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Tuesday, 23 August 2016

It’s a long road, it’s a good cause (to publication)

When a manuscript is completed, what happens next? Tom Gamble discusses the context, the challenges, and possible solutions

The context

I often get asked the question of how long it takes to write something. Whether in a professional context: How long does it take to write a case study, an article, an educational book, a script? Or regarding my out-of-work writing passion: How long does it take, then, to write a novel, a poem?

And I always hesitate. Because people want a precise answer. Either they want to know in order to measure and justify budgets for commissioning work, or they have their own writing project in mind and are testing their motivation before committing to the task. It’s not that they’re obsessed by time. It’s just that we all are: driven by the hands on the clock or, more often than not nowadays, our digital displays on our mobile phones. And as such, time frames are nowadays more legitimate to demand than ever.

The first real and right answer should be “Well, it takes as long as it takes!” But not only is this reply unfashionable and perhaps dangerous (performance-oriented as we tend to be – “rather an unprofessional answer, n’est-ce pas”), it could also be taken as appearing flippant, even snooty. 

The second real and right answer is: anything from an afternoon to three years. If you have the content more or less in note form, an article takes several hours to puzzle together and polish the stylistic effects. A poem might take two or four hours, but will then go through several versions over several weeks before you’re happy with it (and coming back one or two years later, you’ll re-write it again, no doubt!).

A novel is different. Because it depends on how long you have to devote to it in the first place. Amazir spanned three years from mind-map to plot to writing that first chapter to completing the whole manuscript. Why? Because I had a very demanding full-time job and a family to cater for too. The second, this time commissioned, novel – The Kingdom of Emptiness – took...three months to write. Why? Because I’d left my job, become a freelancer, and decided to take a three-month non-paid sabbatical to write it – ten to thirteen hours a day, seven days a week, and the last several chapters in a non-stop twenty-seven hour stint at the computer. Writing a novel in such a brief span of time doesn’t necessarily mean it’s lower in quality: in fact, personally, The Kingdom for me is miles better in terms of style and flow. If you can take the risk, take the necessary time to dedicate yourself wholly to the task.  

News – Strange Roads

And a new manuscript has just been completed – Strange Roads, set in the post-war France of 1946-47, and digging up the ghosts of the key characters and those he meets around him. Strange Roads was first announced, I believe, in late 2013, an enthusiastic announcement that with gusto, courage and commitment, it would be completed before you could say Jack Robinson. Things turned out differently. Because the story took over, meandered into things I didn’t want it to, began ordering me, the writer, what to do instead of the inverse. This spring, having sent it to an agent for feedback, I decided to re-vamp the whole thing and chop off the last third of the story (the part that had grown of its own will). And now, it’s ready. Ready for what?

The challenge

The answer is the next road which, in terms of time, may also take anything from one month to three years. Yes, the slog to publication! After all, writing is like the mistake we could make when making a decision. We make it – and think it’s attained. But a decision, to paraphrase Paulo Coelho, is only just the beginning of it all. Likewise when you finish a manuscript.

I sometimes wonder how many brilliant stories have been written and that lay in cupboards because the submission process was too tough, too loaded. Well, hey – if you didn’t already know it, life is tough! Let’s look at some of the obstacles to overcome and see if we can come up with any solutions.

First, who’ll be interested? Well, maybe us passionate scribblers should have thought of that at the beginning! But if not, the tendency is to buy a copy of this year’s Artists & Writers’ Yearbook and trawl through the publishing houses. There are hundreds, nay thousands and the initial excitement that surely one will be interested (as well as a slight worry over all the postage costs involved), is soon snuffed out. The initial list of more than a hundred dwindles like a cheap candle bought at the discount store – rapidly. And the odour it leaves is nothing short of cheapy charred too. Why? Because the majority of famous, international publishers – you know, the ones we actually buy books from and thereby keep in business – do not accept unsolicited manuscripts. No – there’s that one-liner that says: Unsollicited manuscripts not accepted. Which means you have to go through an agent. Which means that you frantically turn to the Agents section in the Yearbook only to find out…that most agents do not accept unsolicited manuscripts from unknown authors! Yes, you got it. It’s just like dealing with a tax enquiry with the French administration: a merry-go-round of puzzling paradoxes and catch-22s.

The solutions

1) Aim for smaller, newly established publishing houses – they are looking for the gem and will be ready to take a risk…at a smaller price (understandable). 2) Some large, famous, international publishers have actually managed to go digital and do accept initial inquiries and samples via… e-mail. 3) Agents: who dares wins – phone, mail, send off regardless: if you get your pitch right, you might raise an eyebrow of interest! 4) Self-publish and be damned – the idea is to offer the world your story, right? Or please yourself or your family, or impress that nice looking potential soulmate you’ve had your eye on for some time.

Eddie Cochran said there were 3
The usual 4-step process for submitting your work

1   1. Initial enquiry including brief synopsis and a little about yourself (letter, mail, phone call) including past work published, blog, website and how you see your potential career evolving.
2. Over that hurdle? Yes? Then comes the sending of the full synopsis and one to three sample chapters.
3. Past that one? Okay, so then comes the sending of the whole manuscript compliant with the rules of the house you’re sending it to (i.e. TNR, double-spaced, one side of page only, etc.).
4. The wait. One week to four months in my experience. Though I now observe that the rejection slip/message now sometimes stretches into six months (staff cuts and increased workloads? Increased numbers of wannabe’s to process? Greenwashing (a nice corporate message about caring for the ecosystem of hopefuls while maintaining a slush pile of never-to-be-looked-at manuscripts in the basement)?

What to do when faced with the obstacle course
Sometimes the Best aren't taken...

  • No pain, no gain. Try, try and try again. The more pain, the more you love it – just like the Marines (I have several battle scars as proof – and they can always be used to impress people).
  • Network, glitter and smile: talk to people. You’d be surprised how many people are, or have friends, in publishing or related sectors. Go to see a bookseller – it has been known for writers and publishers to actually walk into bookshops and buy books! Go and chat to the local librarian (usually the sort who hides a hidden love of books, I believe).
  • Knock on doors. Yes, face fear and embarrassment and very probably ridicule. But sometimes, at least in the land of Disney, it works.
  • Wait. Step back. Take a break and then get back into the fray.
  • Get rid of any expectations. A bit like when using a dating agency or entering a negotiation: the best ones are always those where you have no expectations to win the big one. Learn from the encounter and tell yourself that life is so strange and wonderful.
  • Plan over time: avoid making the submission process one that sends you spiralling into losing belief. Two nonchalantly programmed but well-written mails a week over two months.
  • Go for serendipity and believe in your lucky star, circumstance and some intangible thing that will get you there in the end. Either programme yourself to get published and then let it go, leaving time and happenstance to play its trick; or use the scientific approach – keep on slogging: you might not end up with what you were searching for, but the road took you onto another discovery just as amazing).
  • Self-publish and be damned! And it does actually bring in revenue and a mild degree of satisfaction.
  • Become a librarian.
  • Join the masses of those who dream of writing and getting published – but who don’t actually get round to doing it. It makes life easier.
  • And one for the (long) road: Believe. While there are indisputably some manuscripts that miss the boat (a bit like Pete Best and the Beatles), the vast majority of manuscripts that are published do actually deserve it. Trust in the teams at the publishers: they do know if a story will sell. They do know if something is special and deserves it. It might just be your story. 

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