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.

Buy-in

My reading for pleasure has disintegrated over the last few months. And that’s just a recipe for struggle as, for a fiction writer, there’s little more important than to refresh your well of ideas with plentiful outside influences.

Why it’s gone – well, once upon a time my primary opportunities for reading were work-related: the commute, the job itself (lots of quiet periods sitting with little to do), the coffee breaks.

Since then a change in employment has sabotaged these opportunities – and the pandemic has taken even these. I’m not good at taking time out of my home-day to read; this is, fundamentally, where I’m going wrong.

Fortunately, I’m currently going through one of my busiest periods ever as an editor, and I’m getting plenty of new fiction that way. It’s not the same – as I’ve said before on this blog, I think you consume stories differently when you’re searching out errors as opposed to just going with the flow – but it’s still a damn good way of keeping the inspiration-mines productive.

I’m experiencing the newest fiction and, for the most part, I’m overwhelmed with admiration for the authors, for their creativity, and I’m left wondering if I can ever achieve something that would make over people react the way these authors make me.

I currently have a novel out on submission to a publisher. I just have no idea how to gauge my chances. It’s a good story, I know it is. But it’s not going to win awards for its prose (decent is not the same as lyrical, or heart-rending, or haunting). Nor is the plot particularly original or earth-shattering. A good novel doesn’t have to be one that changes the world.

It might be commercial, but who am I to judge that?

Does it stand up alongside the novels I’ve been editing? Well it’s different, that’s all I can say for sure. Some I feel are better than mine, a (very) few worse. But I know that I’m not capable of reading my own work in the same way that I can read someone else’s. Maybe, one day, some lone proofreader will be reading my work with the same sense of admiration that I feel for other novels. Or maybe they’ll just be slogging their way through an endless slough of despond.

Maybe I’m unique; probably this is universal. I have no idea how my own writing will communicate itself to an outside reader. And it’s because of this that we try and get as much buy-in as possible: we trust beta-readers, we pay for editors; if we’re lucky enough we have agents and the editors are paid by someone else.

All because we haven’t the first idea. I still remember the feeling of being blindsided by the criticism I received the first time I took my work to a writing group. I thought I’d taken a piece that was beyond anything but minor criticism – ah, the arrogance of inexperience! But truly it’s never got any better, not for me, at least.

It’s foolish to put too much store in one person’s opinion, or one publishing house’s commercial judgement, but we do. Which is why it’s important to get as much buy-in as possible, to cast our nets widely.

There is no point to this. Apologies for wasting your time. You, at least, are wonderful.

On the writing of sequels

Never work on a sequel before you’ve placed the first book in the series. Simple, basic, advice, the idea behind which is that, should you never find a home for the first novel then all that work on the second will have been wasted.

And it’s good, sound guidance that holds up almost entirely. Except that it’s rubbish.

Your muse, for one thing, doesn’t care about actually getting published. If you have a story rattling around your head and insisting it be allowed out, there’s no real way to stop it. The words must be written and that’s an end to it – unless you can somehow twist it into a standalone story you’re gonna have a sequel.

Then there’s the fact that no words are ever truly wasted. All the time we spend writing, be it on our magnum opuses, kink-filled erotic fan fiction or potboiler thrillers, every word we write helps hone our skills and improve as writers. This whole idea of ‘waste’ is to misunderstand the process.

That’s even before we get into the issue of self-publishing.

Lastly, and most importantly, writing is supposed to be fun. Or if not fun then at least not torture. There are many reasons for writing, from a simple need for cash to the sheer unadulterated joy of it. But if it’s such a chore that you’re cursing the down of a new day then it is, at the very least, time for a rethink. Suppressing our true desires is not, I’d suggest, a recipe for a happy life.

It’d be lovely to be able to write one commercially successful book after another, but life is rarely like that. There will almost certainly be times when you’re waiting to hear about a novel – from publishers, from agents, from beta readers, from your own sense of ‘needing an edit’-ness.

So what do you do? Maybe – if you’re lucky – you have a butterfly mind and can flitter from idea to idea with barely a hesitation. As for me, I wrote the entire Antarctic trilogy, in draft form at least – before getting the first novel placed.

I’m now thinking of embarking upon the third novel in a series that began with Oneiromancer without any reward for any of them. Am I wasting my time? Maybe technically yes. But they’re the novels I need(ed) to write.

So, whilst I can see the merit in the idea of not committing to a sequel before the first is placed, it’s not advice I can get behind. Write whatever the hell you want to. It may not be the most efficient way to get a career, but there are no certainties however you go about it. Write your seven-book epic if that’s what’s burning through your soul.

Cold commercial decisions will determine whether you make a ‘success’ of it or not. But you might as well have fun along the way.

Next?

Now the dust has settled, it’s time for me to consider what to do next in my writing career. And, specifically, what to do with New Gods, the third in my Antarctic trilogy.

Having been dropped by my publisher after two books, it’s not an easy decision to make. No publisher is going to take on a single book in a trilogy – they wouldn’t have any share in the intellectual property (so no potential film/television rights, though that’s a very distant dream) and, with diminishing sales a massive probability, really what’s in it for them?

So my choices seem to be pretty much one of four. I can:

  1. Abandon the novel. This would be gutting, not only for me – I’ve put a lot of work into it and, as I’ve said before, I really regard it as the best in the series – but for the few fans who’ve persisted and really want to see the finale. But it’s perhaps the most realistic option
  2. Wait seven years. In seven years’ time I regain the rights to the first two novels. I could then try and find a publisher willing to take the series (though heaven alone knows how) as a whole and issue the whole lot as a reprint. Or I could self-publish the trilogy as a whole
  3. I could self-publish Book 3 now. There’s nothing to stop me doing this, as far as I’m aware – nothing except cold-hard economics. I’m under no illusions as to either my appeal or my abilities as an illustrator. I’d have commission someone – hell, I have to find someone – to do the cover art and that would cost money (all artists should be paid for their work. To hell with exposure). And even if I do all the typesetting and publishing and editing myself – a risky business, publishing without professional editorialness – there’d still doubtless be costs. I don’t believe that I’d ever cover these with sales as – at the end of the day – who am I? I’d sell maybe a dozen to family and friends, maybe a few more through this blog and via Twitter, and that’s all, folks
  4. I could release it free of charge, possibly serialised through this blog. I haven’t really thought this option through, yet. But I want to get this novel out there. It’s good. And, if I spend anything I’ll lose. So why not just save the costs and let you lot read it anyway? One potential downside is that my seven-year plan of reclaiming my rights and then seeking a fresh publisher might be harmed by this; I will have shot my bolt somewhat

So what would you do? All opinions gratefully received – and any options not yet considered would be appreciated also.

In the meantime, what do I do? Well, I’ve got Oneiromancer to flog. I’ve got Our Kind of Bastard to edit. I’ve got an as-yet un-thought-through new novel to start thinking through.

In other words, I need to get back into the word-mines. It’s what I do.

Sayonara, lovely folks.

Dropped

It’s finally happened. It’s over.

How to talk about this without overstating or making this into a bigger thing than it is? First of all, the bald facts: I have been dropped by my publisher. They have decided that sales of Night Shift and Human Resources aren’t good enough to justify picking up the third novel in my Antarctic trilogy and have decided to move on from me.

This is perfectly fair and, really, it’s hard to argue against. I too have been disappointed with sales (of NS; I’ve not seen any for HR yet) and I suppose the writing has been on the wall. I bear no ill-will to the publishers and wish them well. They gave me my chance and – hey – there’s nothing to say I’ll never work with them in the future. I still want people to rush out and buy my books from them!

My publisher’s decision has nothing to do with the quality of writing; they were keen to emphasise that. It’s purely a business decision, and I respect that.

But it is heartbreaking. I feel like my career is done. I don’t know what to do with myself.

Most immediately, I have the third book in a trilogy that I desperately want to get out there. I feel it’s the best in the series and provides a neat, satisfying climax to the story of Anders Nordvelt. Without it I’ll always feel like my work is incomplete – because it is. I want readers to know that there is an ending; there is happiness, of a sort, for my protagonist.

I have also lost my safety net. I have another complete, ready-to-go novel that I’ve been unsuccessfully hawking to agents. This now becomes my primary weapon. I now should be putting it out to publishers as well – but now I feel a much greater vulnerability. Without the option of Flame Tree Press, I feel rejection to a much greater degree, especially if my primary choice, the company for whom I do most editorial work, should take a look and turn me down.

I don’t dare send it out. I can’t bear the pain.

So it feels like my career is over. And I just don’t know what to do with myself.

Delay of game

Delay of game

Important news: Human Resources has been postponed. It will now be released in November, not July as originally advertised.

First off, I need to apologise to all you who have already pre-ordered it. What’s that, you say? You haven’t done that yet? Well, it’s still orderable from Flame Tree Press’ website and, presumably, all good bookshops. What are you hanging about here for?

Human Resources cover USE THIS

The delay, I hasten to say, is nothing to do with me. My copy-edits were in on time and the editor was happy with my work. It was instead a business decision. I’m not allowed to give any details beyond that a new deal has led to Flame Tree’s release schedule being rejiggered and my book is amongst those affected.

I can also say that it should work out to be a positive move both for me and the company; this isn’t one of those ‘oh my god it’s all gone to shit’ moments; it’s a good thing, I’m assured (I know very little about the actual business of publishing, though I’m learning).

Good thing or not, it’s a disappointment to me personally. I was hoping for some sort of launch event at Edge-Lit and maybe take in one or two more cons as an author with something to talk about. Now I have nothing to declare but my incompetence.

It’s also a short-term blow financially. Like most authors, the advance I will/have received for Human Resources is split into three payments: one upon signing of the contract, one on receiving of the finished text (though I’m not entirely sure when that arrives; I’ve done my copy-edit but not received this payment yet) and the last upon publication. Obviously I won’t now be receiving this last part until November. Not that it’s a great deal of money, you understand. But it’s money I won’t now be getting when I thought.

Long-term it may well be better for me to wait. Depends how this deal pans out, though in any case it’ll be very hard to judge cause-and-effect. We shall see.

Of more concern to me, however, is that it now feels like my career’s on hold until November.

techsupportonhold

Normally I’d advise people to try and fill their downtime with either writing their next novel or trying to get other material published and that’s what I’m going to be doing myself. I’m somewhat limited, however. I’m not a writer of short fiction, which is bread-and-butter to a lot of writers, and I’m contractually unable to pitch my other big novel-hope out to publishers at the moment. I don’t have an agent (my perpetual refrain; sorry to go on about it) and so don’t have the benefit of their advice on how to take my career forwards.

So, although I will be continuing to write and my endless search for an agent goes on, I feel like I’ve nothing really to do until November. My career hangs in limbo, and has done ever since the release of Night Shift – a gap of two years between publications. Two years’ wasted time.

(It’s not wasted, of course it isn’t. I’ve been busy writing; I’ve edited two novels and a have a third on the way. But that’s how it feels. Like I’ve been twiddling my thumbs all this time.)

So what do I do? I fill my downtime with writing, of course. And trying to find an agent. And making more friends amongst the writing community. And getting better at what I do.

I just wish I had something to sell, something to get my name out there. Tiny steps; no miracle-hunter I.

Something to make me feel like I was making progress.

Robin_Triggs_Banner_Twitter

Rejections redux

sorry

If, by any fluke of social media or suchlike, you see me as an established author then let me reassure you that I still get rejections. I want an agent, see, and I am at the moment completely failing to get one.

This Monday morning, first thing, saw a fresh rejection arrive in my inbox. It was kind. They said I wrote with intelligence and imagination and that they enjoyed my sample. But it wasn’t enough for them to fall in love with, to make them fall over themselves with the burning desire to read more.

The rejection contained the specific message: good is no longer good enough; to get a debut accepted you have to be special. And with it the unspoken criticism that my work is not special.

Now I’m not here to criticise this agent – or any agents – or the publishing industry. I’m writing this more of a self-analysis, and a sort of follow-up to the post I posted a few weeks ago. The thing is this: I want to be special. I want to be good at something – properly good. And I’ve been getting a little disheartened recently. I’ve been reading a lot of debuts and yes, in the main they are excellent.

I can’t compete.

snoopy-rejection (1)

Which is a damn shame because I’m getting older all the time and this – writing – is my last hurrah. I’ve tried sports, tried music, tried academia and this is the last thing I think – I thought – I could actually be good at and build a proper career.

This is, of course, silly. Writing isn’t (directly) a competition. I should be enjoying these great new authors. And I am. I’m also learning from them, if by learning you mean shaking your head in admiration and finding your mind expanded by sheer proximity to their mighty, mighty brains.

But I want what they have. And it’s for all this that I want an agent. I want someone to help me with my work, someone on my side who can see the potential of what I’m doing and believes in me; who advises me on how hard I can push self-promotion and when I’m pushing my luck; who knows the industry and can show me wider audiences and greener fields. The money, the deals – they’re secondary.

I know, I know. I have a book traditionally published and another on the way. There are people who would (not literally, I hope) kill for what I’ve got. I’m shallow and selfish and egotistical. This is more of a confessional and a mental purgative than it is a true reflection of where I am.

Also I need to say that I don’t mean to put anyone off writing, or seeking representation, or going the traditional route into publication. It is often harder to find an agent than it is to get a book published; Peter McLean, for example, had three excellent books published before he found his agent. You can do it – I’m sure you’re better than me anyway. You really are special.

The other takeaway from this is that you should be reading as many debut authors as possible. They’re all brilliant.

A little about the business

Business

Authors are not employees. They are freelancers who aren’t tied to any particular business and who can be contracted to several – or more – at the same time.

I was reminded of this a few days ago when I got an email from my publishers that opened with ‘nice to be working with you again.’ As far as I was concerned I’d never stopped working with them. It also raises the possibility that, at some point, my work had simply dropped into a canyon of disinterest; that, once my novel wasn’t new anymore, they had no interest in either it or me.

This is both true and not true. Of course any publisher will prioritise new books and bestsellers; it’s the way of the industry, and they can’t keep trying to flog every old potboiler that just happened to slip through the quality-control net. There is a point where one is just throwing good money after bad. Or, to be less cynical about it, to take what slender earnings they received and move on.

But publishers still want to sell their back catalogue and so, once a relationship is forged, it never simply disappears. As long as a book is available – not remaindered, if such a thing has any meaning in this world of ebooks and print-on-demand – then both author and publisher want to sell it. They just don’t want to spend any money so doing.

So the relationship between author and publisher is always a bit confused. An author might want to promote a book that’s been out a year, but they’re not employees – and the industry has moved on. A publisher won’t simply forget an author but, ultimately, they have no responsibility to look after them once the terms of the contract have been honoured.

The agent-author relationship is even more complicated. Technically the author employs the agent but it can often feel like it’s the other way round. The agent deigns to accept a writer as a client; a writer doesn’t have hordes of agents clamouring to be selected. The agent critiques and edits the work and often has great creative say in what’s eventually put out.

But the money flows from writer to agent, and that’s ultimately what it comes down to. The writer hires the agent. Don’t forget that.

It’s all terribly confusing. But, if you’re looking for advice, allow me to present you to with a few quick bullet-points:

  1. Maintain good relationships. Try not to piss people off; you might only be working with them for a limited time but you might always publish more than one book with the same people. That’s surely the aim. Don’t get a bad reputation.
  2. Remember that, beyond the terms of your contract, you are beholden to no-one and no-one is beholden to you. Do a good job. Thank people who have helped you. But don’t be fooled into thinking you work for them. Be free!
  3. If you’re lucky enough to sign with an agent, don’t think you have to slavishly follow their every command. If it’s not working – for any reason – you have the power to make changes. No relationship is better than a bad relationship
  4. Keep writing. It’s ever so tricky, sometimes, to remember what you originally were: there’s so much publicity to do, so much business to clear. But you must keep on producing material because every new work is a new slice of freedom. Unless you’re tied in to a multi-book contract – in which case I doubt you’re reading this – each story is a new deal. And you can take that deal anywhere.
  5. Keep track of what you’ve sent where. All this freedom can all get terribly, terribly complicated – especially if you’re working on short stories, poems, or other things where you might be sending out multiple things to many places at the same time. Try and develop a system – even if it’s only the simplest of spreadsheets – so you don’t feel like you’re drowning

 

For the last time

the-last-time-i-saw-you-mens-premium-t-shirt

I am currently working through Human Resources for the last time.

This is, of course, untrue. There is no way in hell that it’ll be the last time I go through the manuscript, armed with a future list of corrections and clarifications and just a general sense of must-do-better-ness.

But it is the last time I’ll go through it before I send it off to my editor. I have no more to give – I’ve got my beta-reader’s feedback and, though I don’t feel able to address some of the larger points in the root-and-branch manner I should, this is one final pass to kill a few typos and to add a little bit of explanation where it’s needed.

This novel has dragged on for years. It has been through many different sets of clothes. Now it may not be perfect but I’m happy with its overall shape, the pose of the mannequin; and it’s time to dispatch it to my publisher in the hope that – while they too might not think it’s perfect – they can see enough good in it for it to be accepted.

It’s not a done thing. I’m talking about ‘my’ editor but I have no contract, no guarantees. This could easily die a death.

But there comes a point when one must draw a line under a project, bite the metaphorical bullet and move on with life.

I believe Human Resources is good enough to be published. But the journey won’t be over when I send it out into the scary world of editordom. Now…

  • The editor will read it and make notes
  • They might send it back to be to altered even if they want to sign it
  • It may go to a structural editor who will suggest changes
  • It will go to a copy-editor who will suggest changes
  • It will be proofread and there may be changes

So the work’s not done, not by a long shot.

But I can do no more. I console myself thus:

  • The novel is good enough to be published in its current form
  • It can be made better
  • I will be proud to see it released
  • It will not be a disappointment to those who liked the first novel

I believe in what I’ve done. I wish the road had been easier; I’ve found so much angst, so many hair-pulling moments through the process.

Now I have just another 130 pages to edit, then one more quick pass, and I’ll be done.

The last time until the next.

Work harder