Anat Deracine is the author of the novel Driving by Starlight (Macmillan, 2018), a story about a girl growing up in Saudi Arabia; she is co-creator of an online comic called The Night Wolves; and author of many short stories, including The Divine Comedy of the Tech Sisterhood about inequalities in technology. Here, she shares her experience and advice for We Are The City readers looking to publish their first book...
You probably already have two or three full novels you tinker with from time to time. But how do you get your first book published?
In my twenties, one of my college writing teachers asked me why I hadn’t yet published a book. As flattering as that show of faith was, it made me confront a way in which I was sabotaging myself by not even trying to query.
If I sent my book out to agents or publishers and it was rejected, that would mean I was a failure at this writing thing, wouldn’t it? But until I sent my story out, the possibility of acceptance was stronger than the reality of rejection. So I kept tinkering and tinkering with old stories, without ever trying to get them published.
Now, with hindsight, I know that there’s a sweet spot you need to hit to heighten your chances of acceptance. You need to show command of the language—no mixed up tenses or points of view, no typos or grammar errors—and you need to show that you can tell a coherent story, with a beginning, a middle and an end.
Beyond that, whether there’s too much description on page 42, or whether this character needs a different name? Don’t worry about it too much just yet. Part of getting a book published is revising with an editor’s feedback. Take a deep breath, brace for the rejections, and send it out into the world. You may be surprised, and you will learn what does and doesn’t work.
These days, there is little to no stigma around self-publishing, and there are many stories of writers either reaching a wide audience with their self-published work and then being signed on by a traditional publisher, or writers leaving a traditional publisher after some time to self-publish to their readers.
Ultimately, what it comes down to is whether you’re writing your book to make money, in which case you may want to self-publish and keep all the gains, or if you want to rely on a traditional publisher’s reach to get your book into libraries and stores. Either way, you’ll still have to figure out your platform, or how you discover, engage and keep your readers hooked.
At a conference, an agent once told me that what publishers are looking for is “The same, but different.” They see something succeed wildly, e.g. Twilight, and they want more vampires, just… different. You don’t have to imitate a bestseller to ride in its wake, but you do need to know which other books yours will sit next to on a shelf. In fact, a key way to hook an agent or editor’s interest is to be able to map the story you’re telling to one they might have already read. This is called a comparable. You have to be able to say that your book is “Like that, but different.”
The rules about genres and word counts are persnickety, but unavoidable. It’s highly unlikely that a 200,000-word debut novel will be picked up, in any genre. And I’m sure it’s a lot of fun to write a dystopian sci-fi romantic thriller with vampires in space (I was seventeen once) but it’s very hard to sell a book that can’t be described with a simple tag-line, like, “It’s Pride and Prejudice, but with zombies.”
When querying agents, it’s worth researching them to know what they do and don’t represent. An agent represents you, not just this book. If you tend to write in a variety of genres, it’s important to find an agent who believes in all your work. If you’re new, you may also want an editorial agent, who has the time to help you grow in your craft and edit your novel with you. You can look for the hashtag #MSWL, i.e. the agent’s Manuscript Wish List, to see if they’re looking for the kinds of stories you like to write.
Before querying, find a reputable editor to help go through your query letter and at least the first few chapters of your novel. These are your calling cards. It’s helpful to have another person make sure you’re coming across as professional and competent, and that you’ve put your story in the best light.
Just because you’ve found an agent doesn’t mean your book’s getting published. Your agent still needs to submit your book to publishers, and they may not bite. Moreover, publishers’ reading windows are short, so you can be waiting between six months to a year to hear back on replies. The best thing for your sanity and your writing career is to get started on the next book.
If this one doesn’t sell, maybe the next one will. And don’t be disheartened. Even published authors (*cough*) sometimes write books that don’t sell. But you can’t lose heart, or lose sight of why you wanted to write in the first place. So, in the meantime, befriend other writers and readers, improve your craft, read more stories, and write, write, write.
Anat Deracine (her pen name) is the author of the novel Driving by Starlight (Macmillan, 2018), about a girl growing up in Saudi Arabia, and many short stories, including The Divine Comedy of the Tech Sisterhood about inequalities in the tech industry. Outside of writing she is a senior figure in the tech industry.
Born in India, and raised in Saudi Arabia, Anat is fascinated by cultural narratives around equality and the portrayal of women. Her parents allowed Anat to dress as a boy so that she could do sports and take part in other activities that girls were not permitted to.
She has two degrees which she studied concurrently – one in philosophy and one in computer science. This dual talent for creativity and technology has continued through her life: Anat joined one of Silicon Valley’s major tech companies after university and worked her way into a senior role. As such, she is active in driving diversity in the tech sector – both for those who work in it, and for the masses who use it. It is for this reason she chooses to write under a pen name.
In between her 15-year tech career, she has taken time out to travel through many areas of the middle east alone, including Egypt, Jordan, Iran, Israel and Lebanon . She wrote the first draft of her first novel – Driving by Starlight – in five weeks while on a retreat in Bali. She is now working on a Sci-Fi / fantasy novel about a telepathic killer in an alternate modern-day South Asia.