My Path To Publication – by Barry Kirwan

This is the first in an irregular series of pieces by WW alumni detailing their roads to publication.

My (long and winding) eight year path to publication
Barry Kirwan

When I moved to Paris in the Spring of 2001, I wanted to start a new hobby. As a kid I’d written short stories for my school mates, and for work (nuclear and aviation safety) I’d already published three scientific textbooks. How hard could fiction be, I thought to myself, after all, you just make it up, right?

I attended an evening course with award-winning Canadian author Lauren Davis, and then a few short courses with local writer and poet Jen Dick. By 2003 I’d written a number of unpublished short stories, including ‘Trouble in Eden’, which would finally be published in 2011 first as an Ebook and then as a paperback. But getting there would not be easy.

Before that happened I had a lot to learn. I remember early on during my first writer groups asking what a POV was. Similarly when someone commented that my characters all had the same voice, I stared blankly in return. Still, stubbornness runs strong in my veins, and I continued. In 2004 I attended a week-long workshop run by Michael C Curtis (editor of Atlantic Fiction), and presented my science fiction short story. When it was the turn of my piece to be reviewed, other wannabe writers in the group proclaimed that it had the worst first line they’d ever seen, in or out of print. However, several of them added that although they hated science fiction, for some reason they liked my piece. Michael took me to one side and advised me to keep the characters and change the story. I did.

The turning point, at which it stopped being a hobby and became an obsession, was during one of our weekly writing group sessions when two fellow writers (Laurel Zuckerman and Chris Vanier, both now published) started arguing over two of my characters: “John wouldn’t say that, he’s not that kind of guy!” I watched, fascinated, realizing that for these readers, the characters had lifted off the page. From that point on, for myself, and my troop of characters who took up residence in my head, there was no turning back.

After eighteen months, thirty double-spaced pages had become six hundred, and the first draft was ready. Many science fiction books are long, so I didn’t see a problem with it. I sent it to twenty UK-based agents and Indie publishers, and got roundly rejected by all of them, some with nice words, some just form rejections. I decided to get it reviewed by John Jarrold, a SF book doctor and agent. He liked the intelligence and wit of the book but said it was not for him. I made all the corrections he had suggested, including cutting most of the sex scenes which he said didn’t work.

Still I was getting nowhere with agents, and as many of them prefer non-simultaneous submissions, time was stretching out, each send-off/wait/rejection cycle lasting several months. In the meantime however, I asked two friends to read it. They both did so in about a week, and said they couldn’t put it down. That kept me going.

A couple of years drifted by (2008 by now) and I sent it to Cornerstones to get them to review my ‘submission package’ (query letter, synopsis and first three chapters). A month later they told me my writing was good, whereas my query letter and synopsis were a total disaster – they’d be surprised if any agent actually read it!

I was gutted. But I made the changes they suggested and sent it out to some US agents – I had already tried all the UK ones, and you can’t go back to them with the same book. Within a month I had an agent (Robert Brown of Wylie-Merrick, in the US)!

At the same time, as fate would have it, a small publisher offered to publish the book, and I suddenly found myself in a bind. My agent promised to get my manuscript onto editors’ desks in Random House, Hachette, and Harper Collins (which he did, incidentally), and so tempted by this, I very politely turned down the small publisher. One of the hardest letters I’ve ever had to write.

After doing the rounds with quite a few of the big names and all the key SF imprints, and getting the ‘not quite for us’ kind of rejections, Harper Collins got interested, via their main SF editor in New York. I was ecstatic, but also holding my breath. She liked it and said they would ‘run the numbers.’ At the time I had no idea what that meant, but I do now.

In conventional paper publishing, there is a maximum size publishers want for a first novel from an unknown author. It’s around 120,000 words, and no more, because there is a step-change cost impact. Unless you’re a celebrity and have a great social network ‘platform’, the publisher is unlikely to cover their costs. Mine was 164,000 words. I had at one point been advised to lose a third of the novel, but this seemed an impossibility to me (and my characters!), though I had not realised how much of a ‘deal-killer’ this was. By this time it was August 2008, when the economic crisis erupted and bit hard into the US, emaciating the publishing industry. The deal with Harper Collins went South.

Seeing the writing on the wall, I went back to the small publisher asking if they were still interested. They said once an author said no, then that was it that for them.

For a while, nothing happened. I threw myself into the sequel, and by the end of 2009 it was finished, and at 120,000 words, far more marketable than the first. I approached Writers Workshop to review it, and SF author Gary Gibson did such an excellent job that I paid for him to review book one as well. During the review process, he remarked that I was in a difficult position: book two was more attractive to publishers, but was a sequel. He said either I persevere and hope that one day book one would get published, or else give up on the trilogy and start something fresh. He believed I showed promise and expected to see me on the book shelves at some point.

I have to say that this was the low-point, having spent seven years writing, learning the craft, and getting absolutely nowhere in concrete terms. My writing mentor, Jen Dick, was leaving Paris, and there was a farewell party. Talking to another writer (Janet Skeslien) who had been on one of my writing groups and had just published a best seller (Midnight in Odessa), I let off some steam about how annoyed I was with the whole industry, even though I knew there was nothing ‘personal’ about it. She told me to write about it. I did, in a short story called Writerholics Anonymous, a satire on the plight of would-be writers. I sent it off to a few places, one of whom said it was excellent, and spot-on, but they dared not print it as it would depress their writer-readers. Then Piker Press in the US took it, saying it was exactly the sort of article they had set themselves up to print. They then took another short story about Hell, and four more, and things started to turn around.

My agent was also disaffected with the industry, and the fact that good authors were being ignored, and set himself up as an E-publisher (Ampichellis Ebooks). He wanted my book to be the first they produced, so I agreed. The Eden Paradox came out as an Ebook on February 11th, 2011, and after an initial rocky start, got some excellent reviews and has been ticking over ever since. Phrases like “real page-turner”, “don’t like Scifi but loved this book” abounded. A small publisher (Summertime) I knew in Paris got interested in publishing it in paper, and wanted the entire trilogy. I said yes. We drank some champagne. She said I could have total control over the front cover. The pink bubbly stuff flowed.

The publisher announced the paperback launch date as 15th October. The next week I saw that Writers Workshop were having an event that same day in London and were inviting former published clients to ‘launch’ their books. I called my sister to tell her about it and she said, “You know what date that is, don’t you?” Even as she said it I remembered – it was the anniversary of my father passing away. I wondered about fate, and the way things sometimes turn around, and if he had a hand in all of this somewhere.

So, it is now out in Amazon, Waterstones is getting it, and I just pitched it to WH Smith in Paris. The cover looks great, and I’m proud of it, and the sequel Eden’s Trial will follow very soon (I already have readers demanding it). After all this, do I have any advice for wannabe writers? Hell, yes.

First, get the best advice you can, and talk to the professionals before you approach agents. You may think they’re expensive, but they can save you a lot of time, probably years. Second, getting published is a ‘contact sport’ – get to know the people, the industry, the characters, and what they want (attend writers conferences like the Writers Workshop one annually in York). Third, find a writing group with people whose opinion and critique you trust. Such groups are gold.

Last, people often talk about perseverance – “keep going and you will eventually get there.” The world, our lives (what I think of as ‘fiction for angels’ because they watch us to relieve the boredom), is like a wheel, turning sometimes to the sun, and sometimes to the night. It’s not personal, that’s just the way it is. If you’re lucky, things go right early on. But if you get a run of unfortunate events and timings, stick to the course, and if professionals tell you that your writing is good enough, the wheel will eventually turn in your favour. And all that time, you’ll polish your writing, so it will end up a better book. If I’d have gotten published back in 2008, it would not be half the book it is today.
Barry had his launch party at our Getting Published event last Saturday and his book, The Eden Paradox, is available in digital and paperback formats from Amazon as an e-book and in paperback. Also available from Barnes and Noble, and Waterstones . The sequel Eden’s Trial is coming out first as an Ebook in December 2011, with a paperback version following by February 2012, and the finale Eden’s Revenge is due September 2012.

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