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Diary of a First time Author #11 – On Crushing Rejection…

Periodically an article does the rounds on my Facebook news feed.  It’s actually a number of different articles from a number of different websites but the subject matter and examples used are inevitably the same.  It’s an article on famous rejections of people who would later become famous and here is an example of it.

 

Now, when you see an article like this, I think there’s two common ways to react to it.  One is to see it as reassurance that everyone starts bad and improves over time and the second is to see it as reinforcement of the idea that publishers don’t recognise talent and perhaps the problem isn’t that your work isn’t good enough, but that nobody can see just how brilliant it is.  The second view is, of course, reinforced by the numerous stories that circulate that, for example, J K Rowling’s Harry Potter books were rejected several times before a small publishing house took a chance on them.

 

I think the second view is a dangerous one to take.  Yes, there will always be Potter-esque exceptions – and I actually don’t know whether  or not J K Rowling made changes in between the rejections – but generally speaking, if you are being rejected time and time again, Occam’s Razor would dictate that probably there are improvements you could make to your work.

 

This doesn’t have to be cause for despair, however.  I’ve been rejected on several occasions myself and in retrospect pretty much all of them were the right decision.  I’d sent in work that wasn’t ready – probably several times as a writer I simply wasn’t ready – and the people involved politely declined it.  The better ones – or perhaps the ones with a bit more time on their hands – gave some feedback on how I could improve in the future.  Ultimately it does take a lot of time to become a good writer and understanding why your work is being turned down is as an important part of improving.

 

I’d also challenge the idea, in most of the examples on the articles, that the publishers/record companies involved couldn’t recognise talent.  To me, the only person who comes out of that article looking foolish is the person who rejected Animal Farm (the guy who rejected Gertrude Stein comes across as a bit of an arsehole but that’s a slightly different thing).  Assuming the responses were sincere (and I’ve no reason to assume otherwise) I’d say Jim Lee, Sylvia Plath, Madonna, Tim Burton and –to an extent – Kurt Vonnegut Jr all had more reasons to be encouraged than discouraged.  Yes, their work was rejected but there was pretty positive feedback acknowledging the merits of the work and claiming – rightly or wrongly – that the writers simply were not quite ready yet.

 

So generally speaking I think rejection should be taken as a sign of a need to improve and not a sign that publishers are all foolish.

 

There is caveat to this however and that’s that staff of publishing companies also have to consider both the commercial viability of the work and often whether it fits in with the company brand and image.  I realise I’ve just used three words (four if you could viability) that many aspiring writers will hate but the brutal reality is that, if you want to write and get your work published free of commercial considerations, self-publishing online may be the route for you to take.  Even the most independent and ethical of publishers won’t survive for long if all the books cost more to produce than they make in sales.

 

Where this causes a problem is when you have someone like J K Rowling or Kurt Vonnegut Jr doing something unconventional and outside what publishers are used to receiving.

 

I realise it sounds ludicrous in hindsight to call the most successful book franchise of all time ‘unconventional’ but, at the time, you would have had this unknown writer who’d created this brand new and fully-formed world to tell her story in – I think detractors frequently fail to acknowledge the ambition and audacity involved in an unpublished writer pulling that off and making it accessible.

 

Ultimately it’s much easier for a publisher to guess how commercially viable something is going to be if there’s obvious precedents for it so I do think there are cases where strong writers can be passed on because the originality of the work involved is such that nobody can quite see where to place it.  So I do envisage that Vonnegut or Rowling would have had a harder job getting their work accepted than someone who was writing something more in keeping with existing styles and fashions of the time.  However, even if you are an outstandingly original writer, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your work cannot be improved.

 

The reassurance here is that J K Rowling and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. both got published eventually and, of course, went onto have successful careers.  And I genuinely believe that, if your work is good enough to be published and you send it to enough publishers, eventually someone will pick up on that and publish it.  But, if you do find yourself getting rejection after rejection after rejection, the best thing is to use that rejection as a motivation to improve.  Bitterness and anger seldom get anyone anywhere so there’s no harm at all in viewing rejection as a positive experience.

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Diary of a First-Time Author #4 – Agents vs working directly with publishers

OK.  So you’re putting yourself out there, meeting new people and showing off your writing skills at every opportunity.  But, if agents and publishers aren’t beating a path to your doorstep, you may want to approach them yourself.  How do you do it?  Who do you approach?

 

The first question is whether to send it to an agent or directly to a publisher (or, of course, to self-publish but I’ll discuss that in the next article).  For me, an agent is definitely the best option.  Admittedly it introduces another person that your book has to get past to be published – and it does mean surrendering 15% of your earnings plus VAT – but there are three definite advantages to having an agent and they make a huge difference.

 

1.  Your agent can open doors that you may not be able to

 

There are two reasons for this.  Firstly, rightly or wrongly, many publishers see agents as a quality control barrier and are often reluctant to accept submissions from anyone who hasn’t got an agent first – even those that claim they do accept unsolicited submissions might simply place them on the ‘slush pile’ where junior staff and interns read ten or so pages and discard if it if they’ve not already been hooked by the writing.  An agent acts as an endorsement of a writer and thus means publishers may take you much more seriously.

 

Secondly, it’s the agent’s job to build relationships with commissioning editors and know their personal and professional tastes, their personalities and how best to approach them.  Whilst you might spend several hours leafing through the Writer’s Handbook or googling for addresses of people you might be able to send your book to – and still not really know if they’re the right people or anything about their personality or preferences – your agent will often know exactly who to place it with, and  how best to sell it to them.  This hugely increases your chances of success.

 

2.  Your agent is a businessperson

 

You might be a businessperson too of course.  But I know for sure I’m definitely not.  I know nothing of contracts, very little about how book negotiations work, have limited ideas about what the ‘right’ rate of pay is for my writing.  What’s more I’m terrible at selling myself and feel really self-conscious about asking for money.  If you’re anything like me then it’s damned useful having someone who can take care of all of those things for you, get you the best deal possible and let you focus on your writing.

 

3.  Your agent can give you feedback to improve your work

 

You’re probably only get one shot at submitting a particular project to a publisher so you want to sell yourself at your best.   You also want to look like a professional by sending things in the right format, giving the appropriate amount of information and making the right pitch.  An agent deals with pitches all the time and will know exactly what publishers want.  Nowadays agents also act as editors and will take time with you to improve your work and make it as good as possible before the publisher sees it.  This does not only improve your chances of acceptance – it also potentially drives up how much you earn!  A writer I know spent a year being told by his agent to do draft after draft after draft of his novel.  Doubtless it was time-consuming and frustrating but it certainly paid off when a bidding war saw him receive an advance that allowed him to buy his first home!

 

In my own case, my agent was really helpful in helping me hone the proposal, streamline what I was writing about and really identify what was appealing about the book.  What was originally going to be a more general history of Santa Claus became more focussed on the darker aspects of Santa mythology and the strange characters Santa has been associated with through the years.  Suddenly I had a book with a clear hook and selling point and, in all probability, that’s what got it sold.

 

And, as the economics of the book trade go tighter, publishers are less and less likely to take a risk on a writer or project that needs substantial improvement. A good agent can really, really make a difference.

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Diary of a First-Time Writer #3 – A Quick Note on Working for Free

So I’ve talked about doing something to get your work out there and get yourself noticed. One obvious way of doing that is putting your work online and, if you start trying to get your writing published online, sooner or later someone will offer you a chance to contribute to their website – usually there won’t be payment involved but instead it’ll be sold as an opportunity for exposure or to get noticed.

So should you do it?

First off, if you are considering working for free, this website is essential reading

http://www.shouldiworkforfree.com/

Practically speaking, I’d always be cynical of anything that claims to give you “great exposure” or “raise your profile”.   A lot of websites and publications that make such claims do nothing of the sort and the problem is that, once websites realise there’s a market of aspiring writers who are happy to work for free to gain opportunities, any incentive to pay writers to write disappears.  So, rather than improving their chances of getting paid work in the future, writers who work for free actually tend to lessen the amount of paid work around and thus create a situation where nobody gets paid.  Except perhaps the website via their adverts and sponsorship deals.

What’s more, if you want to showcase your writing, it’s really important that you write things that you actually want to write and show what you want to do.  There’s absolutely no point in trying to showcase yourself by writing something that doesn’t play to your strengths.  It’s far better off to create a blog and use that to write things that you really care about.

The other essential thing to realise is that, if you do try to get an agent or sell a book or even a freelance article, you’re going to be judged on what you propose and what you do on that piece of work alone.  Whilst it doesn’t hurt to have some examples of previous work you don’t necessarily need it and, unless your blog or something you’ve written really catches fire on the internet, it’s probably not going to make that much of a difference what websites you’ve written for.  (This is a little bit different if you want to write journalism but I still think a good blog of your own is going to make a greater difference than bits and pieces on other websites.  This can change if you can become the editor of that website of course!)

Which isn’t to say you should never write for free – I’ve written academic articles for books before which I didn’t get paid for but I was interested in subjects in question and it was a chance to see my work published in a book, which was ace.  And, if you write for, say, an online music or film magazine you might get given free stuff to review or the chance to interview people you admire.  So you might be getting something out of it that isn’t actually money.

But you should ask yourself the following questions:

1)    Would you write this anyway?

2)    Is this how you want to come across as a writer?

3)    Is someone making money whilst you’re not?

Having people read your writing is great and there’s obviously something brilliant about people wanting you and wanting to see your work but the bottom line is that anytime you’re not being paid to write then you’re doing it as a hobby rather than work.  So treat it on these terms and make sure you’re enjoying it!

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Diary of a First-Time Author #2 – Up All Night to Get Lucky…

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When people have found out about my book, there’s one question that I’ve been asked time and time again.  Sometimes by someone asking for themselves, sometimes on behalf of a friend but nonetheless the question has been “how did you get an agent?”

 

It’s a good question because the initial process of getting an agent is possibly the biggest barrier to overcome for an aspiring author and, from the outside, it can seem an insurmountable barrier and, for that reason, I know that when the person asking me is really asking for a formula that they too can follow with guaranteed success.  Which makes it a shame that my answer is both rather mundane and tricky to replicate.  I’d love to be able to tell an inspiring and moving story about how I sent my book to every agent in London, received rejection after rejection and rejection but then, when I was right at my very lowest ebb, an agent finally responded and made my dreams come true.  But that would be a lie.  The simple and most honest answer is that I got an agent through sheer dumb luck.

 

The day that I decided to write a non-fiction book about Santa Claus, I was feeling quite motivated to get on with things and decided to get on and write a proposal.  The only problem was that I had absolutely no idea what a non-fiction book proposal looked like or involved, or how much of the book I needed to write before submitting it (this is a question I will answer in either the next article or the one after that).  Feeling a bit lazy I decided not to Google it myself but instead posted something on Facebook asking my friends, acquaintances, people I went to school with and the people who I’ve never met but continually send me invites to gigs they’re promoting whether anyone had ever written a non-fiction book proposal and whether they knew what it involved.  I wasn’t expecting much but a friend of mine came back and said that his friend Matthew was a literary agent and would be happy to give me some advice.  I dropped the friend an email asking for help and briefly pitched the idea (“to give him an idea of what I was trying to do”) and got an email back from Matthew saying he liked the idea and wanted to meet me the following week.

 

I realise that this involves a lot of lucky coincidences.  I happened to know someone who knew an agent, the agent happened to be willing to give some advice to a friend of a friend and the agent then actually liked my idea.  I also realise this is the sort of thing that could make other aspiring writers a bit angry and would (probably rightly) lead you to conclude that it’s not what you know but who you know.  Also it raises the question of why I’m telling you all this and whether there’s a particular lesson that I wish to impart.

 

The answer to the first question is that I’m telling you this is that it’s because it’d be a bit odd if I wrote about how I came to write the book and didn’t touch on how I came to get an agent.  The answer to the latter question is there are probably two lessons you can take from this that you might find useful.

 

The first one is to remember that luck will play a huge part in anything that happens to you, for good or ill.  This can be a difficult thing to accept – everyone wants to feel they’re responsible for their successes and we live in a culture where it seems everyone of note – from writers to actors to musicians to businesspeople to sports stars – will continually emphasise how they have succeeded because they worked so hard and ‘wanted it’ so much.  And I’m sure they belief that but nonetheless you’re getting a very skewed picture because newspapers and magazines tend to only interview the rich and famous – you never ever hear from the people who worked hard but didn’t ‘make it’.  Who’s to say how hard they worked and how much they wanted to succeed?  Ultimately you can work as hard as you like but, without the lucky break that gets things moving, it won’t guarantee anything.

 

So far then, none of this is actually particularly useful and it all probably sounds slightly depressing.  I can only apologise for that.  I’m trying to be truth rather than raise false hopes and this is the precise reason I’ll thankfully never make much of a self-help guru or ‘lifestyle coach’.

 

Nonetheless there is a more positive side to this that perhaps you can learn something from and that is that I’ve not yet revealed the full picture of how the lucky coincidence that helped me get an agent took place.

 

I might have got a break through knowing the ‘right’ people but, when I first came to London ten years ago, I barely knew anyone at all.  I grew up in a small village, my family had zero links with the literary industry whatsoever and, when I first moved to London, ten years ago, I had literally one friend in the entire city and for several months I was lonely, shy and probably a bit depressed.  I wrote in the first article about how, as I approached my 30th birthday, I felt I’d wasted my twenties.  But looking back, this wasn’t entirely true.  I actually spent a lot of time putting myself into a position where I knew enough people for coincidences to happen.  I don’t entirely buy into the idea that people ‘make their own luck’ but I do believe it is a simple truth that the more people you befriend, and the more you demonstrate to people what you can do, the more likely it is you’ll find somebody who can help you.

 

But, short of sitting people down and forcing them to read your book, how do you demonstrate what you can do?  What I did was learn a few simple guitar chords become a musician.  I originally started playing acoustic guitar and singing at open mic nights because I was feeling pretty isolated and wanted something to get me out the house but I realised that, whilst film scripts can take well over a year to write and wind up being read by nobody whatsoever, you can write a song in the morning, perform it to the audience in the evening and receive instant feedback on something you’ve written.

 

Daunting though it sounds, I would recommend any aspiring writer tries their hand at  performing in public – be it music, poetry, stand-up comedy or even simply delivering talks and lectures.   It’s a chance to see what audiences respond to, when and where you gain and lose audience interest and, because you don’t want to embarrass yourself in public, it really forces you to improve.  I’d also advise, when you’re out at any kind of performance, gauging audience reactions to other people’s work as well. Obviously your ability to go out and perform regularly depends on where you live, your financial situation and your family commitments so I know this may not be advice everyone can follow but, if you can do it, I’d strongly recommend it – I learned more about writing in my first nine months’ of performing than I did in five years of writing in a room on my own.  (If it really isn’t possible, then I’d probably recommend starting a blog and joining internet messageboards related to your interests – it’s not quite as good as meeting people in the flesh but you can nonetheless befriend like-minded people and let them get to know your style of writing).

 

What’s more, by performing you’ll start to meet people who share your interests and build up the number of people you know – many of whom will work in creative field.  I despite the term ‘networking’ and the idea of anyone cynically going out and meeting people who can advance their career but, if you go out to things you’re interested in and talk to people, you might find it happens anyway.  What’s more, it shows an audience what you can do.  Ultimately I enjoyed the music so much that I ended up with a band, a small record deal and some radio and festival appearances.  Not only was this fun, it was a brilliant way to get people to know about my interests and my style of writing.  Going back to the top, the friend who responded to my Facebook question was someone who’d seen me play several times and liked my style of writing and I later found out one of the reasons why Matthew was interested in taking me on was because he too had heard my music and the dissonance between the blackly comic approach of my song-writing and the fact that I wanted to write a book about Santa was a big part of the appeal.

 

None of this changes the fact that I succeeded through a series of lucky coincidences but they were lucky coincidences that only happened because I was already going out and working hard to promote myself and my writing without really realising I was doing it.  Luck will play a huge part in whether you succeed or not but I certainly think the writer who goes out and talks to people is far more likely to be lucky than the writer who stays at home and keeps all their work hidden in a drawer.  It might not be fair that we live in a world where who you know matters more than how you write but, if that really is the case, then  – like it or not – the most pragmatic solution is to get out there and meet more people…

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Diary of a First-time Author #1 – How to fail your twenties…

My name is Paul Hawkins and I’m an author.  It feels weird and slightly fraudulent saying that but my first book Bad Santas and other Creepy Christmas Characters is being published by Simon and Schuster on October 22nd.  Since I’ve told people about the book, I’ve had a quite a few questions from friends and friends of friends about how you get published and how the whole process of putting a book out works.  So I thought I’d write a series of articles that’ll hopefully be reasonably engaging and useful and hopefully help people in pursuing their own writing.

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First of all though, I’m going to talk about my background and experiences with writing prior to the book and the events that led to me deciding to chance my arm as a non-fiction writer.

I’ve wanted to be a writer ever since I was a teenager.  At the age of 18, I did a degree in Scriptwriting for Film and Television.  Whilst doing the degree I then found out  how much power the producer held over script decisions in film and TV soI did an MA on Producing for Film and TV as well.  I then left University at 22, feeling fully qualified and ready to produce the work that would see me hailed as the brightest young writing talent in the United Kingdom.

Obviously that’s when real-life happened. I spent six months scrabbling about trying to find a job in film and television and working out whether I could afford to do some sort of unpaid internship (I couldn’t – I had bills and rent to pay) before pretty much giving up and letting the temp work I was doing to fund myself gradually become permanent.  But that was okay because I decided I’d write in my spare time, sell a script to get me started and be a full-time writer by the time I’m 25.

Again, that didn’t happen either.  If you’re reading this then you probably already know that trying to write in your spare time is an exhausting process – incidentally this Onion article is one of my favourite things on the internet – and I got a bit lazy and procrastinated.  I started writing less frequently and things got finished less and less often.  Before long my “writing career” pretty much consisted of me meeting up with a couple of friends from my Scriptwriting degree and talking about future project that we never actually seemed to get round to writing.

Before I knew it I was a public sector office worker lurching towards his 30th birthday with no professional skills, no prospects and no job security.  I’d found out my contract was not being renewed due to public sector cuts and applied and failed to get job after job after job after job.  It turned out I had a finely-honed knack for coming second in interviews.  Unless there were two jobs going.  Then I’d finish third.

All of this was really depressing and I began to seriously panic both about my short-term prospects and, more importantly, about the growing realisation I was wasting my entire life.  Miraculously I got a last-minute reprieve in my job, which was equally a blessing and a curse, but knew a second round of cuts was forthcoming so I jumped before I was pushed and applied for a PGCE to teach adult literacy.  (By the way, if you’re worried about a lack of job security, do NOT retrain as an adult education teacher.  It makes managing a football club look like a secure role with long-term prospects.)

By this point any dream I had of being a writer was long-since dead.  Back when I was in danger of losing my job, I remember going to a job interview for some sort of job around public sector pensions and being asked about by Scriptwriting degree and firmly assuring the interviewer that writing was behind me and that I just wanted to get a job where I could work hard and climb the career ladder.  I might have actually even believed that.

But then going back to University awakened something in me.  It reminded me of how much I loved learning, researching and writing essays and it reminded me that I was probably better at that than anything else I’d done in my life.  And eventually I realised I wanted to try to be a writer again – but this time, I had to make it work.

I set myself some ground rules.  The first one was that I was going to be disciplined in how much I wrote and how often.  The second one was that, whilst being sure to write about subjects I was interested in, I was going to be pragmatic about focussing on ideas that I believed had a chance of being published.  Thirdly I decided that, because my essays and dissertations went well and my attempts at fiction tended to fizzle out, I would focus on writing non-fiction.

Years before I’d had a fiction idea around Father Christmas but, try as I might, I could never quite get the story to work.  However I realised I had amassed quite a bit of research around the history of Santa and the different folklore and mythology around the world that had inspired his creation and that, in finding the research, I’d never seen one book that contained all the information I wanted.  I decided on a bit of a whim that I would pull this work together and try to put together a book proposal.

Through sheer luck – I’ll talk more about how to help your chances of being ‘lucky’ in my next article – I found myself an agent and, after a year of revising and knocking things into shape, I found myself in the offices of Simon & Schuster taking to a publishing editor.   Seven months on and the book comes out next month.

It’s an exciting time but also a nervous one.  I really can’t wait for the book to be published but I’m also apprehensive about what people’ll think when they read it and, to be honest, still a bit confused as to what the publishing process actually involves.

Over the next few of these articles I’ll talk a bit more about what approaching agents and publishers and what publishing a book actually involves.  As I get nearer to the publication date I’ll start to write more about the experience of releasing and marketing a book, what actually happens in the build-up to the release and what goes through my head.  I’ll also be very happy to answer any questions readers have and share any advice that I have to offer.

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