How to Get Published: Myths and Legends (23/09/09)

Hints and tips brought back from Fantasycon 2009 and a few reminiscences.

So you’ve written a novel. You’ve got the craft of putting words together into coherent sentences, choreographing those sentences into scintillating paragraphs, corralling your paragraphs into scenes and assembling a story. How do you get from there to seeing your name up on the shelves in the local Waterstones? The internet will fall over itself to tell you what you can do. All sorts of books will do that too. Trouble is, do any of them really work?

1. Write such a good novel than no one can possibly turn you down.

Yeah, but what do you do if they do? The rewriting trap seems to be one that a lot of people fall into, and that certainly included me once upon a time. It’s true that there are first novels out there that were worked on for years and eventually got noticed and turned out to be exquisitely good and immensely successful. The trouble is, there are several reasons why this might fail (the powers that be think the market is already saturated for whatever you’re writing; the powers that be think the market isn’t ready for what you’re writing; the powers that be just don’t like it for reasons you will never understand; the power that be don’t even get around to picking it up off the slush pile until after your grandchildren have started drawing their pensions).

Yes, absolutely make your novel as good as it can possibly be, but what are you going to do after you submit it? For the love of god don’t be sitting there twiddling your thumbs imagining you’ll ever get a quick answer to anything. Write something else while you’re waiting. And then something else. In fact a good plan would be to have your next project loosely figured out so you can get right on with it when the first one goes out. Reasons to do this include a) it keeps you occupied as you grow old and grey waiting for anyone to respond b) through writing something different you might learn something new you can feed back into the next rewrite of the novel you just sent. c) you might  write something better. d) Your typing fingers won’t atrophy and become useless. e) planning for your inevitable success. Think about it; it is very, very unlikely that anyone, including you, wants to publish exactly one of your books. f) planning for your inevitable failure: Best to get right back in the saddle, eh?

At the very least, if you have two ‘Best Novel Ever’s on the go then you can alternate so there are no awkward gaps between rewrites.

2. Write the most commercial novel you can.

Also has definitely worked for some. If you can still love the story you’re writing and the characters in it then do it. Seriously. Writing a story about <insert The Next Big Thing here> is vastly more likely to result in success that writing an equally good story about, say, an action-adventure romance about a were-piano, it’s battle against a secret society of super-evolved flat-pack bookshelves and its secret angsty relationship with a broken trombone.

Two little catches. The ‘equally good’ and the <insert The Next Big Thing here>. Equally good is up to you. If you don’t love your work then neither will anyone else and nor will it love you back, but if you love both ideas, then for the sanity of everyone around you, pick the commercial idea first. You can always write that story about the were-piano later. The Next Big Thing is a bit harder, but not as impossible as some people make out. Research (it helps to work in the genre section of a bookshop). Find out what’s coming out soon. Find out what new authors various publishers are excited about. Really what you want to be able to do is simultaneously mind-meld with all the genre editors and agents in the field and find out what they’re thinking, what they’re excited about that’s coming out soon, rather than what’s already a big hit. Do the work to get to know who all the relevant people are and keep track of who they sign and what they’re putting out (these things are generally announced well before books hit shelves). There’s nothing editors like more than enthusing about their latest great find (and they mean it too – they have to, otherwise there wouldn’t have been a deal in the first place). If you can get hold of an editor or an agent, they will usually be willing to talk and they will have a better idea of where the genre is going than most. Since they’re only human and thus still get it completely wrong from time to time, spread your bets. This is what conventions are good for (although not Fantasycon this year for some reason). Alternatively skip all that hard work part and write about some spunky woman in complex relationships with some sort of supernatural creature. My tip for for The Next Big Thing is currently Kung-Fu Vampire Dragons In Love. But that’s my idea and if you steal it, you deserve all the rejection letters you’ll get :-p

Yeah. Don’t imagine The Next Big Thing will be several of the current Big Things mashed together. Someone always tries it, someone always publishes it and it usually sinks like a depleted uranium balloon[1] [2].

3. Promote yourself to death at conventions and over the internet.

Oh there are so many ways to do this, aren’t there? Where’s a budding writer to start? There’s Twitter and Facebook and MySpace and LiveJournal and Blogging and Podcasting and LuLu and Self-Publishing and Conventions and and and and and…

There are a lot of stories about people having built a successful publication deal on the back of some form of self-promotion. These are the exceptional people. They are the exceptions to the rule and that is why they get talked about. Anything might work, but anything also very probably won’t. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is. If there was a magic bullet then everyone would be doing it and it wouldn’t be magic any more. I know there are some very successful writers who have squillions of Twitter followers or else have very popular blogs; in almost all cases, the successful writing came first and the on-line following came later. In microcosm, are you reading this blog because of The Adamantine Palace, or are you going to buy The Adamantine Palace because you’ve read this blog?

The one thing I’ve (very slowly) picked up from talking to people at Fantasycon and the like is that the people who’ve been picked up and had some success because they managed to promote themselves into a publishing deal generally had two things going for them. The first is that they had genuinely good material to back up the self-promotion. The second is that they not only worked bloody hard at promoting themselves, they also had a particular something at which they were particularly talented and exploited that talent. So if you’re going to promote yourself, don’t try and do it in some particular way because it happened to work for someone else: chances are they were a lot better at that particular thing that you are and worked a lot harder then you think to get where they got. Look at your own talents. Start with what really interests you and what you happen to be good at. Then figure out how to use it.

4. Make statistics work for you.

My personal favourite, since this is what worked for me. Do all of the above. Fail at most of them but don’t let that bother you. Write shit-loads of material. Try and try and try again and don’t stop. Luck has a lot to do with who gets published and who doesn’t but you can at least make luck work for you a little bit. I tend to think of it as throwing darts at a dartboard while wearing a blindfold and then someone stuck legs on the dartboard and made it into a sort of dartboard-spiderman hybrid that scrabbles all over the wall shouting abuse. Being able to write a good story is the equivalent of being able to throw a dart accurately and have it land exactly where you want it to: Necessary but no damn use when someone keeps moving the board. When that happens, all you can do is throw lots of darts.

[1] Like a lead balloon but heavier and with more environmental protesters.

[2] And anyway, there’s almost certainly already a bunch of films from Hong Kong about Kung-Fu Vampire Dragons In Love.

6 Responses to “How to Get Published: Myths and Legends (23/09/09)”

  1. Alex Bell says:

    I would read the action-adventure romance about the were-piano. I so would.

    I love the spiderman-dartboard analogy, and agree with it completely. There is, as you say, a lot of luck in this game. It’s all about how many darts you throw.

  2. Anne Lyle says:

    I agree there’s no magic bullet – all you can do is write like hell, pray for luck, and be ready to self-promote when that lightning finally strikes!

  3. Matt (yes I have nothing better to do) says:

    I shoulda seen it coming the first time I came to and wasn’t in an orchestra pit. I have little control when the spring tides strike but the Grand Beast normally left me somewhere civilised; or at worst a jazz club. I can’t be the first guy to wake up naked in Ikea but the rest of them had probably brought their own clothes. Soft furnishings only go so far.

  4. Nigel Gale says:

    I demand: the were-piano vs the abusive spiderman-dartboard.

  5. Ravyn says:

    Amusingly enough, I got here through your Twitter; the social media may not be the primary means of looking for people, but it can’t hurt. (Nice voice, by the way.)

    I fourth(?) the motion for the were-piano story. Most brands of shapeshifter are far too mainstream, so nobody ever talks about what it’s like; but having a were-form that’s at least ostensibly an inanimate object is terra incognita. Are there issues when the transformation occurs on a humid night? Is the were-piano cursed with perfect pitch? How does one go about tuning oneself? And what happens when a mundane sits down to tinkle at the keys?

  6. Stephen says:

    OK, OK, by popular demand… New Horizons is probably strange enough to take a were-piano story…

Leave a Reply