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.

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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

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‘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.

Undone

snoopy-rejection

Copyright Charles Schultz, used without permission because I don’t understand how this works. Get in touch if you’re offended and we’ll see what is to be done

Too much rejection leaves a bitter aftertaste; lips covered in splinters from all the doors shut in the face. I don’t know what I have left. I’m beginning to feel like I’ve not got what it takes.

I’m not going to give up writing because I can’t. It’s the only thing I’m even halfway good at and it’s deep in me, now. It’s too late for me to do anything even halfway worthwhile with my life. I have nothing left. This is my last card.

I’m not going to give up, but sometimes it’s hard to see the point of struggling on.

I know that all authors get rejected, that I can always self-publish. Well I’m not sure if my temperament is right for self-publishing: I have an almost pathological aversion to spending money on uncertainties and I don’t know where to begin. And I know all authors get rejected, but over the course of four novels I’ve had several hundred ‘no’s. That’s cold comfort right there. The Stoics got nothin’ on me.

Maybe I should take consolation from Nietsche and look at all my failures as the building-blocks to future success – the ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’ approach. Well maybe. But how strong do we have to get? What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger but that which does will make us dead.

A little encouragement would go a long way. Sometimes you need to be told you’re on the right road; or be told of a shortcut, or even of a different destination with a better view. In this case it’d just be nice to hear that my work is worth something, worth sending out.

If all this sounds like a cry for help, for attention, that’s not the intention. This blog has always been half advice, half confessional: it’d be dishonest not to talk about the bad days as well as the good. All writers will feel like this at some point. I know that, you know that. Everyone has that ‘well what the hell’s the point of me?’ moment.

That doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

The depression doesn’t get any less deep.

Downshift

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Things change. It seems like it was only a few weeks ago that I was writing this merry little blog-post, filled with optimism, sunshine and metaphorical puppies. Now rejection is my only friend. I have exhausted the few connections I have. I am running out of options.

Writing is a funny game. There are so many slips ‘twixt cup and lip that it’s almost impossible to feel confident; even a critically-admired trilogy is no guarantee of book four reaching the shelves. There’s so much competition that we have to measure success in little ways: a personalised rejection; a request for a full manuscript, even if then rejected; ‘another agent might feel differently’. Small mercies. Cold comforts.

I want to be published. I want to make a career, even if it’s alongside Paid Employment, proofreading and all the rest. I believe I’m good enough. I’m certainly battered and ugly enough. So I find myself looking once again to self-publishing.

I have product: Night Shift is ready for press, its sequels drafted and requiring only another run-through or three. Oneiromancer is also ready to go, a simpler matter as the subject is deeper within my comfort zone. I’m planning a sequel to that – but herein, really, lies the rub: what’s the point of writing a sequel if the first book stands no chance (a premature statement, but still) of getting published?

The book will be written because the book needs to be written. When you have visions and wonders inside you have to find a way to let them out, regardless of the sense of it. This is what a writer is – a conduit between dreams and the wider world, and one that has only limited powers over what they emit.

But it’s frustrating and dispiriting. I understand the business; I understand that agents are overwhelmed with wannabees and they can only endorse the works they truly fall in love with.

But I’m getting old. I’ve given over a decade to writing and I believe that I’m good (for a given value of good) and will get better. What do I do? What do any of us do? Shall we organise a revolution and overthrow these guardians of respectability and set up our own empire of fools?

Or shall we just get back to the keyboard and keep going, keep going, keep going until we smash the walls with the sheer weight of our words?

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