From Newbie to Published Author

Issue 62

From Newbie to

Published Author in 22 Months

By

Steve Emmett

Copyright © 2011, Steve Emmett, All Rights Reserved

 

 

For new writers, the road to getting published is littered with disappointment and doubt. I want to bring a message of hope at the start of a new year. 

Two years ago I was trapped in a real estate business that had kept me prisoner for twenty-five years. Yes, it provided money and a decent lifestyle; we lived in Italy and enjoyed all that it has to offer - the food and wine, the history and architecture, the trips to the opera and wonderful seaside vacations. “How lucky you are,” people would say. Yet I didn’t feel lucky. As time wore on I got more and more disillusioned with my lot. What pride could I take in being a real estate agent? Yet, after all those years, how could I change? 

The global collapse which, incidently, coincided with my fiftieth birthday, affected me in two ways. First, bankers became more hated than real estate agents. Second, I had no business to transact; our clients had vanished and we were twiddling our thumbs. At first, we sat it out. Day after miserable day spent in a deserted office, plumbing the depths of my imagination for clues as to how I could restart the business again. In the end, you can’t make bricks without clay and the day I accepted that was the day I took my first tentative steps towards my writing career. 

Intellectual stimulation was the thing I really missed. How could I solve this living in a tiny rural community in the middle of Umbria? 

Thank goodness for Amazon and the internet. I ordered scores of novels; all those that I had wanted to read for years but had never had the time. Books I’d already consumed as a child - Dennis Wheatley, M R James, H P Lovecraft. I discovered new writers and read out of my genre. One day the postman arrived with a slim cardboard package inside of which was Stephen King’s The Mist. I finished it in one sitting and said to my partner, “I’m going to write. I can do this.” It was early December, 2008. 

One thing I had learned from being in business was the need for preparation and research. I valued the advice of experts. I spent some days trawling the internet for information and finally signed up for the online novel writing course run by the London School of Journalists. It was pot luck - but oh, what luck! The tutor allocated to me was the British novelist and editor, Margaret James. I looked her up on the internet and was somewhat concerned that she wrote romance. Whatever I was going to be, it was a not a romantic novelist! I need not have worried. 

The course was designed to take from nine to eighteen months. When I read this in my welcome pack I almost died of disappointment. I didn’t have that amount of time. I needed to get published, so I threw myself into the course. 

Each assignment was in two parts. The first was an exercise of some kind such as analyzing the main themes in a favorite story; the second was always the same - to write a chapter of my own novel. When I signed up I hadn’t even a story in mind, and to be thrown in at the deep end was a shock. I had to come up with an idea, fast! 

There is the old saying, write what you know. I knew Italy well and always felt it was an ideal setting for something mysterious. An occult story seemed ideal amongst so much Catholicism. When I sent my first chapter to Margaret, I realized that someone very able was now looking at my work. I felt like I was walking around the supermarket naked. I checked my emails dozens of times a day waiting for the feedback. 

I have no doubt that the tone of feedback is crucial for a new writer. What I was being told in effect was that I knew next to nothing, but had potential. In chapter one, I’d described how my protagonist had driven home, swung into the drive, opened the garage door, closed the garage door, switched on lights, hung up his coat, gone to the toilet and then met his wife and daughter! First lesson: the reader doesn’t need all this. Get into the story and keep it going. 

As soon as the next module arrived I’d start work, sometimes turning them around in no more than two or three days. I was pushing the tutor, but she kept up and never complained. I learned how to avoid too much back story, how to create atmosphere without overdoing the description and, above all, about pace. 

In the end, I completed the course in just over three months. You can say I was lucky in that I had nothing else to do, but remember it was against the backdrop of life as I knew it falling through the floor. People have asked me how I remained focused. The answer is simple. I really wanted to be a writer. 

At the end of the course I was about a third of the way through my novel. Panic set in. I would now be on my own without my tutor to guide me. I had no contact with other writers. I knew no editors or publishers I could turn to. Some weeks earlier, I had signed up for the writing community Litopia and I began to look at it more seriously. Anyway, I’d completed a novel writing course and had a certificate to prove it. How hard could it be now? 

The great thing about Litopia is the ability to post up your work to get feedback from other writers. But in order to do that you have to submit a piece of work for assessment. If it’s judged of a sufficiently good standard you become a full member. I sent in a piece of writing and got rejected. I was crushed. I couldn’t understand how it could happen. 

At first, I was angry with Litopia and didn’t log in for a while. Eventually, I went back; I had nowhere else to go. Even as an ordinary member I began to build on the basics I’d learned on the course and realized I still had a lot to learn. 

What I hadn’t expected to find in the community was so much discouragement. I’d started writing not just because I wanted to, but because I wanted to get published. I suppose it’s my background but I could see no point in writing novels that languished in a bottom drawer year after year. Writing is to bring pleasure - for the author and the reading public. Yet here I found people who said that almost nobody makes a living out of writing, it’s virtually impossible to get published, first novels don’t see the light of day and, even, that it’s bad to write with publication as a target.

In time I found kindred spirits and learned whose comments rang true with my own ideas. It was just like any other group of people - a cross section of views and abilities. The next time I submitted a piece, I was admitted to full membership. Now, of course, I recognize the huge part that Litopia has played in changing my life. The LSJ course taught me important basics, how to bake the cake if you like. Litopians have helped me to put the icing on it. Writing is a solitary pastime. Virtual friends, such as mine, are of no less value than those you meet for coffee. Living in physical isolation is no excuse - use the internet. 

By the summer of 2009 I was committed to writing. We put our house on the market and at the end of August 2009 we headed back to the UK, not knowing where we would end up living or, indeed, what the future really held for us. We simply knew this had to happen and that I had to get back to the keyboard as soon as possible. 

Initially, we lodged with friends while my partner looked for a job. I would need to be supported while I wrote - how romantic! “How stupid,” said virtually everyone we knew. Yet, despite the recession, a job offer came after a month and we bade farewell to our kind hosts and began yet another new chapter. It’s scary seeing your income slashed, each month watching your savings dwindle, but if you really want to succeed you have to be fully committed and you have to believe in your ability. If you don’t, why should anyone else? 

I sent out my first queries around September of 2009, half-a-dozen of them, and they were all rejected. I carried on polishing my novel, which by now was entitled Diavolino, running sections and chapters by my writing friends until I was satisfied. Another half dozen submissions went out in the spring of 2010. All were rejected but, this time, two came with personal comments saying it was well-written and enjoyable, just not for them. I was so encouraged that two respected agents said I could write, there was nothing to do now but battle on. 

One year after my first submissions went out, I sent another half dozen. Three rejections winged their way back almost instantaneously. Then one morning I found an email from Etopia Press in the USA. “We enjoyed...sophisticated plot...three dimensional characters...etc. etc.” I read to the bottom searching for that fateful word ‘unfortunately’ but it wasn’t there. I scratched my head and started from the top again. I was so accustomed to rejections that I had failed to register the words “...delighted to offer you a contract...” 

At the time of writing, Diavolino is scheduled for publication in December 2010. My contract offer, by my reckoning, came 22 months after I paid my fees for the LSJ writing course. Back then I had never written fiction, save for what we did at school, and knew zero about it. 

So, my message is this. If you want to do it, do it. You need to learn and you need to find kindred spirits to travel the road with you. Don’t listen to the naysayers and merchants of gloom. You don’t have to have read every book in the library or to know personally six literary agents. You don’t have to have attended seminars and writing groups. 

However! You have to be totally committed, be prepared to suffer, prepared to take risks and, if you have one, you need your partner behind you.