Terry Fallis’ unorthodox journey to getting published

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A few months ago, I was searching for direction and for about 48 hours, I thought I would complete an Editing Certificate from Simon Fraser University and registered to attend a session to obtain more information about the certificate. I saw amongst the other sessions one featuring Terry Fallis, author of Canada Reads 2011 winner The Best Laid Plans, and registered.

The seminar rolled around last night and I was in two minds about going–spend 90 minutes learning more about a passion or enjoy one of very numbered nice Vancouver summer evenings? I tried to do both and was pleased that it spills over and provides material for the blog to have attended.

My route to finding The Best Laid Plans (TBLP) was pretty standard: I am subscribed to the podcast feed for Canada Reads and when TBLP won, the podcast was released so we could all finally learn for ourselves why it’s an essential Canadian read. It was a special treat that the chapters were read by the author himself since, it turns out, that was how the novel was first promoted, in podcast form. I was hooked from the beginning by the idea of the narrative given by a speechwriter (Fallis was himself a speechwriter/communications guy on Parliament Hill)–that is really promising for good writing.

It was a great privilege to get to see Fallis at a time when he’s on his way up. His second novel, a sequel to TBLP, was published in September 2010 and his third novel will be published in Fall 2012. It was also intimated that there could be talk of film rights being sold for his first book. I applauded to myself with some glee at that news.

Although Fallis is an engineer by training (never practiced) his passion for writing is clear from the fact that he owns the first edition of all novels that have won the Leacock Medal for Humour (which in 2008 came to include himself for TBLP). He set out to write what he knew and what he would have wanted to read himself, joking that writing what he knew saved himself a lot of time in research! It was also easier to write about the characters and plot devices if they are people he knows and experiences he has had.

True to his engineering background, his approach to drawing up an outline was like writing specifications and creating a blueprint with detailed point-form sections about settings and characters, and detailed bulleted lists for the plot of each chapter. It took him two months to write the outline which was 65 pages long, very long compared to others in the industry. (I really wish I thought to take a photo of the slide with his outline. Regret #1.) With such a detailed outline, he was able to write 300-page TBLP (100K words) in 8 months of weekends. When asked about his revising process, he said that for him, the detailed outline takes care of several drafts and he pretty much works on a first draft throughout. When he put out queries for response and interest from publishers, he received not a single response, which is not that surprising to me.

So he set out to go the self-publishing route (an eight-month process to get the manuscript in and formated at iUniverse) and use his PR skills to get the word out. As part of his day job, he created a weekly podcast so he was not lacking the technical skills to podcast TBLP, chapter by chapter. A webpage was created for the novel where the podcast episodes are hosted in addition to other promotional communications, he added the podcast to iTunes and created a Facebook page for the novel. He dropped off copies with independent bookstores, held a launch party at a pub, and attended a book signing at his alma mater university. Finally, since there was no rule barring self-published titles, he submitted TBLP for consideration for the Leacock award and as he got shortlisted and ultimately won, he acquired a literary agent and a publisher. I’ll still know the novel as the Canada Reads 2011 winner, a recognition that sells more copies than every prize except the Giller Prize.

Although TBLP‘s success has brought him a three-book deal with a major publisher, Fallis was frank about the paltry income from writing novels as a sole living, so he continues to have a full-time job since he has a family to support. I was impressed by his humble attitude and modesty acknowledging the role of great fortune for his success.

 

In a non-writing question, someone asked Fallis about the cover art. The first two covers depict the Parliament buildings as the central image while the current cover art is more stylized and relegates a Parliament image to the corner. He told us how he found the cover photo on Flickr and obtained the rights to use it as his cover. He overlaid the schematic of a hovercraft which adds some visual interest. His self-publishing publisher thought it looked like an annual report or something and helped him design the second cover. The photo was styled to look more like a painting, the hovercraft schematic given more weight, and contrasting white text boxes make it look more like a novel. But when he joined McClelland & Stewart, the the cover was completely revamped. While I think the second cover was “prettiest”, it was not satirical enough and the irregular font lends the impression that it is an offbeat, funny book.

On the publisher’s recommendation, Fallis once again released podcasts of his latest novel, The High Road, ahead of the actual release. He also believes in giving it away in a different format, saying more listen and then buy than not. For the time being, I might be in the latter camp although I really should have picked up a copy to get it signed. (Regret #2) I guess I will have to make a point of catching his book tour in fall 2012 and get it signed then.

On this day..