Predatory shoals of vanity sharks

vanity shark

The good thing about submissioning is that you can do it even when the writing-muscles are weak. When you’re between projects it is not an imposition but a safety-valve; for someone like me, for whom time off is anathema, this is a godsend.

You might notice that I’ve not written much about actual creative writing recently. This is because I’m not doing any; not unless you count the web I spin in this blog, on Twitter, or the lies I tell to prospective agents*. The birth of the Lyrapillar has left me struggling to find rhythm and routine and I’ve decided, ultimately, to embrace it: to look for other avenues whilst I restock the over-fished pools of creativity. I have plenty of ideas wallowing in the recesses of my mind; I just need imagination-space to feed them, to tempt them forth. A blank page can merely scare them away.

So I am taking the pressure off. I am embracing the boredom of the submissions process. I have my synopsis and sample chapters. I have my template cover-letter; all I have to do is to modify it for the prospective submittee – and, before that, find my target. There ain’t that many.

Indeed, the hunt takes longer that the work. In previous years I’ve relied on the venerable Writers & Artists’ Yearbook. But after the best part of a decade’s failing to get anywhere with that, this time I’m relying on the internet. I’m trusting to social media to find me agents that take urban fantasy; and to resources like Writer Beware to keep me safe from predatory shoals of vanity sharks.

This, for me, feels like a holiday. I feel the guilt of not doing actual, real, value-added writing, but these little tasks keep the mind from drowning. We all need a top-up every now and again; a time to escape one’s own head and see what the real world actually looks like. That I can keep myself sane in the meantime is a bonus.

 

*My imaginary solicitor tells me that I must clarify: this is A Joke. Do not lie to agents; they may reply with Truth

On the cusp

balance

So far I have sent out two* submissions for Oneiromancer and I have had two rejections. At least I’m consistent.

This is not a big deal. Agents – I’ve not gone direct to publishers yet – receive hundreds of unsolicited submissions each week and take on maybe three new clients a year. Even if they love your writing the stars still have to align for them to offer to take you on.

What makes things different this time is that I feel uniquely close to actually breaking through. Rejection one: ‘I admire your writing’. Rejection two: ‘Better than a lot of submissions’. I feel like I am on the cusp; on the cusp of what I am not exactly sure, but something.

I have felt like this before. Night Shift received a lot of full-manuscript requests and ultimately got nowhere. I started this blog because I felt like my writing career was about to take off. Three years later and I’ve barely moved.

Not true, of course. I’ve moved huge distances. It’s just that these distances are very difficult to see from the outside.

Back to rejections. It’s interesting to look at the reasons I was, ultimately, rejected:

  • Submission One: ‘I don’t know the Urban Fantasy market.’

Even genre specialists do not know all aspects of every sub-genre. Agency is about having relationships with editors and publishers; having contacts and avenues in a specific field. If they don’t have that then they won’t be the best representative for your work.

  • Submission Two: ‘…Don’t currently have room on my list’.

Agenting takes a huge amount of time and effort: first the editing, the licking of the work into publishable shape. Then the hawking of the work around editors, representatives and publishers’ readers. Finally the negotiations, the financial play, the business side of the industry. All this takes time and there’s a limited amount of that for each author. Of course their lists get full. Even agents are allowed a day off every so often.

Of course it could be that these compliments are just sweet words; a sop to their conscience and my ego. They could be lies. But you always hear that agents don’t have time for slushpile critiques and anything they say should be taken at face value. So I choose to be complimented. I choose to believe that I am close.

This doesn’t actually help me at all. I’m still unpublished and unagented. But the world at the moment looks bright and positive. It is an inspiration to push on; to get another batch of submissions out there. And, when they’re on the way, to write more. That’s the way to get better. Maybe a stroke of luck is what it’ll take, but you have to be in a position to take advantage of your fortune.

I am on the cusp. It’s down to me to make the most of any opportunities that come my way.

*Three now. Three rejections. That is fine

Fear of deadlines

writers-clock

There is one thing that scares me about the prospect of writing for a living, and it’s the thing I want most. It may be an illusion, an unfounded fear, but the prospect of writing a book a year is troubling me.

I should say that this is not an imminent prospect. Nor do I know anyone in the situation. This concern is solely based on casual lines thrown out in author interviews online and in ‘Writing’ magazine. But the knowledge that ‘one book a year’ is standard in publishing contracts – exactly the sort of thing I’ve strived for over the last ten years – is currently atop my mind.

I’m not worried about suffering writer’s block or my well of ideas running dry. Hell, I’ve got ideas all over the place; my biggest problem is which to draw and which to keep sheathed. I’m just worried about the simply logistics of getting a publishable work out to a specific timescale.

Let’s look at this in detail. My current work-in-progress is Oneiromancer. The first draft of that took nine months to get down. I then did a quick read-through to kill obvious errors – the plotlines that I set up then chose not to develop – and to weave in anything that, come the end, I felt I’d not set up properly. That took two months. Then it went to beta-readers and I had the agonising two-month wait for feedback. That’s over a year right there.

My readers gave good advice, spotted errors, spotted weaknesses, that needed addressing. This led to my major copy-edit. That took six months. Now I’m doing my read-out-loud through to improve rhythm, dialogue and pace as well as to further hunt out typos and other errors. That’ll take another three months. And then..? Back to readers? Or out to agents?

That’s 22 months minimum before I’ve got something approaching a decent standard.

And that’s what I’m worried about. I care about the quality of my output. I could churn out words fast enough to keep the publishing wolves from the door, but only at the expense of quality. The time I spend editing is the most important time. I want to produce good work – words that grab, a story that bites and gnaws and doesn’t let go.

A book a year? A draft a year, no problem: but a work worthy of publication? I’m not so sure.

It doesn’t help that I have a more-or-less full-time job. I’m under no illusions; a book contract won’t allow me to give up Paid Employment. I’ll be writing – like I do now – alongside other intractable commitments.

It’s quite possible I’m worrying unnecessarily. Quite apart from the improbability of my finding an agent in the first place, it’s my hope that experience shortens the process. As I grow the errors should diminish. You also have the benefit of an agent acting as primary reader. Again I’m basing this on author interviews alongside my own limited experience, but an agent will read a draft and will be able to tell you where the work is falling down and where it needs to be propped up. Add in professional editors and the whole process should be shortened.

This is all theoretical. I have no agent. I have no publisher. But I do have work I believe in, and a (possibly misguided) feeling that each work I produce takes me closer to my goal. And, for all I’ve just written, a traditional publishing contract remains my target. I’m good enough. I’m walking the right roads. I’ll get there.

But that goal isn’t the end of the story. It’s merely another page on a longer, harder journey: a trek littered with Deadlines and the fear of pushing out underdeveloped work. I’ve read too many rushed novels to know that isn’t a possibility. But how to avoid falling into that trap myself?

A decision

Oneiromancer is with my beta-readers. I am entering the long, dark, tea-time of the soul and the only answer is more work. After the adrenaline rush of finishing a draft I just want to bury myself in a new project – at least until the feedback comes straggling in and I’m enveloped in another round of editation.

So it’s time to self-publish.

I still like the idea of going through the traditional agented route. I write with the hope of finding a backer who’ll take me onto bookshop shelves. The good thing is that it’s becoming more and common for authors to take both paths; self- and traditional publishing are complimentary, not competitive.

The truth is that I don’t have the time or the energy to push my back-catalogue any more. This is work I believe in, that I’ve spent countless hours on. So I’m faced with a choice: I can put those novels into the bottom drawer and forget about them, or I can try and push them out myself.

I’m not doing this for riches – I’m not so naïve – or for acclaim; I know how few connections I have and – perhaps more to the point – I know how lazy I am, how easily distracted. I’m not planning a great marketing campaign or to spend my weekends shivering ignored at car-boot sales. I’m not even planning on getting hard copies – ebooks are my way forwards, even though it seems like sales have peaked. My sense of timing is, as ever, impeccable.

But I want to get my work into the public domain. I want to call it finished. I want to fill my Twitter-feed with rampant self-promotion and egomaniacal desperation and delusion. And I want to know how it’s done; to go through the process of cover design and formatting and all the other things that I know only from the outside.

And I want to do it without spending any money.

It will be an adventure. It will be a challenge. It will be an experience. And even if I fail, even if I decide it’s all too much for me and I can’t do it to a sufficient standard for it to be worth doing at all, I will at least know that what I’ve been saying on this blog – all my discussions and criticism and analysis – has been based on ignorance and idiocy.

Or I can learn new skills; develop myself and (possibly) my brand, and have new things to talk about on this blog. I can confirm or confront my preconceptions and be able to talk authoritatively about things I’ve so far only guessed at. Either way it will be worthwhile.

And you get to join me through the process. Aren’t you the lucky ones?

The heartbreak of good news

Today I’m feeling pretty low. I’ve failed. I’ve let people down. To quote Seymour Skinner: ‘I’ve been taken down a peg – a whole peg!’

I’ve read in many an interview that writers have to do rewrites for agents and editors before being accepted, but I never really understood the emotional impact of such a request. In fact, I didn’t even realise that was where I was until yesterday. It was then I received an email from an industry professional who said she was disappointed in my latest draft of Night Shift.

This is hard to take. An author never wants to release a disappointment on the world. There may be reasons why there output is sub-optimal: time pressure is probably the main reason, or misguided enthusiasm; but sometimes these things are only apparent in the cold light of critical reviews. This is obviously the case here. I thought I’d done as I was asked, thought I’d met my targets. It’s a blow to the ego. It’s also embarrassing.

There is obviously good news contained here. A request for a reworking is obviously a step up from a rejection. Something can only be disappointing if you hoped it might be better, and that implies a belief in my work and in me. I can do this better, that’s what I’m being told. And there must be something fundamentally good in my writing or I’d never have got this far.

I’ve had a lot of time invested in me by this person, and that’s a huge compliment in this industry. I’ve said before how much I’ve come to appreciate how hard editors and agents work. If someone’s giving me hours of their time it’s because they want my work to succeed.

But I feel crushed. Today, at least. I can’t pick up the manuscript right now, need time to really take this in and turn it round into determination. Hey, I’m still learning. I’ve got to use this to my advantage. I’ve displayed a lot of naivety, and that’s not so surprising. I’ve got to make sure everything I ever write from now on is up at a higher level.

So yes – I’m feeling pain now, and embarrassment, and I’m feeling low. But that pain will pass and in its place will come an even better novel.

How do you know?

JK Rowling was an amateur. Twelve Rejections? Twelve? Ha! I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been turned away at the door. Twelve? No offence, Ms R, but that’s not even trying.

I’m the first (actually, probably the second or third) person to admit that I have an arrogant side, especially when it comes to my writing. When I complete a piece I’m damn excited. I lose all sense of perspective. Okay, I know it ain’t perfect, but I’ve got the bones down. And what bones – the bones of a colossus, a juggernaut, a god. Rational thought – sure, it gets a look-in, but excitement, even tempered with experience, is a heady brew. Writers are notoriously bad at self-evaluation.

This, in and of itself, doesn’t matter. As long as you have a strong enough support network – a writing group is ideal – you’ll get feedback and can improve your work over successive drafts. But how do you know when it’s ready to send out to publishers/agents or to self-publish?

I’ve got this wrong. I realise that now. I started sending my work out far too soon, maybe even years before I should’ve been thinking about publication. Occasionally it was for good reasons – publishers running open submission periods, for example – but mostly it was just down to impatience and arrogance. Plus the unwitting encouragement given to me by beta-readers. How do you know? How do you know when you and your work are ready?

The problem (one of them, at least) with the publishing industry is that it’s a one-shot affair. You send out your material and you either succeed or fail. And then you can cross your target off your list. Done. For that project, at least.

Actually, I’m not sure if that’s true. Can you resend the same material – or at least material from the same project – to a publisher? Can you go back? Is there a sort of statute of limitations?

Still, I’m pretty sure it’s bad form to go back to the same place once rejection has been established. And that’s where literary consultants come in. How do you know when your work’s ready to go out? You ask a professional for their opinion. Most, these days, at least claim to be ‘talent scouts’ for agencies, so if your work’s ready you stand to get a leg-up. If it’s not you get valuable advice on where you’re going wrong.

I get it now. I didn’t before. In my arrogance I didn’t see the point. After all, my writing is technically pretty good – I enjoy punctuating and, with (free) help can vanquish most typos. My flaws are slowly being eradicated as they’re pointed out to me.

But now that I’ve had my work critiqued by a professional I can finally see where I’ve been going wrong all these years. Where my plots are falling down. Where my characters are behaving – well, out of character.

I’ve got this far (pretty much nowhere) without paying a penny. I guess that’s something to be proud of, but I’ve cost myself a lot of opportunities on the way. If I’d paid for assessment a year or so ago I’d have stood a much greater chance of having an agent/publisher by now. Yeah, I get it now. I finally see the point.

Which is not to say that I regret doing it my way. I have learnt. Learnt a great deal along the way. Maybe it was best for me to make the mistakes as I went along: 2013 was, for me, The Year Of Learning How To Be Professional. Maybe I had to go through that (not in a predestination type of way – balls to all that) in order to accept the lessons. I just wish I’d been a little more patient before sending my writing out to publishers and agents.

Of course, I know I should finish by saying that I’ll never be so impetuous again. But I know myself. Even though I (think I) know what it’s cost me, I don’t think I’d change. That’s just the way I am. And if you’re in the same position then don’t be too hard on yourself. Be accepting. Be Zen. Keep on swimming.

By the way, why is it that consultants only seem to exist in the world of writing? I know of no comparable services for the music industry, or in art. All rely on interpretations of taste and of technical ability. I tend to think of all the arts as similar in structure, but maybe I’m wrong.

What do you think?

A brief word about agents

I went to see an agent on Thursday. An honest-to-God meeting, pre-arranged and everything.

 

Don’t worry, I’m still unsigned, still no book deal in the offing, still resolutely unpublished. But the meeting’s a good thing (for me, obviously) and is undoubtedly progress. I’d been having kittens ever since it was arranged, and even more so when said meeting was postponed. Still, it happened. And went okay.

 

This was my first ever trip to see a professional in this way and it occurs to me that, if any of you are looking to get published, you might not have been in that position either. So: an account of my experience might be useful. Or is this just a thinly-veiled excuse to talk about myself? Who can say?

 

The agent (who shall remain nameless for fear of any embarrassment as might be accrued from being linked with me) and I communicated by email prior to the meeting. I’d submitted the standard slush-pile communiqué and she’d replied promptly asking for the full manuscript. This is always a great feeling for a writer, but there’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip. I have (as you’ll know if you’re keeping up with this blog) had requests for manuscripts before and had nothing come of it. Shortly after that, however, I got the reply I’d been dreaming of: an invitation to meet up.

 

This meeting wasn’t to offer me a deal or to bribe me with gold and silks, but to discuss my work. Indeed, representation didn’t come up in either the emails or the face-to-face discussion. Instead we spent the best part of an hour with the agent listing all the ways she felt my novel (this is Night Shift we’re talking about, by the way) could be improved.

 

It can be difficult for a writer to take criticism. After all, you’ve put your heart and soul into your work, you’ve got feedback and feedback and you’ve spent weeks, months, polishing and revising and – ahem – crossing the ‘i’s and dotting the ‘t’s. It’s finished. It’s done. It’s good enough to get published.

 

But agents and publishers know what they’re doing. I can’t deny that a lot of the criticisms of my work – if not all – are spot on. More importantly, they’ll make the novel better. And I don’t know about you, but I want anything that goes out with my name on to be the best it possibly can be.

 

But it’s a lot of work. This systemic review, from new-to-your-work expert eyes means that this forthcoming draft will contain not just small, isolated areas of revision, but some which run through the whole text; a gravitational force that’ll bend the walls and change the warp and weft in unpredictable ways.

 

This is the first time I’ve had to do anything like this. And there’s a deadline and at the end of the process I still have no guarantee of a contract.

 

This is just what I wanted, right?

 

*          *          *

 

So, why get an agent at all? What does an agent actually do? Do you have to have one?

 

Well, no to the last question. You don’t have to have one. Most self-publishers represent themselves, and I’ve got interest from publishers off my own bat. But the first, most obvious thing is that they circumvent the whole ‘slush-pile’ and discuss works directly with editors – the right editors of the right publishing houses. Maybe it’s just a confidence thing: an editor is getting not just a letter but a personal recommendation from someone they know knows the business. It’s much easier to take a chance on a new author if they’ve got someone to champion them.

 

That’s one thing. But equally important is that they’re acting on your behalf to get the right deal for you. They give advice, both on your writing and on your business dealings. How well do you know contracts? Are you fully cognisant with publishing rights? Do you best know what’s best for you?

 

The other reason is that I don’t know of any published authors without an agent. Perhaps that’s the most powerful argument of all.

 

So yes: I want to have an agent take me on. Because I want to make my career as a writer. And, right now, that seems to be what I need. Maybe tomorrow I’ll wake up and find I’m someone else, but for today? This is what I’m working for.