Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Article 7: How it Happens.

This was written a little while after 911, six years and seven or so books ago...

How it Happens

I had considered running an article commenting on recent events, but I think there has been enough of sorrow, and quite probably, as I write this, a lot more to come. Instead, I’ll tell my happy story:

When I first put pen to paper with the intent of producing fiction I had my dreams about the future. I saw myself being wined and dined by publishers who were stunned and humble in the face of my sheer brilliance. The book I produced was a world shaker, it changed people’s lives and brought them on their knees to the alter raised to the writing god Neal Asher. Then of course I woke up and it was time to go to work, which I did for twenty odd years and am still doing. Now though, there is light at the end of the tunnel and I don’t think it’s a train.

For each of the many years in which I have been writing seriously and have actually had something publishable I’ve been buying either the ‘Writer’s & Artist’s Yearbook’ or ‘The Writer’s Handbook’. Each time I would go through that year’s copy and circle every science fiction publisher, and to each, one after the other, bang off a synopsis and sample chapters, blithe in my ignorance of the fact that my work would be one of the hundreds they received that month. I used the other side of the rejection letters that came back, to print out work I wanted to check through, or have someone else check through. I don’t like to think how much I have spent on stamps and envelopes.

I’ve had my successes: short stories published, collections, novellas. In another article for this magazine I have detailed that ladder climb with someone standing on my fingers. It made depressing reading for then there had been no happy ending. I digress, let me tell you how it happens.

During the summer I have a job which keeps me away from the processor: I cut grass, playing fields and the like, and relocate dogshit with my strimmer. During the winter I write all the time (and for those who say ‘you’re lucky’ my answer is ‘that’s how I arranged it’). The winter before last, just before Christmas, I was writing away when there was a crash behind me. In the hall the coat rack had worked its raw plugs out and fallen, so I was feeling a bit spooked when the phone rang, and it took me a moment to gather my scattered senses. With a screwdriver in my hand I answered ‘Uh?’ when a rather well-spoken chap claimed to be the editorial director at Pan Macmillan. He went on to explain that he’d received my synopsis and sample chapters of Gridlinked and would rather like to see the rest. Still befuddled, I picked myself up off the floor and tried to say something about the website I had just set up (£150 phone bill that quarter). He misconstrued what I was trying to say with the happy upshot being that I emailed him Gridlinked five minutes later.

I left things for one month. I didn’t want to be a pain and I have long taken the view that when you send something you forget about it and start work on something else. Towards the end of that month I was coming to the conclusion that what I had sent was, at 56,000 words, too short by today’s standards. I emailed the publisher to this effect, saying I could extend Gridlinked and perhaps they would also like to look at The Skinner which was 80,000 words. Almost immediately I received a reader’s report detailing the faults in the manuscript and saying precisely that – too short, but good. The publisher also suggested we should meet, and I took him up on that offer.

Three days until the meeting. In that time I worked very hard to increase Gridlinked by ten thousand words, for it is a fact that publishers, if they are going to take you on, want to know that you can produce. Reader, publisher, and myself, met in an Italian restaurant in The Strand, and a very long meeting it was. I took along anything I thought might advance my case: published novellas and collections, copies of reviews etc. The meeting moved, after a few hours, to a wine bar. After seven hours the reader took me to Liverpool Street as, without his assistance, I would have ended up sharing someone’s sleeping bag on the underground. Despite my drunken stupor I did not forget that the publisher promised to come back to me with an offer.

The offer came one week later and I was more than pleased. The publisher had obviously noted down much of what I had said and studied my website. The contract would be for three books (Gridlinked, The Skinner, and The Line of Polity – follow-up to the first) for which I would receive staged payments. The first stage came when I signed the contract, and now it was time for me to get on with some work.

Over the next couple of months the reality of what was happening was brought home to me time and again. Macmillan’s publicity department got onto me with a form to fill in giving contacts and asking me to tick off what I was prepared to do. I was invited along with my wife, Caroline, to attend the 2kon in Glasgow. I was also called into London to pose in litter-choked alleys for a photographer called Jerry Bauer – a nice friendly chap who has photographed Dirk Bogard, Julie Christie, Sidney Sheldon, Marian Bradley. I felt I was entering the Twilight Zone when he mentioned photographing Robert Silverberg and after I had repeated the name went on to ask, “Do you know Bob?” Yeah, me and ten million other SF readers.

Never, ever believe that it is going to be easy once a big publisher takes you on. At that stage you really begin to work, and everything before has just been playing. I increased Gridlinked to 134,000 words (in a very short time), then waited with a razor poised over my wrist. It was gratifying to be told that they were surprised at the speed at which I had done this, worried that I had padded and produced a load of crap, and pleasantly surprised that the final result was better than the original. Note to writers extending work: you do not swell the story you have written with pointless dialogue and description, you extend the story, you develop plotlines. Had I padded this book I’ve no doubt it would have come right back in my face.

After this, Gridlinked came back to me copiously edited. I have to admit I was dismayed at the extent of this editing, but have since learnt that in my case it was pretty minor. I went through it all taking onboard what I thought right and discarding the rest. Through this process I discovered some bad habits I’d been getting into, and probably learnt more in that one month than in the preceding five years. The book was accepted and is now on the shelves in the book shops in the large format version.

Now I am at the enviable point of having had The Skinner accepted and am awaiting the cover for that. Time to sit back and bask in glory? No, now it’s time for me to work very hard at The Line of Polity and make sure I produce something that cannot possibly be refused, because that can happen. You’d maybe think that with that first book taken by a major publisher that you’ve made it. Not so. You’d then think this the case with the second book. Guess again. The reality is that you have to ‘make it’ for every book. The reality for me as that I must continue to work hard. … But then that is better than the reality many are facing in the world today.


Bob Lock said...

Hi Neal,
Excellent insight into your big start but scary also, seven hours of being wined and dined! How much weight have you put on since the grass cutting days? :)

Neal Asher said...

Dined then wined would be more apposite. As it happens, Bob, I carried on doing the grass cutting and other physical work for about two years after this. When I used to do that sort of job I would lose about a stone in the first month of spring, then regain it in the winter. Becoming a full-time writer resulted in the stone in weight not going away. After one year of that I got sick of it (and the depressive effects of not getting much exercise) and started cycling over to my parent's house each day. I now cycle about 20 to 40 miles a week and have sporadic sessions of weight-training. Oh, and I still drink far too much.