Second Novel – A Frank Discussion

Finishing your first novel is a complicated experience – at least, it was for me. First there is a sense of accomplishment that, however flawed, you completed a substantial work – in my case, a 90,000-word novel. But immediately thoughts should be moving to the next novel (or short stories if you want a change-up), we are told. I have found myself fixated still on the first, though. I’m not happy with it. As much as I admire some of the sections of the book, I am not happy enough with the total work. It mirrors how I felt when I ran my first marathon – I got my tactics wrong and ended up walking a lot during the last 10 miles, finishing outside 4 hours. You are supposed to feel a sense of accomplishment at completing a full marathon, yet I was left with an anticlimax – yes, I had finished a marathon, but I hadn’t entirely run it and finished under 4 hours. The next marathon I ran 3hr 57min … cue celebration? Nope. Again, I got my tactics wrong and finished badly. 4 weeks later I ran 3:55 in a more consistent run. Only after 3 marathons did I feel satisfied.

So I am engaged in a retrospective. I have reflected on novel number 1, which I elected to self-publish despite some promising initial feedback from 3 agents (though none would ultimately represent it). I have tormented myself about whether to leave it well alone and move on to the next, whether to do some rewriting of it with a re-release, or a third way.

As it happens, I have opted for the third way. I am writing a brand new novel, but one that will be what the first one could have been. I am a different, hopefully much-improved writer than the one who began The Murk Beneath in late 2009. I don’t want my first, flawed novel to swallow ideas that I can revisit and better express in the second. Will there be some overlap between the second and first novels? Yes, clearly. But they will still be very different experiences. Would someone who read the first novel feel a bit cheated if they read the second, given some similarities? I hope not and I don’t think so. But we are not talking about many readers, so it should not be something to worry me if I plan on a much more successful second novel.

I did agonize about just getting on with novel #2 and not looking back. What I like to do is to write a couple of chapters and see if they are “grabbing” me. If they don’t, I move on and try again until something grabs on to me. Only when I tried my third way did I get further and feel the magic again. There is a theory of flow by Csikszentmihalyi, which is a bit like a state of Zen. In the “flow channel”, you are finding things relatively easy, though there will be peaks and troughs (e.g. you flow easily through a chapter, but then have to figure out a nice way to end it that will hook the reader into the next) – but when in the flow channel, you keep safely between anxiety (e.g. writer’s block) and boredom (e.g. not really into the subject matter or theme of your novel). I’m only 3 to 4 chapters in, but I feel it. I think it will be a huge improvement on the first and I’m optimistic that this time I will get a good agent. No guarantee of course, but at least I’m in the channel now.

My reflections on the launch of The Murk Beneath, part 1

It was a long time coming. I put virtual pen to virtual paper back in late 2009 during the masters in creative writing I did in University of Edinburgh. By the end of that course, I have about 20,000 words of Mickey Bosco novel #1, original title The Long Run Back. Over the next year or so the word count was at 40,000 and then stalled. It gathered dust, so to speak. And then in the summer of 2014, when I should have been concentrating on my PhD (thank God I didn’t because I subsequently changed my topic), I started to write. And write. I wrote 50,000 words in 24 days and finished the first draft of the novel. I sat on it for a bit and did occasional minor rewriting and editing. And then in the summer of 2015 I decided to try my luck with literary agents. I probably submitted to about 16 of them, all respected, all representing legit authors, some of them prize winners. I had initial success with 3 agents. I knew immediately that I was way ahead of the curve. Most writers don’t get near to that. And we’ve all heard the stories about famous authors being rejected initially. The initial success was having the full manuscript requested – this is a big deal; it means the first 3 chapters or 50 pages was of a good quality and the agent sees potential in selling you on to a publisher. I thought I had it made at that point. And then 1 very polite refusal (lots to admire, etc.) and 2 tumbleweeds (you need to get used to black holes and tumbleweeds in this business, i.e. non-responses to queries – rude but they would claim they don’t have time – don’t have time to email with a single sentence? – “lot’s to admire, but we don’t think we are best placed to represent your book”, or similar).

I gave up for a bit then. The novel was shelved. I got my head down and concentrated on the PhD. Then I decided to submit to a small publisher in Ireland. I had seen them publish a big prize winner in crime fiction. What followed was a slightly bizarre email exchange where they said my query email only mentioned male authors, that the publishing industry was mostly female and that for future queries I should try not to alienate them. I only included some of the latest writers I had been reading – as it happens they were all male. Most of the authors I have read of late are men. I don’t see how that makes me sexist; I just gravitate to the writing I like and the fact that most have been male of late is more coincidence of timing than design (I have read in the past works by Val McDermid, Patricia Cornwell, Ruth Rendell, even Janet Evanovich, for example). Anyway, eventually I got a polite rejection (the lots to admire, but can’t be confident in representing it, type of email).

That was it for me. I decided there and then that I must self-publish, but do it professionally. The industry has been really shaken up in the last few years and it is well documented that most writers can make more as a self-published author and get more freedom and flexibility about how and when to publish, for how much, etc. But it need to be done professionally. I had the confidence that the quality of writing was fine (comments from agents like “very promising”, ” really enjoyed it”, “you can write”, “dialogue is spot on”), which drove me on and gave me confidence to put myself out there. I believed that the book would be enjoyed by the majority of those that read it, acknowledging that my novel was a bit too niche perhaps for a London literary agent to be confident in representing (i.e. that they could get a big advance from a publisher to get their 15% cut). Or maybe I am making excuses …

So that’s some of the story about the initial years of my journey to publication. In future posts I will discuss the self-publishing process, about how to do a professional job in putting the paperback and eBook together, and about marketing the book. With the book now finally published, the feeling of being a true writer is there. Of course you are a writer when you have finished a major work, be it novel, play or collection of poetry or short stories. But there is always an awkwardness when talking to others about something they can’t get their hands on – it’s all too abstract. Now I can point to the book on Amazon and say – “try calling me something other than a writer now!”.

One other thing that publishing the book has done is to release the shackles. While humming and hawing about whether to self-publish, whether to hold out for that publishing contract, I neglected my writing. Now that I have made the decision to just published and be damned, I feel something in my bones, something urging me to write. Never mind the money, the fame-seeking, etc., just write. And publish. And I will.

It’s coming very soon

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Focusing on the positives

I had been torn between just self-publishing my first novel (working title THE MURK BENEATH) and trying to get an agent / publisher. I was impatient to begin with – sod all the inevitable rejection and just go it alone. Then I hesitated. I’d give it a bash, see if I could get myself a reputable agent. And so I got my first 3 chapters into shape, wrote a fairly eloquent, if overly long, query letter, and sent it out to about a dozen agents – some targeted, some just to the generic submissions email. I’d get flat out rejections, I thought, justify my initial instinct to just stop wasting time and go it alone.

Then an agent replied: “I’ve very much enjoyed your opening chapters and wonder if you’d be kind enough to email me the full manuscript?”

Great, I thought, the rest of the book is actually stronger than the beginning… surely this is it!

A second agent responded, asking for the full manuscript: “[Y]ou can write. Your dialogue is spot on.”

And a third agent: “The beginning is tremendously promising.”

For just a brief moment I thought it was a virtual certainty. I was going to get an agent. I was going to get published. I was … well, I started to get carried away.

Then I heard nothing for a few days. I guessed that not hearing anything within a couple of days was bad news. Sure enough, the first agent responded with the bad news. “[T]hough I think there’s a huge amount to admire here I’m afraid I don’t feel I can take it forward.” I expect the rejection, so it didn’t actually hit me too hard. I’ve focused on the positives. The other 2 agents haven’t responded yet – I will follow up with them at some point to get feedback if they’ll indulge me.

So I can write, there is tremendous promise, etc. And I got further than the great majority of writers who don’t even get an acknowledgement, let alone have 3 agents request the full manuscript. I just haven’t pieced the entire story / plot together yet.

My plan is to shelve the book for a bit, substantially rewrite it later when I come back to it with a fresh perspective. In the meantime I am doing with my second novel what I didn’t do with the first – I am meticulously planning it, sketching in all the character outlines and plot points. I’ve had verification that I can string some words together, write good dialogue, and now I just need to piece it all together.

As for self-publishing? That’s on hold for the foreseeable future. If I can just get that first book published, then it will substantially increase my chances of getting previous books I’ve written published.

The Murk Beneath – A Synopsis

More difficult than writing a substantial work of 89,000 words is actually synopising it. Getting 350+ pages into 1. I have been rubbish at it to date, and it is a necessity when trying to sell your work to an agent or publisher (well, 2 agents and 1 publisher so far in my case, and I’ve yet to hear back from anyone). Here is my latest attempt, which is undoubtedly my best effort so far, but I’m not sure whether I am happy with it…

It’s 2010 in post-Celtic Tiger Cork. Mickey Bosco is a disgraced Guard, thrown out of the Gardaí two years prior when he choked a child killer into a coma. Now it seems like trouble is a blood relative, inviting itself around like the uncle nobody respects; the one who turns up at your child’s christening uninvited, reeking of alcohol; the same uncle whose funeral you go to anyway, because the sick bastard shared some part of you.

Mickey isn’t in the best of health. Trouble has been taking its toll and working the graveyard shift isn’t helping. It’s while working that graveyard shift, minding a distribution centre on Cork’s north-side, that a precision robbery kicks off a chain of events that leads to Mickey entering into the employ of a supposedly-retired ex-crime-lord by the name of Jim The Gentleman Jordan. The chain of events includes brushes with corrupt Guards, an attempted hit, buying a gun from a fixer called The Eel, kidnapping a mercenary and his girlfriend, being kidnapped himself by mercenaries, being fitted up for a serious of vigilante-like stranglings, and other events.

Mickey Bosco starts the novel in a bad place. He is depressed and lacking in confidence. He hasn’t been intimate with a woman for years. When he meets the daughter of The Gentleman, however, a side to him he thought was lost reawakens. A slow-burner of a romance blossoms, but not with the blessing of The Gentleman.

Mickey has to contend emotionally with the mysterious death of his father, Michael Senior, a crusading newspaperman who shifted along the razor’s edge of official society and the murk beneath and was cut down. He also has a difficult relationship with a devout Catholic mother who, despite being seventy-six, five-feet tall and obese, is mobile enough to drive to the farmers’ market twice a week and mass every morning at eight. He doesn’t see eye to eye with his mother when it comes to The Man Upstairs. There’s no doubt Mickey has sins to confess, but he’s damned if he’s going to confess them to a priest.

As the novel unfolds, we learn about Mickey’s penchant for Clonakilty black pudding, his love of artisan food (purchased in the English Market, of course), his preference for chillout music and his love of Melville, Vonnegut and Bradbury.

The novel ends with unfinished business for Mickey. But that’s for the next Mickey Bosco novel.

I suppose the trick is to give an idea of the novel without giving the plot away. Even agents and publishers probably want to read the novel and be surprised by it as they read. So I suppose I outline the framework / context of the novel and then bulletpoint some of the main events.

My Novel

Yes … a novel. My novel. The Murk Beneath. 89,000 words of gritty (literary) crime noir, set in my native Cork. First in the Mickey Bosco series. It’s strange to write that. Me, an author … a novelist. But it’s true. And one way or another, The Murk Beneath will see the light of day, at the very least finding its way onto Amazon.com, and ideally in a few bookshops around Cork and beyond.

I find myself impatient. This project began in late 2009 when I started a masters in creative writing at University of Edinburgh. I wrote a few bits and pieces, almost throwaway pages of ramblings. Then, somewhere amongst so much detritus, Mickey Bosco was born. Funny that a character that is so ingrained in Cork culture has his beginnings in Edinburgh, itself famous for some of the greatest characters in crime writing, Rebus and Sherlock, for instance.

I was preparing some sample writing for review by one of the creative writing lecturers, Robert Alan Jamieson. There was a range of fiction excerpts in that portfolio. Mickey Bosco was in there, though I don’t think I had named him at that point. There was some American police procedural stuff and an “out there” short horror story in there too. The Mickey Bosco excerpt is what Jamieson zoned in on and the rest is history. I wrote 10,000 words containing the start of what would become The Murk Beneath and submitted it as my assessable Christmas portfolio. I followed this up in the second semester with the next 10,000 words. For my creative dissertation over the summer, I decided initially to write something else, but soon returned to Mickey, though in a different novel, one that may never see the light of day, though I scavenged some of the better sections from that 20,000 words and they found themselves in The Murk Beneath. Over the following months, the word count reached 40,000. Then I gave up. I did almost nothing on the novel for more than 3 years. My confidence in my ability to finish a novel had taken a knock.

Then last summer, I had a revelation. One way or another I didn’t want to leave this Earth without having completed a novel. In the space of a very short few weeks, I wrote another 50,000 words and wrote the final, cathartic line of the novel on 22nd August 2014. I actually wrote the last 40,000 words in just 3 1/2 weeks.

Back to my impatience … I want to see my book in print. I sent a sample to an agent in July 2014 (I know … I had not actually finished by then, but it may have spurred me on) and was supposed to hear back in 90 days. I heard nothing. I sat on the novel for another few months, barely tinkering with it. Again, confidence a little low wondering if the novel was fit for publication.

Impatience pushed me to get the damed thing out in the world. Just over a week ago, I resolved to self-publish if I heard nothing back from two final queries – one to an agent, the other direct to a publisher. So, in two months if I hear nothing or get rejections, I will proceed with self-publication under my own imprint, Whitegate Press. If I have to, I will spend the time over the summer promoting the hell out of it, getting myself on radio, convincing local bookshops that it is worthy of their precious shelf space. I have the tools – InDesign, Photoshop, etc., and I have spent a lot of time researching print-on-demand. I have a professional-looking inside of the novel in 5.5″ x 8.5″ trade paperback novel format. All I need to do is order a batch of ISBN numbers and design the cover and I’ll be ready to roll. Unless I hear back from my queries …

I’m happy now with the book. I like it. I actually enjoy reading it. I think others will like reading it too, though who knows if it will be to everyone’s taste. At this stage, it is the novel I have had the most repeated reads of. I’m sure at some point I’ll get sick of reading it, but I’m not there yet. I still find the occasional sentence to rephrase, or whatever, but once the time comes, I’ll have to let go, finally.