I’m writing this in the dark in a cubicle at the children’s hospital in Bristol, UK. If I lean the laptop screen far enough forward to illuminate the keys with its glow, I can type but not see what I’m typing. If I lean it further back I can see what I’ve typed, but not the keys, and I keep slipping into gibberish. I’ve had almost zero spare time since my daughter, Celyn, was born six years ago severely disabled. I work as a research scientist when she’s at school. I started off in physics, did a Ph.D in a corner of mathematics, and now nibble away at the edges of artificial intelligence. For a brief period when I worked in the states I was able to call myself a rocket scientist, and believe me, I did. Lots.
When Celyn is home I spend the time from 6am to 9pm looking after her. She can’t see well, use her limbs or fingers, speak, eat, or go for very long without having a fit. But she’s funny, clever, and has a great sense of humour. She does a lot of screaming and I spend a lot of time helping her not to. Constant entertainment works, most of the time, and she loves stories. My wife has multiple sclerosis and since Celyn weighs forty pounds I have to do the caring.
So, zero spare time, but I seem to write more in it than I did in the ridiculous acreage of me-time I used to take for granted. Generally the small hours of the night are mine to do with as I please. Even now, with nurses pacing outside and the SATS monitor flashing out Celyn’s heart rate and oxygen saturation, I’m free to write – albeit hampered by the need to flap the screen back and forth. I wrote chapter 4 of ‘Prince of Thorns’ with a pencil on scrap paper at 4am in a different children’s hospital when Celyn was a baby. The child next to us had died and her parents were making the kinds of hurt-noises that you absolutely have to distract yourself from.
I’m told that Clarion is populated by writers of various flavours who may be interested in the tale of how I come to be sitting on a three book deal with a bag of cash – a purported bag of cash because I’ve seen none of it yet and won’t truly believe any of this until I do.
As a scientist I’m wary of samples of one. A sample of one is an anecdote, and you can ‘prove’ anything you want with anecdote. However, I will assume that my tale is one of many and that you will shake it up with the rest before forming an opinion.
I say that my route to (cue drum roll) published author (end drum roll) has been non standard, but I’m not entirely sure there is a standard path. I have been a member of on-line writing groups for many years and I’ve observed that there are some people who have clearly set themselves the goal of being a writer. There are other people who just like to write, and there are many hybrids who are a mix of both camps in varying degrees. These are observations not judgements. I have no judgement to make. All of these are perfectly good attitudes.
The people who want to be writers often break the problem down. What do I need to do to become a writer? I need to write better. Practice makes perfect. I’ll write X words a day (no more algebra, I promise). I need to write what people want to read. I need to write what that magazine wants to buy. I’ll research the market. I need an agent/publisher. I’ll study query letters. I’ll go to conventions. I will corner an agent. I will network.
All of these things are good and sensible steps. I have total respect for the people who take those steps. I am in the opposite camp. I just like to write.
Because I have never planned to be a writer, never even considered what it would be like, I have also never suffered from writers’ block. If I have nothing to say. If nothing is hammering its way out of me onto the page . . . I just go and do something else. I’m not blocked, I just get to play a game, read a book, or sleep seven hours instead of five.
I don’t try to write X words a day (okay, I lied about the algebra). I don’t try to write any words a day. You will become a better writer if you write more . . . but I’m not trying to become a better writer. I just write because I enjoy it and when I stop enjoying it, I stop writing.
Here’s the thing. There are so many good writers out there. Sure there is an ocean of not so hot ones, but – and here I will further lower any expectations of literary greatness – if you’ve ever watched the auditions for American Idol you will have observed that amongst the comically bad singers, there are far more really good ones than the record industry needs.
I’ve had to struggle to get short stories placed in magazines. Ok, by ‘struggle’ I mean I’ve had to send the stories to quite a few magazines to get a hit. I’ve also been a slush pile reader for a small on-line ezine that offers $10 for a short story and a lofty $20 for the feature story. The magazine gets about 50 submissions each week and one or two of these will be superb. So every week a couple of superb short stories come chasing $10. It seems clear that the American Idol experience can be mapped over to writing. Sure, a fair number of those 50 a week are bewilderingly bad, but it seems clear that there are far more really good writers than the publishing industry needs.
Combining the evidence of my own experience with crit-group anecdotes about how impossible it is to get an agent, and with an agent how hard it is to get published, I came to a conclusion that I still feel is probably true. Getting published is a lottery. You need a large dollop of writing talent to enter that lottery but there are a lot of people with sufficient skill to purchase the ticket. Past that, you need a bucket of luck poured over you.
Given that I never expected to be a writer, and that I like writing, not crafting query letters, networking, researching markets, and most of all, being rejected, I sat on my first book for 12 years. Indeed I’m still sitting on it. It’s really not good for anything else. My second book was better. Good even. I sat on that one too and am still sitting on it.
The third book I wrote, ‘Prince of Thorns’, also got sat on for several years, but a lady I know through writing groups kept buying me writers’ handbooks, books she couldn’t afford, full of agent contact details and publishing houses. In the end (August 2009) I felt guilty for letting her down and stopped being a serial New Year’s Resolution offender. I was too lazy to pick up one of her books but they inspired me to google on ‘literary agents who specialise in fantasy’. I found this link:
and wrote to one a month for four months before I got bored and gave up. The fourth of the agents I plucked off the list wrote back just before Christmas asking for the rest of the manuscript. Two weeks later he signed me. He turned out to work at a major London agency. He told me not to expect to hear from him again anytime soon. The publishing business, he warned, moves at a glacial rate. Six weeks later he called me to say that after an international bidding war between seven major publishers he had secured me a three book deal with advances worth many times my annual salary (an admittedly meagre salary since the UK pays research scientists about the same as bus drivers … who I guess are responsible for peoples’ lives… so fair enough maybe.). A week later the second agent I wrote to sent me a form rejection. The other two have not yet replied.
I got the news whilst seated under Celyn (I think we were reading ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’). I carried her over my shoulder into the other room, where my wife took my expression to mean that Celyn had unexpectedly died on me. I’ve been in a state of mild shock ever since.
One thing that pleases me, aside from the money and that ‘Prince of Thorns’ will get a larger audience, is the fact that despite that networking, tactics, market research and the like will surely improve your chances of getting published (from needing the highest microscope setting to see to needing only the second highest setting to see) it is possible to write a book just for you, send it out to a small number of agents at random, and secure a great deal. It pleased me no end because I’m bad at all those sensible things, I don’t enjoy them, and my circumstances prevent me from doing some of them.
If I could take all the luck I must have expended accomplishing this feat and apply it to other areas of my life, of my family’s life, I would. But given a gift horse has come up, rung the doorbell, waited patiently, then licked me in the face … I shall stop looking in its mouth.