How to publish a novel: a writer’s guide

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through the streets of London novelist’s journey from manuscript to book. But before we go anyway I must caveat in your general direction: I haven’t had a book published yet. I have only my own, limited, experience to draw on via the medium of a single publisher. Your experience will be/will have been different.

The broad sweep is likely to be similar, though, hence the ‘this might be of interest’-ness of this post. I also suspect that many of the stages will be applicable to all you self-publishers out there.

And, without further ado:

Step the First: Write a novel and make it good

A novel by

Yes, it is possible to sell a novel on the basis of a pitch: Gareth Powell did that with his Ack-Ack Macaque stories (and very good they are too). But he did that on the back of a lot of previous highly-regarded writings. If you don’t have a track-record, or if you’re not already famous, you’re going to have to go the long way round.

Step the Second: Find a publisher willing to take you on

W and A 1948

Yes, I know I’m skipping a helluva lot of steps here. But to detail every single rise and fall, every stumble and trip, in here would make this article three times as long. Besides, most of this blog is taken up with these gaps.

Step the Third: Sign a contract

publishing contract childress

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned anything about agents here. That’s mostly because I don’t have one, though I’ve spent more time trying to get one than I have trying to get a publisher. Again, please refer to the rest of my blog ever for my agonies over a lack of agent: suffice to say that I’d really rather like one and this is where they come into their own.

A contract is a potential minefield and it’s here you can be shafted by an unscrupulous organisation. For that reason I recommend that as soon as you get a contract offer you join the Society of Authors. They’ll read through your contract and – very promptly – tell you if the contract’s exploitative and suggest amendments in your interests.

A few short notes:

  • Money goes to you. It’s not a great sign if you’re asked to pay costs
  • Keep your rights. Don’t sign away the rights to adaptations or the right to be respected as the author
  • Make sure that, if something goes wrong (if, for example, the publisher goes bust), the rights to your work revert to you. Clauses that state you can publish your work elsewhere if the novel isn’t released within a year or two of manuscript submission, or if less than a number of copies a year are sold, are nice things to have.

Step the Fourth: Tell the publisher all about yourself

iStock_tell-your-storySmall1

This, I suspect, is where people’s experiences will start to differ as different publishers will have different mechanisms for building up their publicity machines. Some may not do anything at all; others will have legions dedicated solely to your novel.

But as soon as I signed I was sent a huge document to complete: I was asked to write long- and short-form author profiles and a long and a short-form novel blurb. I was asked to give any useful contacts, any bookshops I lurked in, any podcasts I recommended. I was also asked to give ten questions and answers to provide to the media.

I was also invited to share any ideas I had for the cover, which I believe is, if not unusual, then at least a long way from standard.

This took a long time. I’m still not entirely sure what of it has been used, what will be used, and what has been forever dispatched into the netherhells.

The good thing about this is that, once done, it can be recycled: like the perfect submission letter you may tinker and rewrite but once the facts are down you’ll only need periodic updates. This work isn’t wasted.

Step the Fifth: Write something else

draft-phd072314s-writing-struggles-1

This process is full of gaps: of feverish activity followed by lean, fallow months. Don’t sit back and sweat: make your next book sing.

Step the Sixth: The cover

book cover 3

A few months pass quietly. Then I receive a proposed cover and for the first time see your name in, as it were, lights.

I was, at this stage, invited to comment and feed back on the mock-up. Not all publishers do this.

Step the Seventh: A long period of quiet with occasional stabs of publicity

quiet hawkings

This is where I needed an agent and possibly made my errors. Or at least the errors I’m aware of; I’m sure more are to come.

My publishers were hugely busy with a great number of books and I didn’t want to hassle them so I retreated to Step The Fifth – I got on with other things. I was also contacted by Unnerving magazine and asked to do an (email) interview, which was both good for my ego and helped me feel like I was helping.

But I feel this was where I should have been doing more to organise publicity for the release. Could I have tagged myself onto any festival lists? Should I have contacting bookshops or libraries, or at least haranguing my publisher into so doing? I’m really not sure.

Step the Eighth: Copy-edits

Proofmarks

Aha! As if from nowhere, a task appears! To be honest this was a bit of a relief; doing something, even if it’s a difficult, angst-wrencher of a task, is better than waiting. It’s also a sign that the publisher knows what they’re doing (not that I doubted it, but still) and things are progressing. Huzzah!

Step the Ninth: Proofs

minor edits

…and hot on the heels of the copy-edits come the proofs. The turnover was so quick as to be almost the same task; here the difference is really that I was working in a PDF (and thus was visible the pagination, the preliminary pages and so forth).Also the urge to skim was stronger as there wasn’t any handy marginal notes to draw my attention to Bad Writing.

This is, I’m led to believe, the last time you can amend your text without seriously annoying your editor. I also inserted thanks and dedications here.

Step the Tenth: Final (final) changes

Another email arrives and causes me to immediately cease all other activity: another PDF and a last list of editorial queries. This are all little things – the difference between a settee and a couch, for example, or whether something should be in a personal or a personnel file.

Step the Eleventh: Serious publicity

shamelessselfpromotion

This is where I now sit.

Except I’m not really sure what I’m doing, other than querying my publisher’s plans and, upon invitation, sending them some ideas. It’s two months until the damn thing’s out there and I’m not sure how best to go about promoting myself and my work.

Except for going on about it here and the occasional humblebrag on Twitter, of course.
But I’m hoping things will come together. There’s still time; I have to trust my publisher – they want my novel to succeed as much as I do. In the meantime it’s time for me to return to Step the Fifth.

Step the Twelfth: The great release

thatnewbooksmell-32786

So… what happens here? Will we go out with a whimper or a bang?

I’m still hoping there’ll be some sort of event to accompany the release. Even if it’s in my own house, in my own head, having one’s book actually living and breathing is a rare thing. It should be celebrated.

And if I do actually do anything, if there are any events to make the moment, be sure I’ll be letting you know, lovely folks.

Step the Thirteenth: The inevitable comedown

post party

Things don’t stop when the book is unleashed on the public. There may well be continuing publicity. What there will doubtless be is more work. A debut is a beginning, not an ending.

A pause is worthwhile. A glass of reflection is earned. But then the work resumes.
Nothing sells a book like another book.

Back behind the keyboard, young ‘un. There’s more words to be mined.

*    *   *

Night Shift is due out November 6th courtesy of Flame Tree Press. Available in all good bookshops and libraries, and possibly some rather dodgy ones too.

Night-Shift-ISBN-9781787580374.0

Advertisements

How to crash a car

car.jpg

You know you’re in trouble as soon as you hit the accelerator. The front wheels don’t grip, you oversteer; you have a fraction of a second to try and hold it together before you hit the verge. You’re not quite sure how it happens but you’re thrown back across the road.

You have another second to try and gain control but it’s useless. Your first thought is ‘I hope no-one’s watching this.’ Your second is that the crash is inevitable.

You hit the off-side verge almost straight on; you’re not sure how fast you’re going but it’s fast enough to leap the ditch completely and smash into the bank beyond.

Time for one more thought: ‘This is going to hurt.’

The impact is a barrage. The windscreen shatters. The seatbelt grips. The airbags blow. Then you’re rolling and you lose all sense of direction.

Stillness.

Now the thoughts come hard upon each other: you’re alive; you’re in pain (chest, shoulder, knee, hip); the air is thick with smoke; the baby’s screaming.

This last thought pushes all the others into nothing.

You hit the seatbelt release – no fumbling, just one and done – and let yourself to the ground. You’re lost; don’t know how the car has landed. You consider searching for your phone and glasses but they’re not important, not crucial. You crawl into the back, grateful that however you settled the way seems clear. A moment to realise that the smoke is probably the explosive from the airbags.

Your baby is still in her car-seat, upside down, wailing. You say something to her, or at least you think you do, and support her as you release her. Again, no fumbling; she drops into your arms and now she’s right-side up and still screaming but you cradle her and coo to her and wonder how to get out.

The door is above you. You find the release and push but you’ve only got one hand. It doesn’t give at first. You try again and this time you get something behind it.

Then the door is pulled up. The onlookers have arrived, the assistance. You pass out the baby. You haul yourself up and let arms take you, undignified, to the ground. No, you say, there’s no-one else inside. Just me. Just the baby. You take her back and let yourself be led to a waiting car. Has anyone called emergency services? Not you.

You sit and cuddle your girl. You want to cry; you are crying. The pain’s not too bad. The shame, the shame, the humiliation. What happened? The truth is that you were going too fast for the conditions. There’s no other truth, though you dearly wish there was. It’s your fault. You lost it.

People are kind. You phone her mother on a borrowed phone. You speak to emergency services on another. The ambulance comes; you try to thank people but words are tricky. You hold on to the girl and never want to let go.

The ambulance arrives. Then the police. The breathalyser. People are telling you to be strong, be a father; guilt can come later. It’s already here, you want to say. A spectre of failure. you’ve let everyone down, wasted everybody’s time. You’re the statistic you swore you’d never become.

You’re fine, but for a minor fracture and a lot of bruising. The car is written off.  The baby… prognosis uncertain.

You go to hospital. You’re still not sure if you’re allowed to cry.

Self-care is a silverback

selfcare

Do not forget to look after yourself. The artist struggling in their garret is a dangerous myth. If you’re struggling to write, or it’s causing you anxiety, or you’re tearing your metaphorical hair out to get that one perfect sentence, take a break. You’re not going to get anything productive done. Writing suffers when your back’s against the wall.

The problem is that I can’t tell the difference between self-care and laziness.

Self-care – being kind to oneself – is doing something other than writing. Guilt settles on me like a silverback, draping its long arms over my shoulders and nuzzling its soft lips against my neck. For a while I bear up; indeed, it might give me a short run of momentum. But soon I will fall, and what’s to stop those lips becoming teeth?

The cure, for me, is worse than the disease.

I have precious little time and I already waste too much of it on Twitter, on making coffee and on little things that are of no material use whatsoever. Self-care seems to me a lot like laziness.

Writing isn’t supposed to be easy. We find a problem, we work at it; to hide is to abnegate responsibility. When does ‘looking after yourself’ become ‘hiding from reality’? A five-minute break today is a ten-minute break tomorrow is a half-hour break is not writing at all.

This is not true. I know it’s not true, and I’m certainly not giving this as advice. But it’s what’s been inculcated within me; it’s the only way I know how to operate. I have trained myself to fear idleness. I have trained myself to sit in front of a computer and at least try to produce.

We all find our own ways to keep sane, to keep healthy, to get things done without the sky falling in on us. My way is to keep slapping plasters on an open wound. It’s not a solution and you shouldn’t listen to me.

self-care-e1523803349708

But this ‘self-care is self-love’ thing only works if you love yourself in the first place.

*          *          *

If you want something other than my ranty nonsense there are articles on self-care for writers via the writing.ie website. I was going to link to Chuck Wendig’s page anyway, because he’s a wise (and sweary) man. But just typing ‘self-help for writers’ into a search engine will get you plenty of solid advice.

Wishing you all the best mental health.

 

On beginnings

Today’s blog is a vague attempt to transform criticism into advice: it’s the result of, thanks to an ill-timed training course, having little actual news to share with you. Please be kind.

Goethe

A novel should open with who and what: who the story is about and what’s at stake.

 

This isn’t wrong but it’s not very helpful either. What if you’ve got multiple point-of-view characters? The ‘who’ becomes a lot more complicated. And as for the ‘what’, surely we can’t be expected to give the whole game away in the first scene?

I’ve been working on the same piece for the over five years now and I’m still stuck on the opening. The novel’s had a new title, new characters and new crimes. The one thing I’ve never got right is this damn beginning. It reads well enough but it doesn’t involve. I’m now coming to the conclusion that at least part of the problem is that I don’t bring in characters quickly enough. Nor do I show (by which I mean illustrate) what really matters.

Who and what.

Why have I neglected these things? I’m not really sure I have an answer: with a 1st-person perspective there’s no real excuse, although I could argue that in a 3rd-person narrative you have to get to the business of who’s talking whereas I’ve got the luxury of condensing voice before formal introductions. But that’s a cop-out, and even if it’s true it helps me not at all.

As for the what, that’s going back to that whole ‘drama’, ‘tension,’ ‘action,’ thing you’ll see interchangeably in any ‘how to write a novel’ guide. It’s the hook. It’s the body on the carpet. It’s the man coming in with a gun.

It’s also the accounts that doesn’t add up, or a particular expression on a stranger’s face, or an unexpected silence; it’s a foreshadowing of deeper waters ahead.

The ‘what’ is a question: it is a problem that must be left unresolved at least until a greater problem can take its place. Sometimes this opening question lasts the whole novel through, but most openings act as a gateway drug: a little question (a hook) to pull you on to the crux.

There’s lots of other things an opening needs to do, of course: you need to establish tone and style and something of location (both spatial and temporal). But those are, essentially, background. They don’t determine whether a reader reads on.

dat and stormyu

Yes, it’s a cliche, but this was once a pretty good way to start a novel, originally coined by Edward Bulwer-Lytton in 1830

I have my location. The descriptions are good. I just haven’t covered the things that really matter.

So it’s back to the beginning with me. Back to try and trap the reader: to tell them whose story this is and why they should care.

Hopefully that’ll be more a case of rearrangement then of a wholesale rewrite: shifting furniture rather than throwing a Molotov cocktail through the window.

Either way the problem child is still a problem. But at least I have some vague idea of how to move forwards.

Music and lyrics

Music books 2

Last time out I wrote a little about a new project I have fermenting in the deepest recesses of the mind. This novel may or may not get written but I thought it might be interesting to share from whence the idea came.

Picture the scene: I am driving back to my old house to crack on with the let-me-save-some-deposit cleaning. I am nearing the end of a two-hour spell behind the wheel. I have our old favourite radio station on: a steady diet of solid rock, anthems all the way. I may be wearing sunglasses. Don’t hold that against me.

A song comes on. It’s not one I particularly like and I’m not particularly interested; traffic is heavy and there are temporary speed restrictions. A line of lyrics cross my ear and creep up on my higher consciousness. I can’t remember what it is now (I could check but I don’t want to find it was entirely different to what I imagined it to be; I’m happy being ignorant) but it gave me two characters: a woman who does business in bars and the man who pretends to be her boyfriend so she won’t get hassled.*

I don’t know what type of business this woman would be transacting but I suspect something illicit. The song ends. I arrive at my destination. I get to work and turn over possibilities. I’m in no rush: I’ve plenty of other writing to get on with.

And then I bring in another song. Die Trying is about migration: the mix of hope that one day you’ll find a safe harbour and the despair that leads you to make increasingly risky decisions; so you ‘fall right through the world and disappear.’

1103-winter-novel-02.jpg

From the graphic novel ‘Winter’ by Matt Huynh: it seems I’m not the only person inspired by Die Trying

This is a story I want to write.

So let’s push those ideas together: an immigrant couple (not necessarily romantic) who are grifting a way out of the camps and the corruption they meet on both sides of the fence.

This is how I come up with stories. I mishear. I see an ill-considered line – of lyrics, of verse, of fiction – and wonder about what it really means. I see a glimmer in the dirt and stoop for a closer look. Or perhaps I see a dullness in the diamond-pile and feel compelled to take my magnifying glass to it.

The world is full of writing prompts. Sometimes they need to be hunted, trapped and tamed. Sometimes all you have to do is sit back and let them come to you.

My previous (still unwritten) idea came from playing Civilisation: Beyond Earth, reading Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, and musing about gestalt consciousnesses and the next stages of human development.

Most ideas come to nothing. Most days I’m not receptive enough – too tired, too wired, too monomaniac for this chickenscratch assemblage.

But every discarded fancy takes me closer to finding a pattern that fits, that intrigues enough to make it worth the effort into transforming inspiration into a plot. What I come up with will bear almost no relation to the finished product. That’s just the nature of art.

And it means there’ll be a lot more discarded ideas to rearrange, to break down and build up again, the next time I catch my hunchback reflection in the carnival mirrors of my dreams.

And my dreams are always shaped by music.

 

*Oh go on then. It’s Chelsea Dagger by The Fratellis. I’m not entirely sure what I heard to twist my mind in that particular way; the whole point of music (and, indeed, all art) is that we all take something different from it.

Progress uncertain

In a vague attempt to make myself a) employable and b) to help myself as a self-employed writer/editor I have been doing a course in business skills over the last fortnight. This means there has been precious little time for actual writing, something that shivers the very soul within my skin.

It also means I don’t have much to say right now, unless you want me to take you through the intricacies of invoicing.

So: please allow me to update you on what I’m currently working on and what lies in my immediate future in lieu of more interesting words.

Maze

  • Night Shift

As you all know, NS is scheduled for publication on November 6th. I’ve recently completed my copyedits and the manuscript is back with the publishers who are, I hope, busy doing publish-y things to it. Fear not, good people – I shall keep you posted whether you want to learn more or not.

  • The Problem Child

The Novel Formerly Known As Australis was half-rewritten before I both moved house and was swamped by edits and learning. But as soon as I get some clear water I’ll be coming back to this: it’s the sequel to Night Shift and I want to give my publishers a decent novel to make a decision on. More specifically I need to go back to take my seventeenth stab at an open as the damn thing still isn’t co-operating

  • Book Three

The last in the trilogy is way down my list of priorities but it is in there somewhere. And yes, it does have a name. I just can’t remember what it is

  • Oneiromancer

I’m not entirely sure what to do about this. The novel is completed and polished and – I think – is pretty good. There’s just one problem: two characters need to be replaced. I just don’t quite know how to go about it – the structure is based around them and I can’t quite see how to sub them out without the whole novel collapsing into randomness. The answer might be to embrace chaos, but I’m not quite there yet. I am mulling

  • The New Thing

I don’t actually do much new writing. Most of my time is taken up with rewriting and tinkeration. But I am moulding a new project in the deepest recesses of my worst nightmares: a concept that may or may not involve refugees, corruption, journalism and a heist. This may be the last anyone ever hears of it, but at the moment it’s something I’m throwing ideas at to see if anything sticks

Carrington Labyrinth

Leonora Carrington: Labyrinth

And that’s it, apart from the prospect of a new world of (part-time) paid employment and an editing job I’m grinding my way through in the background. Which reminds me, I must make a push to get new work in: proofreading, far more so than creative writing, is what will pay the bills.

Oh, and I’ve just found I passed my exam. I am officially skilled in business, having achieved a rating of Competent. Go me.

The proofreader addresses his audience

After spending the last few weeks lamenting copy-edits I now find the boot on the other side of my face. Yes, fresh from weeping hot tears of shame at my own inadequacies, I’m now in eviscerating-other-people’s-work mode. And it’s… not nice. It’s not fun, tearing apart something someone has laboured over, has spent hours, days, months reaching into their very souls and pouring it onto the page.

letter_writi_24714_lg

So I’ve written a letter. It’s a letter I can never send, but I want to share it with you, my friends, to try and explain how I feel when I’m in editor-mode. Hope you find it interesting.

Dear Writer

Let’s not beat around the bush: there’s a lot of red ink on your manuscript. I’m sorry about that. It’s my job to find fault and to let things slide would help no-one. The disappointment would still come, it’d just be delayed. Kudos to you for wanting to meet things face-on. You’ve dodged the easy option and I respect that.

I feel that I should say that I’m not perfect. I’ve got no secret wisdom or knowledge – the changes I’ve made are based on my understanding of good writing, good grammar and good story. I might be wrong. I don’t think I am, but I’ve heard enough stories of editors completely missing the point with their critique to know that editing is subjective. This subjectivity might affect the placement of a single comma or it might concern the plot as a whole.

It’s down to you, ultimately, to decide whether to take my advice or not. I won’t judge you either way.

I want to help you. I want you to improve as a writer. Perhaps my biggest single fear is not that you’ll think me an idiot, or that you’ve wasted your money, but that I might scare you off writing. My criticisms aren’t meant to depress or to discourage but to make your work better and, if possible, to help you become a better writer.

Editors will always tell you that they’re judging your work, not your worth as a person. That’s true to some extent but let’s be honest here: sometimes it’s hard to separate the words from the wordsmith.

This isn’t about whether or not your work is at a publishable standard. I actually quite enjoy getting a piece with basic errors of grammar or point-of-view or chronology: I can help with those and I find I like acting as a teacher.

I do, however, come to some conclusions based on the content. If you repeatedly extol the virtues of a particular diet or philosophy I may conclude that this comes from the author, not the character. If all your heroes are blond and blue-eyed I won’t assume you’re a Nazi but I will wonder if you’ve lived a particularly sheltered life. And yes, sometimes this makes me angry – but only in my quiet, inside-of-my-own-head way.

I also know just how easy it is to suggest something that you really didn’t mean. Quite apart from my own failures in writing I’ve picked people up, for example, for intimating that people were only poor because they were lazy. The author didn’t mean it, but that’s how it came across. It’s my job to find this sort of error; everyone slips up sometimes.

It’s true that sometimes I get frustrated when I see the same errors over again and yes, sometimes I’m bewildered to the point of getting ‘creative’ in my marginal notes. But that’s my weakness (as a person and as an editor), not yours.

So please take this manuscript back with my thanks. I’m honoured that you’ve trusted me with something you know is imperfect and want to make better. You’ve shown me great trust and I take it seriously. See all my corrections (which I reiterate are suggestions, not instructions) as a sign of sincerity, not a desire to hurt.

You have done something unique and worthy and, whilst I think it could be better, you should feel proud of yourself. You have achieved. You’ve not just sat there dreaming; you’ve made the effort. More than that, you’ve had the courage to show your work – to me, and to others. That’s worth something.
Look at it this way: the more corrections I’ve found the more worthwhile your expenditure has been.

I wish you happy redrafting

The Freelancer