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.

Round in circles

Sometimes it feels like we are bound in endless circles, doomed Sisyphean to repeat the same old circuit. Thus I come to you with advice I’ve given before and will doubtless be given again: be nice.

At the end of last week I was struggling to see a real future for me as a writer, should this last submission come to naught. Today I am feeling more positive, and that’s in no small part due to the kindness of a relative stranger. A person I’d talked to all of once before, a published, agented author, got in touch out of the blue to say that he was going to speak to his agent on Monday and would I like him to put in a good word for me?

One unexpected submission later and ‘why yes, that would be dashed sporting of you, sir’ and I now have two irons in the fire.

I know, I know, a good word means nothing if the agent doesn’t like my work. It’s hardly a guaranteed passport to Publishersville, or even Agentshire. But it’s enough to perk me up, to make me feel like there is hope after all. I have, after all, always relied on the kindness of strangers. I believe in people. Most people are, in fact, lovely. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet good people throughout my life.

It is just another day in the life of an author. Some days good, some days bad. It’s worth emphasising this, both to you, if you’re a fledgling writer, and to myself. Success is not a line graph, going forever upwards. It’s peaks and troughs, setbacks and step-ups. Success is the climate, not the weather.

At the moment I am in a not-success trough. I have no agent or publisher, no great well of victories to draw upon. The difficult bit is to see this time as a basic – perhaps the basic – state in that writer’s life. It doesn’t mark me down as a failure, just as signing my debut book deal didn’t make me a success. Only a long-term view will give an accurate picture, even assuming I can ever define what ‘success’ would actually look like.

So, in the meantime, whilst I polish my writing CV and swear over elevator pitches, I will keep an eye and a brain out for opportunities. And I will concentrate on being the nicest person I can possibly be, because that’s clearly the way I want to define my life. If I get breaks, if I have to rely on being an ‘industry insider’ or anything cishetwhitemaleish, then I want it to be because I’m a nice person and people want to work with me because they feel they can trust me rather than a reflection of going to the right clubs or of having the right school tie.

And that means I have an obligation to pay any niceness onwards. Find me on Twitter and ask me questions, if you have any. I’ll never make any promises because so often life intervenes, but I promise to try and help.

So many people have been nice to me. I’ve got where I am today (however you want to take that) by word of mouth, by people taking a punt on me, by trying to be vaguely reliable.

It’s the least I can do to try and pass some of my good fortune on.

To submit

It’s time. By Friday, when you’ll have read this, I’ll have submitted my novel to The Open Submissions Period of Doom. At time of writing I still have to tinker with my synopsis and make a few alterations to the submittable chapters. But I’m almost there; almost ready to throw my work into the pyre and hope the smoke-signals it gives off are enough to summon demand for the full manuscript.

It’s a horrible situation – not just for me, of course, but for all writers in my position. Publishers willing to take on authors without agents are few. Publishers who’ll take on SFF are few. There are about three moderate-sized ones in the UK with whom I have my heart set on publication, all of which are usually agent-only. So there’s a lot riding on this, because I’m ambitious.

I’m ambitious not for ‘success’ in any of its flawed, double-edged forms, but for the feeling of moving forwards. I’ve published with an independent publisher and I’ve self-published. I want to be making progress, as a person and within my chosen career. I‘m impatient for that.

I also feel that the work I’m currently hawking marks a significant step forwards as an author.

The other writers – maybe you – who are submitting to this open period may well be better authors than me. They may be more polished in their pitches. In fact, it would be quite astonishing if there weren’t numerous pieces that the company feels are ‘better’ than mine. So what hope do I have?

I don’t know the answer to that question. But hope I do still have, so I shall enter my work and then try to forget about it until the (almost) inevitable rejection.

The big question that then follows: what’s Plan B?

At the moment I simply don’t know. I believe in this work, but I’ve been rejected by all agents under the sun. I could self-publish again, but this is the first in a trilogy and… well, the honest truth is that it would simply feel like failure. Don’t get me wrong, I salute all those who choose to self-publish and I wish them every success. But I don’t have it in me – at the moment – to go out and try drum up publicity all over again, three more times, whilst staring down the barrel of low readership, no engagement and… well, the lack of the things I aspire to.

This is me now. I reserve the right to change my mind/acquire some enthusiasm.

What else? I could go into some great diatribe about the state of publishing, but you might just come back and tell me it’s just that my writing’s not very good, and who am I to argue that?

This is the 450th (ish) post I’ve written for this blog and I’m still back exactly where I started. One of those lifetimes, I guess. A writer’s life.

Back to basics

A few weeks ago I wrote about how a binary decision would go to shape my year; about how I was awaiting a simple yes/no decision that would define 2022 for me. Well, things have changed, as these things are wont to do. The offer has been (amicably) rescinded. I must return to traditional submission techniques – the last resort of the desperate and hungry.

This means I am returning to my traditional haunts: the worlds of synopsis, covering letter and elevator pitch. And instead of a single known person deciding my future, I am returning to the lands of faceless committees and anonymised readers.

At the moment I have three different versions of the synopsis – one short, one long, one nearly-as-long-as-the-long-one – I need to either choose between or merge. I have a covering letter that I think isn’t bad but has been rejected by most agents. And I’m entirely lacking a suitable elevator pitch.

There is an open-submissions period coming up with a great SFF publisher, so the clock is ticking. I need to get these right, and in any case it’s probably the elevator pitch – the handful of words (precise counts differ) that you’d use to seduce some high-powered exec were you to find yourself in a lift together – that gives me most concern. Quite aside from the fact that I’m British and would just stare at my feet for the entire time confined with said theoretical executive, I just don’t know how to go about it.

At the moment I have version that are entirely the wrong length, thus:

Insomniac miracle-worker Saira accidentally gives form to a being from another reality. Now she must prevent the sadistic Dashwood from flooding London with monsters from the Dreamland.

Slightly longer:

Saira, a seamstress in a London sink-estate, can draw matter from the very air around her and shape it to her will. But when Dashwood, a racist thug from a 1930s novel, slips into this world through her dreams and takes the role as a police inspector, Saira must band together with a rag-tag band of allies to stop him – before Dashwood can flood the city with monsters.

Are they any good? Well I have no idea. I might reinforce whichever I choose with my old fallback: Monsters Inc as written by Stephen King. Problem with this, of course, is that it doesn’t really convey much information. And I’ve not really read enough SK to make a meaningful comparison; I’m too much of a wimp to read horror.

So what else is there to say? I must go back to basics, pausing the long-suffering WIP (it’s already on pause, to be honest, as I have more proofreading to do) in order to revisit past infamies.

Hope. I still have hope. And, at the end of the day, it’s the hope that kills you.

Onwards!

On 2022

I’ve had a book on submission with a publisher for eleven months now. That’s a long time – by no means a record, but a long time nevertheless. In the meantime I’ve got halfway through the (second) sequel, as well as doing a hell of a lot of commercial editing, so I’ve hardly been sitting on my hands. But I’ve not been submitting. I have been waiting.

This is how 2022 is going to go for me. This book is either going to be accepted for publication or I’ll be rejected. If the latter I’ll be very disappointed but, y’know, life and all that. I’ll then have to consider whether I go on trying to place it commercially – all the hells themselves won’t know where, mind – or if I’m going to take all the lessons learnt from New Gods and self-publish.

If it’s accepted – well, it probably won’t be published before 2023 and there’s all the rounds of editation it’ll need to go through, but I’ll know what I’m doing. I can get on with first-drafting Breathing Fire, and editing Our Kind of Bastard, and I’ll keep the hope of being some kind of ‘success’ alive.

Of course I’ll do all that writing and editing anyway because it is, at the end of the day, what I do.

2022 is to be determined, for me, by a binary choice made by someone else. This is not a good way to be and I don’t advocate it – which is, of course, why I,’m trying to carry on as if that’s not happening. I am still keeping my eyes open for other submission opportunities – I’m not beholden to anyone – but I’ve already been rejected by all agents and, for this trilogy, this seems like my last chance.

So how optimistic am I about the year to come? I have no idea. Not very? Somewhat? I always try to expect rejection because that way it doesn’t hurt as much when it happens. I guess, though, this time I am afraid because I can’t see a road ahead with a no.

And that’s what I really fear. Not the rejection itself, but the feeling of helplessness that is likely to accompany this one. This is a good book. It’s levelling up on my past work – or at least that’s how I feel anyway. I just won’t know what to do next if the thumbs turn down.

2021 can get in the bin. It was not a good year for me. 2022? Well, we shall just have to see.

Reflections

So New Gods is out and, if you’ve not already picked up a copy, I’d be extraordinarily grateful if you could see your way to buying one. Please. Oh, and if you could leave a review whilst you’re at it? Ta.

So what now? That’s the question I have to ask myself as I enter the hangover-days as the adrenaline and panic slowly ebb away to leave only void in its wake.

Really I should take a break after completing as big of an achievement as putting out a whole book. I should bask for a while, take a little holiday, enjoy watching the sales figures shooting up(!)…

I won’t, of course, but I should.

No, I’m going to be getting straight back to work. For there are always more words to write, more wrongs to right. There will still be one or two more bits relating to New Gods to straighten – don’t know what, just yet, aside from updating this damn blog, a job I’ve had on my to-do list for months and still haven’t gotten round to. But I’m sure there will be something I’ve got wrong on NG, or in its sales-patter, some opportunity that will arise. I’d be naïve to write the whole project off as completed just yet.

And there’s still more stories to tell. I must get back to editing Our Kind of Bastard. I have New Novel to finish – I’m currently about a quarter of the way through, clawing out words as if excavating coal with my fingertips. Time has been hard to find for genuine original creativity. Maybe November will see a little more breathing space.

I am happy with the way New Gods has come out. As it stands, as it looks to me right now, self-publishing has been a success. Of course, many measure success as sales and I have no way to judge that right now (I’m drafting this the day before release, so I don’t even have the first day’s figures to go by). But I’m more concerned with the quality of the product and the stress, or lack thereof, in the project management. I am proud of myself for seeing it through, for making my deadlines, for not getting anything really hugely, obviously wrong.

And now? Well, I have Other People’s Deadlines to meet, and then it’s back to the Editorium with me. New adventures await!

New Gods – out now!

It’s out! Finally, this journey of many years (I forget exactly how many but it’s been through two house moves, a baby who is now at school and two and a half interim novels) is over.

New Gods is here. The culmination of the Anders Nordvelt trilogy is finally available to buy. Please don’t think me too forward if I’m prominent and liberal with the link.

I’m not expecting too much in the way of sales. The lower the expectations the more likely they are to be met, that’s one – possibly flawed – way of looking at it. But I know how much competition there is amongst new releases, how few copies of the previous books (available here, if you haven’t already snapped up yours) have sold. I’m not under any great illusions as to my own sway as an author and as a human. I’m just happy to have my work out there, (very) slowly accruing readers and being part of the canon of literature.

But today is a big day and should be marked. I am releasing a novel and, if I may be forgiven for so saying, a pretty darn good one at that.

I wish I could say that I’ll be celebrating with champagne and whizz-bangs and all sorts of high-jinx. Sadly I’m more likely to be struggling against copyediting deadlines and complaining about my daughter not going to bed on time. Life, as they say, goes on, whether or not we want it to.

But I have a novel out! Today! Get your grubby little mitts on it right now!

Letting go

I’m a bit frustrated at the moment. I’m working all out – by which I mean I’m sitting on my hands, waiting – on self-publishing (New Gods still planned for an October 26th release, all you people desperate to pre-order) and beyond that…

And that’s the question: what next?

After New Gods, all I have in the bank are the three novels (one complete, one in the factory for a refit, one a fifth of the way written) in the series that begins with Oneiromancer. I’m proud of these books. I think they’re either good or have the potential to be good. Thing is that I’ve already been rejected by all the sci-fi/urban fantasy agents in the country (and some beyond). So I have no idea how I’m going to go about getting them published.

Yes, yes, self-publishing and all that. I know I have that option. But I’m reluctant to go down that route. New Gods is a special case; the finale to a series that I simply want to get out because I’m proud of it and know that no other publisher with the situation as it is.

I am by no means negative about self-publishing. But that’s not how I envisioned my career as going, and I don’t know how to adapt my thinking to make myself embrace that future. I will, of course, if I can’t see any other way forwards – which I can’t at present – because I am, as I said, proud of my work and the books deserve readers.

I don’t believe I’m capable of drumming up those readers. Not on my own.

It’s times like this that ambition gets in the way of productivity. One can spend so much time worrying about whether one will ‘make it’ and less about getting not only this product ready, but that there’s a continued flow of product for the future.

Maybe the best option is simply to let go. To abandon the work I’ve put into this particular stack of world-building and move on to something entirely new. An agent can be tempted to any project, and then they might be interested in promoting a back catalogue too.

But I’m not ready for that yet. I’ve not even finished my trilogy.

No, perhaps I need to abandon my plans for being a successful (however that be defined) author. I can’t see myself ever being an award-winner, like I am in my dreams, and I’m getting too old and too envious – in a benevolent way – of the breakthrough authors I see on Twitter.

What, after all, is success but a false form of happiness? Change my paradigm, let go of dreams that will never come true and work on the things within my control; that’s what I should do.

But letting go is always hard.

Editors of the subconscious

I am still working on my blurb. I am on draft 4 at the moment, and I am as uncertain as ever as to its efficacy. I am not going to talk about that today, however. It is time for me to move on and consider other matters.

Writing a story is all about making choices. Should a protagonist do this, or that, or should the narrative focus in this direction or on this rather attractive patch of wildflowers just sitting here in the dappled glade. As writers, we choose upon which to focus at every step. And it seems to me that the road not taken is sometimes as interesting as the path we do follow.

As I’ve been working on getting my metaphors in a row for self-publishing, I find that more than ever I’m aware of the options I’ve not selected. Partly it’s this ‘blurb’ thing: for perfectly good reasons, I’ve become aware that I’ve had to suggest a personal threat to the protagonist that is more of a background in the novel. And I’m wondering: was I wrong? Should I have made more of this in my story? It would have fitted but I chose – subconsciously, never consciously – to not make more of it. Was this a mistake? Could I have written a better novel?

Attempting to fit every single possibility into a story is a recipe for turgid chaos. We are editors of the subconscious and to try and cover the whole caboodle would not, I think, make for good fiction. Still, hindsight can be vicious. And often hindsight is the only clear lens we have.

Take, for example, the titling of my forthcoming book, New Gods. It’s been pointed out to me that I’ve missed a trick here. The first two books in the series – Night Shift and Human Resources – both have workplace connotations. Would it not have made more sense to have tied the third in with it and called it… oh, I dunno, The Temp or External Agency or somesuch?

Of course it would. But I am committed now. It’s been New Gods forever, and now the words are fixed upon the cover. And I am able only to lament a missed opportunity, and to explain a little. See, I never realized what I was doing. Human Resources was a late inspiration for a title: all though the original creation it had been called Australis – indeed, you’ll find it referred to as such in the earlier posts on this site. All through the drafting of New Gods I knew book two by its alternate title. So there never was an overarching titling ‘scheme’.

Hindsight again. More, it took an outsider to join the dots.

I maintain that New Gods is a good title. It came before the text was written, as with Night Shift. In my mind the title and the text are thoroughly entwined.

Still, I wish I’d been able to see a little clearer at an earlier stage. For the road not taken may have been the better option all along.

On blurbs

So. Blurbs. In another week of not getting anything very productive done (sick child and imminent deadline) I turn my mind to blurbing – writing the copy that traditionally goes on the back cover of one’s book. If you’re successful your blurb may consist only of a list of other notables saying great things about you and your work. For the rest of us it’s possibly the hardest thing you’ll have to write. Harder, even, then the accursed synopsis.

A good blurb introduces the scene, the major characters and, perhaps most importantly, it sets the tone. It should tell people this is the sort of thing they’re looking for, whether they knew it or not. In these days of thumbnail covers and mobile-phone screens, a good blurb is a key weapon in the armoury of marketing.

All at 150 words max.

As a baby writer, I was somewhat surprised to realise that I was expected to write this myself. I assumed the editor or some underpaid underling would take on the task. Then I was even more surprised when my putative copy made it onto the back on my novel without e’en a comma, a character, changed.

Of course, your experience may vary. But I did it all myself, and have no-one else to blame for their shortcomings.

So Night Shift can still be found with the following:

Antarctica. A mining base at the edge of the world.

Anders Nordvelt, last-minute replacement as head of security, has no time to integrate himself into the crew before an act of sabotage threatens the project. He must untangle a complex web of relationships from his position as prime suspect.

Then a body is found in the ice. Systems fail as the long night falls. Now Anders must do more than find a murderer: he must find a way to survive.

Will anyone endure the night shift, or will ice and frozen corpses be all that remains?

96 words. Human Resources’ blurb was a whole 4 words longer, coming in at exactly 100:

Antarctica. A city on the edge of nowhere.

Anders Nordvelt is chief of security in this frozen land, so, when a prominent member of a dissident group is murdered, it is his job to find the killer. Unsatisfied with the obvious explanation, Anders keeps pushing until the body of a colleague turns up in his apartment.

Could Anders really be the killer? Why does he half-remember wielding the knife? And why are the whispers of a fabled Human Resources black-ops team getting ever louder?

As for Anders, he’s about to enter a deadly game of cat-and-mouse with a ruthless killer.

I’m not ready to unleash New Gods’ blurb upon you yet. It’s still a work in progress. I can’t get it right, though I’m getting close, I think.

On paper, writing a blurb is a tiny job, almost an afterthought. After slogging away for 75-80k words, what’s another 150 on top of that? But those final words, they have a weight, a difficulty, far beyond their characters. There’s so much to say and such little space in which to say it; so much to convey and such little time to create a voice.

Still, it must be done. And there ain’t no-one gonna do it for me.