FROM THE CONCEPT TO THE PAGE (and a million miles of struggle in between) A look at the writer's journey by Andrew Reeves, author of The Empty World

Some of you may be familiar with my YA sci-fi novel The Empty World, and my young hero, Danny Ringrose, whose genius dad has cracked the secret of cloning stones and created a brand new Earth in a manmade parallel universe, as an intended second home for Mankind. It’s exciting stuff. What you won't be aware of is how difficult it has been for me to get the novel off the ground. I’d like to tell you a little bit about that, to give you some idea of the incredibly difficult journey my book's creation has had me on. It may help you prepare for your own epic struggle, or at the very least give you some idea of the expectations put on writers by the industry.

A few years ago I reckoned up all the emails I’d sent to literary agents, publishers and production companies regarding the many manuscripts and screenplays I had written. Probably 95% of those people either never replied or were kind enough to write back and say they had no time to read my work. Those emails totalled between 3 and 4 thousand - my only consolation at the time was that at least I hadn't paid for all the postage stamps!

After a lifetime of trying to find myself a publisher, I finally seemed to strike it lucky. I'd completed my final draft of The Empty World, after three months of fleshing out preparatory notes (my favourite way to work) and a further eighteen months spent working on the manuscript, and as soon as it was completed - literally that day - I emailed a short synopsis of the plot to several hand-picked agents I’d chosen to approach from the Writers' & Artists' Yearbook. I knew in my heart it would meet the same fate as everything else I’d written: some interest (if I was lucky), a few near misses, but in the end a big resounding NO.

Imagine my utter delight when a nice man at a London publishers who don't usually publish fiction excitedly replied to my email about two hours later, requesting I send it to no one else and give them a week's exclusivity to decide whether or not to publish my beloved book! I was ecstatic. And proud. And hopeful. He emailed the manuscript to his Managing Director who was currently at a meeting in America. The excitement grew and I waited a week until their decision had been made... they wouldn't be publishing my book. I was devastated - of course - but familiar with the feeling. This had been the closest I’d ever come to a yes and I had allowed myself to dare to hope. He said it wasn’t his decision and if it was up to him he would have said yes - this lifted my spirits and convinced me it was worth sending the story out to others. So I carried on submitting.

To my excitement, the literary agent who would become my agent emailed me back and said, “Why don't you send over the first three chapters and I'll take a look?” This was really exciting. I sent him the first three chapters and sat and waited. It was at this time I also lost my job, when the call centre I was working for got relocated and the recession of 2008 descended, making work very hard to find. The Empty World was no longer simply a novel to me; it felt like my only ticket to a future. My agent replied a couple of weeks later, with frustrating, and potentially devastating news. He said my writing was good, and everything necessary for a really good book was there... but I’d made the classic mistake that every new writer makes: I’d written too much.

I know now that as writers we should put on the page only what is absolutely necessary. This doesn't just apply to overlong sentences or unnecessary character history, but right down to lines of dialogue, facial expressions, anything which detracts from the point. If it's action, write concisely what happens, if it's dialogue, have your characters say only what the reader needs to know. My agent said I’d written about three times more than I needed to and that it would need a hefty redraft before it was okay. Being unemployed I had time on my side and enough enthusiasm to roll Planet Earth a little closer to the Moon, so I wrote straight back to him and said I would cut it by two thirds and send it back. My enthusiasm must have excited him because he said he'd show me what he meant and sent me a redline document showing his corrections, so I could see exactly where he thought I’d gone wrong. Fired up by this, I made the changes I could stomach making to my beloved first three chapters and sent them back, accompanied by the next little chunk.

This was how work progressed for the next few months, the manuscript being pored over right down to the comma level on every single page. It was fun but exasperating, frustrating but exciting. Finally someone was taking my writing seriously. And it wasn't just an exercise in proper sentence structure; my agent suggested I lose whole chunks where I’d followed the adventures of lesser characters than the hero, insisting I stick with the hero at all times, to give the reader one focal point. This was especially important, he said, with a YA book.

He suggested where I should treat the reader to further explanations of the incredible science I had created in my world, and the machines that made this weird science possible; I was free to agree or disagree with anything he said, but I knew he was on a mission to have the book read like it was written by a seasoned author and I trusted him implicitly.
The first time I deleted a scene it almost killed me. Now I love identifying bits of story that are unnecessarily clogging the page, absorbing the most important aspects of a scene or conversation into its proper position in the story, and axing the rest with a resounding plop! Any deletion of word chaff is an improvement, and for me it’s the most enjoyable part of the process. Writing is rewriting.

The whole exercise was akin to adapting a movie from a TV series. By the time we had finished, my original manuscript, which had stood at 728 pages (147,000 words) was now roughly half the size, but was definitely twice the book it had been. The process was long and painful, but when we'd finished, when all the reworking had been said and done, when I was preparing myself for submission of my far superior manuscript to the publishers... a second pair of eyes at the agency took a look. And said it couldn't possibly be submitted to a publisher in its present state!

I felt the whole world yanked from underneath me. I needed explanation. The explanation was simple: we'd done a great job of identifying all unnecessary junk and scenes and characters and descriptions, we'd shortened the plot and made it jump out from the page, capturing everything I was striving to capture with my very first draft. And all in the name of keeping a steady pace. Timed everything correctly. But in agent number two's opinion, one very simple (and probably the most important) rule had been slightly overlooked.

And that was suspension of disbelief. No matter how far-fetched an idea is, so long as you present it in a way that makes sense... then anything will work. But there was one scene in The Empty World that agent number two felt stretched suspension of disbelief a little too far. That's okay, you might think, just change it. But that one scene was the springboard scene for everything that came after. Which meant a potential rewrite of the entire second half. I was crushed.
Unemployed and desperate for a sale, believing the past few months of blood, sweat and tears were finally at an end, I was suddenly given this new dilemma. The transitional part of the novel didn't work. I could have given in right there and then, I don't normally fight so strong, but my story and its sequels meant everything to me, so I buckled down and forced myself to fix it. It turned out not to be so bad. Took a few weeks work to incorporate the changes; if you're familiar with my book it concerned how young Danny actually ends up being underground when he least expects it, in his father's research facility that has been hiding beneath his garden all his life. I'd spent whole chapters just to get him there, whereas now it happens all at once, and to the story's benefit.

Once that was fixed, we were pretty much done. Everything - and I mean everything - was theoretically believable. Just another draft and all Easter weekend on the phone to agent number two, going through the manuscript word by word. Eventually we all agreed it was finally ready for submission to the publishers. This nicely coincided with me finding work so everything seemed on the up, as I waited for offers of publication to come flooding in.

I was in for disappointment, in the form of some very nice rejections from some publishers. Silly me for thinking getting an agent was a deal signed, even after several exacting redrafts. The most annoying rejection, from a huge publisher indeed, informed me my book was well written and well plotted but their list was presently full in that genre, a comment which still has me tearing my hair out of an evening. (A metaphor. If that were true I would be bald. I'm not bald). After these rejections, when it seemed all our very hard work had been for nothing, my agent gave me the most tortuous six weeks of my entire creative life. Here's how she did it: she said, “Make the book better.”

“Better how?” I asked her.

“I don't know. Just better.”

I couldn't believe it. I'd been through so many redrafts and such a lot of tears and frustration, and here I was faced with yet another setback. And this time I had to sort it out completely by myself. No one was going to be giving me any input. Maybe they were testing my mettle as a writer. Perhaps, like me, they’d drawn a blank. But I had to turn a failing manuscript around, one which I couldn't understand why no one would buy, and make it something no one could refuse. So I sat and stared and thought and stared and sat... then stared and sat and thought and sat and stared. It took so much out of me, those six weeks, but I was determined my book would be loved by anyone who read it.

Eventually, after drawing a total blank as to what was needed, I was able to get some distance from the story and look at it again - yet again - from someone else's point of view. The most important part of the writing process is the time spent away from the page, in those moments when inspiration just kind of floats into your brain. And the answer hit me. Suddenly I realised the only way to improve the story, and it was obvious.

Basically my young hero Danny had previously never known anything about his father being a ridiculed scientist, or any of his father’s work for the military, but it struck me the only feasible improvement I could make would be to have Danny well aware of his father's past from the outset, and in fact give Danny moments of unexplainable strength, where he worries his father's old work on the Human Enhancement Program for the military may have been performed on him at birth. This leaves Danny an unwitting superhuman, and far more able to deal with the truth of what his father has created when he is eventually told about the Empty World.

This actually makes Danny a far more interesting and important character from the get-go, and has gone a long way I think to involving the reader more deeply right away. I'm so glad my agent told me to 'make it better'. I never would have chosen to do so at the time... but I'm very thankful that she did. So I set about incorporating Danny’s new knowledge-set throughout the entire manuscript, which meant knowing every sentence and how everything would be affected by the change. Staying on top of that was mind-numbing... like rewriting an entire book by hardly changing anything at all, just being aware of all the little things that had to change, inner thoughts of characters at any point in the tale.

My agent approved of my shiny new draft and it went out again. What was so infuriating for me was that I had no idea which publishers they were sending it to, or how soon these publishers normally responded; I had to play the waiting game as I eagerly worked on the plots for the next two instalments, The Big Bang Machine and Space Time Zero, and tried my hardest to be patient. When the inevitable rejections started to arrive, still the same replies - everybody thought my book was well written, well plotted and well edited, some simply didn't feel it was in their genre (that's their prerogative) and nobody offered me a deal. It was sooo disheartening.

I personally think the major reason no publisher said yes at the time was down to timing, and unlucky timing at that. This was around 2010-11 and Twilight was all the rage, all you ever found on shelves was vampire stories; my agent even said, “Wouldn't you like to write a vampire story?” but I think it was a joke. I actually have a great plot for a vampire story.

Eventually the agent who had discovered me moved on from the agency and my involvement with the agency soon after ended, though on great terms; I'd pitched various other ideas to them for my next book and written the first draft of a new YA sci-fi novel, plus two drafts of a psychological thriller screenplay (currently doing the rounds of the relevant agencies and production companies). I went on to write that second novel whilst in between jobs again, and it was as important for it to succeed as The Empty World; as soon as I’d finished work on the first draft I returned to work, and a fellow writer there suggested I self-publish using Amazon.

I hadn't heard of the concept, it had never been mentioned to me by my agent, as it was still a relatively new phenomenon for independent authors. I dragged my heels and took my time, whilst completing the plot for Space Time Zero and redrafting my thriller screenplay another two times, this time under the excellent guidance of an independent movie producer. Eventually I got myself in gear, researched what I had to do... and self-published The Empty World through Amazon. The response was delightful. People were finally reading and reviewing it - after all my hard work - and although it wasn't quite the outcome I’d been chasing (it wasn’t traditionally published) what mattered more was the great support from the readers.

Even if I knew nobody would read a book that I was writing, I'd still make sure it was the best thing I could write - because ultimately, an author needs to write for his or her own enjoyment; such passion will always show in a person's writing.

As soon as The Empty World was available on Amazon, my former agent was kind enough to put me in touch with the commissioning editor of a major UK publisher, who was so behind the novel and its planned sequels that he championed it to his International Office. This was all very exciting... yet again. Now I had a publisher interested in my finished product, and it seemed that surely now things would really happen...

Nope. Their ultimate decision was unfortunately not to publish, despite the commissioning editor's big plans for the story. Once again I'd hit a brick wall, except this time I'd learned that even finding an interested publisher was not a deal signed! Since then I have submitted the book to a gamut of literary agents. The response has been almost non-existent. I feel a writer’s biggest hurdle in getting noticed these days is the amount of competition; it’s like blowing a dog whistle in a thunderstorm and hoping somebody will hear. It's been a long and arduous journey bringing The Empty World to life, and has required the utmost self-belief on my part.

I know the journey isn't nearly over - the challenge that faces all self-published authors is the quagmire of self-promotion. I'm still trying to get my head round that little beauty, but I hope in some way this little article explaining my personal experiences has given you some understanding of the obstacles all authors face.

But like all battles, you're fighting for an outcome - or an income (if you’re lucky). That said, the possibility of making money from writing should never be your catalyst. It's getting read that has always been important. I have now adapted my book into Danny Ringrose And The Empty World, a movie screenplay and episodic TV series. I've no idea what the future holds, but knowing I've done my all to make it better makes me smile every day. So the upshot of my time here is... never give up!

If you have a book in you, write it! If you have a story to tell, tell it to the world! It's always worth the hard work you put in.

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Published on November 23, 2015 11:04
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message 1: by Syl (new)

Syl Sabastian Cool story of your writing. Engaging. :) :D And yes, there certainly are other options. Times are a changing, and a changing fast.

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