First-time authors are in a unique (and enviable) position of recently having their first novel published. Many readers want to hear about their experiences writing their first novel and then wading through the agent acquisition and publication process. With that in mind, “On Writing” has become a regular feature here at The Debut Review in which I ask debut novelists 10 questions about those very things. If you have suggestions for possible questions to ask first-time authors, contact me.
Madeline Ashby wrote her Master’s thesis at York University on anime, fan culture, and cyborg theory. That alone makes me want to read her debut novel, vN, which hits stands today. I caught up with her for a brief Q&A about her experiences with getting her first novel published…
What led you to start writing vN?
I started writing it after I realized that the short story I’d started (which now exists as the novel’s prologue) had a lot of potential and wasn’t quite finished, yet. I really liked the idea of playing in a world where the humanoid robots were already naturalized within society, and there wasn’t any drama about them humans telling them apart. I also really wanted to tell a story about serial replication and reproduction, and the identity issues that could bring up.
How close did the final story match how you originally envisioned it? Why did these changes come about?
It’s a pretty close match. There were some drafts that wandered around a bit and didn’t go where I ultimately needed them to, but before publication I ended up doing a major edit and trimming a lot of the fat from the narrative. The result is leaner and stronger, and able to do the things I always wanted it to do.
Tell us about the writing process you followed with vN.
I’m not sure there was a process, really. I just sat down and wrote it when I felt the urge and had the time. It’s my debut book, so it’s not like I was on a schedule. I did go through a specific process of workshopping certain parts and editing the book, though, based on the input others had given me. I re-wrote the ending probably five times, and the beginning also.
What was your experience like with the submission/agent-acquisition process?
It wasn’t that difficult. David Nickle, a writer in my workshop, referred me to his agent, Monica Pacheco of the McDermid agency. I showed Monica a partial of the book, and she was interested. We met up and discussed it, and she signed me pretty quickly. This was long before David and I started living together, but it’s very convenient now, as we share an agent.
After you found a publisher, what was the editing process like for you?
My editor, Marc Gasgoigne, gave me a pretty free hand in my first edit. I told him shortly after the manuscript was purchased that the book simply wasn’t good enough for me, and that I wanted to cut it down quite a bit. He had already asked for a little slack to be taken up, but this was a major edit that required significant re-writes. He was patient with me, though, and I think the book is a lot better than it used to be. That draft was then sent to a line editor who did a very thorough job of picking out continuity errors and so on. I had the chance to accept and work with her suggestions, or reject them as I saw fit. That was a hard thing to do, mostly because it happened on a very short timeline and I was busy working on other projects, too. It’s hard to focus on those kinds of details when you have a million other things going on.
Hmm. That’s a hard question to answer, because I wasn’t in the room with all the people who rejected it before it was picked up. I can never know what pressures they were facing or what they really wanted. I know that Angry Robot expressed interest in the book very early, but they wanted to fit it into the right spot in their schedule. Novels are just like any other product—they have to be packaged and released appropriately in order to make the most impact. I think there are a lot of writers out there who don’t understand that it’s a business like any other, and that a rejection sometimes has nothing to do with quality, but everything to do with customer segment, market profile, branding, production schedules, and so on.
What was the biggest surprise you encountered during the process of getting published?
Well, the fact that it was picked up was a surprise. I sincerely doubted it would happen. I mean, I wrote the book, so I knew all its problems. I could see all the seams and I figured other people could, too. Plus there are plenty of writers whose first manuscripts (or second, or third, or fourth) aren’t picked up. It’s part of the prototyping process, really. You practice until you get better. But after the book was picked up I wasn’t really surprised about anything about publishing (aside from how slowly the schedule moves). I know a lot of other folks who are novelists, and from conversations with them I knew about what to expect. It’s not like entering some dark, seedy underbelly of society, or anything. Maybe there are gatherings of publishers where eveybody’s doing cocaine in the bathroom or something, but my guys tweet about how much they love hanging out with their kids and opening a bottle of red wine at the end of the day. It’s lovely.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on the next installment of the Machine Dynasty series, iD. It’s told from the perspective of a supporting character in vN, Javier. He’s also a robot, but a very different one from Amy, the protagonist of vN. He’s far more world-weary and experienced, but he also knows how to get what he wants. I featured him in a short story of mine, The Education of Junior Number 12. He’s fun. I think I’ll keep him.