My first book, Empire of Dust, launched on 4th November 2014 from DAW and, boy, was I excited. I’d waited a long time for that moment.
When I got the first review , from Publishers’ Weekly, no less, I read it with trepidation. (Hey, it was the first review of my first book, I was allowed to trepidate!) I read it, and then I read it again and gradually it began to sink in. It was a good review. Then I looked back at the email that it had arrived in – a congratulatory email from my editor, enclosing the review. (I should have read that bit first and saved myself a giant case of the trepids.)
It started off: “Bedford mixes romance and intrigue in this promising debut, which opens the Psi-Tech space opera series.” Then it goes on to talk about the book’s plot and premise and ends with: “Bedford builds a taut story around the dangers of a new world…. Readers who crave high adventure and tense plots will enjoy this voyage into the future.”
And it struck me, as I read it for the fourth or fifth time how author worries morph as you move along the path towards publication. I was talking to Alastair Reynolds on Twitter just before the review came out (Al and I did our first ever Milford SF Writers’ Conference together back in 1998 before he got his first publishing deal and became mega-famous), and he reminded me that: ‘Worrying is the gift that keeps on giving.’
First, you worry that your writing just isn’t good enough to make the grade, that you’ll never finish the damn book, anyway, and if you do that you’ll probably never even dare to let anyone else read it. Then you do finish it and think that, just possibly, it doesn’t suck too badly. You begin to think that you’d like to show it to someone who actually might know something about writing and publishing, but you worry they’ll just laugh at your puny efforts.
Once the manuscript is finished and it’s as good as you can make it, you begin to wonder if your dream of being published is getting closer. Hey, you’ve written the book and polished it. What’s the next step? An agent? Is that even possible? Yes, it is (in my case four agents, but that’s another story, and a long one), but it takes a long time, much research and many queries (see my blog piece on How to Get a Literary Agent) and you worry that it will never happen for you.
It may take months, it may take years, but eventually (if you are persistent) it happens. You get an agent. And then you worry about whether your precious manuscript will ever sell. Truth? It might, it might not, but while you’re waiting you should keep on writing more.
Then, all of a sudden, a sale, and your life changes in an instant. Are your worries over? Far from it, but they turn into different worries. Will the reviews be good? Will readers like it? Will sales be good enough to cover the advance your publisher has paid you? Will you get a follow-on publishing deal after this? I think most authors will recognise this cycle of self-doubt and worry (and hard work), but the thrill of seeing the finish line racing towards you makes you forget the speedbumps along the road to publication.
In my case it took years of writing science fiction and fantasy in secret before I even dared admit my genre-vice to my friends. Then a chance meeting with Nebula Award-winning author Elizabeth Ann Scarborough gave me my first nudge along the road, and my first short story sale, way back in 1998. Yes, that’s right, my overnight success, from short story to novel publication took only sixteen years. I’ve lost track of the number of might-have-beens and nearly-bought-its along the road. There was the publisher who sent a sincere ‘We nearly bought this’ letter way back in 1999, and the major publisher who said, ‘The first couple of chapters look interesting,’ and then hung on to the manuscript for three years without doing anything with it. And then there were several false starts with agents before finding my current agent, Donald Maass of Donald Maass Literary Agency.
I kept on going, in part due to the encouragement of fellow writers in usenet newsgroups, online critique groups, and face-to-face at Milford . I can’t tell you how important it is to get feedback from other writers. I learned a lot about the nuts and bolts of writing and publishing from denizens of the online usenet newsgroups, misc.writing and rec.arts.sf.composition. I’m still in touch with many of them, and some have become good personal friends. I joined a small email critique group which ran for eight years, and then (through a r.a.sf.c contact) I was invited to attend Milford for a week of face-to-face critiquing and plot-noodling. The right critique group will pull your work apart constructively to help you make it better. They’ll point out the clunky sentences, the yawning gaps in your plot-logic, the excessive use of hand-wavium when trying to explain your magic-system or your latest scientific gadget. And they’ll do it without making you feel small or stupid.
My first completed book didn’t sell, and neither did my second (unsurprising because it was a sequel to the first – duh!), but my third one did. I not only sold Empire of Dust, but in the same deal I sold my fifth completed manuscript (Winterwood, a historical fantasy) and got a commission for a sequel to Empire. Yeah, a three book deal with DAW, my dream publisher of science fiction and fantasy! Pretty cool, huh? I’ve now sold DAW six books. My Psi-Tech trilogy (Empire of Dust, Crossways, and Nimbus) is complete and the Rowankind trilogy completes this year. Winterwood and Silverwolf are out already and Rowankind follows in November 2018.
Sheila Gilbert, my editor, is hugely experienced, totally insightful, and has been working with nervous authors for long enough to know just what to suggest and how to suggest it. She’s also got great taste in cover art and commissioned the amazing Stephan Martiniere to do my science fiction covers, and Larry Rostant to do my fantasy ones. These are both very different artists but in both cases absolutely perfect for the books they are working with. My covers are a thrill and a delight.
So after four years of drafts, edits, rewrites, additions, inventions, reinventions, and just about the craziest most creative spurt of my life to date, my five books are on the shelves and my sixth is incubating. I’ve had some good reviews. My editor is happy. My agent is happy. I’m happy. I hope my readers will be happy. I look forward to more and different worries ahead of me.