Production of a fantasy (alternate-history) novella: Interview with Sarah Gailey

Way back when, earlier in the year, when I ran the ‘producing a modern fantasy debut in 2017’ it got me thinking about other books, and other authors; those that weren’t debuts, but also those that weren’t ‘book 2’ in a series, or weren’t a ‘household’ name on the shelf (e.g. GRrrrrrM, Abercrombie, Sanderson, Hobb etc.).

So, before I kick off the next ‘debut’ interview mini-series, I want to take a moment to talk about, and ‘to’, some authors that fit this ‘other’ criteria.

First off, Sarah Gailey. Some of you might already know or have heard of her from her short stories in various publications, or via social media. Sarah has written a number of works for magazines, websites, anthologies, and her novella, RIVER OF TEETH is now available via Tor.com (and of course Amazon).

Sarah GaileyHi Sarah! I’d like to explore the ‘production side’ of , well, producing a fantasy novel – or in your case, an alternate history novella.

For those of us who are on the outside of the industry, the process of taking a book from words (well, a Word.doc) to a fully published novel(la) is a kind of black magic.

Before we begin, let’s start with some introductions – who are you, what do you do, and what’s special about you as a writer – 50 words, go!

I’m Sarah Gailey, and I’m an essayist and fiction writer. I write lots of things, but tend to focus on speculative fiction, literary analysis, and the intersections of feminism and pop culture. I write at all lengths — from flash fiction stories to full novels — and I love all of it!

Same sketch as the previous question, this time about your novella RIVER OF TEETH – what’s it about, who’s it about, what’s special about it – 50 words, go!

RIVER OF TEETH is about the bloodthirsty hippos that invaded the American South and the fashionable cowboys who loved them. It’s a story of menace, adventure, and bloodshed on the bayou. It’s fun, action-packed, a little sexy, and will force you to re-evaluate every time you’ve called a hippopotamus “cute.”

So, let’s start from the beginning. Cast your mind back to when you finished the first draft of your manuscript. It’s a completed story – what did you do next?

First, I collapsed face-first onto my friend’s couch and took a nap. I wrote RIVER OF TEETH in about 40 days. At the time, it was the longest thing I’d ever written, and my brain was mush. Once I had the first draft finished, I sent it to a team of beta readers and sensitivity readers to find out what about it might need fixing. As it turned out, a lot of it needed fixing.

What was the biggest change you made to the story before it reached an agent/editor/publisher?

I made a lot of changes to the story at the feedback of sensitivity readers. I can’t give away the biggest change without spoiling a huge plot point, but I will say that there wouldn’t have been a sequel to RIVER OF TEETH without the changes requested by sensitivity readers who helped me to see where I was writing unnecessary tragedy into the story. When I was writing the first draft of RIVER OF TEETH, I wrote it the way that I thought these stories were supposed to go, based on what I’d always read. Those sensitivity readers helped me to learn how to question tropes that perpetuate harm, and I’ll always be thankful to them for speaking hard truths to my ignorance.

How did you go about approaching an agent? Did you pick them, or did they pick you?

My amazing agent, DongWon Song, found me. I’d had my eye on him for a little while as The Agent, and considered him totally out of my league. Then, one day, he sent me a message telling me that he loved a story I wrote and wanted to talk more. I was completely over the moon.

 Did your agent make you change anything? Why?

DongWon is an editorial agent, which means he gives me feedback on everything I write (and he always makes it much, much better). He gave me feedback on much of RIVER OF TEETH, notably the final scene, which was more plodding than cinematic in the first draft. With his help, I took RIVER OF TEETH to a level that I never would have been able to achieve on my own.

Next up, the publishers. What was the processing for applying to a publishing house like? Is it similar to applying for a job? Did you have to jump through circus hoops, recite scripture, any ritualised hazing? Seriously, to an outsider this is one of the areas that is something of an unknown.

I can’t share the specific blood sigils of applying to a publishing house for fear that your readers might summon the ancient horror that lies below the crust of the earth, but I can definitely share the bold strokes!

Tor.com operates under a different model from many other traditional publishers, and negotiating this novella deal was very different from the process of negotiating my deal with Tor for my upcoming novels. With RIVER OF TEETH, my agent sent my manuscript to his contact at Tor.com, who would eventually become my editor. He also sent some information about me — my bylines, my social media following, and any other information that would help the publisher get an idea of how I might be someone who could sell books. The publisher made us an offer, and we accepted. This is slightly simpler than the process of selling a novel, which involves counteroffers, contract negotiations, and conversations with editors to determine whether there’s a good fit between author and editor.

Chronologically speaking, how did the wordcount change from first draft, to following beta/alpha readers, editor/agent (which came first – did you have an editor before your agent?), publisher?

My first draft of RIVER OF TEETH was around 25,000 words. After my beta readers gave me notes, I added around 3,000 words. After DongWon gave me his edits, I added a slim 1,000 words total — but I also cut a good amount, so there were probably 3,000 words of new material in there. Finally, my editor at Tor.com had me add around 5,000 words, for a final wordcount in the realm of 33,000.

Were the changes plot driven, the desire for a particular word count by the agent/publishers/editors or something else?

Most of the changes in the final manuscript were related to character-building and language. I wrote very speedy scenes without enough description, and the text needed a lot of room to breathe.

Also, how in the world did you tackle cutting/adding word count? Does the editor help with this?

Fortunately for me, I draft pretty clean, which means I don’t cut much in the way of wordcount. Adding words is a lot of fun, because I get to expand things that I’ve written too small. I love the opportunity to let the world I’m writing grow!

Let’s talk sequels and future releases. How much has your agent, editor and publisher shaped book two?

I was able to write book two with the story I originally had in mind for it, which is very nice. That said, my agent and editor both had a significant hand in shaping the story into something stronger than what I could have done on my own. They helped me to identify important plot threads that needed to be a little bolder, and crucial character development opportunities in the text that could afford a lot more exploration.

 What about cover art – did you have a hand did in designing it?

For both books, I was able to give feedback on the covers that the incredible Richard Anderson designed. Most of my feedback was about what the characters looked like. I couldn’t be happier with the designs he developed.

Is there anything about the traditional publishing experience that you didn’t know before, but have now discovered?

All of it! Every day in publishing feels like a learning experience.

One huge thing that I never could have foreseen was the scale of production timelines — everything from editorial feedback to production to getting sales numbers is dependent on a thousand variables, and nothing happens when you expect it will.

Since you first began writing the book, up until now, what’s the biggest change in RIVER OF TEETH? (Without giving any spoilers away!)

Like I said, I can’t say much without spoilers! But the biggest change thematically is that it started out as a pretty dark, tragic book. I thought that was how Western stories were supposed to go: Everything is hard and terrible and just gets worse with time. Now, with the revisions I made after the first draft, it’s a fundamentally hopeful book. It explores the dark things, but doesn’t get lost in them. And it’s a much, much better book for that.

And since you first began writing the book, up until now, what’s the biggest change in YOU as a writer?

I have changed so much as a writer in the time since I wrote RIVER OF TEETH that I almost don’t recognize the prose. In the time since it was acquired by Tor.com, I’ve started writing novels and nonfiction essays. I’ve found my voice and learned to push myself in ways that I would never have thought to.

And, most importantly, I’ve found a community of writers who are loving, supportive, challenging, and brilliant.

Finally, if there’s one thing about the modern-day traditional publishing process for a fantasy novel, that you could share with wannabe writers, what would it be? Or better yet, what’s that one golden nugget that you would share with the yet-to-be-published you?

Never believe that a single person or mistake can make you or break you.

So many new writers are terribly concerned with their reputations, and they’re right to be, because in this business your reputation decides whether people want to work with you or not. But a single error, or a single enemy, isn’t what tells other people who you are. The patterns of your behavior and interactions, and the degree of humility and willingness to learn that you bring to those interactions — that’s what forms your reputation.

If you approach people earnestly and with the understanding that you’ll mess up sometimes and need to apologize and do better, you’ll be okay.

And anyone who tells you that they are the person who can make or break your career? You don’t need them, and you don’t need to do anything for them or for your career that compromises who you are.

Sarah Gailey writes stories.

That’s basically the whole point. But in case you want to know more:

Sarah is a Bay Area native who lives and works in beautiful, rambunctious Oakland, California with her wonderful husband and their wee pup, Pepper Jack. Her pursuits include cigars, baking, vulgar embroidery, and reading too much.

When she’s not doing all those other things (which is most of the time), Sarah writes stories about murder and monsters. Her debut novella, River of Teeth, was released by Tor.com in 2017. Buy it now! Do it.  You know you want to.

You can find links to her work at www.sarahgailey.com; and find her on social media @gaileyfrey.

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