I’ve now written six novels and every one of them was a struggle to get into print.
In the mid-1990s, I’d never had anything published – not a short story, not a poem, not a newspaper article. I didn’t know anyone in the industry. I didn’t socialise with other writers. I’d never even met another writer.
But I’d already authored three (unpublished) novels. And for my fourth attempt I decided to go for broke. No half-measures this time. A hugely ambitious 500-page revisionist Arabian Nights epic: Scheherazade. Researched down to the last grain of sand and jam-packed with everything I had to say on life. It took me two years of research and another three years to write (I had a full-time job), and when it was finally ready I submitted it to two independent assessment agencies.
Two glowing reports. Two recommendations to publish. Everything I could possibly have dreamed of.
Bursting with confidence, I sent the manuscript to a literary agent (along with the assessors’ reports). It took just a week to get a response:
“Sorry – I can’t see this getting published.”
(I remember saying to a friend, “Jesus – what on earth do you have to do?”)
But I sent it to another agent, anyway, and in the blink of an eye I had a lucrative contract with a major publisher. The book quickly sold around the world (though it wasn’t, it must be said, a bestseller).
My second published novel, The Lamplighter, was the only time I’ve not written on spec. But again, when it was finished, I took the precaution of hiring an independent assessor: “The best book I’ve read in 20 years,” he wrote.
Bursting with confidence, I submitted it to my editor.
“Unpublishable,” came the response, along with a seven page list of everything that was wrong with it. I had to effect substantial changes, I was told, including changing the ending, or I wouldn’t receive the remainder of my advance.
I ordered my agent to submit it around the world, anyway, and it promptly sold to numerous territories and a film production company (without, it must be said, becoming a bestseller).
My third novel, The Empire of Eternity, failed to sell on its first submission. My agent at the time suggested, with a heavy heart, that I should “give it away” (I’m still not sure if she meant the novel or my entire career). But I revamped the book and it sold around the world (without, it must be said, becoming a bestseller).
In the case of my fourth novel, the sociopolitical satire The Unscratchables (a detective story featuring anthropomorphic dogs and cats), it was my own friends who insisted it was a ridiculous concept and would never find a buyer. But it sold to a giant American publisher and scored numerous favourable reviews (without, it must be said, becoming a bestseller).
My fifth book, the lunar crime novel Nocturnity, was pilloried by my own agent in a report so withering that I mothballed the manuscript for three years. When I dared take it out again I rewrote it, beefed up the action, and changed the title to The Dark Side. It sold around the world and was optioned for a large sum by 20th Century Fox (without, it must be said, becoming a bestseller)
Which brings me to my most recent book, Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek (a sequel to you-know-what). No one seemed interested in it. Too short. Not bloody enough. Not lurid enough. No point submitting it. The indifference was so palpable that I decided to send it out personally. I was fully prepared for rejection but instead the book was snapped up by publishers immediately. It comes out in September 2017.
The moral, of course, is that persistence pays off. But to make a career out of fiction writing you still need to be very lucky. And very pragmatic. You need to discipline yourself. Control your ambitions. Pigeonhole yourself before others do. Select a genre and stick to it (unlike me). And diversify – flex your muscles – when your sales figures allow you to.
For all the frustration, though, I can’t say I have any regrets. I’m prepared for my next novel to be as difficult to get published as the first six. So is perseverance its own reward? Does an arduous journey make the destination sweeter? Of that I’m not sure.
But I do know that for a novelist there’s nothing else you want to do. The writing is what counts. Everything else can take care of itself.
(c) Anthony O’Neill
About Dr Jekyll and Mr Seek:
Seven years after the death of Edward Hyde, a stylish gentleman shows up in foggy London claiming to be Dr Henry Jekyll. Only Mr Utterson, Jekyll’s faithful lawyer and confidant, knows that he must be an impostor because Jekyll was Hyde. But as the man goes about charming Jekyll s friends and reclaiming his estate, and as the bodies of potential challengers start piling up, Utterson is left fearing for his life … and questioning his own sanity.
This brilliantly imagined and beautifully written sequel to one of literature s greatest masterpieces perfectly complements the original work. And where the original was concerned with the duality of man, this sequel deals with the possibility of identity theft of the most audacious kind. Can it really be that this man who looks and acts so precisely like Dr Henry Jekyll is an imposter?
Order your copy online here.