Yesterday we announced the exciting news that we have signed Alyc Helms as an Angry Robot author, with her debut novel – The Dragons of Heaven – due for publication in Spring of 2015. Alyc has written an insightful piece on her blog about her journey to publication which we have extracted here. For the full piece, click through to this page. Over to Alyc…
The exciting news that I’ve been sitting on since early January is that Angry Robot offered for my novel The Dragons of Heaven and an as-yet unnamed sequel, to be published in April 2015 and 2016. The initial muppet-flailing has quieted to a Fluttershy ‘yay,’ but my enthusiasm is not lessened for all of that. I’ve been riding this high for months, and I don’t think it’s going away.
However, I look at all the hard work and revision and rejection and depression and revision and rejection and depression and revision and and and… And I have to admit to myself: I got lucky.
Here’s what luck looks like to a writer:
I’ve always loved books, and I scribbled stories and poems starting when I was a kid and continuing well into my twenties: band-fic and blood-soaked vampire odes, re-hashed fairy tales and snarky swordswomen. I finished three stories, sent them out to Realms of Fantasy, got rejected, and moved on to other things. Becoming an author seemed impossible, something that had been done long ago by people I admired but not something I could ever do. I returned to school in my late twenties with the plan to become a research anthropologist, childhood dreams of being a fantasy novelist packed away alongside the Prima Ballerina thing.
I met Marie Brennan at a field school in Wales. In the evenings, when I wasn’t running a cobbled-together Changeling game for her and a few other women, Marie was writing the first draft of the book that would eventually become her first novel sale. I had met authors before, but this was the first time I met a peer who was serious about writing. Even then, and over the years as we solidified our friendship, I had no question that Marie would someday succeed as an author. It was inevitable.
Seeing her determination changed me. I had a reference point. A template. My academic work was in representation and identity, so I recognized why that was so important. If you see someone like you achieving something you thought was impossible, it renders that thing possible for you.
Becoming friends with Marie was my first lucky break. I started noodling around with fiction again. At this point, I was in grad school for anthropology and folklore. I’d spent several years thinking about the structure of stories, about representation, about cultures and cultural relativism and worldbuilding, about the intersections between gender, race, economics, and politics. I had THINGS TO SAY. I was crap at saying them, but I had some solid material to start from.
Some friends and I formed a writing group. Scat Hardcore included Marie, Mike Underwood, Darja Malcolm-Clarke,Siobhan Carroll, Emily Dare, and Ryan Markle, all of us still figuring out who the hell we were as writers and what the hell we were doing. We helped each other learn about writing, but also about the business of writing: networking, submission, rejection, markets, publication, conferences, workshops, etc. We learned how to take the craft and our dedication to it seriously. Scat Hardcore was my second lucky break. I can’t emphasize enough the value of a solid and serious writing community filled with people who are just slightly more talented, more dedicated, or more professionally focused than you.
At that time, I was still concentrating on my academic work and only writing short stories. I wrote a couple stories–I had learned from my academic writing about this thing called revision, and it turns out it can make your writing better!–but I didn’t really grok short stories. I still don’t think I’ve quite cracked how to write a good short story, even though I’ve managed to sell a few. Novels are my thing. Novels I grok. Novels are where my heart is.
Novels are a hell of a lot longer than short stories.
In 2006 I was playing in a supers tabletop game run by my friend Jason Pisano. I wanted to make a shift in the character I was playing–a legacy pulp hero with a lot of heart and no heroing experience–so I asked Jason if she could go to China to train with the ancient dragon who’d trained her grandfather. He said sure. I asked him to fill in the details for me. He looked at his stable of ten other players waiting for him to adjudicate things and told me to write it up myself and submit it for XP.
That was my next bit of luck. Along around the time my ‘little side-adventure write-up’ hit 40k words, I realized I had the longest thing I’d ever written, the seed of a novel, and I still wasn’t bored. Of course, it was a character fic. It wasn’t novel-shaped at all. Missy was unfocused as a character, and the story was based in a world owned by a large corporate gaming company. But at this point, I’d seen Marie take a seed from a gaming experience and turn it into a series of amazing novels–her Onyx Court books. I knew I could reshape The Dragons of Heaven.
I spent the next several years carving down, building up, reshaping, re-writing. I finished the first draft in December 2010. I think about 10% of the original character fic remained. By then, I’d left grad school and Indiana, moved back to California, broken up with my partner, and come through the worst years of a very deep bout of depression. Dragons was the throughline and sometimes my lifeline. Writing kept me alive. That was more than luck. That was grace.
In May of 2011, I had a revised draft ready to send out to agents. I also made my first pro short story sale to Daily Science Fiction, and I got a new job as an editor for a college textbook publisher. And I felt very lucky.
I did what I was supposed to do. What I’d learned from my peers that you do. I sent The Dragons of Heaven out into the world and started work on Chiaroscuro, my secondary-world Italianate fantasy.
Cue a wave of non-responses from agents and a few rejections. Two requests for more, and one lovely rejection from an agent that included some solid feedback. I’d already been considering revising Dragons, and the agent’s feedback was in line with my own concerns. I asked if I could treat her rejection as a revise and resubmit. She said sure.
I rewrote about a third of the book, got rid of some characters, merged some others, and entirely shifted the focus of the final conflict. Sent it off to the agent, who loved the changes, but still was unsure she could sell a book with such an odd structure. She told me to send my next project when I was done. I set Dragons aside and got down to getting done with Chiaroscuro.
That was in spring of 2012, which is when I got one of my luckiest breaks of all: I was accepted to Clarion West. Most of my Scat Hardcore crew are alumni of Clarion West. I’d seen how the workshop created paradigm shifts for them and introduced them to a larger community of amazing authors, and I wanted that same experience. Stars aligned. My boss said I could take a six-week unpaid leave from work to attend the workshop. My mother and brother helped cover the costs I couldn’t afford myself. I met seventeen wonderful, inspiring writers. Peers. Family.
I’m putting my Clarion West littermates in the grace category. 2013 was a really rough year, almost equal to my grad school depression, and they were the ones who saw me through it. Chiaroscuro was a beast to finish: the book is way too long, and I’m still only half-done with revisions. I was submitting short stories everywhere and getting lots of personalized rejections saying “not right for us, but we’re sure you’ll place this somewhere.” The Dragons of Heaven was sitting in limbo at the HarperCollins open call, and after the rush of CW2012, everything felt stagnant and hopeless.
At World Fantasy in Brighton, Mike Underwood–my old Scat Hardcore mate–asked if Dragons was in a state to pass along to Amanda Rutter, who had been the acquiring editor for YA at Strange Chemistry and was starting to acquire for Angry Robot. He thought it might be to her taste. I said, um… YES and spent December nibbling my fingers to nubbins. Fulls were requested. Mike will never know how much I resisted putting him into an awkward position by bombarding him with update request emails. Hints at pending news were sent my way, and I got the offer in early January, followed shortly thereafter by a couple short-story sales, just to add icing.
Turns out, 2013 wasn’t stagnant at all. I just couldn’t see the movement. I did my due diligence on the agent thing, but it was always Lindsay, the agent who had suggested the revisions. She agreed to go to agent prom with me, and we are expecting my first novel in April 2015.
I am a bit daunted by my new peers. I’m a huge fan of two of Angry Robot’s newly-acquired novelists: Kameron Hurley and Ferrett Steinmetz, both of whom have struggled through their own sagas. The tl;dr is that Kameron is an excellent author whose books were enjoying critical and commercial success… and then her publisher stopped paying people and things went pear-shaped and she found herself having to start over again. Angry Robot is lucky to have her. She’s a rising rock star. Ferrett’s another rising rock star, one whose word output is epic. He has been at this noveling game since before he could drink or vote. He’s one of those talented, persistent writers who, when I learn how many novels they wrote before they hit on one that stuck, I think: I don’t know that I would have been able to do that. I don’t know that I have that kind of hunger and fortitude in me to keep going through that slog.
But I got lucky. The first novel I wrote is the first novel I sold. And sure, I have a second novel written so I know that first one wasn’t a fluke, but still. I look at the struggles of my peers, and I think how lucky I am, how easily this first novel sale came for me in comparison.
Then I look at my own path, and luck looks like years of learning to write and years of writing and years of revising and (almost) a year sitting on the biggest news of my life because publishing “is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it.”* That is what luck looks like to a writer.
But it’s not impossible. If you’re hungry enough to do the work and constantly strive to do it better; if you can use rejection as a springboard and yet still remain open to critique; if done-is-the-new-good, and your mantra is ‘I’ll fix it in post;’ if you can weather the times when everything seems stagnant… it’s not impossible. From this side of things, it actually feels pretty inevitable.
*The Player, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
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