Taking 14 Years To Get My First Novel Written And Published, by Anthony Riches
The title of today’s blog pretty much sums up the reaction I tend to get from people when the story of how I got into print for the first time comes up in conversation. It’s true, I do have to ruefully shake my head with an expression of ‘what might have been’ at the thought of all those wasted years. You see, back when I started writing historical fiction the field was far less packed than it has become of late. The big name was Bernard Cornwell (and still is, mind you), and authors like Conn Iggulden and Simon Scarrow were still plotting their successful assault on the charts.
Picture the scene, if you will. It’s August 1996 and the Riches family is on its annual holiday. Being the typical family with youngish kids, we’d elected for a value holiday in Cumbria, which put us handily close to Hadrian’s Wall, a place I’d read about but never made the time to visit. So, one rainy day – more like horizontal stair rods than rain, as it turned out – we made our happy (in my case) and unwilling (the rest of the family) way to Housesteads Fort, slap bang in the most scenic section of the Wall’s path, perched high on the Whin Sill. If you’ve never visited the Wall you really should. It’s an amazing place and still has me hooked all these years later – so much so that I’ve walked it once in full Roman kit and plan to do so again in 2013. But I digress – and that’s another blog for another day!
Standing up on the wall, in the pouring rain, with small children giving me the evil eye for denying them an afternoon at the Carlisle Lido, I fell into a deep muse. What would it have been like, I wondered, to be posted to this desolate end of the empire; wet, cold and faced with the strange barbarian people to the north who had already seen off more than one attempt to ‘civilise’ them? Something clicked and I resolved to write my ideas into the form of a novel. So I did. It took me about a year. At the end of that time I had 120,000 words of reasonably well formed prose. Of course, it wasn’t ready for a publisher yet, although I didn’t know that at the time, but there was a bigger problem – I was scared to submit it.
To explain, I’d been turned down by an agent a few years before, for the reason that my supporting characters in a proposed thriller weren’t strong enough. In those days my skin was a good deal thinner than it is now. So I sat on it, half-heartedly tried to get it published and ultimately failed to do so. The story sat on a succession of memory sticks for about eight years. The tech gods must have been watching me closely, since I never once backed it up beyond the stick in my pocket and yet never lost a stick once in all that time. I’ve lost half a dozen since then, which makes me pause and shake my head in dumb gratitude to Fortuna. Thank you ma’am!
Anyway, two things happened to make me give it one last try. Firstly, in 2006, a budding writer tried to hire my holiday cottage in Norfolk for next to nothing to go and work at his craft in seclusion. Our subsequent discussion reawakened my urge to write, kept dormant by hard work and cowardice, and I promised myself one last try. I spent three months rewriting the book. What resulted was fairly different from what had existed before that process started. What had changed? Simple: another ten years of reading. If you want to learn to write well, just read. Read a lot. So, with Wounds of Honour revamped (and retitled), I simply needed one last push. It came in a pokey little security box in Northern Ireland when a friendly night guard called Jerry said these fateful words to me:
‘My book’s doing well!’
It transpired that he had self-published some pretty good horror fiction. I remarked that I too had a book in me. Demanding to read it, he came back to me within days with the stern instruction to put it forward to some agents, for which I will always bless him. So I did. Six of them. Five told me to go away and one, my agent Robin Wade, picked me up. Champagne was drunk. I had an agent! Surely the rest would now simply be history?
Not quite. He sent it to six publishers, but of course this wasn’t 1996 anymore. Most houses had a ‘Roman’ and they didn’t want another one, thank you. At the last knockings, just as I was losing hope once more, Hodder & Stoughton picked me up and the rest now really was history.
So, what do we learn from this? Three things (It’s always three with me. It’s the way my mind works even if there are really five, or barely two):
- Read. Read lots! That’s the way to learn how to write, from the masters of the craft;
- Get on with submitting your book. Don’t waste ten years like I did;
- Keep trying. Success, as the cliché goes, is 99% perspiration. If you give up on your book too soon then you’ll never know what might have been.
That would be a shame.
Anthony Riches’s author website: www.anthonyriches.com
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