“How I Got Published” by Charlie Williams

I was sitting in the spare room. It was only a room in the technical sense, having four walls, a door and a defective window. We’d just about squeezed a pull-out bed in there plus a tiny PC desk. I was at that desk, checking my email. I had been checking it a thousand times a day for maybe three months, ever since I had submitted my manuscript. At some point that obsession was going to drop off but I couldn’t see it happening soon. I had a feeling. I had envisaged it and it seemed plausible, and I just knew I was going to get something one of these days. It was dark outside, a windy November night. I knew this because the window didn’t shut properly and I had a draft on the back of my neck. I refreshed by inbox.

There it was, finally: an email from the editor at Serpent’s Tail.

I got up and paced back and forth. In a room as small as this, that just meant turning from side to side. Should I open the email? Maybe I should get my wife to read it. No… what if it’s good news? You’d be depriving yourself of the moment every aspiring writer dreams about, when you casually stroll up to the long-suffering partner and mention, by the way, that the dream has become a reality. But it probably wasn’t that, was it? It was probably the same old same. I sat down.

Somehow I knew it wouldn’t be the same old same.

Easy to say that now, seven years on. I find it hard to believe that there is some omnipotent god up there, pulling strings, making things happen on the ground and giving people hunches about the future. I love the idea of destiny but it’s a bit abstract, isn’t it, when you try to break it down? So how could I somehow have “known” this email would be a yes and not the usual no? I was someone who had only had short stories published in obscure magazines. This was my third novel, and my other two had got me about a hundred rejections. What made this one different? Why did I think this particular novel – DEADFOLK – was going to appeal enough to this particular editor for him to put his professional reputation on the line and publish it?

Some quite basic things, actually.

Firstly, I knew I had something different on my hands. Deadfolk was unlike anything else I had written, a maverick voice coming up out of a boggy patch of my brain that looked like primordial soup (although it was probably minestrone). And I knew I hadn’t just made it up (strange though that sounds, it being fiction). I could see bits of real people in the characters, and the narrator – delusional doorman Royston Blake – seemed frighteningly familiar. If publishers didn’t like this, they were at least going to have an opinion about it. And hopefully they were going to like it.

But who? Who was hopefully going to like it?

With my other two novels I had employed the classic “scattergun” approach: get a list of every agent and publisher in the UK and send a query letter to each one. Not a single bite for the first novel (no surprise) but at least a couple asked to see the full MS of the second. That approach was all wrong, and I knew it. Even if your novel is as mainstream as they come, there are still publishers who want that stuff and others who don’t. In the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, publishers seem to declare an interest in the same types of fiction over and over (popular, commercial, crime, whatever). Ignore all that and go to a bookshop. Learn which publisher does what based on what you find. Better still – what you have read. Chances are your new novel is a bit like something else you have on your shelf. Whoever published it might well be interested in yours. Not because it’s their speciality genre-wise, but because they have an editor there who responds to your style. Without even getting into genre, I knew my novel was strong in three areas: narrative voice, originality and no-holds-barred-ness. With Nicholas Blincoe, David Peace and Danny King on their list, I knew Serpent’s Tail had an eye for those attributes, and that I should try them.

One thing I found with my other two novels was that the odds are against you if you just send out your stuff and hope. You’re a like a cold-caller – making yourself sound as positive as you like but the punter is fed up with you before you’ve even started. I don’t know how many unsolicited manuscripts get added to slush piles across the world each year. Billions, is it? Probably billions of trillions, with a few hundreds and thousands sprinkled on top. And even if it was just hundreds, you’re still in for a fight. But how do you get round that? I didn’t know anyone in publishing, so should I just accept the weighted odds and join everyone else in complaining that it’s about who you know, not what you write?

For the record, I don’t think it is about who you know. A contact or two in publishing might get your work looked at, but new, unknown authors still get discovered all the time by agents and occasionally publishers (those who still accept subs). Saying that, insider contacts can’t hurt, right? So just to cover myself I set out to cultivate a few. Or at least try. But how? Writers are shy and antisocial. How does someone like that get in with publishing people, who are without exception confident and noisy? Do you hang around bars near publishers’ offices? Do you stalk them? No, don’t do that.

Try these instead:

  • Conventions (ie: Harrogate)
  • Societies
  • Author events
  • Writing groups
  • Web communities

None of these activities will necessarily land you a publishing deal, but they will link you up with your peers – the people in the same boat as you. Some of those guys will read your stuff. You will read their stuff and get a feel for what people are doing. You will share your frustrations, get tips from those who have had some success. You may even meet an insider or two, completely by chance and without having made any conscious, stalkerish effort to do so. That’s what I did on one of the web communities: a noir fiction mailing list I was subscribed to. I found out that one of the people I had brushed with on the list was, amazingly, the crime editor for Serpent’s Tail.

Not only did I have my most likely publisher identified, but I had someone real to send my MS to (and who was expecting it, because I had made damn sure he was). He still didn’t really know me from Adam, but we had a shared interest in noir fiction, even if my MS wasn’t necessarily a perfect fit into that genre. Maybe it’s a stretch to call that an insider contact, but it was good enough to get me a proper read… by an editor at the right publishing house, whose tastes I pretty much knew already. Maybe that’s why I felt mildly confident, opening the new email in my spare room that November night, the draft literally blowing my hair around but me not caring.

Five minutes later, after about twenty re-reads, I casually strolled up to my long-suffering wife and mentioned, by the way, that the dream had become a reality. ‘What?’ she said, ‘you fixed that window in the spare room?’

One thought on ““How I Got Published” by Charlie Williams

  1. helen735

    Thanks Charlie, that was a very useful and inspiring article. Some really good advice in there. I am at the stage of looking for an agent and thanks to some good advice from Zoe Sharp I booked myself onto the Creative Thursday at Harrogate. I’m terrified but looking forward to it.
    Good luck with everything, I’m off to buy a copy of DeadFolk.

    Helen