How I got published

It occurs to me that I’ve never actually said how I got published in the first place. I mean, this whole blog contains the story, but I’ve never actually sat down and spelled it out. So, without further ado, here’s the story of Night Shift:

  1. Write lots of writing that never goes anywhere, probably because it’s not very good
  2. Finish some of the former; get into the habit of finishing, and editing, and editing again
  3. Join a writing group – a proper one, one that suits me and can pitch criticism at the right level
  4. Write the first draft of Night Shift, receiving regular feedback on chapters as they’re written
  5. Edit said first draft. Edit it again
  6. Get beta-feedback from my small coterie of loyal friends, for whom I return the favour, and re-edit
  7. Enter the whole ‘submissions’ market. Approach agents. Make lots of mistakes. Get lots of rejections…
  8. Work on other material: first Night Shift’s sequels, then Oneiromancer
  9. …but Hark! What’s this? Receive a request for a full manuscript
  10. Receive a request to meet with an agent. Get all excited. Research not only said agent but also sensible questions to ask of her
  11. Attend meeting. Get lots of notes/criticism – what basically amounts to what I now see as an ‘R&R’ (revise and resubmit) request
  12. Overpromise. Rush the job in order to try and appear professional. Get embarrassed by some of the mistakes that were pointed out. Return manuscript to agent
  13. Get another R&R request (from the same agent) as the first was a disappointment
  14. Revise. Take more time. Really break the novel down before resubmitting
  15. Get rejection. Take it on the chin. The novel is now much better than it was before the agent got her hands on it
  16. Be grateful
  17. Prepare to self-publish
  18. …but Hark! An email arrives, offering to publish Night Shift pretty much as is! From a publisher I’d submitted to eight months earlier and had all but forgotten about
  19. Sign contract
  20. Profit!

This is, of course, the briefest of brief canters though the process. I could write a whole lot more about every stage I’ve listed here – indeed, I have, many times over, in these very pages. There’s also surely things I’ve missed; I haven’t mentioned, for example, the great Writing of the Synopsis and the Writing of the Cover Letter.

My memory is also fallible. Nothing I (ever) say should be taken as gospel.

It’s also worth emphasising that this is not the best way to publish a novel; it’s not the quickest, or most efficient, or even most guaranteeing of quality. It’s simply the path I took. Your method will almost certainly vary.

The timescale is also worth mentioning. It took comfortably over seven years for me to get from first draft to finished book-in-hand product, and that’s disregarding the first early novels that even I have given up on now. I live in hope that this period will shorten with time, but evidence is yet unclear.

What’s the most important step? Probably #1 and #2, which almost go without saying, and #8. Never stop moving forwards. Never stop swimming.

As for point #20… well, we’re talking very (very) modest sums here. A small advance which I’m just a little shy of earning out of.

Which is part of the reason I don’t post things like this very often, I guess. I’m still a baby author – I have no publisher, no agent, practically nothing to show. I consider myself to be a learner and an apprentice; certainly no-one to be giving advice.

But I have achieved two commercial publications, which is not nothing. And this is how I did it.

The big board of truth

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I wrote nothing in 2017.

That’s not quite true. I did significant amounts of revision and turned out a few short stories. But nothing substantial and this bothers me. It’s time to do something about it. Yes, folks, at long last it’s time to start planning.

I’ve read two books on screenwriting in the last two years: Dave McKee’s Story and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!. Both ended with advocating the same writing process: that of using what I like to think of as The Big Board of Truth.

They suggest that, before a word is written in anger, a story is constructed by using postcards on an idiot board: each postcard represents a scene (or group of scenes) and you build the story piece by piece, moving then around until truth and beauty become one.

This advice is meant for screenwriters and I’m not by nature a planner. But the benefits, as I see them, are that it’ll help focus my mind on the gaps in a currently nebulous plot. It’ll help me take the ideas from my head – where they’re currently floating free and randomly bashing everything else out of place – and pin them into physical form.

Will this work? Will it do anything more than take up valuable writing time? We’ll have to see. But I’ve made a start in my own particular, half-assed way. A big idiot-board? Pah, I have a spreadsheet.

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A brainstorm of initial ideas. The colours represent ‘acts’: yellow is backstory; green the opening; blue the story’s ‘meat’ and red the climax

The details are sketchy (and – unfortunately – blurry). It’s written in my own shoddy shorthand. It’s simply a list of ideas, some of which will be abandoned whilst others will be so heavily disguised that they could appear in an Anonymous’ Anonymous meeting without anyone being the wiser.

The next step was to transfer each scene to its predicted place in the finished novel, thus:

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I’d generally recommend a physical model rather than a computer version; solidity changes the way we perceive a concept. But I’m drowning in a sea of clutter as it is. If the worst comes to the worst I have scissors.

So now I have a plan. A plan of a plan, no less. Will this idea serve me at all? It’s kind of up to me. At the moment I’m just trying things out, trying to pin my errant dinosaur mind into the tar-pit of rationality. I’m hole-hunting. I’m seeking flow, direction and drive.

I’m seeking out characters to transform from placeholders into flesh-and-blood. I’m looking for motivations; for causality; for sub-plots; for flow. I’m using the technique to unspool a convoluted plot and find its place in a narrative. Whether this will become a one-off or will become a regular prelim to my writing – well, we’ll see.

I shall, of course, keep you updated on progress. But for now it’s peace out, y’all. Happy writing.

The feel of a novel

Emotions Delawer

Copyright Delawer Omar. Used without permission because I don’t understand these things

People talk about genre. They talk of setting. They talk of plot and ask ‘so what’s it all about, then?’ They don’t ask what a novel feels like. Which is odd – or at least it seems so to me – as feel is the fundamental starting point of all fiction. And probably a lot of non-fiction too.

This is a hard thing to describe, but every novel, to me, has its own individual taste; its own colour, smell, texture. Maybe it’s best described as an emotional synthaesthesia; and maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about. But when I’m setting out to write a new story the first thing that I develop is a feel, a smell. This is wrapped up in genre and setting but to me is deeper, more intrinsic. It’s like selecting the palette with which you’ll paint your characters.

When I started to develop Night Shift I began with the cold. Add onto that both claustrophobia and a hint of agoraphobia (not quite a contradiction) and paranoia and I had a framework upon which to build the actual plot. Of course setting went hand-in-hand with this: Antarctica makes some of this simple. But it’s possible to set a blazing-hot emotional volcano within a frozen landscape; and it’s entirely possible to build a frigid tundra with no sense of cold.

Similarly, Oneiromancer is a nighttime novel. Its palette is streetlit: umbers, browns, shades of amber. It’s ambiguity and shifting, untrustworthy flickers. It’s no accident that the few chapters set outside London form the Relief Section of open skies, sunlight and the taste of the coming harvest.

At the moment I’m working on three ideas, trying to build them up from nebulous concepts into something I can actually write. I don’t know what genres they will eventually fall into – though I have ideas – but what I have is a feeling for them all:

• The Breton One – paranoia, a sense of being lost, a hunt, ripe sunlight in rich countryside
• The Urban One – identity and the loss of the same; clear skies and cloudy hearts
• The Fenland One – a great, willow-fringed lake; a flatland where the land and the sky are indistinguishable. It’s also wading through knee-high stagnant water with vegetation leaning into you and choking and drowning you at the same time…

So what comes first? Story? Setting? Genre? Maybe all these are just aspects of the same thing. But for me the first stirrings of a novel will always – no matter how I actually go on to tell the story – be the feel of a piece. I’ll know this before I find a universe in which to nurture it.