The road to publication is a bumpy one. It is rough terrain racked with holes, icy patches and barriers. Along the way you will have many plates to spin: your job, your children and a MS to polish, to name a few. It is, without question, a tough old journey and requires a resilient, brave traveller with one destination in mind. Imagine Dorothy plucked from the yellow brick road by a flying monkey who drops her off the page and onto Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Landing on her rump, with her ruby slippers lying loose in the dust, she swallows hard at the approaching snow storm. But it is not snow rushing toward her; it is a storm of rejection letters. She grabs the slippers and hammers them together shouting: “There’s no place like home! There’s no place like home!” But the letters engulf her, slapping and cutting her delicate skin. Poor Dorothy. Anyway, enough of that melodrama. I hope you get the idea. Actually, I was quite enjoying that whole scene - I might return to it later.
Every writer has their own anecdotes about the road to publication. Who hasn’t heard of the big names who have been rejected: William Golding, John Steinbeck, JK Rowling, Agatha Christie, Joseph Hellier, Stephen King, more recently Sarah Perry and, erm, the not-so-bigs, like me, JD Fennell. It is rare, although not uncommon, to find a writer whose MS has not been rejected. Our journeys are unique to ourselves but similar at the same time. We work hard, we submit, we receive rejections, we pick ourselves up, we start again, carrying on until eventually someone finds us. In the simplest of terms that is how you could sum it up.
A writer’s road to publication really starts long before the submission process. For me it started many years ago at primary school in Belfast. I was first encouraged to write by my form teacher, a Christian Brother called Gabriel who suggested I write about what was going in my world. Growing up on the streets of Belfast, I saw that world around me cave in on itself. The streets became littered with broken glass and rocks; houses, cars and buses became bonfires. Guns, bombs and military occupation became commonplace and on the television and radio, harsh, angry voices bellowed the same hate messages over and over. In writing I found solace, therapy and a form of expression - these things I will be forever grateful to Brother Gabriel for.
I was an obsessive reader from an early age. I buried myself in a diverse range of books and spent a lot of time in libraries. I was a fan of Blyton, Dahl and later Fleming, Tolkien, Shakespeare and the Brontës - wonderful books that still hold a special place in my heart today. I would write secretly, sitting for hours making up stories and continue to do so in my teenage years.
At the age of nineteen I left Belfast and worked in bars and restaurants before later accidentally stumbling into a career as an author in the software industry. This felt good. I was back to writing where I felt at home. It may not be fiction, but hey, I had an audience and I was being paid.
I began taking writing classes to learn a bit more about the craft and to also connect with other writers (always a good tactic). Some classes were good, some not so good. I was learning a little but wanted to know more. In 2011, I started a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Sussex. This was a wonderful time: it was fun deconstructing novels, debating and writing essays on plot, suspense, dialogue, location, character, point of view, and all that stuff writers need to know about. I loved it. I really did! I also learned academic discipline and how to fit writing in around my stressful full time job.
So, on the strength of my MA, I completed my first novel. I was naive enough to think someone might be interested in it. I redrafted it three times, worked on my synopsis and cover letter and sent it out to five big publishers. This happened:
I didn’t give up. I was not afraid of failing and just carried on. I started doing the usual circuit of writing festivals, pitching my book and meeting agents and publishers. I pitched to a very nice agent from David Higham at the 2013 London Book Fair. She liked the concept and later read my MS and made some suggestions for change. I was the envy of my friends who were convinced I had a deal. I wasn’t so sure as I had not seen a dotted line to sign. If anything I was very lucky that an agent was investing some time in my book. It had legs, clearly!
We kept in touch. I worked hard on three new drafts, roping in my writing buddies for critiques. I edited my socks off until eventually, I was done. I was excited. I was close to getting an agent, I thought. I resubmitted with my fingers and toes crossed.
... and waited.
Four weeks passed and an email arrived in my inbox. My stomach was in knots. I opened the mail. It was not good news. Her response was very kind and considered, however, the book was just not for her. It seemed I had not done enough. The only conclusion I could come to was that I had not written the best book that I could.
Down, but not beaten, I returned to the drawing board, convinced that I could make it better and hook someone else’s interest. So I rewrote the entire book, changing the title, the story, the protagonist’s drive and giving him a darker purpose. I worked hard on problem areas and finished the new version almost a year later.
During my lunch break in work one day, I was scrolling through Twitter and saw a stray tweet from the Winchester Writing Festival. I clicked on the link and glanced through the schedule. It contained an impressive line up of authors and industry folks and there were four pitches included in the weekend package. It was an exciting line up. I really wanted to go. Only one problem: it started in two days’ time and registration had closed two weeks back. What a bummer! If only I had those ruby slippers to click and turn back time…
The afternoon rolled slowly on and I could not get Winchester out of my head. Surely there was a way for me to attend? I had to know for sure. I phoned up the university and after being politely passed around the phone system I ended up talking with the events organiser.
‘Registration has closed,’ she told me.
I paused, wondering what to say.
‘But I could fit you in, if you pay now,’ she added.
Beaming, I remained calm, thanked her graciously and pulled out my credit card.
So, armed with my polished new MS, I travelled to the Winchester Writing festival. I pitched to three agents. Feedback was good. Very good. Much better than I had anticipated. Two of them wanted to see the entire MS and one of them (David Headley at the mighty DHH Literary Agency) later signed me up. It was the strangest feeling. There was no doubt in my mind serendipity played a big part. Had I not found that stray tweet and ignored the deadline, I might not be published today. Who knows?
There followed a further year of publisher rejections until eventually the Dome Press, an independent publisher based in Central London, picked it up. It has taken some time to get here, but it was worth the wait. The Dome Press have done a bloody terrific job editing the MS, organising the blog tour, nailing a brilliant cover design and publishing a beautiful hardback edition, that made me well up.
The road to publication is a bumpy one. But it can be navigated and you can reach your destination. Just write the best book you possibly can and keep travelling on that road, because one day you will get there.
Sixteen-year-old Will Starling is pulled from the sea with no memory of his past. In his blazer is a strange notebook with a bullet lodged inside: a bullet meant for him. As London prepares for the Blitz, Will soon finds himself pursued by vicious agents and a ruthless killer known as the Pastor. All of them want Will's notebook and will do anything to get it. As Will's memory starts to return, he realises he is no ordinary sixteen-year old. He has skills that make him a match for any assassin. But there is something else. At his core is a deep-rooted rage that he cannot explain. Where is his family and why has no one reported him missing?Fighting for survival with the help of Mi5 agent-in-training, Anna Wilder, Will follows leads across London in a race against time to find the Stones of Fire before the next air raid makes a direct hit and destroys London forever.