work also encompasses editing the novels that we’ve signed, preparing those same novels for publication (copy editing, proof reading, art briefs, typesetting and other funky things), marketing our authors and novels… And we haven’t even mentioned the hours per day spent looking round the Internet and talking on Twitter (which is actually a valid part of our jobs here!) So perhaps it becomes a little easier to understand that, while you as the author are having sleepless nights through the excitement of being read by a publisher, we’re getting stressed at the fact that we haven’t read the manuscript and it’s been sat there for over two months…

Now and then we will set aside a day for some reading. We’ll pick two or three manuscripts (and this is done on a date stamp basis) and settle down to make a decision one way or the other.

When you read a manuscript sometimes you know straight away that you want the book and will read on purely through interest to see what the author has done and how they have taken the rest of the story. This happened to us with SHIFT – the prologue and the first page was enough to make that decision. It’s hard to describe exactly how this feels – a sense of excitement, perhaps, or slight goosebumps; definitely a sense that you want to show this novel to other people. The principle part of picking a novel is knowing that you absolutely have to share a book.

Sometimes it will take a couple of pages, and then you find that you are gripped and cannot put the novel down – we had this with BLACKWOOD. We were intrigued by the premise and felt an immediate empathy with Miranda, the female protagonist, and couldn’t resist turning the pages to find out what would happen.

POLTERGEEKS was all about the voice. Julie, the sassy apprentice witch, was a person we absolutely had to spend more time with, while KATYA’S WORLD left us curious about the setting, so much so that we found ourselves swept into this tale about underwater danger and unseen evils.

In all four cases we knew that they were novels that had to be read by a wider audience. We loved them and we know that others will love them.

There are other types of submissions, though. The one that you read twice over because you’re just not sure how to take it – it will be a complete Marmite read, in most cases, that you know will be loved and hated in equal measure, and you just can’t gauge how much love there will be. The one that you read fifty pages of because you love the prose but don’t know where the plot is. The submission that has a premise to die for, but the writing doesn’t back it up. These have all been ultimately rejected by Strange Chemistry – but we are pretty sure another publisher will have enough faith in them to do them justice.

Because here’s the thing: we have to pick the novels that we are prepared to champion to the hilt. We can’t waver in our belief of them. These are novels that we will be closely working with for the foreseeable future – we will have to read them a number of times, to a great depth of detail, and we will have to shout about them to the whole world. We can’t take on a novel that we have any uncertainty about, because we can’t then do the best job for the author and their book. But another publisher might – what you’re uncertain about, another editor will have read and gone into raptures over. It’s all subjective.

What isn’t subjective is the fact that an editor will often know within the first few pages whether a novel is for them – so, above everything else, make those first pages sing. I mean, sure, the rest of the novel needs to be pretty damn special, but those first pages are going to be what grabs people into your story.

From the picking of the manuscript we then have to take the novel into acquisitions – which we will cover in our next article, since we’ve rambled on quite enough!

So, over to you – ask us your questions about the reading process; this is your chance to quiz us!