I was rustling around for some old paperwork the other day when I came across a printed email dated from June 2004. It was from my agent, John Jarrold, saying that he’d read and loved my submission, and he’d like to represent me. My first thought was to smile at remembering my excitement at having an agent. I remember reading this on my terrible desktop computer in a rented room that was little short of a garret, and doing a stupid dance.
Then the other thing hit me: June 2004.
Next month, it’ll mark a whole decade of having an agent, though I’d been writing for a little while before that date. That means writing has taken up over a decade of my life – an hour a day, almost every day. I had a couple of failed novels before I finally signed a publication deal sometime in 2007, when I was 26; and that book, Nights of Villjamur, wasn’t published until 2009. I’ve been lucky enough to have a wonderful editor and great publishing team that has allowed me to keep writing ever since then.
Have things changed much in that decade? Well, writing is less special for me than at the start. It doesn’t mean I don’t love or hate it any more or less, but that there’s a certain good feeling about the prize being simply to get published. But then what? What’s the ambition after that? To get good reviews? To win things? To sell lots? To get a movie deal? It doesn’t matter which of those a writer really achieves, they’ll probably always want something else next and be miserable with their lot. Anyway, for the most part, those aims are out of your control. All you can do is roll up to the next book, with the next deadline in sight, and try something else. Improve on your failures. And try again.
Over the ten years, I’ve learned not to compete with other writers, even though it feels that you are at first. Another author’s success does not eat into your own, but rather good books keep people reading, and create a vibrant community and marketplace (the latter is important because it props up the community).
I’ve also learned to ignore any doomsayers. Publishing has been dead or dying since I was sending my first book out on submission, and things seem to be doing just fine. The Internet hasn’t killed books, but supported their sales. Ebooks are just another format, and are helping publishers make money and bringing back out-of-print books. The most sobering point of all, though, is that the thing that probably matters most about an author’s career? Having a good book cover.
I’ve learned that getting a bad review makes no difference to anything – in fact, if there’s a picture of your cover and a bit of a blurb, it’s all to the good. The best thing is to get a mixture of love and hate, because then the book is talked about more. (I get that it’s difficult to cope with this, because writers are, by nature, reflective souls in order to get the best out of their art, which exposes them to the slings and arrows of online reviewing.) I’ve learned I’m of the PD James school of writing, in that I’ll never give up the day job. Writing is more liberating when it is my hobby, without financial stress, as the thing I do to unpack ideas or unwind. Plus, when I’m interacting with other people at work, I’m brushing up against little stories that I can store away. That wouldn’t happen if I sat on my own in a room sighing all day.
What about SFF fandom? I can only really speak of online fandom, which has been very kind to me early on in my career. The digital community is larger by a long way, but it has settled into a wide array niches, meaning it is difficult for any one person, or one author, to make an impact. Generally I’ve noticed that these communities have many recycled debates about good book covers and awards debacles etc, which is to be expected with newer people coming into and poking an established fandom. Also the vitriolic arguments people have online are nothing unique to the genre. By that I mean the genre is not self-imploding under angry froth, it’s just what people do on the Internet. Twitter has only served to speed up each incident. However, I have noticed a wonderfully progressive trend over the past five years especially. I’ve never known any genre to be so utterly aware of race and gender equality in fiction, and of consciously trying to improve things. That’s a pretty good place to be.
So what next? Well, I’m still writing. Maybe for another decade, who knows? At the moment, I’m working on the draft of another Drakenfeld novel, but there are more ideas in my head (in all honestly, I’ll probably keep doing this for as long as someone lets me do it). I’ve the paperback of Drakenfeld out in July, and – I think! – a Drakenfeld short story being published in August. Then Retribution, the second Drakenfeld novel, in October. That’s a healthy place to be.
Am I happy with writing, though? Never ask a writer that.
A few years ago, I wrote a blog series about my road to publication. If you’re interested, here’s Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4. A little of the content is cringeworthy, but new writers just love giving advice – as I proved!