I wrote Shadowmagic just to see if I could.

This is long – too long – but I just didn’t know how to make it shorter.  It’s the answer to an emailed question from a young author.  He asked – How did you get your book published?  I started writing and before I knew it – I had typed close to 2000 words.  You have been warned.

JL

 

I wrote Shadowmagic just to see if I could.  About five years ago I read a book that said, “If you write 1000 words a day, at the end of nine months – you can’t not have a novel.”  The book went on to say it won’t necessarily be a good novel but it will be a novel.  I decided to give it a go. 

I don’t want to give you the impression that the first time I put my finger to a keyboard that I wrote a novel.  I am no stranger to writing.  I’m a professional stand up-comedian/magician with several one man shows and eight television programs under my belt and I am also a pretty good journal writer.  Still, writing a novel is on another level.  I truly believe if anyone knew how much work it takes to write a novel they would never embark on it in the first place.  The only thing that keeps me writing my second one is the knowledge that I have actually done it before and it didn’t kill me.

I made writing my 1000 words the priority of the day – easier for me than most since much of my work is at night.  Sometimes I could cruise through the dreaded 1000 before 9:30 am.  Other times it was dark and every word took minutes to write.  I got through the hard times by allowing myself to be crap and reminding myself that I could fix anything later on.  Ironically, the work that came out in slow painful dribs and drabs was the stuff that needed the least rewriting.  The material that flew out so fast that I could hardly see my fingers, was usually a mess. 

About 10,000 words from the end of the first draft I started slipping on my daily word count.  Prior to that I had been religious about it but as I got close to the end I started dogging it.  Anything, changing the oil in my car or sorting my sock drawer, became more important than sitting down to write.  My wife noticed and asked me why – she forced me to question myself and I found the answer.  I had fallen in love with this book and its characters and I subconsciously realised that when it was done others would read it and they would judge it – and me.  I was afraid.  Luckily this realization came at the same time as a very cushy job on a cruise ship.  10 days on a 5 star luxury liner, cruising the Norwegian fiords – and I only had to work two nights.  My word count soared to over 2000 words a day.  I got so engrossed in my writing that meals became intrusions and tears flew freely down my cheeks when a character died.  I typed “THE END” and in a daze walked into the atrium of the ship.  A passenger, I had made friends with earlier in the cruise, saw me and said, “John would you like a glass of champagne?”  How perfect is that?

Rewriting was a joy not a chore.  Firstly I didn’t have to do that much.  Each night I read my 1000 words to my 12 year-old son in bed.  I wore a camping lamp on my head and wielded a red pen.  His bedtime stories were my first proofreads.  Every morning I would start by typing my corrections from the previous day – it got my fingers on the keys – often that’s half the writing battle.

Finally I was ready to send it out – but to who?  I didn’t want to just go through the Writer’s Yearbook and pick out an unknown agent on speck.  I had had enough trouble in my show-business career with crap agents screwing up my reputation and I didn’t want to settle myself with someone that talked a good talk but couldn’t sell a classified to a free newspaper.  I remembered that a colleague of mine was married to a woman who was in publishing.  I picked her brains and she recommended two agents.  The first one wrote me back and said that she wouldn’t read it because she had no experience in the fantasy market.  Saying that, she did read it and wrote back a couple of weeks later saying that really liked it but still couldn’t tell if it was good because it’s the first fantasy novel she’d ever read.  I thought that was fair enough.  The second agent read it, liked it and passed it along to the young adult specialist in his office.  She turned it down.  I found both of these experiences to be heartening. 

Since I was out of recommendations I decided to give something a try.  I found out who the UK editor in chief of Orbit was.  (Orbit is Time Warner’s science fiction press.)  I wrote telling him who I was, explained that I was looking for an agent and asked if he could recommend one he liked working with.  He called me at home the next morning – unfortunately he woke me up.  The night before I had been performing at London’s Comedy Store and hadn’t gotten home until after 3am – I was not at my best.  He recommended an agent he liked but also invited me to send him a synopsis and a couple of chapters.  I didn’t have a synopsis so I sent him the whole thing – I never heard back.  Lesson learned – do what they ask you to do.   

I sent a letter off to the agent saying that I had been recommended to get in touch with her from the editor of Orbit.  (A great opening line for a letter.)  I asked her if she would like to read my manuscript.  It took six months for her to write back saying she wasn’t reading any new manuscripts – six months!  Not that I noticed – my life had taken an unexpected turn that pushed writing and everything else into a very distant back seat.

My wife became ill and died.  (You can read my account of her death on my blog www.gratuitoussocks.com.  There you will find a piece called ‘Four Years Ago Today‘.  It was one of the most difficult things I have ever penned and I’m quite proud of it.)

After her death I took a novel writing course at a reputable continuing education school in London called City Lit.  To be honest, I took the course partly just as an excuse to get out of the house – I wasn’t expecting much.  The course turned out to be wonderful and dreadful.  Socially it was one of the best things I have ever done, the teacher and many of my fellow students are still my close friends.  Technically it helped me with the minutia of writing – vocabulary and grammar details that I too frequently gloss over.  Inspirationally it was a nightmare.  The class was full of literary hopefuls that looked at fantasy as the equivalent of an Archie comic book.  They didn’t like my Shadowmagic.

Finally I decided that Shadowmagic just wasn’t any good.  Friends and relatives said they liked it but – what else would they say?  I thought it was good but then I had to admit that there were billions of awful novels out there that are written by people who were convinced that they had typed a masterpiece.  I resolved to stick to comedy – at least I knew I was good at that.

Then I discovered Podiobooks.com – a website devoted to authors reading their own work and podcasting it in a serialised form.  Shadowmagic was just sitting around collecting dust – why not podcast it as a free audio book? 

I had friends that worked for BBC Radio and with their advice I bought a nice microphone and a digital recorder.  I practiced my speaking and audio editing technique by reading Jack London short stories until I got the sound right, then I recorded five chapters and posted it to podiobooks.

From day one the response was phenomenal.  Fan mail flooded in.  One woman wrote every week trying to guess what would happen in the next chapter.  The act of reading Shadowmagic aloud proved to be a great proofread and prompted me to write another draft.  It took 6 months to finally post the last chapter – by the end Shadowmagic was voted no.1 out of the three hundred or so books on Podiobooks.com.

With my faith in myself and my writing restored I again looked for a publisher.  At a podcasting convention I was recommended a newish small publisher called The Friday Project that specialised in turning blogs into books.  Instead of sending them a manuscript I sent them a memory stick with an MP3 of me reading the book.  Scott Pack the editor of TFP wrote me and said, “I’ve just listened to two chapters and I don’t want to listen any more – I want to read it.”  I got on the underground and he had the manuscript by that afternoon.

Scott chose to publish it.  There was no advance but the royalty percentage was higher than with other publishers, plus he wanted to start with a limited edition hardback.  The clincher to the deal was that, even though the Friday Project was a small house, their marketing and distribution was done through Pan McMillan, one of the largest publishers in the country.  The best of both worlds: a personal relationship with a small company, and access to a big corporate distribution network. 

Scot only asked for one editorial change – he wanted another chapter.  Shadowmagic is a fantasy adventure loosely based on Irish mythology.  My protagonist Conor is thrown into a series of adventures and Scott felt that he needed one more.  He told me I didn’t have to do it but when your first editor asks you to jump, the response should be, “How high?”  I had done some work on Shadowmagic 2 and stole a story line from there.  But as I slotted it into the book, its repercussions quaked through the plot.  After writing over 20,000 words I realised that I was heading for a complete rewrite.  I actually came as close as picking up the phone to tell Scott I wasn’t going to do it, when I had a new idea.  I wrote a 5000 word chapter in two days that actually helps the book.  The other stuff has been safely tucked back into book 2.

The book was slated to be published in the middle of March 2008.  By February the book was proofed and typeset – ready to be printed.  With the support of my podcasting fans and through the efforts of The Friday Project, the special edition run of 1000 had sold 800 copies in pre-order.  I was ecstatic.  Well I was until The Friday Project went bankrupt.  There I was with a sold out hardback first run and my publisher didn’t have enough money to pay for it to be printed.

What followed involved a lot of alcohol and wallowing in self-pity while I daily googled the net for rumours about TFP being saved or bought out.  Finally after losing five years of my life to liver damage, The Friday Project has been resurrected from the ashes as a part of Harper Collins.  Only a handful of authors were asked to rejoin and I’m please to say that I was one.  The hardback of Shadowmagic was published in September and is almost sold out.  The paperback is due for a big launch on St. Patrick ‘s Day 2009.

 

John Lenahan

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6 Responses to “I wrote Shadowmagic just to see if I could.”

  1. Ventzi Zhechev Says:

    My goodness John! I had no idea things had gone that close to the book not being published in the end!
    I cannot tell you how happy I am that the book did get published and that I have my own signed copy 🙂

    And I cannot wait for the next book. No matter how long it takes you, here’s a reader you can rely on!

    Ventzi
    a stray Bulgarian in Dublin

  2. RobC Says:

    Publishing can be an absurd business at times – back when I was a bookseller I’d get into a right strop about the crap that had somehow made it into print regardless of quality, thanks to whichever TV series/film/computer game it was branded with, or whichever marketing niche it was supposed to fill. Even reading the blurb seemed to give weight to the cliché that you were more likely to get into print by being trite, hanging on the coat-tails of others, and, of course, being friends with the publishing staff.

    If there’s one good thing that can come out of the Internet (and there will be many – as well as plenty of bad things), it’s the potential for the so-called consumer to have more of a say in what actually gets published. Sure, Theodore Sturgeon’s rule will still apply, but hopefully people will be able to get stuff they actually want published, rather than what a publisher thinks they want. Its through the fanbase you built up with the podcast that Shadowmagic made it to print – and it’s thanks to them that you’ll stay in print, regardless of the vagaries of the industry.

    Good luck with the next book!

  3. Evo Terra Says:

    Glad we could play a part, John. 🙂

  4. Gary Davison Says:

    Hi John, if anyone can relate to your experience I guess it’s me. Reading this post took me back to round about this time last year. I’d been signed up by a small publisher called paperbooks and my debut was due out in february 2008. Just before it was due to launch, Legend Press bought the company and my book was put on hold. I thought to myself, this ain’t gonna happen kid.

    With friends family and everyone else I’d ever come across asking me when, when, when, I got really depressed. To cut a long one short, the ups and downs were a pain in the arse, but eventually my novel came out on the 29th September this year. Now all I need is a couple of search parties to head out into the book shop wilderness to find out which shop (s) are actually stocking it! Happy days ahead hopefully 🙂

    congratulations on the harback sales and good luck with the paperback.

  5. johnlenahan Says:

    Gary’s website is http://www.gary-davison.com and you can order his book from there.
    JL

  6. chris Says:

    Hi John , i was just reading a blog written collectively by a group of crime writers and they spoke about getting an email from someone asking how to go about it.
    You post here is so useful, open and honest i thought i would take the liberty of flagging it to the writers of the crime blog.
    I hope that that is ok, PC and brings you, them or someone else help, contacts and a fat contract.
    let me know if i was out of place and i will atone for it in whatever suitable way you suggest.
    You could even open a contest for the best idea?
    Their blog is here.
    http://femmesfatales.typepad.com/my_weblog/2009/11/catching-up-giving-back-giving-up.html

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