Emmie Mears: Five Things I’ve Learned Building a Writing Career the Wrong Way

Have you ever wanted to write a novel? How about twenty-two of them? Do you like being told no hundreds of times for a living? Great, me too!

What a rubbish sales pitch that would be.

I used to talk about writing a lot. For a while, I literally blogged every day. A lot of that was about writing. About writing books, trying to find an agent for those books, writing about other people’s advice about writing books, and eventually about signing contracts for books I wrote. And then everything went to hell, and I slipped back into the bushes like that Homer Simpson GIF.

I’ve tried to write this post about five times and have scrapped about two thousand words of it. I am leading with that, because it feels relevant.

I even hyperbolically labeled the document “attempt a billion” because I feel like I have been staring at it since the Cretaceous Period.

I’ve hit some strange milestones this year in my writing career, and while I had a lot to say about it, I didn’t know how to say it. So instead, I’m going to give it a go in five chunks. Five things I’ve learned, five wheels you shouldn’t have to reinvent, five lessons, five shouts into the windy void.

This Isn’t Over

Maybe it’s weird to start out by saying something isn’t over, but I feel like it’s worth hammering into place with very large nails.

There was a not-insignificant amount of time where I believed my publishing career was dead before it had even begun. For those of you who don’t know me, my debut was put up for sale in a box set with three other authors’ books, released as a solo just in time to get orphaned, and removed from sale within six months of publication. Without going too in-depth into the other exciting points of that sob story (three orphaned books and an untenable contract and Agent Hunt the Third within three months of each other), when your debut barely sells three hundred copies, let’s just say acquisitions teams are not so keen on taking a risk on your next one.

From that point on, I spent a couple years self-publishing to a decent amount of success with my Ayala Storme series. But I had always wanted to sell traditionally, and it increasingly looked like it wasn’t going to happen.

My books started failing—and I do mean failing. The Storme sales dried up, partly because I took a sharp turn genre-wise, none of my novels was selling in the traditional world, and I was floundering.

But I held onto one thing. I told myself that everything I was doing was fertiliser. That I was sowing seeds in the earth below my feet, and that if I kept tending them, maybe they would grow.

I wrote new categories and subgenres. I started freelancing as an editor. I read craft books and style guides and kept writing new things. I tried short stories for the first time. I started a Patreon. I learned Gaelic to fluency. I started singing again. A brand new publisher decided to acquire my backlist and my shelved epic fantasy, and I decided to go for it.

It wasn’t over then, and it isn’t over now.

Seeds Take A While to Sprout

In 2018, one of my musical heroes disappeared and was found later, having died by suicide. I wanted to write something to honour Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison, to process his death and the connections I’d had to his music and his mental illnesses—his words resonated with many people who shared his depression. But nothing I wrote seemed right.

Then, after a week-long Gaelic immersion course at Ceòlas in South Uist, something clicked. I came home and wrote “Seonag and the Sea-wolves” in pretty much one sitting and fired it off to Jen Gunnels at Tor who also reads for Tor.com. She bought the story within a month, with me writing as M. Evan MacGriogair. It ended up making the Hugo longlist and has been reprinted now twice, with a third contracted.

In 2017, I’d written a YA. It came close to selling many times, but it didn’t. Like many of my novels, it seemed promising when it went on sub only to fizzle out after a year or so, I suspect because according to BookScan, I’m a big, juicy trombone womp on the loss side of “profit and loss.” This was the twelfth or thirteenth novel-length work I’d written. We were about to shelve it when my former agent got in contact, as she was acquiring YA after a spell of only doing younger categories.

In 2019, I sold that YA as Maya MacGregor. It comes out next year from Astra Books for Young Readers, and it’s called THE MANY HALF-LIVED LIVES OF SAM SYLVESTER. My acquiring editor told me over a plate of chimichangas that when she’d brought the book to the team, they’d asked her how the hell I hadn’t been snapped up yet. I may have cried into my margarita.

And as a final example, way back in 2016 (remember when we thought that year was the Worst? Bless), I had the absolutely, lolsob-worthy timing of releasing a book about a city slipping into the pit of fascism the very week the US elected Trump. It wasn’t a coincidence that I wrote that book—my degree is in history, and a big part of that was spent studying the reemerging extremist cells in Europe and the US. But despite its painful topicality, the book sank. Hard.

A few weeks ago, that book—which I am writing this post to promote—earned me my first ever starred review for its new hardcover edition. Five years after it “failed.”

Publishing is a Luck Game

I think we can all recognise that publishing is far from a meritocracy. It doesn’t diminish the power or impact of wonderful work to say that getting a book on a shelf is a concoction of timing, the nebulous markets, what an editor just bought, whether an editor is vibing with something in particular, and a million other factors.

You can write an amazing book and not sell it. You can write a book people hate and sell millions of copies. (Not here for bashing Twilight—like it or not, Meyer did something very right.) You can yeet a book onto Amazon and do absolutely nothing and have it somehow sell a thousand copies in its first few weeks and then go on to sell almost twenty thousand more. You can pour your soul into a book and have it sink like a lead-covered stone dropped over the Mariana Trench.

There is relatively little in our control, and before I get a pitchfork to the gut, “little” is not nothing. It’s just possible to do everything “right” and not have a breakthrough book. But that also means that sometimes, just sometimes, lightning strikes.

Publishing is a Long Con

As I went through Point Two on this list, you probably can already guess the gist of this one, because they’re closely related.

It’s one thing to look back in hindsight and say wow, all those things I did five years ago ended up doing stuff! But it’s even more powerful to look around right now and say that what you’re doing today could bear fruit in five years.

One of the things I’ve been mulling over in the past couple years is the difference between recognition and intentionality. I can recognise good writing when I see it but not be aware of the techniques and specific devices used and how I can also utilise them in my own writing. The same is true for general effort—it’s easy to get into autopilot mode and forget that we have agency and that our agency can alter future outcomes.

t(w + c) = l

No, I’m not saying that luck is the product of Terribleminds and Chuck Wendig, but it would be handy if it did. (And just in case, Chuck, may I have your blessing?) [edit — YOU MAY — cw]

At the end of all this, the most important lesson I’ve learned has to do with those letters standing for different variables where t=time spent, w=work, c=craft, and l=luck.

Am I mathematician? No.

Is this any more scientific than saying luck is the product of Chuck Wendig and Terribleminds? Also no.

But it is something that helps me feel a little bit more in control when so many things are outside my control.

I cannot control geopolitics and global pandemics. I cannot control whether the editor who’s had my novel on their desk for nine months will happen to pick it up on a day they ate some bad charcuterie and can’t focus because they need to run to the loo every ten minutes. I can’t control markets, reviewers, who else publishes the day my book comes out, or even (very frequently on the trad side of publishing) my covers and titles.

But I can control other things. I control the effort I put into my craft. I’ve now written twenty-two novels, and by the time you read this, it might be twenty-three. LOOK TO THE SUN was my tenth.

I can control whether I keep going or take a break, whether I give up altogether or come running back to the game. I am responsible for whatever ends up on my pages.

And if there’s anything you learn after seeing a few rounds of the “ten year overnight success” in this business, it really is that luck is very frequently the product of work and craft over time. It’s not as simple as that, of course, but you have a much better chance of getting struck by lightning if you are in the plains of Kansas in tornado season than on a sunny day in a redwood forest. Don’t go get struck by lightning, but do work smart and sow your seeds in fertile ground.

Not all of us luck into the easier (note I didn’t say easy) route of writing one book, getting one agent, getting one book deal, and then getting successive book deals forever from there that allow us to live comfortably on our writing income until we retire. Most of us don’t, overwhelmingly. I certainly didn’t. Maybe I never will.

If you’re like me—the me of five years ago or the me of now—wondering if it’s worth it, I can’t answer that for you. I frequently avoid talking about my publishing experience because no one really wants to hear “on top of the gruelling process of writing one (1) book and finding one (1) agent, you might have to do it multiple times and might end up writing a fifteen books before getting one advance,” but I can tell you that it isn’t over until you decide it is.

(My stubbornness comes in handy sometimes.)

I can’t say what’s going to happen next. LOOK TO THE SUN’s grand re-opening might coincide with any number of catastrophes. Murder hornet-sharknado, who knows? What I can say is that none of us at all have that kind of predictive power, and whatever happens could be terrible! But it could also be something wonderful.

I’m a writer because I have a very active imagination. If you’re also a writer, it’s likely because you do too. I know how easy it is to imagine the worst possible outcomes or to imagine that the troubles of the past will also be the troubles of our future. So my challenge to myself and also to you is to apply that imagination to exploring new futures. New ideas, new good things, new solutions to old problems. Good things can still happen, even in the godforsaken hellscape of 2021.

I believe that for me, and I believe that for you too.

We’ve got this.

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Emmie Mears is the author of over fifteen novels for adults and young adults, also writing as M. Evan MacGriogair, Maya MacGregor, and Sylvie Greenhart. Their English short fiction has appeared on Tor.com and in Uncanny Magazine, and their Gaelic poetry and short fiction is in the Poet’s Republic and in Steall magazine. As a Gaelic singer, they have won awards as both a solo singer and as part of the Alba choir and the Glasgow Gaelic Musical Association. They live in Glasgow, Scotland with their two cats and dreams gu leòr.

Emmie Mears: Website | Twitter

Look to the Sun: BHC Press