Je regrette

Droids
One of my biggest regrets as a writer is that I didn’t trust my own ambition.

I had an idea for a story. I knew what I wanted to happen; what I was struggling with was a mechanism for it to happen. I tried a few things on for size but nothing seemed to be quite a la mode.

What, after all, is a story? Is it setting? Or plot? Or is it the high concept behind it all? I had the latter but not the former. I needed to anchor my idea and shape the reality that held everything together.

My initial idea, the one that I turned many ways and almost put together, was to set the idea in space, on an isolated end-of-the-road station, where bionics played a crucial role.

The idea worked, or could have been made to work. But I retreated. I didn’t trust myself to write that story. I pulled back, pulled back, instead relied on simpler causes.

I did this because I was afraid. Because it took less mental effort to keep closer to the ‘real world’. And this I regret. This choice forced me to make ever more convoluted (and less plausible) explanations to keep some semblance of the original concept. I feel like I’ve wasted that idea.

That’s not to say I haven’t done good things with it; what I eventually produced is coherent and, I think, well written. But it’s not what I set out to do.

That’s not to say that you should never back away from an idea.

Starting a project that would take years to bring to life – even as just a first draft – might not be what’s best for you right now. Certainly, when learning your craft (as I was then), the creation of a whole new world – whether that world is a fantastic planet or an extra-solar empire or a mafia family – might be enough to stall your writing altogether.

Creation requires effort. A space station, isolated though it may be, requires a polity to create it. It requires scientific knowledge (which might be made up, but still). It requires structure, a place, a transit system which might take years to reach it. Communication lag needs researching. Oxygen must be generated.

So I don’t blame myself for not wanting to send months researching, reading and creating. I was impatient to get to the story. And to do that I scaled back my ambition.

What I regret is losing the chance to exploit the potential of an idea that’s fascinated me for years.

Fortunately the world is full of ideas. And they’re all out there just waiting until you’re ready.

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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How to crash a car

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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

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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.

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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.