A necessary delusion

I believe in myself. I have to have some sense of self-worth to show the public my face each week, writing and publishing this blog; I have to have some sense of self-belief to submit my writing to publishing houses and agents across the world. Each attempt is a little part of me craving for attention. ‘Look at me! I can do this – in a way that no-one else can.’

Every writer that puts their work out there is the same, and that’s no bad thing. You need a little ego to survive, to push yourself onwards; it’s a bold step, trying to get yourself published, and you need to be bold to make the attempt. But I’m worse.

I read a lot of proofs of novels that are about to hit bookshops. Some of them take my breath away, are so accomplished, so innovative, that I’m in awe of the authors. I read these. I work on them, try and give them that final spit-and-polish so the final product is as perfect as perfect can be. I go through all this, I see all these wonders, and I still think I’m good enough to sit on the bookshelves alongside.

Problem is that self-belief and self-delusion are very hard to distinguish between. I do believe in myself. But I’ve got to weigh that against the fact that I’ve been rejected by hundreds of agents over the years. I just can’t cut it, on that front at least.

So maybe I am delusional.

As time goes by it seems to me that my chances of being taken on by either the publisher of my dreams (to whom I submitted Oneiromancer in their yearly open-submissions period), or the agent with whom I got a personal recommendation, are inexorably slipping away. The former has silence equating failure; the latter… well, no news is bad news?

So: I am delusional. And that’s fine. I will take that delusion and use it for the betterment of mankind. Or at least it’ll make me persist, to keep thrashing on, to keep sending my work out into the world.

The problem is that I believe. I believe in Oneiromancer, even if it has a shonky title, even if it turns out to need a good editing. It’s better than anything I wrote before. And in my belief – in my arrogance – I want it to be read.

I just don’t know how to help that come to pass.

The publisher of my dreams achieved that status by having a great network of nice writers and an excellent social media team. I want desperately to be part of that world. Ego again?

I just want to be read. I desperately wish I could do something to make that happen – something that, hopefully, involves other people doing the marketing work. I’m just no good at it, as can be evidenced by the lack of sales of the otherwise excellent New Gods.

I believe in myself. I am delusional. I just need someone in the business to take a risk on me.

All these things can simultaneously be true.

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.

50 shades of doubt

Last week I wrote about the gyp I was getting from synopsis and elevator pitch. It has subsequently come to my attention that I should probably look at the actual writing that gets attached to a submission, not merely the flashy, fleshy bits on the side.

The piece I’m submitting here is Oneiromancer, and for the life of me I can’t remember when I actually wrote the damn thing. It was definitely two houses ago, back when I occupied an entirely different world. I know I submitted it to Flame Tree Press at the same time as I submitted Night Shift. It’s been a while, at least, through various drafts. And I’ve not really examined my submission package for at least three years.

Good thing is that the writing pretty much stands up. Or at least the first half-chapter does; for this I took to my writing group last week. There are improvements to be made, but, by and large, things make sense. The voice mostly works, the characters are graspable and all that. Changes I’ll have to make are relatively small, the swearing I have to perform only of a moderate nature.

But a writer never stops fretting. I read a chunk that’s in only a single voice, but this is a polyfocal novel with a lot of ‘stars’: the writers’ group don’t know that I’m about to change to someone else’s POV for the next section.

I worry about this. I worry about introducing to many names too soon. I worry about not giving the audience time to properly ‘bed in’ to the novel before switching things around.

You may be saying to yourself ‘well if you fret so much, and you can see the potential problems, why don’t you just do something about it?’ To which I respond with a sigh as long and deep as the great spot of Jupiter.

It’s not that easy. I wanted to write a multiple-POV novel. I like this kind of story. It’s kind of got fixed over the years. To rewrite this would be to rewrite the whole sorry tale, and I’d rather walk my own path right now, pending agentory/editorial demands. I personally happen to think that the damn thing works.

And that last thing, that’s what it really comes down to. I doubt, gods know I doubt. But I have something, some shred of ability to string words and ideas together in a form that I believe in. May just be self-delusion, I guess – but then I have persuaded people to give me money for words, so it can’t be just me. Can it?

I console myself with the writers’-grouperly thumbs-up. Now I need to gird my metaphoricals and take the next section to a meeting soon. I have only three weeks before my target open-submission period closes. I have very little time to waste.

No time for doubting. Needs must and all that.

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.

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.

On luck

Compoco Black Cat

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.

Unholy Pitches

Wordpile

For the love of all that’s holy, don’t try and sell a novel with an ensemble cast.

That’s the message I have for you today; another episode in the ‘Oh my lord, what the hell have I done?’ series I’ve been running for what seems like forever. Now there’s nothing wrong with trying to write a novel with an ensemble cast – write what the hell you like – but trying to create a pitch for a novel without a single identifiable star is another thing entirely.

Yes, it’s more Pitch Wars angst from me. By the time you read this I’ll have sent my submission into the electronic ether* and I’ll be chewing on my knuckles, fingernails long-since devoured. See, the thing about Pitch Wars is that you actually have to pitch. Or at least you have to write a query letter.

Now a long, long time ago I was actually brave/stupid enough to try and give advice on querying. I think, by and large, I wasn’t entirely wrong. But I didn’t realise then that American queries are different. And Pitch Wars uses the American system.

Basically, an American pitch is – well, it’s a pitch. Basically it’s like sending a mini-synopsis or book-blurb, the kind you’d see on the back of a novel. These are hard at the best of times but when you have seven major characters, all of whom demand that they’re the star? A blurb that covers all of them would completely cover the back of a book (in very small print) and start creeping across the front as well. And that’s before we get to what actually happens to significant minor creatures, like the girl whose murder sparks a whole sub-plot and emotional wringeration, or the creepy neighbour-witch who gives another character a major fillip…

So basically I have to choose one of my cast and put her centre-stage, ignoring the rest of the crew. It’s the only way I can see to do it. But she’s not the character the novel opens with, and I worry about confusing the reader/judge, and, and, and…

So if all you out there want to save your sanity, don’t work with ensemble casts. Not on your debut, at least. Save it until you’ve got a reputation, when people are slightly more likely to indulge you. It’s the only way to be safe.

 

*Not submitted yet. Today. Tomorrow at the latest. Stupid last-minute editing

Pitch Wars

21033_fantasy_knight_two_kinghts_fighting

‘No, my manuscript is better!” “Pah! You don’t even have multiple narrators.” “At least I don’t have a talking dog as a protagonist!” “You dare mock Wuffles? You must die!” [I’ve no idea who this picture’s by; I stole it from here]

I have decided that what I really need is serious, professional-level input to help me across that final gap; to make my novel ready for publication. And by publication I mean ready for agents. And by professional-level input I mean free professional-level input.

This is why I’m submitting Oneiromancer to this year’s Pitch Wars competition. Full details are here, but in essence it’s an opportunity to work with a mentor – a published author – to develop your novel and your query letter. Which is exactly what I need.

First you have to have a finished novel with at least a modicum of polishing. You also need a query letter, and a synopsis is desirable. Then you choose four potential mentors, and this is where it gets tricky. There are a hundred to choose from – though only 37 of these deal in adult stories, and of those I’ve a longlist of twelve who take urban fantasy.

This is the first time I’ve attempted anything like this. I’m not one for competitions – there aren’t many for full-length novelists and I’m too mean to pay. Or, rather, I’m too cautious for uncertain returns. I’ve spent a lot of my life being poor and such habits run deep.

But social media is gradually winning me over. Slowly I am expanding my circle of influences: gradually I am becoming aware of opportunities, of new writers and – I hope – new perspectives. If there’s one thing I beg you take from my blog it’s this: be open. Even if you just watch from the sidelines and stay silent – as I’ve spent a lot of my life doing – let yourself grow.

Maybe Pitch Wars will be a bomb. Maybe I’ll be eliminated after the first read-through and I’ll just face more rejection. But at least I’ll have re-examined my manuscript and met (virtually) a few more authors. I’ve already learned there’s a difference between US and UK query letters. Really, what have I to lose?

The great mistake

MIstake
Okay. I made a mistake. I made the same mistake I made a dozen times before. To do the same thing and expect a different response is madness. Make of that what you will.

This is what I’m thinking: I sent Oneiromancer out too soon. I should have polished it further. Perhaps I was arrogant; I had too much faith in the improvements I’ve seen in myself as a writer (which I still believe are there – I’m a better writer now than I was two years ago). I overrode my own doubts, and this is always, always a mistake.

I’ve had some twenty rejections so far, with a few submissions still outstanding. No-one (agents only so far) has requested a full manuscript. Now is the choice: I can keep going, reaching deeper into the list of fantasy-accepting agents I find across the internetverse. Or I can pull back and reconsider my options.

The reason I’d push on is simple: it’s easy. I have a query letter that I still think is good and is relatively easily tailored to an individual agent’s tastes. I have my sample material and synopsis ready. Each rejection can be simply met with two more submissions sent out. Like Hydra, soon my sinuous necks will envelop the planet.

But easy is not necessarily best. Maybe it’s time for me to pause. To look again at the opening of my novel and see if it can’t be improved.

I still believe in Oneiromancer. It’s a good story, strong and dark and rich. I’m not fooling myself into thinking it’s perfect, though. They say you should never send out anything that isn’t perfect, but I’d reached a point where I couldn’t improve it any more. I’d reached the end of my mental strength and needed professional input to smooth out those last few creases.

It is, perhaps, arrogance that persuaded me that an agent would be the place to get that assistance. But, in my defense, this is what had happened with Night Shift. And my work has been beta-read and improvements made. What’s the alternative? The only one, so far as I can see, is to pay hundreds of pounds to a literary consultancy and that, for obvious reasons, doesn’t appeal.

So here is my plan: I will pause on the submissions. I will start on an entirely new writing project. I will, when I get a little mental clarity, try and re-examine the first three chapters of Oneiromancer to make sure my lure is as irresistible as possible to agents.

I have as a deadline and incentive this year’s Pitch Wars competition. More on that in future posts. For now, however, I must go and do some real writing.