Forgetting bad decisions and trying to make better ones

Imagine the scene:

I’m sitting in my office, laptop open, a blank Word document staring me in the face like a psycho with a meat cleaver and all I can do is stare out the window through unfocused eyes. There’s no point trying to hide it; writing has always been more an act of will than an act of love for me and I’m finding it difficult to summon that will at the moment.

My last three novels – which total around 500,000 words – remain unpublished, you see. In fact, of the ten novels I’ve written, only three are published – MEAT, Garbage Man and a filthy BDSM novel called A Willing Pupil (by the lovely but reclusive Jacqueline Griffin who lives with her two cats Bonnie and Clyde).

This is good because it means I have a sizeable back catalogue of work to sell – mostly Horror, SF or both. What I’ve discovered to my cost, however, is that publishers don’t want to know about more than one book. This utterly stunned me, I have to say, and shows my naïveté.

A couple of years ago, I passed my agent four synopses and the four completed novels they outlined. I asked my agent to take them to market. We offered them as a kind of array of what I was capable of, I suppose. Bad decision.

My thinking was like this:

Publisher comes across writer with acceptable track record; publisher sees writer has lots of material; publisher rubs hands together and offers writer a deal. My thinking was wrong, wrong, wrong.

Here’s why:

  • A commissioning editor wants to see one book from an author. Just one. It has to be the-most-incredible, heart-on-every-page, thousand-times-redrafted, similar-to-something-that-recently-succeeded-but-different-enough-to-seem-orignal novel that it almost killed you to write. That’s the kind of book they’re willing to look at long enough to say no to.
  • A commissioning editor doesn’t have time to look at more than one book from an author. They barely have time to read the single submissions from authors/agents already piled up. Showing them four is like, a really fucking stupid thing to do – but that’s the thing about being really fucking stupid, isn’t it? You tend not to realise until it’s way too late.
  • A commissioning editor will look at the kind of multiple proposal we sent out – it’ll stand out because they don’t get many – and say to him or herself, ‘Huh? WTF? Is this guy just knocking them out? I don’t want quantity! I want quality!’ They’re actually suspicious of the idea that you might have been writing novels for quite some time: it could mean your work is tripe! I find this hilarious now (though I do tend to weep as I’m laughing).

How do I know this? Because I’ve spoken to commissioning editors about it. In person. Some of them turned down the very proposals I’m talking about for exactly the reasons I’ve stated. They weren’t to know that I did almost kill myself writing every single one of those novels. They weren’t to know that each of those novels tells a riveting, moving, terrifying tale. They weren’t to know that quality is what I’m all about. And now, they probably never will.

No, I’m not going to commit seppuku with a fountain pen, folks; it’s just that commissioning editors aren’t in the habit of unrejecting manuscripts and they won’t be getting into it any time soon.

There is good news, though. My collaborative teen novel is with our YA Agent and is almost ready for publishers to see. My epic apocalyptic fantasy – say that with a mouthful of cornflakes – is already submitted and awaiting judgement. And, of course, the rights to my Beautiful Books titles are mine again. Add this to my back catalogue, which I’ll never submit ‘as a package’ again, honest, and we’re looking at an arsenal of books.

What hasn’t changed is that I’m still faced with making decisions and no way of telling if they’re the right ones. That would be too easy, wouldn’t it?



6 thoughts on “Forgetting bad decisions and trying to make better ones

  1. If it makes you feel remotely better, I absolutely follow your line of reasoning. I understand that editors are some of the busiest people imaginable, and they might find it hard to inspect more than one story from any author. But when you have something of a reputation to back you up, that should have given them time to think you might be worth looking at.

    For the third point, that’s just mindless assumption, and frankly doesn’t deserve the acknowledgement you have to give it. Once you’re signed, they want a book out every year. I know of more than a couple of writers who are sitting on completed work, not submitting yet because they have, oh, I don’t know, other ideas that demand to be written before they get caught up in all the research, querying and tracking associated with submissions.

    I hope awesome things happen with your stories in the near future!


  2. Pingback: I have ‘George McFly’ syndrome. « My Own General Thoughts

  3. As I have said before, my hat goes off to anyone who writes, and hopefully it all turns out swimmingly – reading this (and being directed here by Shaun) has inspired me to write a post on my blog ( so at least while your collective work may not be fully published your blog is still having an effect on it’s readers.

  4. Cripes, well had I more than one novel to offer, I’d have done exactly the same thing for exactly the same reasons.
    Who knew the hard part came after the flipping writing?! Actually, that would be me. And you. And anyone who’s ever tried what comes after the flipping writing!
    Good luck with the novels, Joseph – keep us posted!

    • Thanks, Carole! After reading your comment I’ve been trying to remember which part of the process was actually easy.

      But there wasn’t an easy part!

      Anyway, I’m sure there’s still plenty to look forward to and I will, of course, keep everyone informed…

  5. Pingback: Because of you, by the end of this post, I will have made up my mind… | Joseph D'lacey's Blog

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