Sunday, May 23, 2010

The Cabinet of Curiosities 1/4

Right, yes, what happened was, I wrote this children's novel, in the nine to twelve age range, although adults of all ages &c &c, about a girl who stumbles into a weird museum, containing items from stories, although perhaps in this world they're a little more than stories, and then finds out more about her own story than she ever would have worked out on her own. The first three chapters got me a literary agent (woo!) and then I wrote the rest of it, and she stayed my literary agent, and we got some interest from some quite well-known publishers, and I did some rewrites (a lot of rewrites), and... it never quite got published.

Two things I learned from this process:

1. Publishers are no longer prepared to spend time and money on editors knocking a new writer's first work into shape. Literary agents are now having to do a lot of the work editors used to. My agent worked with me on five full drafts of the book, with various tweaks and nudges taking the number of drafts to eleven in total. So if I actually start making money off this thing, I'll have to find out what her percentage would have been and start handing that over. But I do feel the rewrite process made this a much better book, so I'm more than happy to do that, obv'sly.

2. Having experience as a scriptwriter is useful, but by no means a guarantee that you'll get published. Scriptwriters tend to be more proficient with dialogue and structure than first-time writers, and probably better at pacing too. All of which is a step in the right direction, but still only a step.

So, after eleven drafts, there came a point where I felt I'd pared the book back as far as I could, or at least as far as I could without it becoming something else and any further expenditure would probably be better spent writing an entirely new book. Or a script, which might actually contribute towards paying for the mortgage I seemed to have picked up since I started the first draft. In the old days, this would have been the end of the line. These days, however, you can get a copy printed up on lulu, so suddenly, this thing you were writing exists as an actual physical object, and as a scriptwriter, that's a feeling you really don't get very often.

So the book arrived, and it was great that it was a book, and I could hold it, but I hadn't done the layout very well, and it wasn't a cover so much as some words on a background, and before I knew it I was talking to my brother in law about making it look just a little bit more professional. So he sorted out the layout, and did a great cover, and suddenly it looked like something that wouldn't look entirely out of place amongst other, you know, bookish type things.

However, it still didn't feel right putting it up for sale when all people had to go on was the blurb, and then, by a strange coincidence, just as I was about to start writing this post, I saw Cory Doctorow's article in the Observer: "My Bright Idea" in which he says:

"I give away all of my books. [The publisher] Tim O'Reilly once said that the problem for artists isn't piracy – it's obscurity. I think that's true. A lot of people have commented: "You can't eat page views, so how does being well-known help you earn a living as a writer?" It's true; however, it's very hard to monetise fame, but impossible to monetise obscurity. It doesn't really matter how great your work is; if no one's ever heard of it, you'll never make any money from it. That's not to say that if everyone's heard of it, you'll make a fortune, but it is a necessary precursor that your work be well-known to earn you a living. As far as I can tell, these themes apply very widely, across all media."

Which is pretty much what I was going to say about putting the book "The Cabinet of Curiosities" up as a free pdf. Or rather, four pdfs - what I thought I'd do is split it into four parts, give each a blog post and allow anyone who was interested to read it for free. Then if they like it, they can follow the link to the right and order a physical copy. I'll putting up the next bit each Monday.

Here's part the first:
The Cabinet of Curiosities 1/4 (pdf)





15 comments:

extemporanea said...

Oo, er. I love this, it's an utterly delightful piece of writing, and I mourn the sad lack of perspicacity in the publishing industry who didn't want to publish it. Looking forward to the next instalments, and my next instalment of money so I can grab a copy.

james henry said...

Blimey, that was fast! Glad you liked it, part 2 next Monday.

extemporanea said...

Yes, well, annoying Monday, I really need the distraction :>. Also pleasingly beguiling to spot all the literary references. You clearly wrote this for kids' fantasy geeks like me.

james henry said...

It's certainly not un-geeky. The nice thing is though, some of my friends read the early drafts to their kids, who didn't know about any of the lit references, and it didn't seem to bother them at all. I just like the idea those kids could come back and read it again in a few years time, having read some other books in the meantime, and would get a whole new experience...

fkjhrtijlkjref said...

You rock, a bit.

I've got a few pages in so far and it's better than the manuscripts I've read, because they're by "established novelists"; i.e. kitsch celebrity safe bets.

I love all the new stuff you're doing, it's very writery and good.

Mummy/Crit said...

Excellent. I haven't read it yet, and I don't comment here very often now, but I had wondered what had happened to it. (I also wonder what happened to your forum...)

Bowleserised said...

Congrats!

Some editors do still edit, and I'm lucky to have one of those.

Cory's scheme only works because there's a bricks-and-paper publishing industry and bookshops still standing. If, in the future, everyone just expects to download books for free, it ain't gonna work. Also, not everyone can supplement their free books by giving talks and writing articles in which they tell people to give books away for free.
Good that your agent did all that work "on tick" but is that sustainable? I work as a freelance editor sometimes, and frankly I couldn't afford to put in days of work for free on the off-chance that it might pay off in the future.

Also, it's hard, nay impossible to fund the research for a serious non-fiction book when you go it alone.

james henry said...

fkjhrtijlkjref: thanks!

Mummy/Crit: ha, forgotten about the forum. It was really more about toy-fu than anything else (must have another go at that some time)

Bowleserised: well exactly - I think the free pdf thing has to work in a complimentary fashion to the system that's already set up. Probably a new way in, rather than a way of going it alone, for most writers. And if an iTunes type setup does come along for pdfs, it will make more sense to put it up there for a low price (compared to the physical object) rather than continue to give it away free.

And re. agents doing editing - yeah, my agent put a lot of time and energy into working on the Cabinet with me, so she was as gutted as I was when it didn't get picked up - and may well put her off going to similar lengths in the future. Or, if she loves the next one that comes along, she many not - publishing is as full of crushed enthusiasm and broken dreams and picking themselves up and trying again as scriptwriting world. Just for (mostly) less money.

martinblanc said...

I have a reader in your target age range so we'll see what she makes of part 1 (once I've found a double-sided printer) and then if she likes it, we can move straight to lulu. She loves the stories I tell her, but when I write them down and give them to her, they're apparently a bit long and tedious, so I see your 'paring back' point! Still, I'm enjoying doing it, and am focused on lulu myself, once I'm satisfied all the unnecessary words have been deleted. "Kill your babies" - that's the phrase...though not one to use liberally in the same post as talking about my daughter...

james henry said...

I think the original phrase was 'kill your darlings', which is either less sinister, or much more so. Hope daughter likes it, and remember, it's designed to be read in a thick Jamaican accent.

Jayne said...

I didn't even know you had a forum. It must have been in your youth, before I knew you. I remember Toy-Fu though and miss Steve and the other one a lot. I suspect Blue Kitten has chewed their heads off, which is why they've vanished. Either that or the spiders got them.

james henry said...

Steve is the sole survivor of the last spider attack, and is currently clutched in the hand of the sleeping Blue Kitten, awwww (his glasses and penguin staff had to be removed for safety reasons some time ago, obviously).

Jayne said...

Awww indeed. Picture please.

PS You should do Toy-Fu, the Reimagined Series with better special effects. Blue Kitten could be a guest star.

Mamagenerica said...

Thank you for this, it was a delightful read - and the world was utterly familiar, as if it's been waiting just around the corner all this time. I couldn't sleep last night for wishing I had access to a copy of The Box of Delights *right now*.

james henry said...

Mmm, 'tis a marvellous book. I think I only referred to two things from the BoD in the Cabinet, but I could have used so much more, it has a great spooky/fairytale atmosphere, but with some very solid characters.