Category Archives: Writing

My publishing journey: Signing with a literary agent

As I said in my last post in this series, once I had a complete novel manuscript I had rewritten once, line-edited and proofread, I started querying agents with it.

I’d once read a blog post by a published novelist who said that they’d queried around 40 agents before signing with one, and the process had taken 18 months. Totally arbitrarily, I decided I would only think about rehauling my manuscript and/or giving it all up and running away to the circus after I’d queried 40 agents and/or 18 months had passed without my receiving an offer of representation.

This might seem an odd way to do things, but I find with writing that you really just want to figure out a way to trick your brain into not worrying about the publishing side of things, so that it can get on with the work. (The work is the writing. The writing is the most important thing. I know I keep saying this, but it’s true!) The idea was to buy myself 18 months of peace of mind. As you’ll see, though, I never got a chance to find out if it would have worked!

I’ll talk about my query in detail in another post, but it was pretty standard US-style: I explained what the story was about, talked briefly about myself and ended by offering to send a partial or full manuscript if they were interested. Funnily enough, the chief thing that helped me draft my query letter (and actually just figure out what the book should be about) was Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 — but I’ll explain that in that other post!

I sent off my queries to 10 agents, eight of whom I’d basically just found on the Internet, and two of whom I’d been introduced to by author friends. Then I sat back, feeling contented with a good nine months’ work, and started thinking about the next project. It was going to be a space opera novella set in a world inspired by the maritime kingdoms of classical Southeast Asia (working title: Space Villette). I figured I’d have time to make a good start on a novella before I started hearing back from agents — heck, I’d probably be able to draft the entire thing by the time I had to think about Sorcerer to the Crown again, either because I had an offer of rep, or because I’d been rejected by 40 agents and had to rethink my approach.

So, er, I was wrong about that. Continue reading

My publishing journey: Querying agents

In the last episode, I wrote two books and chucked them because they sucked, and then I produced a very rough first draft of a Regency romance/fantasy crossover. This, unfortunately, sucked as well. But I could see within it the bones of something that could maybe not suck, so I thought I’d see what I could do to draw that out.

I put the draft novel aside for a month to rest in its juices, and in that month I researched. When writing the first draft I’d based my conception of the world on all the Regency and Regency-set books I’d read: Austen, Heyer, O’Brian. Now I read actual history books: books on Britain and its inhabitants in that interesting time, but also books about the transatlantic slave trade, Chinese emperors and Mughal India. I also read fiction and nonfiction from the actual period (thank you, Gutenberg!) — one of the best parts of writing historical fiction, IMO.

My head brimming with Regency-appropriate slang, I then re-outlined the book and wrote a second draft, cannibalising a fair amount of the first. By mid-2013 I had a complete redrafted manuscript that was as good as I could make it by myself. I wrote a query and synopsis, made a list of agents, and queried the first eight or so on the list.

(There is an additional step I could’ve taken between completing the second draft and querying agents. I should really, if I’d been properly conscientious, have asked a couple of my smart, generous writing friends to beta-read my manuscript, and done another revision pass based on their comments. I didn’t lor. I was too impatient! Anyway, you cannot escape the work that has to be done, as you’ll see later.)

On how I chose agents to query: I looked in the acknowledgments pages of books by authors I liked, who had careers I would like to have, and whose books were similar in some way to mine. I picked out their agents’ names and googled them to see if they were taking new clients, and if they were I added them to my list. Also, kind of randomly, I looked at QueryTracker’s Top 10 Most Queried Agents list and picked a couple to query, on the assumption that all those other queriers must have done their research and known what they were doing.

There are a couple of things I should mention for context, that happened around this time.

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My publishing journey: How I wrote three novels and binned two of them

After I figured out how to write regularly and how to sell short fiction, I decided I wanted to write novels. There was only one minor hitch to the plan. I didn’t actually know how to do it.

It seemed like it should be a straightforward exercise. After all, I’d read enough of the damn things. (It might give you some idea of my childhood when I say I don’t remember any of my classmates from Standard 4, but I remember the books I read. I also don’t remember anything I learnt in Kemahiran Hidup in secondary school, but I remember the book my Form 1 KH teacher confiscated because I was reading it under my desk while she was trying to tell us how often we were supposed to change our bedsheets. It was Dickens’s Hard Times and I was only halfway through. >:( Now I write novels set in 19th century Britain and I never change my bedsheets, so take that, cikgu!)

But I couldn’t work it out. It took me three years to complete a 25,000-word fanfic I’d started when I was 16: length was not my strong point when it came to writing. But your average novel is a little longer than 25,000 words and I knew that was what I wanted to do, so I resolved to write a drawer novel. (A drawer novel is a book you write and then put in the drawer, rather than selling it or letting anyone else read it.) It would be a bit depressing investing all that work and time in something that would never be seen by anyone else, but I knew I would never start if I had the pressure of thinking, am I going to sell it, how do I make it good enough to sell, who do I submit this to, etc. I just needed to know I could write something of the approximate length of a novel.

So that’s what I did.  Continue reading

My publishing journey: Networking, part 2 — thoughts on conventions

I wrote a very earnest post about my feelings about conventions, in the vein of my last Publishing Journey post about social media and community, and then I realised I couldn’t post it, because I haven’t actually worked out my feelings about conventions. So the post had that scattered, evasive quality writing has when you either don’t know how you feel about a subject or don’t want to say it.

So here are a few rather simpler thoughts about conventions, as bulletpoints. They are about science fiction and fantasy conventions because those are what I know, but some of the thoughts probably also apply to literary/publishing events/meetups in general. Buttonhole me at a con some time if you’d like to hear the more complicated version — that comes in paragraphs!

  • SFF writers tend to think conventions matter in terms of meeting editors, agents, other writers and potential readers. But they probably matter less than you might think. You’re not going to reach that many readers at a convention, and nowadays it is perfectly possible to get an agent and sell a book to a publisher without meeting them in person, much less showing your face at a con. In fact, that’s probably how most people do it.
  • That said, conventions can be fun if you are a nerd who likes to be around fellow nerds. They are a nice way to feel part of the community. (SFF is a community, or rather a group of overlapping communities, as well as an industry. These communities are not perfect, but there are benefits to participating in them actively — some of them emotional, some of them professional.)
  • A great upside to conventions is getting to meet people you have only known via the Internet. People are often even better in real life than on the Internet. It’s like how most people aren’t nearly as horrible trolls in real life as they might be in the comments of a Guardian article. In the vast majority of cases, if you meet someone who seems brilliant and nice and funny online, they are generally like that in real life, only even more so.
  • A great downside to conventions is often also that you meet people, in kind of a weird pressurised environment where your personal/social decisions can have professional implications.

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My publishing journey: Networking, part 1 — social media and connection

I’m getting geared up for the posts in this series that are probably what people are actually interested in, i.e. the bit where I signed with a literary agent and eventually got a book deal. But first I have to talk about everything that went before!

— Well, maybe not EVERYTHING. But let’s talk about a couple of important things. One is social media.

“Make sure you have a social media platform” is now hoary advice for published writers and writers working towards publication. I enjoy social media and it’s one of the things I make time for, other than writing and, y’know, actually socialising. It can be a horrible distraction as well, but everyone just needs to work out a way to control that for themselves lah.

But with this and my next post, which will be about conventions and networking, I want to talk about what I think is the real point of going to all the effort of being on Twitter and Facebook and having a blog. The point is not advertising or marketing or boosting yourself and your work constantly. The point is not having millions of followers on Instagram, or making lots of connections, useful as those can be. Those are obviously side-effects you might want to achieve, and there are also the practical aspects of it — you do want some form of online presence which makes your work available, so that people who hear about you can find and read your writing easily if they would like to. But even that is not the point.

The point is connection.

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My publishing journey: Writing with a day job, part 2 — work/work balance

In Part 1 of “Writing with a day job”, I explained why I do it. This post is about the how.

I have a fairly simple rule, which I started when I broke the hold of writer’s block and figured out how to write regularly. I decided I would write a little bit every day — a single sentence would do if I didn’t have time for more — but I would take one day off from writing every week. This was usually Friday, because I’d get to the end of my working week and feel very tired and want to mess around on the Internet or read stuff instead of writing.

I’ve more or less stuck to that basic rule since then. When I have a project that I’d like to get finished by a specific deadline, I’ll work out how many words I need per day in order to finish it and then do that, so there are times I might have a specific daily word count target (usually around 1,000 words/day). Other times I might decide I’m relaxing and just do a bit each day instead of having a specific word count I’m aiming for. Sometimes I’ll decide that editing or proofreading or preparing a story for submission will count as my writing work for the day, but I don’t let myself do that too much as actual writing is the hardest thing for me, so I’m a little worried I’ll just keep coming up for excuses for not doing it.

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My publishing journey: Writing with a day job, part 1 — why I don’t write full-time

Like many writers, I have a day job. I’ve been asked a few times whether I’d like to write full-time or (put it another way) why I haven’t given up the job now I’ve got a book deal. The answer varies a fair bit depending on my mood and the time of day, but the three main reasons why I don’t write full-time are:

1) I’m quite risk-averse. (I’m a lawyer by day. This is very common amongst bookish Malaysians whose parents want them to be able to cari makan.) Sadly, having one book deal is no guarantee that I would ever get another.

2) I quite like having a day job. Mine is interesting, well-paid and well-regarded, jokes about killing all the lawyers aside. I am good at it and like my colleagues.

3) I’m not sure I’d actually like writing full-time.

That last might need some explanation, given how maniacally invested “passionate” I am about writing. (I’m not an obsessed loser! I’m a passionate millennial!)

To be happy in your career you need three things.

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