After the revisions and the edits, the query letters and the follow-ups, Eleanor Sam (The Wisdom of Rain) and Ariel Goldblatt (This World Will Break Your Heart) shared their debut novels with the world this year.
In celebration of their achievement and as a guide for the curious, I spoke with both Start Writing veterans about their work, their research, and the different paths they took towards publication.
Eleanor Sam—The Wisdom of Rain
On her thirteenth birthday, Mariama leans against her favourite baobab tree and daydreams, thrilled that the time has finally come for her Sande ceremony, when she will officially pass into womanhood. But then, rough hands tear her from her daydreams and violently toss her into a nightmare reality. She is forced onto the SS Archery, a slave ship that steals her from her home in West Africa and delivers her to the British colony of Demerary on the northern coast of South America.
Q: We first met in The Novel workshop. Did you already have The Wisdom of Rain in mind?
A: I came to the workshop a bit of a blank slate. I didn’t have a fully formed idea. I just wanted to write.
At the same time, I’d been exploring my background. I’d received the results from a DNA kit and wondered how I could learn more about my African ancestry. As the workshop progressed many ideas came together and I was inspired to write.
Q: What was your expectation when you started working on the book?
A: I wanted to finish something. To have something in print that would be my little bit of legacy for the world. After the first draft I would leave it alone for a few months, then come back and start rewriting. I did this for a few cycles. I felt I was making progress.
Then I saw Yaa Gyasi speak about her book, Homegoing. She was asked how many drafts it took her to get to the final product. Her answer was seven drafts. At the time I thought, “How could anyone do seven drafts of a book?”
When I got to the 12th draft of my novel, I understood. There’s always something else, something more you can do.
Q: What happened after that 12th draft?
A: I had a health scare. And I remember a thought coming out of the blue: “what happens if I’m not around to finish this?” The book was getting better but it still needed work. I remembered speaking about the value of editors during our workshop and I decided that’s what I needed. I wanted to move things along.
I hired my first editor who took me through a structural pass. The editor chopped a lot out but I felt that left certain holes in the story. I hired a second editor to address those issues. At that point I felt brave enough to share it with agents and publishers.
Q: Who did you approach, and how did you find them?
A: I started looking up agents on Google. Then I branched out to publication houses, mostly independents. The rejections were piling up and no one seemed interested.
I thought, after all this work I’m not getting anywhere. But I’d grown confident in the narrative I produced. The more I got rejected the more determined I became to see the project to the end. I kept pushing.
Q: When did you start thinking about alternate publication options?
A: I never seriously thought about self-publishing. I didn’t think I had the time or expertise to produce the type of product I had in mind. Then I saw a panel discussion led by Editors Toronto. They were talking about publishing in terms of traditional, self, and hybrid. The hybrid option was new to me. It sounded like something I might be interested in.
In the hybrid structure, you work with a firm that helps you navigate all phases of publication. My publisher (Iguana Books) provided a team of experts to help bring my manuscript to life, from structural and copy editing through cover art and printing. I chose to have their editors evaluate the manuscript for their take on how ready the book was. It’s an optional step but one that’s recommended.
Iguana dug through the manuscript and came up with their own notes. I went to town on them. I spent about three and a half months going through their suggested edits. I generally agreed with their suggestions but not everything. There was some back and forth. Then they started fine tuning and working on cover art.
Q: And now your book is out there in the world.
A: Yes, and it travels in mysterious ways!
I held a book launch, primarily for family and friends. There was a short print run so I had physical copies to distribute. What’s amazing is how news of the book travelled after that launch.
People talk and tell other people, other friends. The word spreads. I put up a booth at a Caribbean Festival and sold a number of copies. Some independent bookstores carry it. It’s also available at York University. Initially I had planned a print run of a few dozen copies, but it’s up to a few hundred by now.
My brother was very supportive. He got his book but I never expected to have him read it. He did, and he said, “I can’t believe you wrote this!” It felt good. People can see the final product but they really have no idea what you’ve invested in those four or five years behind the scenes. Well, now I know.
Q: What did you learn that surprised you?
A: Oh, I learned a hell of a lot along the way. About writing, certainly. I’ve a better sense of a story arc including pacing, rhythm, and climax—those technical aspects of good prose. Mostly though, I’ve learned not to have such huge expectations.
Because I went into this blindly and didn’t know what to expect, I thought I could get it done quickly. After the first shitty draft I thought the rest would go fast. But there’s so much to learn about honing your craft. My respect for writers has shot through the roof. You really do learn a lot by getting to the finish line.
Q: Will you write another one?
A: You’re damned right I will. At least for the pleasure of it. This process, though lengthy, was empowering and gratifying.
The Wisdom of Rain is available through:
Ariel Goldblatt | This World Will Break Your Heart
Just released from the EXCON implant program, Nerissa #ERROR struggles to fit into her modern world. Carrying inside her an experimental mechanical heart, she finds herself trapped in a system that locks the poor in a cycle of cheap drugs, phony empowerment speak, minimum wages, and toxic knock-off implants.
When a series of unfortunate circumstances force her to escape from her current living arrangements, she takes refuge with the Real Humans, a band of social mischiefs who focus on living simply and holding a mirror up to society.
Q: We first met in The Novel workshop. Did you already have This World Will Break Your Heart in mind?
A: I came to the workshop with an idea for a story I’ve been kicking around for a really long time. But through the workshop exercises, I abandoned that and created Nerissa’s world from scratch. I didn’t know protagonist or genre—I used the experience as an opportunity to let the story develop on its own. I think I was learning what I was telling along with the group.
Q: When did you know you were finished?
A: I’d figured out the ending during the workshop. I knew where I was going. But that left me with a big gap. How do we get from X to Z? How am I going to write myself out of this? After a few cycles of writing and revising on my own, putting it away and returning to it, I finished the book and felt it was good enough to share.
A: Who did you share it with?
Q: I started looking for publishers & agents about a year ago. It felt natural to start looking online, and I zeroed in on agents willing to take on sci-fi submissions. I looked locally. Internationally. Ever week I’d go down a list I’d compiled, choose three agents and send off the manuscripts to their requirements. I did this for about six months.
Then I expanded to sci-fi publishers taking open submissions. Every Sunday I’d go down that list and submit. Beyond rejections and generic feedback, I did get a few specific notes. One stood out. That publisher said my story didn’t quite meet their requirements, as they were a niche imprint looking for sci-fi stories focused on challenging gender conventions.
I had thought originally that my book was a bit out there. This note suggested that my story might fall into the realm of more traditional sci-fi. And I began thinking, if this is a more traditional story than I thought, then there might be a more traditional audience interested in reading it.
Q: Did you look towards more mainstream publishers?
A: I hadn’t exhausted my search. Not by any means. But I had become somewhat exhausted of the process. After a year of spreadsheets and queries I just felt, “there has to be a better way.” I wanted to get my book into people’s hands. Some will like it and some won’t. But I wasn’t after a financial reward and I didn’t want that to be a motivator. So I turned my attention towards just getting it out there.
Q: What were your thoughts about self-publishing?
A: If you want to self-publish, you have to put in the work to do the promotion. There’s also the effort and the cost to produce a physical product. Going for a purely digital made more sense to me and I chose to use Wattpad as my platform.
I posted the book in May 2019. My Wattpad strategy was to put up three chapters a week, to potentially build an audience over time. If you do it incrementally, people get notified if you change the manuscript. That’s a good way to remain top of mind with people. Every time you edit, someone makes a note, someone can subscribe to your book. The finished book isn’t up there yet. But it’s getting close.
I’ve had almost 400 visitors check in on Nerissa. Now, this could be 400 people, or it could be one person visiting 400 times. It could be me! But its up there for people to see, or people to stumble upon.
Q: What else drew you to Wattpad?
A: I liked the opportunities that surround it. Amazon and the Apple Bookstore are available for people to self-publish but Wattpad has partnerships that seemed interesting. Like Wattpad Studios. They work to mine film and TV content out of Wattpad uploads.
I think it’s just starting to be the place where the outside world is going to look for new ideas. A couple of projects have already broken through from that part of the online world. And I wanted to be part of a broad platform, not a niche market.
The tags are interesting too. You create tags for books. One of mine is “implants.” Follow the implant tag and you can go down a rabbit hole of dentistry books and dental implants. I like that feeling of total democracy.
Q: You also got your book into the Toronto Library system. How did that come about?
A: Biblioboard is a platform for self-published authors. You upload your book and it becomes available to readers in your region of participating libraries. This is a separate area from the main library archives.
One of the neat perks/prizes of Biblioboard is if your book is selected by Library Journal, it will be made available alongside other great indie reads in participating libraries across the U.S. and Canada.
Q: Have you come across any other platforms you want to use?
A: I feel like there’s so many more outlets to get your story out there. It’s more a question of which ones will bring in the best audience, or the one most receptive to your story.
A family member turned me on to PitchWars. It’s a mentoring program where published/agented authors, editors, or industry interns choose one writer each, read their entire manuscript, and offer suggestions on how to make the manuscript shine for an agent showcase. I’ll probably submit to the program because I like to fill out forms and have become quite good at it.
I want to get up a website for my work. I’m still invested in trying to promote the book but I wrestle with how much time it will take. And whether it’s enough, only having one book to promote. But I do want to connect Nerrisa with an audience for her story. I’m still finding my way through it.