Almost a year ago I chatted with writer Neil Roberts about his love for short fiction. Fast forward 11 months and we met up in cyberspace to talk about where the fragments of his imagination have taken him since then. It seems he’s been busy!
Q1 Neil, as a writer of short fiction, how does it feel to have a debut, full-length novel on circulation to agents?
Frankly there are mixed feelings. Although From On High is the first novel I’ve circulated to agents it’s not the only one I’ve written (more of that later). Likewise I’ve been published a few times in anthologies which has coloured my opinion of my own writing.
A few years ago I touted a previous novel to a few agents and publishers. It never found a home, but received a some positive responses among the form rejection letters. Those handful of encouraging sentences kept me going – words of praise from professionals have that effect – but my self-doubts always said “if the novel had been that good they would have accepted it”. Such is my inner voice, and it speaks longer and louder than any isolated sentence ever could. As a result I toiled away in seclusion, writing more for my own pleasure than out of any hopes of publication. I wrote a second novel in that time, but kept it to myself.
From On High is actually my third novel, but only the second I’ve sent to all those agents and agencies.
This time the process feels different. Having had shorter works published I now know that my writing is of sufficient quality to warrant acceptance so selection comes down to that intangible set of criteria used by agents. Do they feel passionate about it? Is there a market for it? Can they sell it to a publisher? That last is vital, of course – they are running a business after all.
So far I’ve received nothing but rejections, but I can honestly say I’m far less bothered than I was before. A little bit of self-confidence goes a long way. Having said that, there’s still that heady mix of good vibes and doubt whenever I check my emails.
Q2 Tell us about your work and what inspired it. Use the elevator pitch idea if you want – you’re in a lift with the agent of your dreams, so what do you say before the fifth floor?
Fifth floor? Well then I’m going to seriously bend your ear – you know how fast I can speak.
In just a couple of sentences: From On High is an end-times novel set in in the modern day, placed in Christian Cornwall and written by a secular Jew. It centres around Finn and a mysterious figure named Doe who becomes part of his life, an invader and protector rolled into one. Think ‘urban gothic’ without the unnecessary romance, but with extra hamburgers. There’s conversations, confrontations, revelations and more. I hope you’ll get a chance to read it very soon.
As to what inspired it, well it evolved from a short story of the same name which I wrote some time ago, itself inspired by a short story you wrote, Derek (Behind Enemy Lines? Am I recalling correctly? [You have a good memory, Neil!]). I always knew my own short had a kernel I could expand upon but it took years (and several false starts) to discover that hidden story.
Writing it was as close to torture as anything I’ve ever done. Seriously, it was the literary version of self-harm. There are some very dark threads running through everything I write, but none more so than with From On High. In places it was a real struggle to carry on writing, to follow those threads to their horrifying conclusion. Gruelling might be a better word. Thankfully the result has been far more than worth it.
Q3 How did you decide which agents to try first? Also, what made you choose the traditional publishing route as your first option?
I actually did a search on the Internet and started noting down agents which seemed to fit. Sometimes it was based upon the genres they listed as of interest, sometimes on their existing clientele, sometimes on the agents’ bios. Much as when they choose their clients, I find that choosing an agent has definite insubstantial components.
Once I had that list of twenty or so agencies I started calling them. A few I crossed-off right then and there. Maybe I’ll approach them again in future, but not right now. Why? you ask. Well, not because I wasn’t a fit for them, but because I didn’t get a feel that they would be a good fit for me. As an author I will be working closely with an agency for a long time – there’s a reason so many books are dedicated to agents – so if someone starts off being brusque, unfriendly or downright rude that sets off alarm bells. And remember these people will potentially be representing me so I needed to think how I would come across in their hands.
Most of the people I spoke to were receptionists or PAs, not the agents themselves, but you can get a good handle on an organisation by their choice of customer-facing staff. I noted the names and positions of those with whom I spoke and was as polite as I could be. I also made sure I knew to whom I should address my submissions.
Once I had my final list I started sending off submissions in the format each agent requested. Some agents want just three chapters, others 10,000 words and others still the first 50 pages – I gave them what they asked and always included a covering letter including my bio and the fact I’d already spoken to them or one of their colleagues. I used the names from the notes I’d taken as well. Sending a cover letter “to whom it may concern” is never as good as one which is sent “Dear Mr Blogs”, and if I’ve spoken to their colleague Dave it makes sense to say so.
Then I waited. And waited. And waited. As emails came in I responded to them and updated my list. It’s not a quick process. After three months a few had not replied so I called them again. Three hadn’t received my submissions (possibly thanks to spam filters) and one had lost it in an internal reorganisation, so I resent emails to each of them.
So far it’s been over five months since those first emails were sent and I’ve not yet heard back from all the agents (one responded exactly five months to the day after I’d sent my submission).
As to why I’ve chosen to pursue ‘traditional’ publishing, well that’s probably due to several factors, and was not necessarily a conscious decision.
I still have an emotional connections to actual books so that was undoubtedly an important reason, but I also know that my strengths as a writer are in writing, not marketing. I don’t know publishers, their business or their craft. While I could educate myself, I’d rather explore the option of using an expert in such matters first, and that’s exactly what agents are.
But I’m more than happy to explore non-traditional publication. In fact I already have…
Q4 What are you working on at the moment?
I’m taking a break for a little bit, pursuing digital sculpture with more diligence while I rest the literary portions of my mind. But there’s still a little research going on, a little bit of editing filling a few of my hours. I just needed to take a few weeks off from writing to recharge the batteries.
My first novel was As Cruel As Nature and in November I chose to publish it via CreateSpace and Kindle Direct Publishing. Why? Because at 140,000 words long it was simply far too large for a first-time author to hope to see published.
However, it remained my first novel, a passion-piece and a real learning experience, so I wanted to get it out there.
I put about a month into rewriting, editing, polishing, prodding and formatting it. The process had been started many times, but this was the one which I vowed would end with publication. For various reasons it became vitally important to me.
I published at the end of November so now As Cruel As Nature is finally available in paperback or ebook in the usual places (i.e. Amazon).
If you’re interested – and since you’ve read so far I assume you are – it’s set within free Russia, occupied Russia and Poland during the winter of 1943 and follows a group of Russian insurgents on a mission deep into the heart of the Third Reich. It’s what would happen if the task to save Private Ryan had been given to a very Russian Dirty Dozen.
I also decided recently to publish a few collections of my short stories – I have been in a publishing frenzy!
I’ve been formally published a few times now, both here and in the US, and subsequently had the rights to those individual stories revert to me so thought I’d get those pieces back out there. To be frank, there’s not a lot else to do with them – publishers are after first publication rights, not second. I also had a few other stories written for competitions and the like which were just taking up space on my hard-drive so decided to anthologise them all in three small, themed collections.
I called them Fragments of My Imagination and they are available for download on Amazon too.
Oh, and I’m working on a collection of stories alluringly titled ReVive Clive.
I guess I’m not taking as much of a break as I thought.
Q5 Ebooks or paperback, or both?
Both. Definitely both.
I’m still attached to the physical medium, but ebooks are so accessible these days.
There’s also the financial factor. Books have a per unit manufacturing cost and this reflects the price. To illustrate, As Cruel As Nature in paperback costs £12.99 while in ebook it’s just £1.99. And I see practically the same royalty from each. Naturally I didn’t have the same production overheads and running costs as a publishing house when I prepared As Cruel As Nature, but that means there are costs I don’t need to pass on to my readers. So I haven’t. The only reason my printed works cost more is because of those manufacturing costs.
There are downsides to the ebook revolution though. When sites like CreateSpace made self-publishing through print on demand so easy the volume of books available surged. The rise of the ebook has turned a surge into a deluge. There are thousands of books published every day on Amazon, books which would otherwise have gone out to publishers. And that’s the problem. While many of those books have merit there are so many more which would have never have travelled beyond the slushpile. More of a shame is that many of those which are actually of a potentially publishable quality desperately need the attentions of an editor or two. Seriously, check out some of the reviews on Amazon (assuming you haven’t a volume or two already on your shelf) and see how many lament the layout, misspelling and grammatical errors in otherwise excellent books. Once the monumental task of writing a novel has been completed every writer wants to get their book out there – I know I did – but there’s a reason it takes publishers the best part of a year to get that story from “the end” to the shops.
There is, however, a solution. If you’re serious about writing then join a writers’ group or two. Not only does it focus your writing it also gives feedback. A second eye on your work is always a good thing – it’s far too easy to become blind to your flaws while you’re toiling away in blissful isolation.
Q6 Name two books that changed the way you thought about your own writing.
That is a damned difficult question. Seriously, it’s a real ass-kicker.
The first would have to be Use of Weapons by Iain M Banks. It made me realise that it had become possible to break genre expectations. When many hear sci-fi they think Star Wars or Star Trek, but Banks broke that mould. Hell, he shattered it. Even though Use of Weapons isn’t hard sci-fi, it’s far from space opera too, and – most importantly – the setting is predominantly a backdrop to a story about the human condition (even though none of the protagonists are exactly human).
The second book is an anthology named Slaughterhouse: the Serial Killer edition, volume 2. It was the first anthology for which I was accepted and, simply put, that was the first time I believed I was actually capable of producing publishable work. That was a real sea-change for me. It meant that I’d passed an important threshold, one which many writers never breach. ‘Acceptance or rejection’ is still the big dilemma in my writing life, but now I can legitimately believe that the factors involved needn’t include whether I’m any good at the actual writing bit. At long last I am, at the very least, good enough.
Q7 How do you know when your characters have ‘come to life’?
When I stop being able to write them and have to accept the way they want to act. Yes, it’s a cliche, but there comes a point when the characters are in situations where I have planned for them to act a certain way. And they don’t. I’ll find myself saying “Finn would never be so blasé” or “Weidermann wouldn’t say that”. That’s when my novel finally becomes their story.
Q8 What are your writing goals for 2017?
To use my writing time more wisely. Seriously, if I wrote as much on my word processor as I do in YouTube comments I’d be more prolific than Stephen King.
I’m also intending to make more use of my Twitter account.
Q9 Where can we find out more about your writing?
As mentioned previously, I keep a very occasional Twitter account on @WriterRoberts. I also have a goodly amount of work now available on Amazon. Just search for P N Roberts. Then tell your friends (especially if they’re literary agents). Damn, I’m becoming shameless.