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

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 Rejection of AntiDoom

Those of you who’ve been following this blog for a while will know that, for the last year and a half, I’ve been working with an agent interested in representing me and my work. For those that haven’t, hello and welcome. Here’s a brief recap.

This is about Night Shift, and it was one standard slush-pile submission amongst many. The invitation to go to London to meet with the agent in question was as terrifying as it was thrilling. There was no deal (indeed, I would have been surprised if there had been) but a request for changes. I then spent two months bashing out a revised version, which wound up with this sad story.

Roll forward a year. A big year, where – based on that disappointment – I went completely back to basics and took my work apart. I thought deeper and harder and re-examined everything I’d previously assumed was set. In March I resubmitted. And, as I mentioned briefly in my last blog-entry, a few weeks ago I received The Rejection of Doom.

Obviously this is not what I wanted. I wanted a gushing email, telling me how great I am and how said agent was going to make both our fortunes, that I’d soon be mixing with the great and the good and that I could retire from my paid employment to concentrate fully on doing what I love – immersing myself in other worlds, relying on a steady royalty-stream to pay for the champagne and caviar, and possibly other things beginning with ‘C’.

Last year, when I got the ‘I’m disappointed with this draft’ email – then I was devastated. This time I’m not – if anything I’m uplifted. This is for two reasons, I think. Firstly it’s because it’s the nicest, most positive rejection I’ve ever had. Mainly, though, it’s because when this draft finally went out to her in March, I was mentally exhausted. I’d been working so hard on this one piece that I’d begun to hate my own work and my own world. I couldn’t see any merit in it and was expecting rejection.

That’s why I started on my new project, to purge myself of this negativity and to focus on something completely different. This rejection, so positive in its phrasing, has made me believe again. I can write. I am capable. It’s always nice to be reminded that you do have worth as a human being.

I replied by thanking her for her work (two free readthroughs by a serious professional: I am a much, much better writer as a result) and asking if I might send her in my next project when it’s ready. She said of course I could. Another thing I’ve gained from this.

The big question now is what I should do with Night Shift now. I’m not prepared to keep on tinkering with it: I need to move on. Obviously if a professional wants changes then I’ll go back to it, but I’m not just going to endlessly shuffle words around just for the sake of some mythical ‘perfection’. I’ve got a new novel on the stocks and a lot more to come after that. I could (and I probably will) keep slushpiling: why not? What have I got to lose? But even that takes mindspace and right now I need to focus on Oneiromancer.

The other option is to self-publish. I’m seriously considering that: one big burst of energy to shove it out with as much fanfare as possible and then I can forget about the damn thing. And yes, I’m aware of the irony of this after my last blog post. Hey, it’s my page: I can be as inconsistent as I like.

What, Dear Reader, do you think? Do I keep slogging the slushpiles or dip a toe into the Self-Pub Sea? I have to do something: it’s (I believe again) a good story; it’s not a failure and it represents years of work. Something should be done with the damn thing.

Either way, my creative work continues with Oneiromancer. There are still Nightmares to create and to conjure, worlds to weave and stories to spin. And, at the end of the day, that’s what I like to do best.

Ambiversion

I’m currently reading a fascinating book about introversion; about how we live in a time where personality, not character, matters most. Where volume is rewarded above quiet reflection and decisions are evaluated on presentation, not on substance.

You might think that writers are immune to such cultural trends. After all, although not all writers are introverts, it is a field that requires time spent alone, in a comforting environment (which will vary from person to person), with a lot of time spent in one’s own head. It’s no surprise that some of the best-sellers are considered introverts: the Bronte’s; JK Rowling; Virginia Woolf and JD Salinger are just a few examples.

In the past this wasn’t much of an issue. Writers could send manuscripts to their agents or publishers, receive comments back by post and, bar the occasional meeting and maybe a quick book-launch, barely had to leave their homes to produce quality material that would sell.

Things are very different now. The industry has changed dramatically. Writers are now required to actively promote themselves; they’re expected to appear in public, doing lectures and readings and interviews. Although much promotion can be undertaken online, the fact remains: those who shout loudest get the most sales.

This isn’t right, isn’t fair, and risks the best novels slipping between the cracks to be replaced by mediocrity and blah. It’s a consequence of the way the publishing world has retreated, saving money by pushing promotion onto authors. Some, naturally, cope better than others. I consider myself to be an ambivert and personally have no problem speaking in public. But many do.

It’s no different in the world of self-publishing: it may be possible to quietly slip out your masterpiece and to avoid the limelight but no-one’s going to read it if no-one knows it’s there. The best way of promoting yourself remains the personal appearance – at conferences, in shops, or at the car boot-sales where you hope to offload a few of the thousand copies that are currently preventing use of the spare bedroom.

Don’t think the internet’s a way around this. Most bloggers and tweeters (myself included) are locked in a circle of writers reading writers, reaching very few people in the buying world. Even though the internet has been a liberation for introverts everywhere (they can metaphorically dance and sing behind their keyboards, engaging only when and how they want), the fact remains: introverts don’t like to shout. It’s an incredibly slow, incremental journey for those who prefer to pick and choose their interactions with the outside world.

It seems to me that the publishing world is doing a massive disservice to both readers and writers. Books are signed not only on the basis of their quality but by how well the author can push themselves. Some people are good at this, others aren’t – but literary merit does not reflect this difference. Similarly, many readers are introverted. Don’t they deserve to hear the experiences of people like them, as well as the big noises that live in big worlds of parties and friendships and society? We’re not all Gatsby’s and we don’t all want to read about them.

The driving force of publishing is money, not talent. That’s not to say that publishers don’t like quality writing – they most certainly do – but that even the best-written book in the world will be overlooked if it ain’t gonna be a unit-shifter. Bear in mind that many (most) debut novels are bought not on their own merits but on the potential that the industry sees behind its author. It’s a risk-averse world, one in which quiet courage isn’t rated as highly as the ability to stand up and shout – no matter what bollocks is being shouted.

Anyway, that’s what I think. Thoughts?

Up and down

Up and down; up and down. Writing is hardly an equitable life. It’s a game of swelling emotions, of thrill and grind and anxiety, both in the actual writing process and in the surrounding business. At the moment I’m feeling bruised and battered. But I’ve come through and I find I’m still on my feet. Soon I’ll be back on the march.

I’ve been trying to get published for the last seven years, on and off. Looking back I can see clearly all the mistakes I’ve made, not least in sending out material that wasn’t ready. But I’ve had nearish misses on the way. I’ve had hopes raised only to be toppled onto the harsh rocks of reality. So I’m older and wiser and know that every submission, every letter and email that goes out is dead as soon as it leaves my possession. It’s the only way to survive. Court failure, defy it, dance with it. Shrug your shoulders and let it fly; if it brings back good news… Well, there are still plenty of ways to drop the ball. No sense in getting carried away.

So what am I to do? Well, I’ve got another rewrite on my plate, but I don’t want to get round to that just yet. I think I need a little time to gather myself, to really think about what kind of novel I’m writing and how the archetypes work. I’m going to do a little reading, a bit of concrete planning before I go any further. Maybe you’re saying that I should have done this before I started to write the damn thing, and you might be right. See, I’m still learning. I hope I never stop.

And if nothing else, these ups and downs are telling me more about myself as a writer, my strengths and weaknesses. Dialogue’s getting better but my plots need work. I can create a great setting but still struggle to communicate a character’s depth… And now I know some things aren’t working I can work on them. It’s not enough for me to churn out novel after novel for the few pence I could scrape up through self-publishing (not to diminish self-publishing; see previous posts for my thoughts on that). I want to write well. I want everything I do to be the best that I can do. I want this not just to be a hobby but a profession. That’s a dream, of course; only the very, very best (or luckiest) writers make a living from their books. But there ain’t nothin’ wrong with dreaming.

So for the moment I struggle onwards with Australis; whilst I hit the library and talk to authors and try and grow outside the strictures of my own work. But it won’t be long now, won’t be long, before I’m back scowling at the computer screen and desperately bending Night Shift into even tighter knots.

I’m still not entirely sure why I’m doing this. But for sure I’m going to do it and do it to the very best of my ability.

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.