Monday, 20 November 2017

A Foot in the Door

Recently I took part in an event at the University of Derby called ‘Foot in the Door’, a panel-based workshop aimed at aspiring writers, with a view to providing practical information on making writing a career.

It was a really cool event, and I think a lot of the students (not just from the university) got something very worthwhile out of it.

Some of the questions put to the panel crop up regularly in any writer’s life, and I think it’s worth sharing some of the discussion here. Note that these aren’t just my responses, but a general consensus between myself and fellow panellists Anne Zouroudi and Jane Linfoot.

How did you first come to be published?
There are quite a few variations on this theme, and we all agreed that you can ditch the usual protocols if you plan on exploring digital routes to market, or even if you’d rather work on licenced fiction (like novelizations of movies, or Games Workshop’s Black Library imprint, for instance). But the usual way to get published is this:
1.      Write a full manuscript. Finished, edited, polished as best as you can make it, and make sure other people have read it and that you’ve listened to their feedback.
2.      Only when that’s done can you start to look for an agent. Buy the latest copy of the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook. Identify a handful of agents (maybe half a dozen to start with) who are specialists in your chosen genre. Follow their submission guidelines VERY carefully to avoid ending up in the trash. If they want a covering letter/email, spellcheck it to death. If they want 3 chapters, don’t send them the whole book, and so on.
3.      Give the first batch of agents a reasonable length of time (up to 3 months) before submitting to further agents.
4.      Do not take rejection personally – fiction is subjective, and it’s all part of the learning curve. I had one well-known agent tell me the Lazarus Gate was ‘boring’. The very next week I had two other agents say they loved it and were interested in seeing more.
5.      If you have more than one offer, pick the agent you like the best, but also bear in mind their stable of authors. Check the contract. Sign on the line. And wait… The agent will go away and sell your book. It might take a week. It might take a year. You might get offered a six-figure sum. Most likely it’ll be four. Patience, padawan. Your time will come.

Was there a change in attitude – necessary or voluntary – that you had to take once your first book was out?
God, yes. Once book one is edited and prepping for publication, there’s a very good chance you’ll already be writing book two. Now it all gets very real: whether you’re a full-time writer, or propping up the writing with a full-time job, you need to hit your deadlines. Worst-case scenario, there are financial penalties for being late (although they are rarely enforced, best not push it by being unreliable).

Most people write their first book in their spare time. It takes ages (Lazarus took me 2 years). But when you sign a multi-book deal, publishers want one book a year, same time every year. No excuses. Get cracking. NOW!

I worked in magazines for nearly 15 years before becoming a full-time writer. That means I feed off the energy of deadline week. But if you’re the kind of person who hates pressure, then the best favour you can do yourself is to get organised, and write steadily rather than do it all in a frenzy at the end.

How did you find that marketing side of things once the book was released? Is there any advice you would give to aspiring authors in that respect?
Be prepared to spend a *lot* of time promoting the book. Publicists might support and facilitate, but they won’t do it for you. In this day and age writers need a social media presence. You’ll probably be invited to panels, and readings, and book launches. As most writers are introverts at heart, this bit can be terrifying. Thankfully, event organisers and more experienced writers will almost always take you under their wing, and honestly, you might never grow to love it, but you’ll learn how to do it, and that’s nine tenths of the battle.

One note that came up: Also be prepared for sales department pressure on your book content, sometimes more so than editorial. Comments like ‘readers really liked that character, can you bring him back from the dead in the next book please?’ are sadly all-too common. And not always negotiable…

Is there anything about being a professional, published author that has come as a real surprise?
Multiple contracts are no guarantee of further contracts – it’s absolutely true that you’re only as good as your last book. Think several books ahead – where is your next sale going to come from?

What words of advice you would give to authors looking to get published and established?
My word of advice was this: It’s very hard to get rich in the writing game these days. The days of the ‘mid-list-author' are pretty much finished, and it’s quite telling that many of the superstar novelists we know today have been superstar novelists for decades – they made it big when it was still fairly commonplace to do so, and the marketplace wasn’t so packed. This isn’t meant to be negative: there’s still room to carve your niche. But don’t write just to make money. You’ll only end up following trends and writing stuff you think will sell, rather than make good art. Write what you’d like to read, and what you’re inspired by, and you’ll find an agent and editor who love it and are also inspired by it.

There you have it – a whistle-stop round-up of the discussion, and only my personal recollections. Similar events take place up and down the country on a fairly regular basis. If you’ve been thinking seriously about turning writing into a career, I’d highly recommend checking them out. 

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Lazarus Gate Easter Egg Hunt

In an interview earlier this year, I was asked about ‘easter eggs’ hidden in my books – those little nods to pop culture, historical figures and wry in-jokes that many writers like to seed into their work. And as I’m no exception to those writers, it got me to thinking just how many times I insert some vague references, or make myself smile with a line that calls to mind some classic Victorian novel. Now, a lot of these references get edited out. Some are unconscious, and I end up removing them when I realise what I’ve done. Some, however, are obscure enough and personal enough to me to make the final cut.

For this blog, I’ve gone right back to book one, the Lazarus Gate, and picked out my top five easter eggs. There are lots of others – if you spot them, drop me a line here. There’s literally a No-Prize for guessing…

Charles Dickens References
There are many Dickens riffs in the Lazarus Gate, because more than one character has a passion for his work – notably Rosanna. Ever the one for an oblique reference, for example, I adapted two lines from the short story ‘The Queer Chair’ as simple descriptors in the text. The originals are: ‘If any Bagman of that day could have caught sight of the little neck-or-nothing sort of gig…’ and ‘The wind blew… sending the rain slanting down like the lines they used to rule in the copy-books at school, to make the boys slope well.’

 John’s Boarding House
It won’t come as much of a shock to learn that Hardwick is inspired by several Victorian characters, notably Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson (he has a little of both in him). I wanted a Sherlockian nod in the book, and decided to have him staying at a boarding house, run by a Mrs Hudson-esque housekeeper. The address, however, is the fun bit. Because the real-world 11 George Street is situated next door to the building used as 221B Baker Street in the BBC Sherlock TV series, better known today as ‘Speedy’s’ sandwich shop.

You Can Take the Boy out of Stoke…
When I was a youngster growing up in Stoke-on-Trent, I was a big fan of Stoke City Football Club, and even though I live in a different city now, I still follow their fortunes (and, mostly, misfortunes). But I’ll never forget my first match, which was at the old Victoria ground in Stoke during the 92/93 championship-winning season, which saw us promoted to the first division (later ‘the Championship’, for reasons). The point of this story? Well, the winning team comprised players such as Regis, Gleghorn, and Cranson – and a whole bunch of other names that have cropped up throughout the Apollonian Casefiles trilogy as hard-pressed policemen.

Big Dave Regis, right; one of my boyhood heroes.

Tsun Pen
The Artist’s true name is Tsun Pen, and his namesake is Ts’ui Pên, the ancestor of Doctor Yu Tsun from The Garden of Forking Paths. This story had a profound influence on The Lazarus Gate far beyond the character of the Artist; the uncanny string of coincidences that leads John to the Artist, the circle of circumstance that makes the Artist able to interpret all fates but for his own, and the strange environs of the House of Zhengming, are all inspired by Ts’ui Pên’s great work—a hypertextual novel that represents his unnavigable, infinite labyrinth. It’s a strange and wondrous short story, as trippy as a trip to Tsun Pen’s opium den…

The USS Helen B. Jackson
The ship name comes from the four-masted schooner in the F. Marion Crawford novella, ‘Man Overboard!’, a supernatural tale that centres on the story of identical twins putting out to sea. This is a really great story, and some of the themes were just too perfect, so I knew I had to give a wink to it in the Apollonian Casefiles.