Back in March 2011, Angry Robot Books, a UK-based publisher that generally only accepts agented submissions, held their first Open Submission Month, an experiment to see whether there were any unrepresented gems floating around the submitosphere that might be of interest.
In one month, they received 994 submissions. Mine was amongst them.
I’d had a somewhat frustrating time when it came to novels. I’d established a pretty solid reputation as a short story writer, at least on an Australian level: I’d sold a bunch of stories in Australia, the US and Europe, won a handful of local awards, and even had a collection published through an American small press. My reputation had been parlayed into teaching and mentoring stints at various industry associations, and I was pretty confident that, when it came to short stories, I knew what I was doing more often than not.
But therein lay the rub. Increasingly, I was confronted by the feeling that my career, such as it was, had reached a cross roads. I could continue to do what I was doing, and do it well enough, and accept that I had reached a natural level I was incapable of exceeding. But I’ve had a bee in my bonnet for a long time, one that demands I at least move towards a full time career in writing, if not actually achieve one. To do that, I needed to sell novels.
I’d come close with my first attempt, which I’d sent to 68 agents the previous year. One had picked it up, but we parted ways after she was unable to place it and didn’t like my second novel. No blood, no foul, and we separated on good terms. That second novel, an anti-fantasy romp entitled The Corpse-Rat King, was the one I sent to Angry Robot.
The deal was simple. Supplicants were invited to submit the first 5 chapters, or 10 000 words, of their novel, along with a synopses. A team of readers would plough through them, and ask to see the full manuscript of anything they believed merited further examination. Should that full manuscript be considered suitable, it would be passed upwards to editing bwana Lee A Harris. If it rocked Lee’s socks, he would take it to the editorial board and make a case for its purchase. Should the editorial board be persuaded then, and only then, would a contract be prepared and Angry Robot Shangri-La be achieved.
No guarantees, but then, only death and taxes and all that (and thanks to superhero comics and Christopher Skase, even they’re not absolutes).
So I submitted my synopses and five, and got on with other things. One of those other things was to continue my pursuit of an agent. I’ve always felt I needed an agent as part of my long-term strategy: whilst I want to write and conduct business to my own benefit, I’m aware of my weaknesses, and time-management is amongst them. An agent could take up much of the slack and apply much greater knowledge than I possess in terms of publishing law, contract negotiations and the like. Not only would I not have to do these things myself, I wouldn’t have to devote the time necessary towards gaining an intimate knowledge of them. I can take care of the creative stuff myself, but a business partner was always going to be a necessary component of building “Battersby, Inc.”
So, while I waited, the novel went out to 58 unsuspecting literary agents. And I got on with other things. Thankfully, I’ve got a lot of good friends who are experienced novelists. I’d been well informed: the novel game is a waiting game. Keep busy, keep working. I was tutoring an online course, and my day job is in the arts, and if you’ve met my family, well… occasionally I slept, and I could just about recite the Monarch Song from Horrible Histories off by heart. Most importantly, I started work on a new novel: Father Muerte & The Divine, a lengthier exploration of the character I’d created in several short stories, and a chance to finally answer many of the mysteries I’d raised in them. I kept busy, and tried not to watch the calendar.
Then word came from Angry Robot. The first reading round was complete. I’d passed. Now they wanted the whole manuscript. I sent it off. Word started filtering back from agents: rejection after dismissal after non-interest. Line after line on my spreadsheet was coloured in appropriately gloomy shades of grey.
I got on with other things.
Four months after submitting, I received a positive response from an agent. Then another. And a third. All liked the book. All were interested in representing it. I hadn’t mentioned Angry Robot. This was all about the book itself. Things looked positive.
Five months after submitting, word from Angry Robot: ‘my’ reader loved the full manuscript, and had passed it on to Bwana Lee. If he liked it, it would go to the publishing board. I’d passed again.
I compared agents, and came to a decision. And got on with other things
Father Muerte & The Divine hit 50 000 words. I joined The Angry Robot Waiting Club, a social forum on the Absolute Write forum boards devoted to the 22 authors who had gone right the way up to editorial and were now just waiting to find out if we were going to take the short, final hop from ‘aspiring’ to published novelist. We waited, together. I could recite all the way up to George IV.
October 26. Almost seven months to the day since I submitted my little package, and Bwana Lee sent me an email.
I’d made it. All the way through. A contract offer was, well, offered. As soon as I signed it and returned it to them, I would officially be an Angry Robot author.
Just one final thing to do: I forwarded the offer to my new agent, Richard Henshaw of the Henshaw Group. And got on with other things. I was right the way up to Victoria, now.
The contract went back. It went forth. It went back again. For six weeks, Richard and Lee negotiated. Angry Robot announced the first two Open Door month authors. One as even called Lee, damn it! Negotiations continued. I waited. My wife and kids began to comment openly about my crankiness.
They say most people drown in sight of shore.
And then it was all over, so quickly it took me two days after I was announced before I got myself together enough to make my own proclamation. The final contract arrived in my inbox, I signed and emailed it back, and my mug was up on the Angry Robot website in less than 18 hours. The Corpse-Rat King will be published in 2012. A sequel, Marching Dead, will follow in 2013.
All of a sudden, after nine months, I was an author with an agent, a two-book deal, and a deadline.
Nine months after submitting my package on the last day of the Open Door month, the landscape of my career has changed completely. Far from hoping for an opportunity, I’m in the position of making the most of one. For the first time in a decade, I’m heading into uncharted career territory. I have a sequel to write, and I need to make sure I’ve got novels to follow after it, so that my second book isn’t my last. I need to build a relationship with my agent, and provide him with materiel with which to approach publishers. The door may be open, but the next few years will determine whether it’s at the front or just the workman’s entrance in the alleyway round the side.
Father Muerte and the Divine, 55 000 words old, has been put aside. 25 000 words of Marching Dead have already been written, as of penning this post. Still, at least I know what I’ll be doing most evenings for the next three years…
(Departs, singing): William, William, Henry, Stephen, Henry, Richard, John, oi! Henry, Ed, Ed, Ed, Rich two, then three more Henrys join our song….
BIO: Lee is the author of over 70 stories in Australia, the US and Europe, with appearances in markets as “Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror”, “Year’s Best Australian SF & F”, and “Writers of the Future”. A collection of his work, entitled “Through Soft Air” from Prime Books. He’s taught at Clarion South and developed and delivered a six-week “Writing the SF Short Story” course for the Australian Writers Marketplace. His work has been praised for its consistent attention to voice and narrative muscle, and has resulted in a number of awards including the Aurealis, Australia Shadows and Australia SF ‘Ditmar’ gongs. He lives in Mandurah, Western Australia, with his wife, writer Lyn Battersby and an increasingly weird mob of kids. He is sadly obsessed with Lego, Nottingham Forest football club, dinosaurs and Daleks. He’s been a stand-up comic, tennis coach, cartoonist, poet, and tax officer in previous times, and he currently works as Arts Officer for a local council, where he gets to play with artists all day. All in all, life is pretty good. More information, and infinitely more lies, can be found at his website or his long-running blog The Battersblog.