My first novel, The Istanbul Puzzle, a real mystery, has recently been released by Avon a division of Harper Collins. So far, it will be published in 14 countries. More will follow, so they say.
My story, getting from wanting to be a published to achieving itis an example of how to do things slowly. I think it’s probably just me. I like to rush things normally. I like shortcuts when I am driving home. I look for the short line in the bank. I wanted to get published fast, obviously!
But fate, in love with irony, made me wait. Here’s how it happened.
Back in 1998 I wanted to write a screenplay. I was bored with the office treadmill. I bought a book, as you do. It told me to write a novel. In 2000, when I came back to Ireland, after ten years in the UK and getting fired once too often, I decided to put my dream to the test.
I had an idea for a Roman era novel. So I spent five years perfecting it. As I did I started to buy books about writing. I have a few shelves full now. I realised there was a learnable craft to this writing stuff. Sure, you had to have good, original ideas, but there was stuff to learn about story structure, character development, plotting, dialogue and so much more. I assumed there was a shortcut to all this. I bought more books. How hard could it be?
I set that first novel aside on my twelfth draft. I was bored with it. The structure was wrong and it would take a total rewrite to get it right. I’d also paid for an ex UK publishing company editor to review the first few chapters. I couldn’t afford their full service.
But what they told me was enough. I had to sit down after I read their review. I couldn’t write another word for a week afterwards. I can still remember the thrust of what she said – your writing is like a set of instructions, you need to let readers feel what is happening, that is why they will read on.
You have to admit that is pretty devastating criticism.
And I started a new novel. I also started a spreadsheet of all the agents I was going to send the new novel to. That is how I have a count on the number of UK and Irish and American agents I sent the next few books to. And I started writing quicker. I spent three years on The Istanbul Puzzle, and two years on another. I also started visiting writers’ conferences. Like Listowel. Conferences for writers, not readers.
I bought a few more books too. I learnt that not all writing books are great. I started underlining the best bits. And I attended courses. One in the UK as I was working during the week over there. Then two at the Irish Writer’s centre in Dublin. All of which were truly useful. Conor Kostick was one teacher. Cormac Miller another. I also joined a live writing group in Dublin and met other aspiring writers every second Wednesday evening. And I joined online writer’s forums too.
I started getting up at four am to find time to write and research before doing a day’s work. It’s not that hard. If you go to bed before nine and have an understanding wife. But be warned, you do that for five years and you’ll never look back. Never look back on regular late nights that is!
I think I may have broken my life in pursuit of my dream. There’s always a price to pay. Isn’t that the cliché I should be using now?
But I enjoyed it all. Especially the time I flew to San Diego in California to attend a writing conference. Sure, it cost me fifteen hundred and I was going into debt, but it gave more meaning to my life, and a taste of excitement. I’d never been to California before. I went down to the Pacific on the second day. It was as beautiful as I could imagine. They live a blessed life in California.
There was a competition for the best submitted unpublished novel and 350 or so were submitted. But I never win anything, so I went to the bar when they were having the award ceremony. And when I was walking back people started asking me ‘Where were you? You won!’
Flying home was amazing. I was high, about ten feet above the fuselage all the way back. It wasn’t about the money. There wasn’t any. It was a touch of recognition. I was on the right road. I was going somewhere. The book that won that prize in 2007 was later renamed and is now The Istanbul Puzzle.
And I sent it around to agents after the award, mentioning I’d won of course, and I paid an editor €600 to advise me on how to improve it for the US market. And still it was rejected. Over and over.
But an agent in the US said she really liked it. And an agent in the UK said she liked it too. More markers on the road had appeared.
I set it aside. I wrote another novel. A crime novel about a pop princess getting murdered in Ireland. That was rejected too. I couldn’t afford to go back to the US so I bought a few more books and finally I decided to do one more re-write of The Istanbul Puzzle. This would be the last. I was planning to self publish it, make a few hundred back, go down that route if the agents rejected it again.
Then someone in a writing group pointed out that Authonomy, the Harper Collins UK online writers’ site was running a one day crime writers workshop in their offices in London. That was December 2010. I’d been a member of Authonomy and had read quite a bit on the site, but I hadn’t uploaded my own work as it was under consideration by a number of agents when I first found the site. Agents take months and months to decide. Sometimes they ask you to send a “full” – the whole manuscript – and still you don’t hear from them, a yes or a no, please, months later!
I had perfected my submission routine by then. I am sure I have a book on it somewhere. It was this. A short, sharp half page cover letter. A two page synopsis. Ten pages or twenty of the MS, depending on what each agent wanted. I checked the submission policy on each agent’s web site and only sent to named agents who wanted to represent crime/mystery novels too.
Then I went to Harper Collins. I flew to London on the first flight one Saturday and back on the last. It was a revelation. Their offices, near Hammersmith, are modern, shiny, but you can smell books in them. They have them stacked everywhere. It was like sneaking into a castle.
They publish Agatha Christie and JRR Tolkien and Cecilia Ahearn, the luminaries of publishing success. Even to get close to them was wonderful.
And then a lady I was chatting to at a coffee break said ‘Send me what you’re working on.’ She gave me her card. She was a commissioning editor for Harper Collins!
I spent the next two months on edge. I had submitted The Istanbul Puzzle, then I wanted to change it, but I didn’t. I just waited.
Then after a follow up email I got a reply in late January.
‘We all love it here in the office! Do you have any ideas for making it into a series?’
I had to walk out of the house. I felt all weird. I started laughing. I didn’t stop for a week. I was walking down the road laughing. I was talking to people and laughing. My life was changing in front of me. And it hasn’t stopped changing. This has been the best year of my life, (apart from the year I got married, of course!).
I was given a three book contract. The advance was reasonable. It didn’t change our life, but I’ve read that a huge advance can be a bad thing for a new writer. If your first book isn’t a hit that can be the end of you. We did a lot of editing, two big passes, and we did marketing. I had a Twitter account and a blog already, I started doing more on them. And it was all wonderful.
I had a hundred family and friends at a launch party in Dubray Books in Grafton Street in January. Dubray are all so nice! And I got taken for lunch by my editor and they opened champagne for me!
And now, as I write this, I am in Jerusalem. I am here for a week researching my second novel, The Jerusalem Puzzle.
And it’s very different to what I thought and not all easy. But I love it. This is the life I want. Researching, writing, planning new books. If I get run over by a bus tomorrow, or the next book fails, as it might, no one can take this away from me. I did it. I got published. I am living the life I wanted.
I hope you can too. Stick at it. Don’t give up. Learn. And don’t forget. Buy a few writing books! No, scratch that. But lots of writing books. They helped me.