Measure twice cut once

By   Hannah Bickerton 7 min read

Jeremy Thomas is a successful fiction and non-fiction writer and passionate fan of crime fiction, crime non-fiction and noir films.

Jeremy spent 20 years in the music industry before becoming a full time writer. His first novel, the darkly comic Taking Leave was published by Timewell Press and voted BBC Radio 5 Book of the Month. Jeremy’s other publications include You Don’t Have To Be Famous To Have Manic Depression: An A-Z Guide to Good Mental Health and The Santa Monica Suicide Club.

On St Patrick’s Day 1998, I flew to Patmos, the Greek island where I had chosen to write my first novel. During the journey I managed to compose acceptance speeches for both the Whitbread and Booker prizes, but for some reason balked at having a stab at one for the Nobel. When I arrived on the island it was freezing cold and not only raining heavily, but nonstop.

It should be said I had never written a novel before, but had managed to knock out a few acceptable short stories and screenplays. I was also in that now unheard-of position of being commissioned to write the book – not by a publisher but by a patron and film producer. There was only one condition – I must write about the subject of pain. In my mind, I had agreed with myself to certainly try to visit and access the pain, wherever that was located. However (as a safety precaution against visiting too much pain), I told my patron I had set a time limit of six months to complete the book. You sure? he asked. Highly unlikely, I replied, but let’s say, in an emergency, twelve months at the very outside. Secretly, I also wanted time to experience the upsides of being a writer, including enjoying the local food and culture, snorkelling and getting to know the local women rather well.

By the second morning in my cold Greek house, four things had become apparent:

  1. It was still pouring with rain.
  2. I was shell shocked and terrified, certain I could not even compose a decent postcard to the folks back home, let alone write a novel.
  3. My unopened new laptop stared accusingly at me from the desk.
  4. The only available female on the island appeared to be a goat at the end of the garden.

The book ended up taking three and a half years to write. Let’s call it four.

Succeeding or failing at writing a novel is alarmingly similar to having or not having good mental health. It all comes down to having good balance, making good judgements and very often staying up on the horse. ‘Measure twice, cut once’ is a great approach to live by. Of course, a good novel needs a wonderful story and characters, but it also needs time to breathe and for the magical process of writing to take place. Few writers can get down a novel that needs no revision in one sitting. Noël Coward was able to do it with plays. Ian Fleming could complete a James Bond book in under six to nine months. And I am sure if I were to send Ian McEwan a text asking him how long it took to write one of his novels, apart from saying bugger off, he might say six to nine months too. But that is a writer at the very top of his game. Most writers need to rewrite and will happily rewrite as they know that’s the way to harvest the magic.

Writing books can become like an endurance marathon: one where you have to do your very best to handle all the rewrites, thinning, transplanting, character merging, correcting, sieving various text and chapters, while always remembering to kill all of your darlings. All this is done while cheerfully and not so cheerfully responding to an editor’s comments and trying to remain upright while travelling down the whitewater rapids of financial insecurity.

And none of that prepares the writer for the demands of the next stage. The Bungee Jumps of Rejection.

There seemed something wrong with how hard it was to find an agent, let alone a publisher. My first editor told me to remember I was a hero for writing a novel, completing the book – full stop. If agents and publishers thought it was uncommercial or not right for the market, that was their problem – there was nothing wrong with the book – it was probably just the wrong time, that was all. I believed that for about a day and then returned to self-flagellation.

My advice: when you do find an agent who wants to take you on – unless they have a bad reputation or ask you to pay them – grab her or him with both hands.

Taking Leave was finally published four years later in hardback by Timewell Press.

One of the great feelings about being published is that you can seriously hold your head up to all those people who have kept asking the inevitable question: ‘Any luck with the book being published yet?’ When they discover your book is being published by a company that even they have heard of, things get even better. All that mockery and doubting are transformed into awe, pride and wonder: ‘Gosh, we are so proud, you’re the only person we know who is having a book published…’.

My first two books were published by recognised publishers; my third and fourth books are still awaiting surgery in a drawer, while my next novel, The Santa Monica Suicide Club, was published by my own imprint, Blue Baltic Press. It sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?

Five things I learned from being published by Blue Baltic Press

1. Work out what you want to achieve. At best and at worst. Have a realistic goal – like how many copies you want to sell and what other purpose the book might serve, for example to secure a literary agent, a contract with a big publisher, a column in a newspaper; a boost to your ego, something to be proud of.

Like so many things – be it running the country, making a TV series, playing Premiership football – we all know how to do it better. Publishing books, and particularly your own book, is no exception. The big difference is that at the end of the day you are the one paying for it. And believe me, it is very easy to spend money publishing books: from having gold embossed lettering on the cover to printing several different formats, all the way to a poster campaign on the tubes and railways.

So, have a budget, stick to it and when in any doubt ask for advice.

2. Choose your title carefully. When Michael Joseph at Penguin Random House came to publish my book on mental health I insisted the subtitle should be You Don’t Have to Be Famous to Have Manic Depression as opposed to Bipolar. We later discovered people were going into shops asking for books on bipolar and booksellers were saying they didn’t have any, as they were unaware that bipolar was the same thing as manic depression.

3. Make sure your book is being published in the correct format. Taking Leave should have been a paperback, not a hardback. There are various forms of paperback and many different sale prices to consider. Don’t be too cheap or expensive. Ask advice FROM A BOOK SHOP OR THREE.

Choose the typesetter carefully, and the most important of all, the designer of the front and back covers. I was fortunate to be offered various designers through whitefox and felt very happy with the outcome. Having been in the music business for a long while, I know about the power of album cover images. Having worked so hard and for so long on something, it’s vital that the cover represents what the book is about but is going to attract readers and bookshop personnel too.

4. Is your book well edited? The Santa Monica Suicide Club had taken over five years to write and I had already worked with two editors. I was happy with it but paid to have a fine-tooth comb run through it for any typos or errors. Go out looking your best.

5. Think about the bookshop launch: the good, the bad and the ugly. There are too many stories about the author reading his new work to an audience of three people – one of whom is only there because it is warmer in the bookshop than outside. Conversely, get it right, work hard at inviting a good crowd and it can work well. The Santa Monica Suicide Club had two book launches, at Daunts and Nomad, and not only were two hundred copies sold on each day, but a good time was had by all.

The first time an author opens a box of books and runs his or her hand over the shiny front cover of their novel, the sensation must come close to the euphoria a parent experiences on seeing their newborn baby. The wonderful feeling of seeing your work well packaged and realised.

Enjoy the feedback and validation: the upsides and pleasure of checking the Amazon sales ranking fifty times a day, seeing your book reviewed on Amazon and the ultimate ‘it’s all been worth it’, the maximum pleasure: seeing people buy the book in shops.

If you want to find out more about Jeremy and his work, visit his website or Twitter page. 

Hannah Bickerton
Hannah Bickerton
Hannah has worked in marketing for nine years, specialising in strategy development for start-ups and EdTech companies. Having recently jumped across industries to join the Whitefox team, Hannah isn’t a complete stranger to the publishing world with previous employment at Macmillan and TES Global. She is now dedicated to ensuring that anyone who has something interesting to say knows all about whitefox.