Confessions of a Starving Author

Writing with a view to publishing is a kind of conceit. It has to be. Who would write if not for the belief it was worth someone else’s time, effort and/or hopefully money to read it?

To slave for many months formulating a mass of words with careful precision, without prior knowledge or care of a ready and willing market is at best a form of naïve arrogance.

“Of course they will love it if I do, for I know Greatness when I see it!”

This may indeed be true, but it overlooks the fact that they need to know it’s there before they can buy it –or buy into it even.

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“But at least publishers and agents will read it when I send it to them and will recognise its unique brilliance and a bidding war will soon ensue!”

This, as one discovers is not quite the reality of the world in which we live.

When writing to such bodies/people you need to “sell it”, providing a concise-as-possible hook for them to bite on, as well as selling yourself. It helps if you are a one-armed Polynesian lesbian dwarf with a diverse and lengthy career and experience. As every publisher/ agent knows, this is a hook in itself for reporters and media presenters to latch onto in order to ‘inspire the market’.
Very rarely is the hook about the book.

So as you gather your résumé and try to make yourself look exciting or at the very least interesting, you realise that you are not that interesting or exciting on paper (even if you are Mr. Charisma or Ms. DahlingOfAll in person).

“Who cares about me?” you yell at that subconscious niggle you are otherwise ignoring –“it’s all about the book!” The book and its clear brilliance is the only thing that matters. That’s what people will be paying for after all!

So you prepare a synopsis that describes the story, before realising this synopsis captures none of the fun or imagination or depth or soul of the work you have slaved over. It reads like directions to a toilet.

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“But at least the synopsis gives some kind of indication of the work –and anyway, the extract will sell it in itself!”

This is where you realise your book –your sweet and gorgeous bundle of supreme joy– is not the loudest in the room. It doesn’t scream and scramble-for attention. Nor does it demand it amid the chaos. It doesn’t sing and dance like the annoying guy at a party who everyone loves until he throws up on the rug; who you find next morning in your bathroom as you throw back the shower curtain, still singing and still dancing, with the water running, wearing your wife’s underwear; who rings you at work later in the week, still singing that annoying Macarena song you were so enthralled with after fourteen tequila sunrises. Now you owe him a favour because he entertained you so much. More importantly, now you will do anything to get him to shut up and to move him on. …And was there anyone else at that party? A shy witty guy attempting a subdued and possibly meaningful banter with the mantelpiece perhaps? Nah, don’t remember him.

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“Yeah but can you be more specific about difficulties getting to a publisher?”

So anyway, I completed my first book in 1999. It was an overwhelming experience for me. I loved it dearly (still do) and couldn’t be happier if it had been an actual flesh and blood child. It was perfect. Still is –even more so.

I had waited until then to think of sending it off. To make a long story short, I discovered what was to be done next and did so over the next two years. Two or three chapters were to be sent to an agency or publishers, along with a cover letter and personal details. Three months later, on average, a publisher would reply saying “get an agent” and an agent would reply saying “we are totally full at the moment and couldn’t take on another author under any circumstances –call back within five minutes of one of our authors dying… with a number of books in that same style.”

There were some words of encouragement here and there (which one is advised to accept at face value, since nobody in the business wants to encourage a person they feel doesn’t have at least the basic skills), but the gist of it was “thanks, but no thanks”.

Most agencies receive hundreds of submissions each week, you see. If your sample chapters don’t captivate and/or your target audience isn’t clearly defined, or if an agency doesn’t deal in this specific type of book (and doesn’t want to), or if you can’t define the specific type or age-group you are aiming at, or if you made a mess of your cover-letter, trying to be too smart or it struck a wrong chord with the wrong agent (or more likely student reader) or the submission-before your one put the reader in a bad mood, or the weather suddenly turned overcast and she/he was hoping to have a nice weekend, or… you get the idea. Your baby, your masterpiece has maybe one chance in a hundred to be given anything close to any serious consideration, depending on any number of events beyond your control –and that’s even before a person peeks in your envelope to see if your presentation captivates at that precise time. ..One in a hundred thousand of even being read I would guess.

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What’s that you say? Your book is a masterpiece of understated subtlety?

I have news for you… it’ll die on a trolley in an over-crowded emergency room as a phalanx of ingrown toenail and tennis elbow patients scream and beg and bribe their way to the front of the queue.

I’m not saying do as they do. I’m saying unless you are already inside you don’t get inside by being the meek and unassuming nice person you are striving to be. If you’re willing to put that person aside for the sake of your “career” in writing, then start writhing on the floor and holding your breath and kicking the ground like a spoilt and/or autistic two year old pronto. That tends to get attention.

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After two years or so of submissions I was all but spent. All the time I was editing and tweaking the text in the book and in the synopsis and the cover letter, etc..

It didn’t help that the synopsis was vague no matter how I worded it. It didn’t help that the book, essentially is about a man who does nothing. Always.

It doesn’t help that the only way to understand what the book is about is to read the goddamned book –if I could have written it as short as a synopsis the book would be that length!

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“I’ve read and enjoyed books where nothing much (and everything) happens throughout. I know there is a market for it –but who are these people who, like me, enjoy something not easy to define? How can this market be found and tapped into?”

Damned if I know.

And to be fair, I don’t blame the publishing industry. I understand it’s hard to make a buck without a specific target in mind. This is why virtually all books (and movies and tv shows and channels and anything else now) are geared to very specific sectors.

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So I kept tweaking the book itself. Some friends read it –and eventually some friends of friends who didn’t know me. A pattern was established: around 60% of the people who started to read it could never finish it and could never really give an answer why –“it’s not the book –the book is great… I just don’t have the time right now” was the typical feedback from this sector (believe me I went out of my way to find ‘cranky’ people who would not have a problem telling me off if they didn’t like it).

A worrying number of people simply clammed-up, ignoring any questions I posed or emails I sent on the topic.

One person absolutely hated it and refused to read further than a few chapters. I really enjoyed this reaction, although I’m pretty sure she would change her mind on it if she ever read it to the end.

Of the remaining 40% (ie. those who read it to the end), not one person was anything less than overwhelmed or excited or “in love” with the book.

Almost all men (aged 30+ ish) who read it felt it was about them –mostly the ones I never met. This was a reason to read it for some/ the main reason it was too painful to read for others.
Most people who know me who read it felt it was about me (not true! not true!!)

Most people who read it were (/are?) female. Haven’t you heard? Only females read fiction anymore. (I have my own views on why this is, but too distracting to talk about now).

Females who read it to the end seem to love it for wildly different reasons –some because it’s “a feminist book”, some because it’s a skit on the pathetic nature of men, some because it captures the infuriating strength of a man within a relationship –even if he is ‘useless’ –and the book refuses to acknowledge the fact that the man is an idiot –indeed it goes a long way to proving the opposite. Who is right?

Such ambiguity is unseemly and never lends itself to a world where everything needs to be targeted to a particular audience. How can the book be targeted to feminists and men at the same time? The main character spouts a lot of crap –but curiously often it’s brilliant crap. Almost always it’s both crap and brilliant at the same time –even in the same sentence!

Is it meant to be taken seriously by the reader? I don’t know, but I have fun reading it. How can this book be marketed as “literature” when it is at times so devoid of literary quality and panders to the basest of thoughts and actions?

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Anyway, you see the dilemma –the book is the best book ever written, but it’s impossible to know it without reading it. It’s called The High Kicking Kung Fu Soccer Playing Bunny Rabbit Tree and you can read it for free from HERE …but don’t go there yet -I’ll stick another link to it at the end -promise!

I hope to have it re-printed, cheaper and in different font, with different cover, etc. at some stage, but for now…

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“Yeah yeah -get on with it -how do I get published?”

So after five long years of editing and half-dreaming of literary success, I felt I had to put this book behind me somehow. It was becoming impossible for me to move on. I had to draw a line under it. With that in mind I had it published, print-on-demand.

This doesn’t cost a whole lot –a few hundred euros. For that, almost all online bookstores worldwide will list the book and as orders are made the book is printed and shipped –ie. no stock necessary.

Even mainstream titles are often now “stocked” in this way. You might well have some on your bookshelf already.

I didn’t like doing it, but I did it for my sanity. I felt I would never write another book until I could see this one “finished”.

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“So you learnt that lesson, eh? -Stay out of the fire if you can’t handle the kitchen!”

No sooner did I send the final pieces off to the publishers than I found myself “inspired” almost overnight to begin work on a new book. It was a miracle! –I hadn’t been able to write as much as a paragraph unrelated to The High Kicking Kung Fu Soccer Playing Bunny Rabbit Tree for nigh-on five years, now the words were pouring out of me. From first thing in the morning to last thing at night I did little else but write, write, write.

And it all felt right. I knew it was right. This was going to sell beyond a shadow of a doubt. This was an amazing story and the world would recognise it as such, so there was no need for me to go out and “push” the first book. Even though this second bore no relation to it, it would help sell the first one. I was absolutely, positively certain. How could I not be? The words were flowing from my fingertips to the keyboard quicker than I knew what they were saying, but when I read them back they made complete sense.

The broad outline of the story was in my head. The specifics of what was going to happen next was known (by me) roughly ‘two chapters ahead’. ie. As I typed the words that were being dictated to me from one part of my brain, another part was ‘seeing’ for the first time –and noting down– what was happening two chapters ahead.

Each day I was brimming with enthusiasm and a kind of giddy nervousness –what if I didn’t do it justice? What if I couldn’t make it to the end?

The one thing I had no doubt about was its mass appeal and the story’s own perfection. It wasn’t like any other book ever written and it was still al lot of fun from beginning to end, capable of being enjoyed on many levels if desired by the reader. In short: It was clearly a masterpiece!
…The doubts were only to do with my own involvement in its birth.

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This nervous excitement and persistent disgorging of words and sentences and paragraphs and pages and chapters continued from August to April virtually non-stop.

[…There was one break for around two-weeks where I couldn’t figure out how the characters got from ‘Point P to Point R’ –ie. I didn’t know what ‘Point Q’ was, but I knew all the rest. That was quite worrying for a while.]

Finally, a few weeks before the birth of my son in 2005 the novel was finished. There was only ever one name for it: OOYAY. What else could it be called? It makes no sense to anyone who hasn’t read it, but to date everyone who I’ve heard from who have read it can’t think of a better title –or any title– to do it justice.

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Months after the elation and relief and the sweat and the fear and anxiety of not being able to do it and the adrenalin wore off I was dumbfounded at the lack of response from the agent I had ‘chosen’. When finally a curt reply arrived I was knocked sideways. How could this be possible? The book was written by a higher authority than me –I had merely channelled the tale and set it down. But now, it was being ignored? How could that be even possible??

Once again I found myself trawling through agencies and publishers. Some gave a nod and recognised that it ‘sounds’ original, though none chose to read more than the submitted chapters. “Not for us”.

Usually I sent the submission to the main branch of an agency or publisher, but would receive a reply from the Children’s Dept.. Herein lay my old friend: Target audience.

I’ve heard everywhere that now more than ever the growing sector in the publishing world is “Kids books for Adults”, but still it didn’t seem like the publishing industry is/was geared for it.

There’s the ‘Under 9 year old’ section.
There’s Teenage/ Young Adult section.
There’s Adult, which is has its own sub-divisions.

Which one is Ooyay? None… All.

Is it “Fantasy”?  Yes –NO! Not really. No.

OK, Ooyay is a small blue dog. And he kind of… talks. BUT the book isn’t about Ooyay himself, I hasten to add. Ooyay is not the main character!
…What else would a serious, over-worked and thoughtful agent do but immediately pass such a submission onto the Children’s Department?
Obviously, the children’s department notes that it doesn’t feature blood & guts so it’s not for boys. It doesn’t feature love-interest dashing boys, so it’s not for girls. NEXT!

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Truth is, for me, Ooyay is about growing up and experiencing life in all its thrilling unpredictability, and putting aside childish things, and learning to cope and surf through the unpredictable nature of everything –and coming to a kind of peace within oneself, which is both familiar from childhood itself and alien to everything you’ve ever been taught. There is a kind of contradictory bargain to be struck between the child and the adult within us all–

“I won’t pester you and prod at the inside of your eyeball and nag you with childish thoughts and perhaps painful memories all of your life, if you only play with me once in a while,” cries the child.

Ignore this voice at your peril.

So, this is a fun book for youngsters, but it’s a fun and more deeply emotional ride for adults. It sticks with the reader long after the last page has been turned –something I struggle to find in most works of published fiction these days.

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Again, nobody has read it to the end without coming forward with anything less than ‘top marks’ –friends and strangers alike. It has garnered 5 star reviews from each online book-review site that agreed to review it (check amazon.com and amazon.co.uk). Everyone loves it!

How then do I reach a fraction of its potential audience?

I’m not a salesman or businessman or analyst. How the hell would I know?

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So people who’ve read either (or both) ask me how the next one is coming along. Worse, people who’ve never read either ask me when the next one is coming…

It’s coming. Slowly. In truth I’ve started and re-started a few different ones. There is one in particular I think would/will be amazing –if I can do it justice. But it’s a lot of pain and heartache to rush off down the path of writing (at least when you’re determined to write things that have never been written before). It’s a path I’m not eager to traverse yet again at such a breakneck speed –but traverse it I definitely will. I just need to recover some part of that naïve arrogance I had ten years ago when I wrote the first one, if I’m ever to do so quickly.

If that never happens I’m happy to plod along at the slow pace, building the work brick by brick. Eventually it will be a sight to behold, I have no doubt.

Until then, it gives me untold joy when I hear any reaction to either of my books.

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The High Kicking Kung Fu Soccer Playing Bunny Rabbit Tree by K. Michael Forde is available as a free download here. Or from almost any online book retailer (that price is too expensive I know -I hope to be able to make it cheaper sometime in the future, in the meantime this edition will be a collector’s item one day believe me)

Ooyay by Stanley Rumm can be downloaded free here until 31st of December 2009. The official Ooyay website is here.

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