Getting it Published #3: 1 Chronicles

First things first: IT IS NOW ON SALE!!! And for one month only, it is going for a mere 99p. It will get more expensive after that, so even if you don’t yet own a Kindle, I suggest you snap it up all the same……

Now let’s get down to the nitty gritty: how do you go about getting published?

I had no idea. I still don’t, really, but I had even less of an idea back when I finished More Tea, Jesus?. I did at least have no idea from a standpoint of experience: a juvenile comic rewrite of The Canterbury Tales (all in Middle English and rhyming couplets replete with witty footnotes, months of work which I have a gut-wrenching feeling is now Lost For Ever) and a slightly less juvenile (but actually very juvenile) attempt at a novella, plus subsequent juvenile attempts to get them published, had left some things clear:

1. Nobody wants to publish something written entirely in Middle English.

2. Nobody wants to publish a single novella.

3. The only publishers who actually want you to approach them are the ones who are going to charge you for the privilege of being published.

Eight months after my first lightning strike of inspiration for More Tea, Jesus?, I had a complete novel not written in Middle English. But I still had no idea about how to get it published without paying someone to do it, something which I simply Would Not Do (not out of any great principle so much as a lack of money, though there are also excellent reasons not to go down that route if you’re contemplating it).

Fortunately, I’d made a few friends who I thought might have a better idea. The journalist who had written nice things about my improv show in Edinburgh 2003 had turned out to be the endlessly interesting1 Paul Carr, who had continued our acquaintance by using me as a writer for The Friday Thing and then gone and announced the launch of a new publishing company. Could this be the foot in the door I needed to see my novel on the shelves of Waterstones?

Not really. The Friday Project were exclusively concerned with turning web material into books, so More Tea, Jesus? wasn’t for them. I made co-founder Clare Christian read it anyway. I also plied her for information and did some ostentatious networking at a few launch parties, thus managing to gather a small list of publishers I thought might be interested in my novel, but who turned out not to be.

In the meantime, I pitched The Friday Project an idea based on a series of articles I had written about my experiences at the 2004 Edinburgh Fringe, which they thought was a jolly good idea, and co-authored a self-indulgent and ultimately uncommercial book called Fringe2.

Fringe book cover

It’s pretty easy to forget about your unpublished novel when you’re working on an actual real commission, and in any case, More Tea, Jesus? was probably sitting on somebody’s desk at the time. That’s the great thing about leaving your manuscript on somebody’s desk – you feel like you’re actually getting somewhere and you don’t have to do anything! My word, the months and years that More Tea, Jesus? sat on desks while nothing at all happened… In my defence, agents and publishers were less keen on email submissions then than they seem to be now and I didn’t own a printer, so every time I sent out the manuscript I needed to wait for its return before I could get it to the next person on the list.

But The Friday Project were growing: first they announced that they had hired Scott Pack as Commercial Director, then they launched Friday Fiction, and suddenly More Tea, Jesus? WAS the kind of thing they might print. But before I could find a tactful way of asking Clare if she remembered reading that novel I’d written all those years ago, she got in touch with me: she had shown More Tea, Jesus? to Scott and he liked it, and if the man once described as ‘the most powerful man in the books trade’ liked it she couldn’t see any reason not to publish it. So please could they publish it?

I told her I’d think about it.

So I found myself (metaphorically) dusting off the old novel and (literally) giving it a good going over. Here’s a rare good piece of advice if you have a novel you want published: revisit it every few years. I can’t understate the value of going back to your work when enough time has passed for you to be able to look at it dispassionately; bits I had loved before made me cringe with embarrassment and were hurriedly cut or rewritten. My habit of overwriting everything and using four long words when one short one would suffice was horribly apparent and led to a healthy shortening of the word count – which I managed to bump up again by developing some scenarios which hadn’t fully reached their comic potential.

There was also the all-important editorial input – little details mostly, amongst them Scott’s comment that some of the characters had rather silly names, which I have blogged about elsewhere. For the most part, the rewrite was a simple one – details rather than structure. Not so with the ending, though.

In its original form the plot threads in More Tea, Jesus? were all resolved three chapters before the end but the story kept on going. There was an excellent reason for this: the plot threads in the book are about the characters in the parish, whose stories just happen to have been complicated by the arrival of Jesus; tying off these plot threads didn’t, therefore, deal with the small matter of the Second Coming itself. In sorting this out, the final chapters also became the kind of satirical heart of the novel, though it’s dangerous making statements like that because it sounds a) desperate and b) wanky.

Structurally, certainly, it was messy. I resolved the issue by splitting the book into three sections (rather than the two it was already in – B.C. and A.D., essentially) and dealing with those last few chapters in the passage of Holy Week. Although this actually lengthened the section it made it feel quicker, and although the structure was still weird at least I was embracing it rather than trying to squirrel it away in a few extraneous chapters.

Perhaps inevitably, it came in for questioning, and rightly so. Also rightly, when I argued that the section was ‘the satirical heart of the novel’, I was told to see if it worked any other way all the same.

I can’t remember how many versions I wrote of that final section – one solution was to turn the section into a single chapter, which was overlong and messy again, and the most extreme version squeezed the whole lot into a short epilogue, which felt tidy but, on analysis, left the novel unfinished. The point is, I tried the alternatives – and yes, it was very satisfying when the publishers agreed with me that the original solution had been the best.

The copy edit was also fun, given my propensity for breaking (or at least bending) certain established conventions in the use of the English language, particularly in dialogue. Always useful to be challenged on such incorrectness, because it separates the bits that really need to be like that from the bits that are just lazy.

But finally it was ‘locked off’: manuscript at the ready, blurb written for the back, heartfelt dedication laboured over and a cover designed, the book looked ready to go in a month or so and it was all frankly jolly exciting.

Then Friday Books went into liquidation.

Next episode: 2 Chronicles – the issue of the title…

1Not always for the right reasons.
2Curiously, Fringe now seems to have been turned into a successful American science fiction series, but since they’ve ditched the Edinburgh setting and all of the stories I wrote – even the one about Paul Daniels – we don’t get any royalties from it.

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