Thursday, March 14, 2013

What's it like writing work-for-hire? Part II

Here's the second part of my Q&A about working with Paper Lantern Lit.

7. What is the give and take like between you and those on the idea end? (collaboration, meetings, input, etc.)

I didn't have any formal meetings but we did talk on the phone a couple of times and I went to NYC to meet everyone. Basically PLL sent me an outline for each book. I pitched changes and suggestions. They accepted some but not all of them. We went back and forth until everyone felt somewhat comfortable with the outline and then I started writing. They were always open to hearing my thoughts and I think out of 15 or so plot point changes/additions for the Belladonna outline they took all of them except 2. 

Book #3 was more of a struggle because by that time I was really emotionally invested in the series and had strong feelings about the plot and character arcs. PLL had strong feelings, but a very different vision. So how do you reconcile creative differences? It was tough. Basically both sides compromised on as much as possible and then we consulted the Penguin editor for input on the rest. Luckily, she's a genius and I really think she guided us down a path where the book is now finished and everyone feels good about it. But here's the deal: PLL are  the ones who made the bulk of the money in the sale and it's their copyright Therefore, they're the ones Penguin has really high expectations for, so they do have final creative control. I did a lot of things differently than I would have done on my own. Looking back on the manuscripts, some of the PLL suggestions are clearly better than what I would have written and I'm grateful I had them to push me to see things a different way. Some of the things I still think could have been just as cool the way I envisioned. But anytime you're working with other people--and WFH or not, all traditionally published books involve working with other people--you're going to have to be flexible. You have to pick your battles, you know?

8. Given the six-figure deal PLL made for Venom, how did you feel about the flat fee you received? 

Dude. I was dumbfounded when I found out Venom had sold as part of a major deal. I never thought of historical as having a high price tag. The thing with the PLL setup is that they sell on proposal. This means they have to sign you to a contract before they know what the book sells for so they have a guaranteed writer attached to the project when an editor buys it. My contract was redone after the sale and while the flat fee still doesn't feel like a lot of money, I did get things put into the terms that protect me if the series becomes a runaway bestseller so I am comfortable with the contract. You have to keep in mind that PLL has overhead like editor and accountant salaries to pay that I don't have. They also had agency fees (I didn't) and picked up the tab for the Renaissance expert. Finally, the idea of working with a new development company helmed by 2 industry experts was probably very enticing to some of their publishing colleagues and it's highly unlikely that if I would have shopped the same exact book--even with an agent--it would have sold for the same amount of cash.

9. Do you think PLL's basic structure is something that could be widely replicated, or does it only work because of the personalities/ambitions of those who founded it?

Honestly, I'm not business-savvy at all so I don't know. What I do know is that work-for-hire is everywhere--songwriters are hired to write songs for bands, screenwriters are hired to create scripts for movie studios, legions of mystery writers are hired to develop books for James Patterson. What's the big deal? If you like the song or movie or book, does it matter if multiple entities helped bring it into the world? With respect to books, my gut instinct says that middle men are expensive so publishers who start hiring WFH writers directly to develop IP will be less inclined to use outside development companies. But it's like my agent says: "there is always a market for awesome." I think if an editor falls in love with a story and believes it can reach a wide audience that he/she is going to buy it no matter where it came from.

10. What was the timeline like, from submission to sale to publication?

Every book's path to publication is different. I was invited to sub for a PLL project in July of 2010. I wrote and revised a sample chapter and was offered a contract in August. I wrote the 60-70 page proposal (the first 5 chapters or so) in August and September. We revised that throughout October, also allowing time for PLL's agent to read. We went out on sub in November, had immediate interest from multiple houses, went to auction, and sold before Thanksgiving. The deal was announced in PM in December. I began writing the rest of the book in January, while working full-time, going to grad school, and writing a second manuscript.

I wrote Venom pretty slowly--finishing the first draft by May 1st, I think, and then revising through early summer. I cut back to part-time at work and Belladonna was written a little faster. Book 3 was drafted in 2.5 months to stay on publisher deadline. First drafts of all three books were completed before Venom released on October 30th, 2012, though book 3 had some extended revisions which I just finished. One thing you have to keep in mind is that revision can take a lot longer in a process like this because you revise as you write and then you revise at the end of the first draft. Then you revise for your publishing house editor. Then maybe you get letters from her and from the development company with more revisions. Each round you have to figure 2-3 weeks for the editors involved to read and then 2-3 weeks for you to do the revisions.

11. Break it down, the pros and cons of your work-for-hire experience.

Okay, but these are my pros and cons and other writers have had different experiences.

Cons: struggling to reconcile creative differences, lack of copyright, fast and furious deadlines, heavy editing, time-consuming email chains about potential plot issues, reading negative reviews and saying to myself, "but, but I TOLD everyone we shouldn't do it like that", and the forced realization that I am more neurotic, controlling, and emotional than I ever would have guessed. Okay, maybe I knew about the emotional part :) Also, dude. Do you know how hard it is to write 3 books and not use the word 'dude' once? Or even the word 'guy'? Historical is freaking tough!

Pros: got pushed out of my comfort zone, became a better writer, developed confidence, learned how to advocate for me and my characters, wrote with a think tank of editors at my disposal to help with plot snarls, got to go part-time at my day job, networked and became pals with amazing authors/editors/bloggers, got to work with Penguin executive editor, got a crash course in the publishing industry, learned how to read copy-editing marks, developed cramazing writer stamina (Nanowrimo? Dude, I lived Nanowrimo for months at a time), developed thicker skin, learned about marketing and social media, learned about contracts, became beta partners with other published authors, met and did events with other local authors, got selected for fancy Breathless Reads promotional campaign and got to go on tour, received amazing emails that said things like,  "your book swished me away from all of the stress of my husband's hospitalization and made me feel like I was back in Venice", and last but not least, I made my mom proud.

12. Will you write more books for PLL?

Here's another question I can't answer. There's no job security in writing until your books have their own theme parks, so more books with PLL may never even be an option. I do have my own agent and deal now and I'm not going to lie--it does feel different. I guess what I learned during the PLL process is that I'm kind of a control freak who wants copyright of her words and likes being able to have things mostly her way :) Not that I don't take feedback well. I've revised multiple manuscripts with my agent and I think she would describe me as very receptive to suggestions. Part of it is, succeed or fail, I want to own my destiny, you know? On the other hand, I built the Fiona Paul identity even though PLL owns it, and I'm not sure how I feel about just giving it away. Even writing for 2 publishers, I'm still making less money than I was as a full-time RN. Once I finish grad school, my plan is to go back to nursing, promote the books that are written but not yet released, and just see how things go. The future feels wide-open, and that's pretty exciting.


  1. Thanks for posting about your experiences, both positive and negative. I've done write for hire work before--not through PLL--and loved it. But I've known just as many people who hated what I loved about it. I've also known people to think it "skeevy" that one person does all the work and the other gets all the money. I got to eat food those weeks, so I personally think it was a pretty fair trade. Not everyone will. That's life.

    I like that you stressed the importance of knowing what you would and would not be comfortable with, and fighting for it, because that's really what sets the tone for the rest of the relationship.

    1. Yeah. Exactly. There are so many opportunities for writers out there, it really is less about labeling a particular model 'good' or 'bad' and more about figuring out what fits your personal style. I got a ton out of the experience of writing 3 novels with PLL. Tomorrow I'm having brunch with two local bloggers/aspiring authors that I would never have met if it weren't for the Eternal Rose books. I can definitely see the benefits trickling down into other parts of my life. For me, the main thing was continuing with my own manuscripts too and seeing WFH as an adjunct of my writing instead of a substitute. But again, everyone is different.


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