From Idea to Book: the story of The House of One Thousand Eyes
By Michelle Barker
Truth: my novel, The House of One Thousand Eyes, did not follow a typical trajectory from the moment I had the idea, to the moment I signed a contract with Annick Press. There was a lot of serendipity involved (exactly the sort of thing we’re NOT supposed to put in our work).
The novel was born out of procrastination. I was doing research on another novel set in Germany when I stumbled upon a powerful non-fiction book called Stasiland, by Anna Funder.
After the Berlin Wall came down, Funder traveled to Germany to interview people who’d survived the East German regime. In her book, she speaks of the Stasi headquarters in Berlin, which Berliners used to call the House of One Thousand Eyes. As soon as I read that, I thought—that would be a great title for a book. I began doing more reading on the Stasi. The more I learned, the more determined I was that one day I would write a novel about them.
One day came sooner than I expected.
I persisted in writing the novel I was supposed to be working on, but I also jotted down the ideas I had for this East German novel. Characters were forming: a dissident writer, his niece who worked as a janitor at Stasi headquarters, a communist aunt. A plot was shaping up. What if the uncle disappeared? Wouldn’t his niece be the best-placed person in the world to find out what had happened to him?
Then, out of the blue, I received an email from someone at Annick Press, asking if I would meet them for coffee to discuss writing a YA novel for them. In all the years I’d been writing (over twenty), I had always been the one to approach a publisher—usually with a finished manuscript in hand that they didn’t want to buy. And now they were coming to me?
I had envisioned my East German novel to be for adults, but I thought—YA? Hmm. Maybe.
The timing was perfect. My other German novel needed a rest. I’d been working on it non-stop for well over a year and could hardly bear to read it anymore. I wrote back to Annick and agreed to the meeting.
I decided it would be prudent to arrive prepared with an actual synopsis, so I sat down and hammered one out. The editor from Annick listened while I told her my idea. She took copious notes and was so encouraging that I decided my other German novel could rest for a LONG time.
Self-doubt didn’t arise until I began to read up on East Germany in earnest. This was a lot of information to process. What had I signed up for? I remember being on a flight home from Toronto, reading a tome on East German history that was literally putting me to sleep, and thinking: I’m in over my head. It took a fair bit of deep breathing to calm myself down, and then I basically closed my eyes and jumped into the writing.
And here was another piece of serendipity. The novel came out almost exactly the way I’d planned it. I need to emphasize that this has never happened to me before, and it may never happen again. The original plan I’d made . . . worked. I wish I could say it’s because I finally know what I’m doing, and from now on every novel will be easy to write. But I highly doubt that’s the case. It was a gift, that’s all.
Annick didn’t promise to buy the book. They simply wanted to read it when it was done. But as soon as they did, they offered me a contract.
At that time I didn’t have an agent, which meant it was up to me to make sure the contract was fair. Luckily I do have a lawyer for an ex-husband, but even so, he was not familiar with the standard (and not so standard) clauses in a literary contract. This was where the Writers’ Union of Canada, and other writer friends, came to my rescue. If you’re a member of the Writers’ Union, they have “ideal” contracts for writers that you can use as a template.
It took weeks to hammer out the contract, something I would never have dared to do for my first novel—because I’d been too afraid of being a nuisance and causing the publishers to change their minds. That’s foolish. This is a business, and writers have to make sure they’re agreeing to things that are in their best interest.
With a good editor, the editorial process is like a mini-MFA. I always come away having learned something important, not only about my own work but about the craft in general. There were a few important things happening off-stage in the novel that needed to have their own scenes. And I had to cut several gems—lines I was in love with that unfortunately weren’t appropriate in tone for the scenes they were in. Was this hard? Yes. Did I argue with my editor? Yes. I recall one editorial phone conversation that lasted almost three hours (no exaggeration). Did I eventually agree to every single thing she suggested? No, I didn’t. But nearly everything.
We went through a big-picture edit and a few line-edits, and then the book was passed on to a copy editor who went through it with a fine-toothed comb, questioning EVERYTHING. As both an editor and a writer, I have to say this was maybe the most thrilling part of the process. Nothing was taken for granted: the quality of light at a given moment, what a person was wearing, what should or shouldn’t be italicized. Every minute detail was considered, weighed, worked on. I exchanged countless lists of questions with both the copy editor and the managing editor until we were all satisfied.
And then the book went to a proofreader, and more questions arose.
Since the novel has come out, I’ve had to face down a relative who was miffed because I hadn’t consulted her on her knowledge of East Germany. I’ve moderated an online panel (scary), done a blog tour (fun), and did a Twitter takeover (stressful).
Biggest thrill: seeing my book on a list of top 29 anticipated books for fall, that included writers like Jodi Picoult, Carlos Ruiz Zafon, and Philip Pullman.
Second biggest thrill – this (with thanks to Jennie Shaw):
Every book is a journey; every book comes with its own learning curve. Just when you think you know what you’re doing, it’s time to begin a new project and you get to embark on the cycle of self-doubt and second-guessing all over again.
For those of you who were wondering, I did eventually return to my other Germany novel. I ended up throwing most of it in the garbage and starting again, a harrowing process that was not at all fun but has ended in another contract with Annick. If all goes as planned, the new novel will come out next spring.
I begin the editing process in a few weeks, where I will have the opportunity to take all the nasty medicine I regularly dish out as a Darling Axe editor. I suspect none of my clients will feel sorry for me :-)
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her most recent publication, co-authored with David Brown, is Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in literary reviews worldwide. She has published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). Many of the writers she’s worked with have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.