What does it take to become a published author?
Or, more specifically, what does it take to become a traditionally-published debut fantasy author in 2017?
In a roundabout way, this is the big question I asked five traditionally-published, fantasy debut (in 2017) authors in a recent interview mini-series. More than a few things stood out for me during the course of the interview series – which I’d like to explore further.
Who are these people behind the ‘author’ title?
Firstly, the five authors were something of a diverse bunch; both as people, and in their publishing-profession-progression (though I still can’t get over the fact there are two Anna Smith-variants, both to-be-published by Harper Voyager, both within a matter of weeks. It’s a small world after all…).
The famous five were:
- Nicholas Eames – serves the restaurant industry by day, saves the world in videogames by night, and somewhere in between rocks-out with bands, beauties and brutes in his debut Kings of the Wyld.
- Anna Smith-Spark – claimed the mantle of ‘Queen of Grimdark’ ahead of her release of The Court of Broken Knives, having ascended the throne from an altogether different publishing battlefield, that of drafting documents and leaflets for an altogether different court audience.
- Ed McDonald – certainly knows his stuff, as a medieval historian, lecturer, and historical martial artist; one person who could accurately debate whether the pen is mightier than the sword, as he has wielded both, ahead of his release of Blackwing.
- RJ Barker – who, when he isn’t partaking in a ritual of human sacrifice to the Great God Pan in a deserted church in a quiet woodland in East Anglia while the assorted directors of the big publishing houses chant ‘one of us!’ while being ordained with the sacred ink of the white goat (his words not mine)…I digress, has previously published short stories online, but is entering the big game with Age of Assassins.
- Anna Stephens – one of two Anna’s in my life thanks to Harper Collins, is the ‘Black Widow to Natasha Romanov’ of her day to day identity as Anna Smith. She has a degree in Literature, a Diploma in creative writing, is a second Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate (can I get a first Mike belt in that?), lifts weights, is a qualified massage therapist…well, there’s not a lot she can’t do, and her debut Godblind proves that one of the things she can do, and do well, is write books.
So, what can we takeaway from this? It doesn’t matter what your day job is, be it waiter, worker (office), warrior, or worshipper-of-the-horned-god, anyone can become a writer (batteries and human sacrifice not included).
What have they written about?
Secondly, fantasy itself remains a diverse genre. Yes, warriors (and in particular mercenaries) still seem to be the flavour-favour, but I for one welcome that as a trope, and hope it doesn’t change. But we also have priests, assassins and mages. The usual motley-crew of suspects is all here. And when it comes to the worlds themselves, each is as different as the last.
Grimdark, as a label, can be tagged to any of the five above authors and their respective works, but from what I’ve seen, there’s also a light-heartedness in amongst the gritty realism. Is this a reflection of the world around us? The real world? Have we, as readers, writers and the publishers, delved into Grimdark deep enough, and are now in need of something lighter?
Roll back the clock to when Grimdark became a ‘thing’ following Joe Abercrombie’s (LordGrimDark) success – the world was a very different place then. Now, over a decade later, following 2016, which some claim to have been the worst year in history (though in all fairness I’m pretty sure the year the dinosaurs’ were wiped out trumps 2016, pun intended, but who am I to question professors, politicians, bureaucrats, big-business, scholars and socialites), we live in what some would call a ‘Grimdark existence’. There’s not a day that goes by in which the media excretes yet more scandals, tragedies, atrocities, or celebrity deaths – fake news or otherwise – and as geo-political lines on the map are redrawn, and histories seemingly rewritten, it’s hard not to argue that the world is falling apart at the seams.
In the past, in a different world to the one we now inhabit, did we seek escapism from our relatively safe, secure and sheltered-existences, into the realm of Grimdark? Have we now swung back the other way, and seek refuge in a brighter, more hopeful narrative? (I could go on about this, but back to the matter at hand).
How did they write/produce their debut novels?
Of the interviewed authors:
- One spent ten years writing a novel, only to later scrap it and start something entirely new, which was then published.
- One finished their manuscript and immediately began submitting to agents, without test reading it.
- One, over a course of many years, rewrote and reworked the novel, cutting it IN HALF in terms of size.
- One finished their manuscript in six weeks (seriously, HOW?!?!).
- And one wrote at least four or five books prior to the to-be-published story was ever written.
But the one thing in common with ALL of them? Each of their stories changed, or had changes made to them. Putting it simply, and seeing as everyone loves a metric, let’s take a look at word counts through the process.
|Kings of the Wyld||The Court of Broken Knives||Blackwing||Age of Assassins||Godblind|
|1. First draft||114,000||100,000||165,000||Unknown||240,000|
|2. Following beta/test reading||117,000||No test reads||108,000||110,000||120,000|
|3. Agent amendments||102,000||Unknown||109,000||Unknown||134,000|
|4. Editorial cuts (if any)||90,000||180,000||109,000||Unknown||123,000|
|5. Final wordcount||150,000||150,000||118,000||125,000||123,000|
There’s a few interesting tidbits to note here, and I could be wrong, but here’s my general assessment:
- The ‘accepted’ wordcount for a fantasy debut novel has been widely stated as 100,000-150,000 words.
- First drafts don’t matter in terms of size – it matters that you’ve written and FINISHED a draft of your story. You can’t go back and sharpen-up something that isn’t already there.
- Beta/test reading is as much about cutting back as it is adding to. At this point, in my opinion, you’re aiming to make your story ‘accessible’ to readers, and they’re just as likely to say something is missing as they are in saying something is too much.
- Agent amendments are there to get your book in front of an Editor at a traditional publishing house. They know what it needs to be picked up.
- Editorial cuts sorts the wheat from the chaff.
- Final wordcounts are following all treatments required, cutting the story back to its raw potential, and building back upon that.
- All of the debuts fit within the 100k-150k range. That’s not to say you can’t produce something outside of that, take Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns for under 100k, and Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson for over 150k, as good examples of debut novels that not only made it into the realm of traditional publishing, but also enjoy what I would argue are roaring successes both critically and commercially.
I’d also like to include something that RJ said to me:
‘What I will say, that might be a bit more useful and I think your chart kind of shows, is that wordcount is a bit of a red herring. Okay, a million word manuscript is going to be a hard sell but an agent will open your document and read. Same with a publisher. They won’t hit word count. I reckon, at the moment, 150’000 words is probably considered the high end but it’s about the writing and the book. The wordcount can be manipulated if necessary and it’s probably the last thing to worry about. A great book that’s well below (or above) any idealised length will still get interest. Obviously, I have already told you I know nothing about the business side of publishing so this might be rubbish. But I wouldn’t tell anyone to sit and stress about drastic cuts to hit a length for their work they think people are looking for. Because what agents and editors are looking for is something good. Massive books can be split, short books can be added to. It should feel right, if that makes sense?’
So, is wordcount important? Yes and no.
The story should only be as long as it needs to be. We’ve all read books that we wish there was more of, but if those books had indeed been longer, would they have turned into one of those stories which we think could’ve been told in half the time? It’s a fine balance to strike.
That being said, there’s clearly a requirement to make a story a marketable product. Several years ago there was a rumoured trend of publishers wanting smaller books, produced faster, to compete with the booming ebook market. Now, there’s an unofficial rumbling that readers want more book-for-their-buck and a £5.99 60k novella won’t stand up to the 150k epic at £7.99. Still, anyone can put words on paper/screen, but it’s the quality of those words that counts more than each individual word, sentence and page.
What did they discover about the traditional publishing industry?
As an outsider to the traditional publishing industry, there’s a lot of mysticism to the inner workings of the traditional publishing route. And, I imagine, for the debut authors, there was a lot to learn when they embarked on their journeys. They highlighted, for example, the following:
- ‘Hurry up and wait’ – lots of activity, deadlines, phone calls, interviews then…silence. Then it starts back up again.
- Everyone isn’t out to get you – in one author’s experience, once they’d signed with an agent, and house, the rest of the process was remarkably easy, and pleasant! The people in particular make it an enjoyable experience – that’s something all of the authors agreed on. Though one did expect someone to tear off their human mask and reveal the insectoid creature within. Ed, mate, you might need counselling.
- Foreign rights can surprise you – you’ve managed to sell the rights to your work in your home country, and then suddenly you’re being published in Russia, Poland, Spain, Italy and Atlantis.
- The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is your bible – seriously. Swear by it. Or in RJ’s case, swear by a heathen god. You say Toh-mah-toh, I say human sacrifice, err…toh-may-toh.
Does it (writing, doubt, life etc.) get any easier once you’ve secured your book deal?
In a word: no. But you learn to live with it, because you love it. At least that’s what I’ve taken away from it.
Words of wisdom to wannabe writers.
And all of the debut authors were keen to share advice to the next generation (I’m looking at you 2018!):
- ‘Don’t try to emulate your favourite authors. Find your own voice. It’s in there somewhere, but every writer you’ve ever read is clamouring around in your head as well. Ask them, kindly, to shut up, then get to work!’ – Nicholas Eames, who hears voices but doesn’t listen to them…all of the time.
- ‘Writing should be fun. A good book…you can tell the author was genuinely just enjoying writing it, just relishing the pleasure of words strung together and a story told.’ – Anna Smith-Spark, who drinks the blood of her enemies from their severed skulls, whilst looking absolutely fabulous in her grimdark-royalty-worthy heels.
- ‘The more you practice, the better you’ll get, and the better your odds. Aim to improve and make sure you put in the time to generate sufficient words that you allow yourself to do so. It took me 1.5 million words.’ – Ed McDonald, who has yet to enter counselling, and carries a sword not for martial arts, but to defend himself from the insect uprising.
- ‘“Whatever works for you is what works.” It is the best piece of advice ever been given and is worth more than a thousand books on writing, to me. Of course, books on writing might be what works for you so…’ – RJ Barker, who may or may or may not have consorted with Pan, the god, not the publishing house.
- Don’t give up. Novels, like clothes, have fashions. A book that was rejected ten years ago might have agents beating down your door tomorrow. If you truly believe in it, don’t abandon it. Bring it over every few years and see what agents think. But for the love of all that’s holy, rewrite it before you send it out again. You’ll have changed, your prose and characterisation and voice will have changed. Tweak it, preen it, polish it, then send it. Who knows where it may end up? – Anna Stephens, who cannot comment on whether or not she was arrested and charged for indecent exposure after wearing torn-out pages as a dress, as she has been advised not to speculate on any active police investigation(s).
And what did I learn from all of this?
If I had to pick three key takeaways:
- There is no written rule to writing, except writing itself.
- Even published authors write, but they don’t always get it right.
- You are you, your story is yours. Only you can tell it the way you want it to be told.
Take that cryptic book-hugging nonsense, write it on a bit of paper, tear it up, scrunch the pieces into a ball, bin it, and get to writing, because if you’re still reading this you’re procrastinating when you should be producing.
Go on, get to it!