By Daniel I. Russell
Back in 2004, when I had more hair and could stay up past eleven without getting grouchy, when the only thing to keep me out of bed was a good night on the town rather than a screaming baby, and I was damn sure I’d be rich and famous one day, I finished my debut novel in a crappy flat above a photography shop in the UK. Samhane was sure to be picked up by an agent and sold for megabucks and I could quit my crappy job and live the high life, or so I thought at the time. Sound familiar? I was 24 and didn’t know any better.
Sure enough, agents said no. Publishers said no. But why? Surely this was a great book, right? All my friends and critique group thought so.
Ah, the naivety of youth…
So I did what any aspiring writer would do. I considered self-publishing. Did you know that every self-published author sells thousands of copies, and makes more money than a traditionally published author? Hmm. Okay, if you did know that you might want to talk to a few more honest self-published authors. I’ll admit, I came close at the time. But I was a HWA member back then, and that combined with a friend’s bad self-publishing experience made me decide to put the novel away in the drawer of doom.
So I chose to do the only other thing available to me. I decided to GET BETTER.
I leaned on a few editor friends and got dragged through an editorial boot camp. I tried for a longer and more ambitious book the second time around, going for more characterisation, going for more general appeal by mixing genres. I went back to Samhane. I rewrote. I learned.
It was bloody hard work. I think back to the year I wrote that second book, The Collector, and remember sitting in my room at the back of the house (I’d since moved to a small terraced house overlooking the railway) and just working and never seeming to get anywhere. The short story sales kept up morale, but I felt that this was the book that would end my novel writer aspirations. It just seemed to go on and on!
On a side note, looking back I find it interesting how The Collector developed. Like all stories, it started with an idea, and that was of a high rise block of flats where no one got along. I had an old woman who the locals thought was a witch, and a bunch of drug crazed hoodlums that ran riot. In the building was a ghost, a grey man, who only the kids could see. They called him ‘he who walks between the walls’. That’s all I had going into this, and while some of those elements made it into The Collector, it turned out to be a very different ride. I also remember seeing the movie adaption of Stephen King’s Dreamcatcher, and liked how Damian Lewis’ character suddenly develops this really posh but sinister voice. I wanted that for my Collector.
The first draft came in at around 130,000 words. It felt like a monster.
Surely, SURELY, after all my hard work, this book would be picked up? The manuscript did the rounds and even had a few nibbles from agents…but it all came to nothing. Nobody wanted The Collector. It’s frustrating to have these agents and publishers say positive things about it, but then pass because ‘we wouldn’t know how to market this – horror, SF, fantasy?’
And it’s devastating to put so much effort into something for it all to be for nothing.
Sound familiar, fellow writer?
I always think about things I could have (and some would say should have) done with all that time. Got fit. Learned a new instrument. Worked more overtime for that promotion. Hell, just relaxed and lived a little. Being hunched over a keyboard, drinking copious amounts of coffee and sweating over possible plot holes…it’s not a very glamorous existence. It’s soul draining and, writing groups and social networking aside, quite a lonely calling.
Isn’t this guest blog becoming a miserable, depressing affair, dear reader? That’s okay. We’re at the end of the second act now. Luke’s discovered Vader is his father and the Rebel Alliance hasn’t a hope in Hell. Han’s in carbonite for Pete’s sake! Things are always darkest before dawn.
So act three, present day. Or the writer’s life equivalent of Return of the Jedi.
Why do we writers write? This is the question I’m asked most of all, and normally from fellow scribes. I’ll give you the same answer I always give: that we have to. I think we have some addictive side to our personalities, and also a little masochism in the mix too, that forces us to get our arses in the writing seat hour after hour and do nothing but manipulate the movie in our heads and try not to dangle our modifiers. I’ve tried to quit more times than I can count, especially after a drought of sales or a particular stinging rejection.
But going back to the title of this post, you have to want it. Want it bad. You have to keep going, put one foot in front of the other and repeat until you cross the desert. You might even be lucky enough to find an oasis or two along the way.
So am I on the other side of this desert? No. I still go to work every day. I still have more rejections than acceptances. I haven’t won any awards.
But I am enjoying a particularly nice oasis.
Let’s get back to The Collector.
My opinions of self-publishing have changed in that, while I still don’t think that starting authors should really consider it without working with experienced editors first, I feel it can be a valuable marketing tool.
My rewritten Samhane was released by Stygian Publications after a few years with another publisher, and to help get the name out there, I re-released some previously published short stories for free on Smashwords and Kindle. These were well received, and it made me happy to know my work was being read. I wanted something bigger, and with two more books having been picked up (Come Into Darkness with Skullvines Press and Critique with Graveside Tales) I hoped that more freebies would help with garnering a wider readership.
So what did I have handy to release? Something bigger that I could deliver in parts…oh yes! That novel that no one wanted. The Collector.
So I gave it a brush off, split it into nine parts and released a part each fortnight.
And what were the results of this unpublishable and hard to market novel? Over 3000 reads on Smashwords alone in 6 weeks with numerous reviews, 4/5 being the lowest rating.
I’m not here to blow my own trumpet, and these figures might have more successful writers rolling their eyes and chuckling, but for a book that was doomed to never see the light of day, the reception spun me out.
Towards the end of the run, the peeps at Dark Continents read the full manuscript and the rest, as they say, is history. The Collector will be available in print in a complete volume before the end of the year.
So while I don’t see myself as the overnight self-published success story that so many people want to be, I hope my story goes to show that with a little luck and a lot of hard work, it can open doors that might lead to bigger things. In my case, the chance to work with a publisher I’ve wanted to be a part of for a while now.
Thanks for taking the time to read the story behind The Collector. My final thought goes out to you guys who are partway through a novel and struggling to get the words down: If you want it enough, you’ll finish it. Dig deep. At the very least, if your characters are doing their job, they’ll deserve to have their story told.