On July 13th, author Toby Ball visited the Meredith Library and shared some of his writing experiences with the audience. Toby Ball has written a trilogy of books, The Vaults, Scorch City and Invisible Streets. His family has had a home on Bear Island since 1938, and he has been a frequent visitor to the Meredith Library in the past. He spoke primarily about the process of writing and ultimately publishing his series.
The Vaults is the second manuscript Toby has completed. Most authors tend to not publish their first novel, though some will revisit them once they have had a major blockbuster. He began work on his first manuscript, a thriller with two main characters, having just moved to New Hampshire from Washington D.C., working on his graduate degree, with a six-week-old child. At this time, he viewed it mostly as a hobby. In spite of this, he had mostly followed the formula for what was generally considered a successful means of being published. However, after sending the manuscript to sixty agents, there were no offers. Several agents did express a positive opinion of his writing, but were not interested in the particular work. Agents tend to be very selective and particularly at this time, self-publishing was not as prominent as it is now.
Toby’s second effort was more about a story that he wanted to write and less what was generally successfully received. The genesis of the book was as a couple of short story ideas that were merged and expanded upon. The first built on the idea of an archivist similar to the one ultimately used in The Vaults, and the second on the Navajo Project (a key feature of the finished book).
Again, however, he was unable to secure an agent with his initial offering, but was given enough positive encouragement that he did not wholly abandon the effort. He sent the work to Amazon’s Breakthrough Author Contest and was one of several thousand entries. His work made it to the final fifty. After another set of revisions, he again submitted it to about fifty agents. He noted how agents tend to wait until the last minute of their six week deadline before getting back to people they might represent. His experience was no different, but in the end, Rob McQuillen offered to represent him. McQuillen had just started a new firm and had a background in editing. While there was interest in The Vaults, it was determined that the ending was not dramatic enough and that a central character should probably die at the end. This change was made, and the manuscript was sent out to various publishers, and was eventually picked up by St Martin’s Press along with a second title to be written. Scorch City followed, while Overlook Press published the third of the City trilogy, Invisible Streets. When asked if he intended to continue this series, he said that he felt the trilogy had a fairly successful arch.
Toby viewed the editing process as a learning experience and felt the book was far smoother as it went to press. In general, he thinks that about 95% of the suggestions he received from editors and publishers were worthwhile and never felt that these individuals were making demands of him, though he admits some suggestions were made more strongly than others. The forms edits would take varied from both the editor and the publisher and later, from one publication to the next. Some would be very brief suggestions while others would be full-length memos, and some edits would consists of in-text edits throughout the entire manuscript. Good copy editors also do a great deal of fact checking.
A question was raised about cover art in books. Toby noted that in the case of his work and with the exception of a few very well known, best-selling authors who might select their own artists, the publisher generally determines the cover art. The author is allowed to give feedback, and in the case of Toby’s second novel, Scorch City, the initial artwork was deemed to be attractive, but not particularly true to the story, so two other options were provided and one ultimately chosen to be on the cover.
An attendee also asked when in the process, Toby came up with a title, or if one was assigned by the publisher after the completed work. In each case Toby determined his own title, though when in the writing process this was determined varied. Only in the case of The Vaults was the title considered at the beginning. The others came to him part way through the writing process. He never had an experience where the publishers asked for him to change the title to make it more marketable, as other authors have noted.
Toby generally wrote from 8-10 at night after his children had gone to bed. He is not particularly good at outlining and for many of his works, he has only come to the first chapter after completing a good deal of the first draft. Toby’s writing process involved first establishing a theme he wanted to write about, then forming a plot and finally populating the work with believable characters. One challenge in writing good characters, is trying to create sympathetic characters that have values that are not shared by the author.
In writing historic fiction, he noted there being two primary schools of thought. Some authors focus heavily on research and have a tendency to want to show off this research by accurately establishing details including some things that the general reader might view as minutia. The second school, which Toby adhered to in his novels, seeks to grasp the tone of the time without dwelling on specific facts, but also not getting any key historic aspects wrong.
When Toby was writing The Vaults self-publishing did not hold the position it now does in the market, and was generally considered vanity publishing. His major concern with publishing one of his own works would be the lack of editorial oversight that he has experienced with a publishing house. In one novel, an editor felt the pacing was all wrong, and the work greatly benefited from a rewrite.
While most of the conversation was about the writing process, a few questions were asked specifically about the book. One person asked if the City was meant to be representative of Washington D.C. where he had recently moved from (at the time of its writing). Toby said that he decided to create a completely fictional city rather than use an existing city where the reader would constantly be coming up against their suspension of disbelief if something in the fictional account did not fit with the real city. This choice also allowed for more freedom. He did mention in some ways it was built off the model of Syracuse, New York, if it were expanded to the size of Chicago. For the atmosphere of the City, Toby drew upon the works of Raymond Chandler and film noir.
Toby was asked if he would have any interest in having his works turned into a film or series. He said he would absolutely be interested, but many factors of his book would make it challenging to put on the screen. He noted that period pieces can often be very expensive. Also, the two lead characters are not together in the same scene until the very end of the novel, which would make it difficult to bring in any major actors. Also, the sheer number of characters makes it expensive to produce.
Toby is currently working on a book set two years in the future. He estimates he is at about the midway point of the first draft. He also contributes to two podcasts. Crime Writers On has between 60,000 and 100,000 followers. He has also recently started a new podcast, Radio Free Dystopia. He mentioned how it took some time to adopt the best pacing for podcasts and author talks.
The Meredith Library is grateful for Toby’s visit and wish him continued success in his writing and other endeavors.
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