by Chris Dolley
When I started out, I wanted to write children’s books. Which wasn’t that surprising considering I was a child at the time. I’d written my first autobiography at the age of 13, and my first full-length children’s novel at 15. I even sent the latter to a string of publishers. Naturally I followed the guidelines – sort of. The publishers asked for a neat typescript and, for a 15 year-old boy, my typescript was pretty neat. Okay, it had a lot of corrections, but typing is hard. This was the pre-word processor age and paper was expensive. And no one really expected an author to re-type an entire page just because of one mistake. Or two. Or … I did say typing was hard, didn’t I?
And the big advantage of a typescript sculpted with layer after layer of correction fluid is that it doesn’t bend. So when the publisher sends it back, they can’t crease it and it’s good enough to go straight out to the next publisher on the list!
I did say I was poor, didn’t I?
Life then intervened and I put my writerly ambitions on hold until I gave up the day job. Most writers will tell you that the correct order of things is: Build your writing career, then give up your day job. But I’m not someone who can write in their lunch hour. I worked in IT and lunch hours were for drinking, or playing sport, not for writing.
Freed from the daily grind, I dug out all my old children’s stories, dabbled with some new ones, then decided I wasn’t a children’s writer any more. I had no idea what I was. So … I decided to experiment. I’d write short stories in various genres until I found my niche.
I tried a bit of horror, then SF, and started submitting my stories – word processed and highly bendable – to the handful of pro UK mags. And I started work on a novel – SHIFT – which was a much-expanded adaptation of an earlier short story, ‘The Hands of the Traveller.’
I started to get some positive feedback. No sales, but … I was a near miss for the Ian St James Award (the biggest short story competition in the UK) and the first agent I sent SHIFT to wanted to see the full manuscript.
That’s when I first discovered the small press SF mags. I’d read somewhere that the best way to get a book published was to have a solid portfolio of short story sales. And if I was a near miss for the pro mags, surely I’d be a shoo-in for the small press. I could then hone my skills there and move up to the pros later. I didn’t know it at the time but this was very flawed thinking. I had the idea that the small press was a junior version of the pros. In football terms, I saw the pros as the Premier League and the small press as a couple of leagues below them. And plenty of footballers began their career playing in the lower leagues before a bigger club noticed them.
So, I started submitting stories to the small press. And getting rejected. And rejected. Stories that were a near miss for the pro mags were coming back with form rejections. I couldn’t understand it. Even less so when I read the stories that these mags had accepted. In hindsight I should have realised then that if I didn’t like any of the stories in a magazine, then that magazine is not one I should have been sending stories to. But I was desperate to be published and most of the other small press mags were the same. So I tried to adapt my style.
And lost several years. There’s a good reason that editors ask contributors to read the magazine prior to submitting. What I’d failed to realise was that the small press wasn’t a junior version of the mainstream press. It was many things: an alternative press, a niche press, a labour of love. And I was a mainstream novelist who should have been writing mainstream novels.
So be careful which advice you listen to. In this internet age it’s much easier to find good advice, but it’s also easy to be overwhelmed by the plethora of not-so-good-for-YOU advice. If you ask a hundred novelists how they broke into the industry, you’ll get dozens of different answers. Many are down to pure chance, practically all of them owe a hell of a lot to persistence. So, there is no ‘one’ way into publishing other than keep trying. There’s no exam you can sit, no training course you can apply to. You write, you submit, you wait. And keep honing your craft.
Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .