Just a Little Examination

They say that the unexamined life is not worth living. So here’s my life in publishing. Albeit a rather truncated version.
Twenty-five years ago I was a rock guitar player of no little repute (but far less cash), but I was struggling. Struggling to achieve what I wanted to achieve as a musician, no matter how hard I tried. It wasn’t that I wasn’t good enough (I was that in spades), it’s that being good wasn’t good enough. If anything I was too good. So, when rather drunkenly wandering about the London Guitar Show I bumped into an ex-student who worked at a Guitar magazine, I buttonholed him about some work. ‘Ah,’ he said. ‘I was going to call you …’ By that Christmas I was penning a rock guitar column every month. I was also reading more books than I was playing music. Within a few years I realised I enjoyed writing the prose for these columns more than the music, and I made a decision.
I wrote my first novel (all 150,000 words of it) in three months, while still teaching music and gigging full time. Astounded that I finished, I sent it to a couple of publishers and agents, and (as you did in those days) got personal responses back. From Jonny Geller and Simon Prosser to name two. Close, but no cigar. That was a first draft, unedited. I know. Looking back, I wonder, too.
I quit music, applied to study English literature at university, wrote another novel (a semi-historical one this time), and got nowhere. After my first year at Uni, I did some work experience at Bloomsbury. After a fortnight, they offered me a job , but I would have had to have left University and the pay was awful – I ended up working as a sound engineer in the West End that summer, and for the next two christmas seasons (on The Snowman). Eventually, I was diverted into academia, was awarded a PhD and tried to break down the doors. Circumstances conspired against me. My two supervisors had a nuclear fall-out with each other, and I was caught in the middle. Then my first supervisor died, and my second (a famous and let’s just say rather intriguing character) decided to refuse to write references for me. Oh, and I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Following a few temporary jobs as lecturer in English literature (primarily early modern), publishing some academic essays and editing a well-reviewed collection on Jacobean print culture, I drifted into editing and published a couple of books myself, Slender Threads: a young person’s guide to Parkinson’s Disease and The Country House Cricketer. Both were well-received and sold around a thousand copies each though most of the profits were destined for charity. I wrote articles about cricket, music and Parkinson’s, but my heart still lay in fiction.
My third novel, a work of speculative fiction I had plotted back in 2001 following a dream about a beetle, was the first I submitted when the internet was alive. One rejection went as follows: ‘Dear Elytra, blah blah’. The name of the novel? The Elytra Complex. My name? Not Elytra. Undeterred, I next wrote a psychological thriller based on a character with dissociative identity disorder. I met two agents, one via a ‘meet the agent’-type event, the other as part of an open call for submissions. Both agents were highly enthusiastic about my writing, asked for the full MS and that was it. Neither responded to another email.
I was not, it must be said, at my most positive by this stage. I had done everything I was meant to do, rewritten, edited, produced what appeared to be what agents wanted in an introductory letter but absolutely nothing. I had employed a literary consultancy to look at my sample chapters, considered the responses very carefully (enacting most of the recommendations). And still nothing.
I was still editing (mostly academic works. I am currently the language editor for the Early Modern Low Countries Journal, amongst other things), and still having my non-fiction published in various outlets. I was still attending writing groups (one, where we had to produce a piece of writing that encompassed all the five senses and the names Agatha and Matt, and had five minutes to do so, resulted in a piece that literally left a room speechless when I read it out), and was still trying. Thinking that my previous works had been too ambitious, and that I ought maybe try something rather less complicated, I decided to write a simple A to B story, using one of my well-honed non-fiction skills. So I wrote a work of historical fiction. Its genesis came from an academic book called Invisible Agents: women and espionage in the seventeenth century by Dr Nadine Akkerman. In it were the stories of a whole heap of unknown women, including the two from my novel, Diana Jennings and Susan Hyde. The former was barely known to historians, the latter completely unknown. I reckoned that if I couldn’t get a book that starred two real women spies from 1650s England published then the universe was telling me something. What’s more, I had a headstart on other writers of historical fiction as I was editing the book: Nadine is my partner.
I wrote the first draft of 66,000 words in 19 days while in Florida in January 2018. Nadine’s book came out to great acclaim that July, and she ended up speaking at several literary festivals including Althorp and Hay, where she had an audience of over 400 and made the ‘most talked-about’ table. I, meanwhile, had been polishing and rewriting until I had some 90,000 words.
I began the process of sending out query letters. Between May and September I sent 17 queries, each directed at specific agents who either represented historical fiction or were specifically asking for it. I received 9 flat-out nos. The remaining 8 simply couldn’t be bothered to reply.
In August of 2018, I met John Mitchinson of the crowdfunding publisher Unbound at another author event. I spoke to him afterwards and he seemed interested. I sent him details as he requested, and he responded very positively, passing it on to the appropriate commissioning editor. I heard nothing. Six weeks later, I sent a follow-up mail. I received an apology and an ‘I’ll have a decision for you in a fortnight.’ Five weeks later I sent another follow-up. I heard precisely nothing.
And that was me. Done. I’d given it a pretty good go but, well, the universe …
On January 4th I received an email from Unbound requesting a sample. Within a week I was offered a contract.
On January 23, 2020, almost two years to the day since I finished the draft, and just over a year from signing the contract, and having gone through the hell that is crowdfunding, my debut novel Killing Beauties was finally published.
Was it worth it? Does even a cursory examination instill worth?
Now that, as they say, is the sixty-four thousand dollar question. HK dollars.

2 thoughts on “Just a Little Examination

  1. God it’s so tough, isn’t it?
    The disdain of agents and publishers who don’t bother even to tell you no.
    Very depressing that publishing remains a closed shop despite all their chatter about diversity and inclusion – it still only means they include who they decide to include, usually as a salve to a guilty conscience or else someone who is just like them.

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