Originally I was planning to write a long and well-argued piece about my experiences of publishing fiction on the internet, but after I sat down to do so, I realised that in fact what I have to say can be summarised for most of you as follows, since I suspect it’s mainly Aspiring Authors* who read this sort of post:
Don’t do it if you’re hoping to land an agent or publisher this way. That’s lottery thinking. In fact, you’ll probably have a better chance with a one-pound/dollar ticket.
Does this mean I regret having put Mortal Ghost online? No, because I never really intended to publish it conventionally after my experience with my (former) UK agent. Naturally, I wouldn’t have said ‘no’ to a publishing contract – I’m not completely daft – but I was not prepared to do to the novel what was apparently necessary to make it publishable, marketable, or even readable, depending on your point of view. And I’m still not.
Is Mortal Ghost flawed? Of course it is.
Could I improve it if I took it apart and rewrote it from the ground up? Of course I could. After all, it’s been almost four years since I first started it, and in August it will be two since I began Corvus. If I haven’t changed in that amount of time, haven’t learned at least something about writing, I ought to go back to my neglected garden right now, clear the overgrowth, and plant tomatoes. I love heritage tomatoes, and they make the best soup.
So what have I got from online publishing?
1. Some readers
2. Some good criticism
3. Some good friends
4. A thicker skin
And most important of all, a growing sense that I can do exactly what I like this way. One example: you’re always told not to include anything in a novel which doesn’t contribute to the plot. All fine and good up to a certain point. There have been a kwakabazillion words written about this; not one of mine would add anything substantive. E. M. Forster and John Gardner are always classic places to begin if you need to do so.
So why mention plot? Two reasons. First, I hate plot. I’m not even remotely interested in plot. Tough for a novelist, eh?
And second, because you and your next-of-kin, or an editor, or Daniel Mendelsohn – if you were ever one day good enough to garner his attention (psst…see the drift of my fantasies) – or your best reader will always disagree. Life is one great messy cauldron of brew, boiling furiously. Which ladleful we decide belongs between the covers of a book (imagine them, please) is a matter of taste, and usually circumscribed by not very original expectations. Causality may be the real fiction, unless you’re looking for a unified theory of the cosmos. And even there, the jury is still out.
My son Toby pours several grams of salt onto his tomato soup. I would choke on a quarter of that amount. Hm … I can already think of three possible but wildly disparate scenes with salt, tomatoes, choking, and mother-and-son. Now which of these elements is souperfluous and ought to be cut?
*Update: it just occurs to me that we might found an AAA organisation of our own. Care to join?