On luck

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Enamel badge from Compoco. Not a recommendation, merely an apposite image

Way back in the mists of time I attended my one and only writing conference. The keynote speaker was Julian Fellowes and the theme of his talk was this: we don’t know any more than you.

The people who have ‘made it’, he said, had done so through luck. There was no real advice they could give other than the technical; there was no road-map to Successville.

[I accepted this at the time but now I wonder how true that is: could white male upper-class privilege have had something to do with it? But that’s a subject for another day]

Now, five years later, I find myself in possession of a publishing deal – for the same book, incidentally, that I was hawking at the aforementioned conference – and now I ask myself: how did this happen?

The answer is, of course, luck.

Through sheer good fortune my manuscript found itself on the desk of a person who was looking for that particular story at that particular time. On another day she’d have been running late and would skim my work without really taking it in. Or she’d have just signed a remarkably similar novel by someone else. Maybe she’d have been dyspeptic after an especially generous lunch and would have been too distracted to appreciate genius.

Luck: someone retweeted a submissions-request from a new imprint on Twitter. Luck: I decided to send them my novel and not just try and drum up some proofreading work, which had been my initial plan. Luck: without really trying, or putting much thought into it, I bashed out a cover letter that didn’t send them rushing to the ‘delete’ button so fast they gave their fingers a friction burn.

Luck: it fell into the inbox of someone who saw potential profit (not the same as talent; not by a long shot, and perhaps rarer) in my work.

Ultimately, the decision whether or not your book gets an agent or gets published is out of your hands.

But sometimes you will hit the right person in the right mood on the right day. And it’s for those narrow windows that you must make sure your work has the biggest chance of success. To do that you must:

  • Write a novel (or other work of your choosing)
  • Edit that novel
  • Edit it again
  • Another edit can’t hurt
  • Find the right agent/publisher for your work. I mean really – don’t waste your time sending a gritty urban noir to a lit-fiction specialist. The only special opportunity you’re giving them is the opportunity to turn you into another irritated ‘don’t do this’ screed on Twitter
  • Write a good synopsis
  • Check the submission guidelines. Check them twice. Keep the webpage open and keep checking as you…
  • …Write a solid cover letter

None of this will result in guaranteed publication. What it means is that, when the dominoes finally fall your way, you have a chance.

[And don’t expect the offer of representation/publication to be the final stop on your journey. There will be more editing to come]

Imagine what’d happen if all the stars aligned and you got the right editor/agent in the perfect mood – and your work wasn’t up to scratch.

Luck? Yes, it’s luck. But you’re not helpless before the fickle fates. Improve the odds. Write a good story and follow the rules and you’re already ahead of the curve. Hell, go out and network if you’re the sort of person who can do such a thing.

Then go out and write a better story.

I had tremendous luck when it came to getting a deal for Night Shift. But I earned that luck by working damn hard through nine or so drafts, by beating my synopsis into shape and by evolving my submission technique over many years.

The dice will roll your way eventually – probably more often than you think. It’s up to you to be ready to take advantage.

Money, money, money

Last Thursday I attended a most enjoyable evening at Mostly Books, my friendly neighbourhood book store. It was in the company of some good wine and Ben Jeapes (benjeapes.com), author of Phoenicia’s Worlds, and Jonathan Oliver, Editor-in-Chief of Solaris (solarisbooks.com).

One of the things that’s become increasingly aware to me is the importance of attending this sort of thing, and indeed keeping up with the publishing industry as a whole. Thus my new twitter account is loaded with editors, authors, publishers and the like. Just like maintaining a blog, it seems that in order to make it as a writer today you need to do these things, to be prepared to schmooze, to be forward and assertive.

Which is fine. I’m not the best at this – doesn’t come naturally to me, pushing my weight around – but I can do it. At least on good days. I do worry about what it does for people with more social constraints.

I’m sure – in fact, I know – that there are many good, skilled writers out there who deserve to be published but are unable to do this circuit of self-promotion. Either for reasons of shyness or physical or mental disability or cyberphobia, they can’t push themselves like I can.

And let’s not forget that it costs money to attend events. Maybe not much in the grand scheme of things, but a fiver for the bus/train/entry might as well be a million pounds if you don’t have it.

Case in point: I have a submission package all loaded up and ready to go. Unfortunately I won’t be able to send it off until I get paid in a few days. Now this example is pathetic, really. I know it’ll get sent when I can afford it – no big deal. But there are many, many writers who struggle financially. Should they have less chance of publication just because they’re poor? Isn’t the starving writer one of the most stereotypical images in history?

I worry that writing, like music, like possibly all the arts, is becoming increasingly about money. Obviously, it’s always been so for the publishing houses – fair play. But I fear that we may be seeing an increasing split between those who can afford to play the game and those who can’t.

Back in Winchester, Julian Fellowes’ plenary speech was called ‘We don’t know any more than you’, and its basic theme was that most writers achieve success through good fortune, through plugging away and hoping that your lovingly crafted manuscript/poem/whatever will fall on the desk of the right person at the right time. Later in the day someone (I forget who; it might have been agent David Headley, but please please don’t quote me on that) disagreed, saying that he believes that talent will always shine through.

I really, really, hope this is the case. But even in allegedly ‘free’ set-ups, like making your work available through Amazon’s e-book service, money helps. Don’t people who can afford to go on writing courses have an advantage? Can you afford to have your work proof-read by a professional?

I’ve never taken writing classes beyond GCSE and I don’t have much money, but I think I’m doing okay. So doesn’t that invalidate my own point? But I’m bolshy enough to put myself forwards and – hopefully – make a first impression that isn’t one of abject desperation. Yes, I managed to slip Jonathan Oliver a pitch for Night Shift. So no complaints on my own behalf.

I suppose I’d better come clean and say that a lot of this column is written with a specific person in mind. She’s an excellent writer and for as long as I can remember she’s been trying to get her fiction published. But she’s not one to keep up with the industry and doesn’t have the money or the time to attend events or write a blog. I desperately want her to achieve what she’s been working so hard on all her life.

But I worry. I worry for her, and for all the excellent writers out there who are sick of seeing badly-written trash earning their authors millions.

And with that I’ll bid you au revoir. Until next time…

A day trip to Winchester

I went to Winchester on Saturday. Not just for a jolly day out, although by all accounts it’s a lovely old town, but to attend Winchester Writers’ Conference.

For those that don’t know, Winchester is one of the biggest meetings of its type in the UK, and is regularly attended by some of the biggest names in the industry. This year’s Plenary speaker was (Lord) Julian Fellowes, writer of Downton Abbey and the Robert Altman-directed Gosford Park. Also attending was Jasper Fforde, Adrian Magson, Sophie King and many, many others. Industry figures were also there in their multitudes: agents, commissioning editors, publishing consultants… And many of these people were available for private ‘one-to-one’ sessions where they comment on the opening pages of your work.

I’ve never been to one of these things before – it’s all part of my push for professionalism that also led to the creation of this blog. I went just for the one day (it’s five days in total, the meat being on Friday, Saturday and Sunday). For my £185 plus travel I got to attend five lectures – choosing from an impressive fifty-five available – and had three of these one-to-ones. That’s a lot of money for my fiancée and I. So was it worth it?

Well, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and got some genuinely useful advice. The lectures were a little disappointing, but that was mostly because I had to leave three of them after ten minutes (out of 50) to go to my one-to-ones. But these meetings were really, really good, and I’ve returned home with a real sense of ‘right, this is what I need to do now’-ness.

Due to numbers and logistics and whatever else, it’s not always possible to see exactly who you want to out of their impressively large selection. You have to choose seven, give them a priority, and then they’ll assign you three. Due to the last minute nature of my application, I missed out on all the agents and editors. I got three authors instead, and am very happy with the way it turned out.

I saw Steve Lockley, Eden Sharp and Daniel Clay, and I’d like to start by thanking them for their help. The big thing is that they all liked my work. Steve Lockley began my first appointment by saying ‘it’s got legs’, which is always nice to hear as you’re sitting down.

All three of them gave (different) suggestions for improvements which are tangible and straightforward, so I’ll be acting on those in the next few days. And they all gave me suggestions for ways to get into print. Steve suggested a few publishers to contact, Daniel gave good advice on my covering letter, whilst Eden advised going down the indie route, which I think basically means self-publishing.

I’ll have to have write a proper blog on self-publishing sometime. I’m in no way against it; it’s thoroughly disposed of its ‘vanity’ associations and with e-books so easy to set up (apparently) it’s now a real option and not just a last hurrah. That’s for another time, though. At the moment I’m still focussing on traditional publishing, whilst trying to soak up as much of this ‘knowledge’ stuff as humanly possible.

A few random thoughts about the conference:

  • If you’re not Caucasian and over forty, you may feel a little out of place
  • Do not underestimate elderly women
  • Winchester University is lovely, and a nice walk from the station
  • The ‘Book Fair’ was very disappointing. There were three stalls that sold things and five or so self-publishing companies. I was expecting more
  • Take the time to talk to people. Hang around for the evening networking sessions if you have the time (I didn’t, so I make no promises)
  • Writers generally appear to be happy, friendly people
  • If you’re going, book early
  • Take a stock of business cards. You never know who you might meet and who might take the time to check out your blog/website/twitter feed. Again, I didn’t do this because I’m lazy and feckless
  • Feckless is a wonderful word
  • Twitter: more and more people are advising me to go on twitter. It seems that this is the next ‘must have’ for aspiring authors
  • Julian Fellowes comes across as a very warm and witty individual
  • Why do agents/publishers ask that we put personal names at the head of submission letters, then make it so hard for us to find said names?

Right, that’s all for now. More next week…