Swan Song

Introduction to a Blog Series: Charting the Journey of Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Last week I had the extraordinary, deeply moving experience of opening an envelope that had
been delivered to my doorstep, removing a copy of a book within.

Not just any book…

My book.

The book I’ve devoted over a decade to researching and writing.

The bound proof of Swan Song— stunningly designed. ‘Wrapped in brown butcher paper, carefully tied with string’ (a reference to Capote’s inflammatory Answered Prayers
manuscript in my novel… in this case silver ribbon standing in for kitchen twine, but the parallel was not lost.) An actual, beautifully finished book—! As almost any author can attest, there is a strange thrill in the tangibility of that fact— the fetishized object itself, after years of endless stacks of printed manuscript drafts. A thrill that for me I suspect might only be eclipsed by seeing the hardcover on shelves on the 7th of June of this year.

Of course in such a moment— after the champagne has been popped and poured and the initial squeals of joy have dissipated— one can’t help but take a moment to reflect on all the work, the blood, sweat, tears, Negronis, IV drip coffees, twenty-hour days, soaring-highs and floor-scraping lows that contributed to this moment. To this long-awaited thing existing—- (‘Your book,’ the writing gods and my characters and the muses seem to cry… or is that just the surreal echo of the elation of the moment?)

Looking back over Swan Song’s serpentine road to publication, I can chart the progress of my debut novel through a series of milestones. Through triumphs and challenges and battles large and small— both publicly celebrated and privately waged. Through colleagues and supporters collected along the way, who read and pushed and embraced the work at every stage; with the very few detractors who threw obstacles in my path, whose challenges only served to strengthen my ambition (often there is no greater motivator than ‘no’, stoking the fires of ‘watch me!’) Through mentors and peers and authors who inspired. Through workshops, courses and vital competitions that champion emerging voices (where would this novel be without them?!)Through deadline after deadline after deadline, first self-imposed and later otherwise. Through the various locations that facilitated each stage of the book’s creation— fitting for a novel in part about the midcentury mobility of the Jet Set age, as the book was written nomadically, in hotels and home swaps spanning four countries— unfamiliar spaces that have come to hold a fond nostalgia, each linked to a particular section of narrative that was coaxed into being within their walls.) Through striving for the next plateau and the next, hoping that my choices were the‘right’ ones to steer my novel to fruition in the manner that would best serve the work. More than anything, I’ve felt that I’ve been on a steep learning curve the last four years, wondering (irrationally, as it turns out) if I’m the only person who ever felt that every other writer must instinctively know what comes next in the process. That there must have been a universal crash-course I missed on the ins-and-outs of the publishing world. It occurred to me that while the creative aspects of writing were widely taught and discussed, I could find few people talking about the business aspects of writing. What to expect from the process of getting from point A to Z.

As a result, I became a keen observer of other writers’ careers— peers further along in the process than I was, and authors I admired from a distance, hoping to glean as much information as possible. While in fact there is no secret handshake and each journey is different, I felt that I was constantly playing catch-up when it came to the practical process of seeing a book to fruition. Of course the specifics of the journey are unique to every writer— there are as many paths to publication as there are books and authors who pen them. Still, I longed for someone to demystify a process that to me— having no prior experience of it— seemed in turns intangible and daunting. (In fact, it has been both and neither.)

I can recall more than once wishing there had been a crash course on What Next?, so that while accepting that the details of each writer’s experience would remain unique, at least the stages of the process would be broadly illuminated. I can recall more than once finding myself at the next juncture or landmark moment, unaware of the fact that I had reached it. Some moments have had the rite-of-passage significance I’d expected, others crept up on me with stealth. Still others I stumbled through in a state of ignorant bliss— lucky enough to be guided by the most brilliant of teams. Throughout I watched and listened and have pieced together a crude map of the process as I’ve experienced it.

Six months after winning the Bridport Prize Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award, I attended my first book launch. It was at Waterstones Piccadilly for My Name Is Leon, the debut novel by twice Bridport Flash Fiction winner Kit de Waal (now best-selling novelist and champion of working class voices in fiction). A story was told at the launch about how she knew that her publisher, Penguin, was the right fit for her. They had imaginatively recreated the rucksack Leon carries with him in the novel throughout his journey and filled it with the objects Kit had detailed in her prose. Such a specific gesture was a clear indication of the right publisher for that particular work and one with whom Kit would launch her career. I remember wondering how the choice of publisher might eventually occur for me— something that would soon reveal itself in a way that felt equally ideal. (But more on that to come…)

In the best case scenario a book ultimately finds the home it was meant to have, and the process that follows unfolds from there. I’m gradually coming to identify— seventeen months after my own novel sold to my first choice of publisher, Penguin Random House/ Hutchinson— that there are no right or wrong answers, beyond what feels right for the work. It is through
conversation about our individual experiences that we acquire the knowledge to take first steps, then longer ones, then full, confident strides in approaching the process of seeing that a book is published in a way that fulfills our author’s vision for it.

In a series of guest blogs for Bridport, I am hoping to share the experience I have had, and all that others have been generous enough to share with me. By detailing various stages of the process of seeing my own novel to fruition, I hope it might prove helpful to other debutwriters-in-the-literary-trenches.

There were so many questions I had going into it all— When is the book ‘ready’ to submit? What is the process of submission to editors like? The book sells! Now what? How much does the manuscript change over the course of the editorial work?
Which deadline of many is the ‘real’/ final deadline? What is the copy edit process like? Ditto that of typesetting and receiving proofs? How do the visual elements— from cover design to fonts to formatting— come to be, and how much input does a writer have? What is the process of promoting the book/ getting it into readers’ hands? What about reviews, blogs, podcasts,social media, events, festivals, salons, etc.?

I’ve yet to experience all of these elements, and it’s still a process of learning an enormous amount on a daily— often hourly— basis, but I thought it might prove helpful to share as much of Swan Song’s ongoing journey with Bridport authors as possible. I was fascinated to hear about other authors’ experiences when I first entered the early manuscript of Swan Song for the PC-A Award in 2015— and I remain so.

I feel incredibly proud to be the first of the Bridport Prize Peggy Chapman-Andrews Award winners to be published this June. (My predecessor, the brilliant Caroline Chisholm,tragically did not have the chance to complete her glorious Swimming Pool Hill, and I’m very much aware of her legacy as the inaugural PC-A winner, and what a publishing sensation I know she would have been, from whom I would have learned so much.) The poignancy and gravity of the moment is not lost on me. I am so grateful for the opportunities that the Prize presented, I feel Swan Song has been walking that long road to publication alongside Bridport supporters and all the thrilling work that will continue to emerge from obscurity through the competition.
Stay tuned as I share a bit about the experience I have had with Swan Song at various points— which, when cobbled together, form the map that will see the book safely on its way.

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What now?

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