Before the Big Break

I’m currently 27,273 words into writing my fifth novel. Or my fourth, if you don’t count the first one, which will never see daylight. Or my third, if you don’t count the one my agent has out on submission. Or my first, if none of them ever get published. But I think it’s my fifth. The others are written, and the few published authors I’ve shown some of them to like them.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet over 300 authors in the past couple of years, thanks to the shows I do with Vic Watson – Virtual Noir at the Bar and Bay Tales. They’ve all been lovely –except one who was the absolute worst human being in the world. I’ll reveal which international best-selling author that was at the end of this article*

From the outside looking in, it’s easy to ask if the book you’ve spent months – even years – working on is rejected, why bother? My wife, an artist, points out she did ‘quite a few’ pieces to develop her skill before she managed to sell anything. Why should I sell a book with my very first effort? She’s right, of course, and once we resume speaking after my sulk has finished, I almost admit it.

As Stephen King famously said. “By the time I was fourteen the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced it with a spike and went on writing.

I asked the question on Twitter: How many novels did you write before ‘the one’ that was published?

85 authors answered the question – ranging from award-winning, international bestselling to indie first-timers. Some just gave a number, and some were honest enough to share more details. Some gave nuanced answers I couldn’t neatly transfer to a chart.

So here we go. The summary and then a few selected comments. With NO scientific conclusions.

Feedback from 85 authors via Twitter

Straight Out of the Gate – Published First Books

Laura Shepherd-Robinson, DV Bishop, Will Carver, Martyn Waites and Robbie Morrison

Before assuming anything about these preternaturally lucky/ talented (delete as your envy dictates), it’s worth noting some of the accompanying comments offered –

Laura Shepherd Robinson’s debut historical novel Blood & Sugar was the first book she finished. But as she pointed out, in some ways, it was more than one book, rewriting it ‘from top to bottom three or four times.’

Martyn Waites – the author of (amongst others) the Joe Donovan series, says his first novel, Mary’s Prayer, took five years and ’a hell of a lot of rewrites and edits’. It was, he adds, how he learned to write. Martyn had done some TV writing, and there’s a reoccurring theme for some ‘published at the first effort’ writers. Robbie Morrison (Edge of the Grave – Bloody Scotland’s Debut Crime Novel of the Year 2021) had been writing for comics, including iconic characters like Judge Dredd and Dr Who – so first time success, but with 25 years of writing behind him. DV Bishop, author of the Cesare Aldo mysteries, has had every novel he’s written published. He admits this may seem ‘unusual’ but adds he has half a dozen screenplays of varying lengths that have never/’will never’ get made.

Then there are the ‘half works’. Will Carver (Psychopaths Anonymous) wrote half a black comedy that was received well had it suggested his style might suit crime (it does). Rosie Walker, author of ‘Secrets of a Serial Killer’ who had many opening chapters and unfinished plans,  points out ‘, if you have time to refine your chosen path with a few novels, you’re kind of locked into your genre once you’re published.

And two final things on the ‘lucky one and done’ crowd:

One: Don’t think just because your first effort is snapped up by an agent it’ll get published – or if it is published, your future as the next John Grisham is assured. As Luke Deckard points out, “I don’t think (getting his first novel published) was a good thing. I was a novice, and my publisher was dinky and therefore offered no support or guidance, which bit me in the arse.”

And Two: It might not be a quick process – as Ely Percy says, “my first novel was published… (but it) took 16 years. I just refused to give up on it.”

One (inc. One and a Bit) …The Practice Run…

Harriet Tyce, Mason Cross, Jonathan Whitelaw, Bonnie Garmus

Harriet Tyce had a massive hit with her debut – the Sunday Times best-selling Blood Orange. She graduated in 1994 with a degree in English Literature. She then spent almost a decade as a criminal barrister before completing her MA in Creative Writing. Before Blood Orange, she wrote ’a whole one, two-thirds of a second, and 20,000 words of a third.

Some start early – Jonathan Whitelaw, at 19, wrote a ‘weighty space opera opus’. When that didn’t work out, he underwent a few (generally still) unfinished works before writing the original draft of his first published debut in just 6 weeks.

Mason Cross (the Carter Blake series) said one and a half, and Bonnie Garmus (Lessons in Chemistry: The No. 1 Sunday Times bestseller) wrote ‘one half of a novel, then abandoned it, then wrote one full novel which died, then wrote a third, which made it.’

So, all of them less than two, I think. I’m not good with numbers.

Those half-finished snippets and bits and bobs were a common theme. Several authors, including Roxie Key, say they’re determined to recycle, use, or at least learn from them.

Nothing is wasted…

Two- To Figure Things Out…

Caroline Green

By the time you’ve written two books, you’ve sorted it out, learned what publishers are after and can sit back and wait for the emails to come flooding in, begging you for your third effort. Right?

Caroline Green, author of Sleep Tight (written as CS Green), might feel otherwise. Her third effort was published after 37 rejections. Speaking to award-winning and best-selling authors, I can testify Caroline’s experience is far from a unique tale. Sometimes it just needs the right editor to click with your book.)

Three… Fourth Time Lucky, Then.

Olivia Kiernan, Chris Ewan, Lesley Kara, Alison Belsham, Alex Stone

Olivia Kiernan, Chris Ewan, and Lesley Kara – all best-selling authors- told me they had three attempts before publication. If that’s not a reason to keep going after the first couple of efforts, what is?

It can be a long slog. Alison Belsham won Bloody Scotland’s Pitch Perfect with what would be her debut, The Tattoo Thief, but it was her fourth novel. She explains, “Got an agent with No 1 back in the 80s, but it never went anywhere. Some agent interest in No 2 in the 90s, but then no. No agent or publisher interest on No 3, though I still hope to see it fly one day…”

It’s a theme repeated many times. Book ideas are not dead… they’re sometimes just resting. And several authors spoke of the strange ‘order’ of completion versus publication. If nothing else, they’re learning experiences. As Alex Stone (The Perfect Daughter) says, “(The first) 3…helped me find my current genre and voice. Still hoping to publish them one day, but will go back and edit a lot first.”

Four…Fifth Time’s the Charm

Dominic Nolan

Dominic Nolan, the author of Vine Street (Best Crime Books of 2021 – The Times/Sunday Times), completed four. He explains: “Then there was a fifth that I got to the ¾ point four times, in four totally different ways (amounting to about 250k words) before I had to delete it—or I’d still be fucking around with it now. Then Past Life, which was the quickest of all of them to write.”. Those four books were, he says, “250k words of learning when to finally hit the kill switch (which I’m still not sure I’d know when to do in time, should the problem arise again). I think I learn more from completed failures than incomplete ones (which still contain the illusion of promise).”

Will Maclean (The Apparition Phase: Shortlisted for the 2021 McKitterick Prize): says his four pre-publication efforts were ‘all excellent practice and a necessary apprenticeship’. He adds – ‘A thing I’d have absolutely hated to hear at the time.’

Of course, traditional publishing is not the only way to reach a wide audience. Mel Sharrat has sold 1.8 million books. After four efforts, she self-published book five and eventually the first four. She points out that she had twelve years of rejection from agents and traditional publishers before that fifth book…and is now writing book 25. Her motto, she says, is ‘keep on keeping on, as long are you’re still enjoying it.’

Understandably, for some authors, things start to get a little hazy about exactly how many they have written by the time we get into the higher numbers. Derek Farrell, the author of the Danny Bird series, says, “three plus some terrible short stories”. But then he remembers the fourth – a Dublin Council Estate set Less Than Zero rip-off (his description). Michael Malone had 5 unpublished novels before getting ‘the one’ accepted. He points out all five have since been published with extensive edits. Samantha Tonge thinks 5. That’s the one the agent subbed, got nowhere, but became book 3 with the publisher she went on to sign with for the next book (number 6) she wrote. Tess Sharpe wrote sixteen – but isn’t sure whether to count the first ten; written when she was a pre-teen/ teen.

And let us finish with a success story of perseverance.

James Oswald, the bestselling author of The Inspector McLean series, is as honest in his experience as he has been recently on Twitter about his earnings from writing.

James Oswald

He says, “I’d written seven novel-length books before Natural Causes, but also wrote another three before that was published. Those three also got published later, as did another two of the seven. Every so often, I think I might revisit one of the others, read a bit of it and go ‘nah’!”

Conclusion

I’ve got nothing.

I spoke to one award-winning writer who was rejected over 20 times before his debut novel won all the awards. I’ve chatted with authors who have had huge critical success and still sweat bullets every time they submit their new manuscripts. I’ve read efforts from unpublished authors that I think are brilliant but keep getting turned down – often reading them on the same day I read ARCs from ‘names’ I just don’t get at all.

All I do know is I enjoy writing.

It’s frustrating. It’s often one step forward, two steps back.

But I enjoy it.

It may take the five I’ve written to get published; it may take 20. Or it may never happen. But those completed stories are done, and I’ll keep saying I’m a writer.

I hope the honesty of all the authors willing to share their experiences with me gives you the incentive to keep going with your own writing. And if you like this follow me on Twitter at @SimonBewick and I might bother some more writers…

* I lied about that worst person thing. I’ve had criticism about my endings disappointing before. I thought it only fair to carry on that tradition here.  

We’ll be asking the best crime and mystery authors questions at our second annual Bay Tales Live show in Whitley Bay on March 4th 2023.

You can sign up for free at https://tinyurl.com/baytalessignup to hear when tickets and the full lineup are announced very soon.

And feel free to look round the site at some of the other stuff on here!