Breaking into Commercial Fiction
I've just got back from Loughborough Uni where I was attending the Writing Industries Conference. It was a great day.
Below is the talk I prepared, some of which I used on the panel I was part of.
Breaking into Commercial Fiction
My name is Drew Gummerson. In 2002 my first novel The Lodger was published by a small publisher, it was a finalist in a book award in America. After that I was published in a number of short story collections, in print and online. I have won or been runner up in a number of competitions. Last year things changed. I got an agent and a book deal with a big publisher, Jonathan Cape which is part of Random House.
In July of this year my new book Me and Mickie James is going to be published. I also now have an agent in America and Me and Mickie James has been sent to a number of foreign publishers.
In a way Me and Mickie James is my story. It’s about a pop group called Down by Law. They are gay but don’t want to be pigeon-holed as a gay band. They also want to be a success but they are cynical about commercial groups. They want to keep their integrity.
That’s the thing about commercial fiction, isn’t it? It almost has a nasty ring to it. You see in the press those horror stories, Jordan, Kerry Ketona and the wife of Wayne Rooney being given huge book deals.
What did I read? What is it that Colleen has by the side of her bed, Wayne’s wallet, or was it a Pina Colada with a big umbrella? I forget. But it wasn’t a book.
When I went into Borders before Christmas it was a depressing sight. There were celebrity tie-ins, novelty titles everywhere. In Bed with Jamie Oliver, Do Ants have Asperger’s Syndrome and so on.
But in fact both these stories belie the truth.
Looking at the book charts in fact 67 of top 100 selling books last year were fiction. Amongst them is a whole range of writers, some expected, others more unexpected. And then look at the the competitions, AL Kennedy has just won the Costa, Anne Enright the Man Booker. There’s loads of good stuff around.
And that’s what I always say, if you’re good enough you’ll make it in the end. Whatever that means.
I asked my agent, ‘why me? Why did you respond to my initial enquiry?’
Agents and publishers notoriously get hundreds if not thousands of letters and proposals.
She looked me in the eye. “Because you’re brilliant,” she said.
She didn’t say that. She said, “Because your letter was in clear and concise English, you’d been published before, and because Ali Smith liked you.”
I’d once been placed in a competition that Ali Smith judged.
And that’s it in a nutshell.
I write a lot of short stories. I love short stories. I don’t see them as ‘practice’ for that great novel in me. I think if you approach writing a novel as a series of little steps you’ll be a better novel writer. Because you’ll have to think carefully about each sentence, each paragraph, each word.
Also it stands to reason that short stories are easier to get published than novels. And if you get published, as I said, you’re more likely to get taken seriously by the big fish.
I also think it’s important to know who you are as a writer, develop a style. I’m not saying write the same thing every time but work on something that is significantly you. I think that style comes from both reading a lot and writing a lot. Read above yourself. If you read rubbish you’re probably going to write it. Of course, my definition of rubbish will be completely different to yours.
Whatever you decide, be yourself. Don’t advertise yourself as the next JK Rowling, the next Dorothy L Sayers. What everybody is really looking for is the next ‘you’.
Another thing that helped me was getting feedback. There are, of course, lots of ways of doing this. Friends, though, are a bad option. Join a writing group, a real one or one online.
I am a member of ABCtales.com. This is an online writing community, a place where anybody can post their work. You can read other people’s and comment and they can read yours.
A lot of Me and Mickie James first appeared on there. In fact, it wouldn’t have been written if it hadn’t been for kind words on that site. I posted the first chapter and people said they liked it, wanted to read more of these characters. So I wrote another story, then another until I had a whole novel.
Writing for an immediate audience forces you to be good and makes you face up to your own writing.
That’s the thing about Me and Mickie James. I loved the characters and loved writing it. I think if we’re honest we all have dreams of huge commercial success, publishers, editors, agents, writers alike. We all dream of dancing boys and parties in Malibu.
But the reality is different. The reality is those hundreds of hours you will spend by yourself, just you and a pen and paper, or keyboard and screen. And that is the important part and if you’re like me, that is the bit the will make you happy.
So while ‘breaking into commercial fiction’ might be your aim remember that you are the person that’s going to be spending more time on this thing than anyone else so you’d better enjoy it because there’s never any guarantee that it is actually going to sell.
Currently reading Roddy Doyle - The Woman Who Walked Into Doors
Currently listening to - Elbow (going to see them in April)