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Adventures in Publishing


By Debra Finerman

Published Oct 1, 2007 8:00 AM

Copyright © Photos by Joshua Lutz

Everyone has at least one amazing, heartbreaking bestseller in them. But how do you get your first masterpiece on the page, polish it to perfection, find an agent, get a publisher, work with an editor and see it on the bookshelf? That is a story in itself. Even a career in journalism couldn't prepare Debra Finerman for the drama that unfolded while publishing her first novel: Mademoiselle Victorine, from Three Rivers Press. This is her story. Maybe one day it will be yours, too.

The Novel

Inspiration for my novel struck in 2000 at a photographic exhibit of the Countess of Castiglione, a courtesan and political operative in 1860s Paris. Nearby, I contemplated a painting of Edouard Manet's muse, Victorine Meurent, and wondered why all these amazing personalities — Manet, Baudelaire, Freud, Wagner, Zola — were in Paris at that particular moment.

Zap! The plot, the characters, all fell into place: A young woman from the provinces rises from the gutter to become Manet's model and mis- tress to the Duke de Lyon, the most powerful man in Emperor Napoleon III's regime. The backdrop is Impressionist Paris, the Franco-Prussian War and the bloody Commune.

My journalist background helped, but I strove to elevate the writing style to match the tone of the story. Including library research and on-site research in Paris, the first draft took two years and was a masterpiece, I felt sure. I bought manuals on "How to Sell Your First Novel" and learned I needed an agent. Apparently, sending your manuscript unsolicited to a publisher guarantees the "slush pile," and we know what happens to slush.

The First Agent

How do you get a literary agent? Be a published author. How do you become a published author? Get an agent. Scan the acknowledgments page of books similar to yours for agents' names. Send a groveling query letter to introduce yourself and the book.

If the idea sparks interest, the agent asks for a synopsis (a three-page outline of the plot and characters) or requests the first 50 pages. You kiss the envelope as you slip it in the mail, then wait for a response. Finally, the reply: "No thanks, not my thing" or "Yes, please, send the entire manuscript."

In my case, six agents wished me luck, but it wasn't their thing. I actually did have luck the night a sports agent at a social event offered to show my manuscript to a literary agent at his big agency. Bingo! She agreed verbally to represent me. Since this was my first attempt at fiction, she recommended an editorial assistant at a large publishing house for help. He loved the story and was a brilliant line editor.

I completed the second draft. My agent said it was better, though not perfect. She suggested a novel-writing workshop and recommended the famous Iowa Writers' Workshop. That was geographically impractical, so I chose a course in advanced novel writing at the Harvard Summer School.

The Writing Workshop

The workshop instructor informed me that although the book was completed, I needed to change the POV — point of view. This would be immense work, a rewrite of the entire manuscript. I had written an omniscient narrator viewpoint, the most common in literature. It is God-like, everywhere present, inside all characters' minds. The instructor suggested changing the viewpoint to that of the main character. This creates intimacy between the reader and the character, but it is more difficult to write because a character can't know others' thoughts, or about events at which she isn't present.

I learned that there are ways to transmit such information using authors' tricks of the trade. For example, a character can't read another's mind, but an author can write, "She could see from their dubious looks that they didn't believe her." When I began the rewrite, I saw that his advice was correct. This would be worth the work.

The Good Agent

When I sent the manuscript once more to my agent … I heard nothing. So I called. "Who is this again?" she asked. "Actually, could you mail me another copy?" That was it. I was through with her. I asked the nice editorial assistant if he could recommend another agent. He asked if I had a contract with the first one. Contract? She didn't even remember my name! Fortunately, he had a friend at William Morris Agency named Erin Malone.

My new agent was smart and savvy. Erin loved the manuscript, but had her own suggestions. Her ideas perfectly matched my vision, and I wrote the changes swiftly. The book went on the market, and I was nervous. Would any publisher actually want Mademoiselle Victorine? Erin informed me that two publishing houses were interested. She conducted an auction, and I was thrilled to learn that the book was accepted by Three Rivers Press, a division of the Crown Publishing Group at Random House.

The Editor

The editorial process was hard work, but invaluable. I was fortunate to have an editor who was a pro. It was a true collaboration using "Track Changes" with remarks and suggestions in the margins. At each edit I had the option to "accept" or "reject" the change. Most times I did accept. When I disagreed, she was fair and acknowledged my requests. After a summer in the editing process, it was done.

The Publicity

Like the rest of the planet, publishing PR has moved into the Digital Age. I was told to design a Web site. With great trepidation, I envisioned what the Web site for Mademoiselle Victorine would be. I wanted the content to reflect the tone of the novel and the graphics to be purely Impressionistic. I'm proud of The flash intro sets the mood for the book and prepares the reader for what to expect when he or she actually starts reading.

Foreign Editions

Good news arrived in the form of pre-publication foreign-rights sales to Spain, South Korea, Greece and Latin America. That was a thrill. And then, 16 months after it was accepted, the book hit the bookstores.

I hope this little piece has shown the trajectory of a novel from idea to finished book. The experience was pure agony and pure fun every step of the way. And, of course, I'm already writing the next one.