Ten Things That Helped Me Get Published
1 Writing Fan Fiction
In the mid-1990s I took up writing as a hobby. I was a member of the online Blake’s 7 fan community and we’d been engaged in a furious dialogue: should fan fiction be published on the Web, where it could be *gasp* stolen and *altered*. My good friend, astrophysicist and fellow B7 fan Reba Bandyopadhyay and I decided that it was a non-issue. Fan fiction is a form of ‘textual poaching’ anyway. Did it really matter if one story begat another, via the Web? So we went ahead and set up The Aquitar Files, the world’s first B7 webzine. But other fanfic authors were slow to send us their stories. After all, if you wrote for an established paper zine, you’d get the treasured ‘tribber’s copy’. What could we offer? So we wrote most of the original stories ourselves.
I used fan fiction as a writer’s gym – tried out a variety of writing styles, pastiching my favourite authors. Writing is probably one of those arts which take at least 10,000 hours to master. I used up a good chunk of my 10,000 hours on fan fiction, where I would always have a guaranteed, supportive audience. It made me feel, for the first time and with absolute confidence that I was a writer.
My fellow webzine editor Reba, one of our lead authors (Una McCormack, now a published author herself) and I ended up being interviewed for a BBC TV documentary about Blake’s 7 fans. The following week at a seminar I gave for my job, someone recognised me from the telly. Ah. A taste of fame…
It’s quite a journey from writing stories set in borrowed world and with borrowed characters, to creating something wholly original. The first thing you need is an original story concept. Then you need to learn how to construct a story. I was aware that such things as creative writing courses existed but I didn’t feel I had the time or the money to take one. I had given myself two years to get an agent, after which I could give up and throw myself back into running our IT company. So I only had time to read and absorb only a few, key texts.
A search on Amazon quickly turned up Robert McKee’s ‘Story’ as a top contender. At the time it probably had the highest number and most detailed reviews of any of the ‘How to write’ books. I knew from the movie ‘Adaptation’ that McKee was a huge figure in the creative writing world, with a world-famous, lucrative seminar series.
The book seemed like a bargain at £20. It is! It is a dense, highly technical manual which requires you to take in small chunks at a time, washed down with a great deal of reflection. And a re-read every year or two.
After reading Story I began to revise a manuscript that was getting interest from agents and publishers: Todd Garcia, Boy Archaeologist’. After reading ‘Story’ and meeting my soon-to-be-agent, I began the redraft – new title: The Joshua Files: Invisible City, which now has its own website.
3 Aristotle’s Poetics
McKee’s was one of four ‘how-to’ books I read. Another that had a huge impact was Aristotle’s Poetics. (I’ve devoted a whole blog post to Aristotle: Everything I Know About Plotting I Learned From Aristotle). Aristotle says many of the same things as McKee but he says them more concisely. The need for empathy with the protagonist and the suggestion that pity is usually the easiest and most straightforward. The requirement for fictional characters to behave as much as possible in a realistic way, avoiding choices that inspire disbelief. These basic tenets of fiction are all in Aristotle – and much more.
4 Experience as a scientist
My tutor at university and later a top UK biotech entrepreneur, Professor Alan Kingsman, was once interviewed on a TV documentary about being a scientist. He said something I’ve never forgotten. “Scientists need to learn to handle failure. Scientific progress consists of 95% failure, 5% success. Probably only 1% is substantial success.”
In my ten years as a scientist I had learned to be patient, to give experiments time to yield their answers, to go back to the drawing board with a new experiment, a slight variation in conditions. To expect failure, failure, failure before any hope of success.
In science, as in creative writing, failure is the norm. Success, especially early success, is overwhelmingly not. However, successful scientists often have in common that they were relatively successful early on. This isn’t due to ability but luck – almost certainly an effect described in Malcolm Gladwell’s book ‘Outliers’. Everybody works hard, the ones who succeed and the ones who fail. But those who had the early luck stay in science. They don’t give up and head for law, business or medicine. (Professional gamblers behave the same way…)
Dare I say it: I think it’s the same with authors. We all work hard. Some of us get that lucky break as well. It buys us more time and help of professional expertise (agents, editors) to get better.
5 Online writing communities
When I started writing with the aim of getting published I joined Writewords, an Arts Council funded writer’s resource. I also joined Litopia, a writer’s group run by the literary agency to which I’d just submitted a manuscript. There are lots of other groups but these are the two where I still occasionally hang out. When you are new to writing, places like this are pure gold. They provide expert and seasoned advice, support and companionship. I’ve made some lovely friends through online writers groups, and am delighted and proud that many of them, like the fabulous Sally Nicholls, Emma Darwin, Luisa Plaja have become award-winning and internationally bestselling authors.
6 Miss Snark
I wonder how many authors owe a debt of thanks to the enigmatic Miss Snark? I came across her blog in 2005, when I first started to aim for publication. The anonymous, snarky doyenne of the New York literary agent scene, Miss Snark’s blog made hilarious and educational reading. I was addicted. Her brand of firey sarcasm is not to everybody’s taste but I’m afraid it definitely matched mine. I never did dare to send her a pitch for the famous Crap-O-Meter, where she shot down (usually) or praised (rarely) a submission, in public. But I learned a massive amount from her blog.
The blog is still there, a terrific archive of advice and snark for the aspiring author. And Miss Snark is still out there of course, blogging and critiquing under her real name. Yes of course I know who she is…but I’m not telling!
7 Practice (i.e. hard work)
From start-to-finish I was published relatively quickly. However, like many authors, it was my fourth novel that was eventually published.
Malcolm Gladwell estimates it takes most people 10,000 hours of practice to reach professional standard in most human endeavours. Novels – the average is three finished manuscripts before you get published. Screenplays – it’s around ten before a sale.
It makes for a straightforward process, in terms of investing your time. If novel #4 is the one that gets you published, you have to get started and work your way through novels 1,2 and 3. Maybe you sense deep down that they will fail to get your name on a bookshelf. You have to pour your heart and soul, sweat and tears into them, even so. And be prepared to learn from your mistakes.
8 A broken leg
I wrote novels 2 and 3 pretty fast. I had little else to do, thanks to a tibia plateau fracture I’d sustained in a skiing accident. I couldn’t walk for 12 weeks, and was in danger of going out of my mind with depression, unless I had a serious project. So I wrote, learned about writing, about how to submit a proposal to an agent, I met other writers online, thought about writing, 24 hours a day, with no household duties, no job, nothing. I reckoned I’d probably never get a chance like that again, not while I was still vaguely youthful!
9 Peter Cox, literary agent
Where would any of us be without our treasured agents? I think I’d still be trying to get published. In my first meeting with Peter Cox of Redhammer he told me a couple of truths about the literary scene – and in particular the world of children’s publishing – that turned everything I believed on its head. Peter wasn’t the only agent I spoke to about representation, but he’s the only one who, even after reading the full ms, agreed to represent me. We started working together to revise Todd Garcia, Boy Archaeologist, a total rewrite, to be accurate. The result was The Joshua Files: Invisible City – my first published novel.
Peter’s talent is not just his enthusiasm and energy for making a writer succeed, nor in his commercial instincts, which are formidable. What really impressed me is his grasp of story. Peter can spot weaknesses, deficiencies in plot which untended might suck the vitality out of a novel. He can see these things very early on. Most interestingly, it’s instinctive. Peter doesn’t seem to do this according to any rules, he sometimes doesn’t even realise quite what he’s said. It’s only later, when you the writer are reacting to his criticisms that you begin to understand what has been identified.
Writing is like any construction – a talented artisan can cover their tracks and even decorate a design flaw. Peter can look at a plot like an engineer who points out that the RSJ has metal fatigue.
There’s just one of Peter, he can’t be everyone’s agent, but if you join Litopia you can benefit from his advice and critiques just as Miss Snark’s fans once benefited from hers.
The hard work and all that…are things you’ll find with any aspiring author. Ultimately there’s luck too. The Joshua Files is a story which has at its core the Mayan ‘prophecy’ of 2012. As a Mexican I had this myth in mind, as well as the experience of visiting and reading about the Maya since my teenage years. It was a story I’d wanted to tell for a very long time. In many ways, it was the right story at the right time. A year or two later, plenty of writers would be submitting Mayan or 2012-flavoured manuscripts. (Literary agent/blogger/author Nathan Bransford actually commented on this in his post Query Trends: I’m Seeing Triple.)
It would be ridiculous not to acknowledge luck in the publishing process. The thing to remember is that the luck only applies to what has already risen to the top, the well-crafted and polished manuscripts produced by hard-working writers who have done everything they can to put themselves in the zone.
After that, well, I recommend prayer.
And that’s the end of the ZERO MOMENT blog tour!