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My Experience Publishing With Angry Robot

Today, Peter Tieryas, author of United States of Japan coming from Angry Robot in March, has been kind enough to share his journey from a short story writer struggling with rejections to published novelist. In addition to being a damned good writer (I’ve read United States of Japan and thought it was excellent: in equal parts beautiful, thrilling, powerful and haunting  – review soon), Peter just so happens to be the nicest guy on the planet, and I would like to say a huge thank you for him to sharing his personal journey with us and taking the time to try inspire the many writers who frequent Fantasy-Faction.

My journey to being a writer almost never happened. With my new book, United States of Japan, coming out, I wanted to reflect on how I got here and what it’s been like working with the fantastic Angry Robot Books.

Perfect Edge

2013 July Rejection - Rejection Letters by Allan SandersBack in 2009, almost seven years before I joined the robot army, I’d gotten so many short story rejections, I wondered if I was even meant to be a writer. While I’d had a series of short stories published when I was younger, there’d been a gap of about five years where I’d only gotten one piece accepted. I was devastated when I received that issue and found all sorts of typos and formatting errors in my story. What I thought would be a brief moment of victory had been ruined.

I had so many folders full of rejections I’d collected over the years, I was running out of space in my drawers to place them. There had been more and more notes encouraging me to send again, but I’d already re-sent and gotten re-rejected too many times. I began to think to myself, you gave it your best shot. Maybe it’s not meant to be. It was a hard fact to come to terms with, but I couldn’t deny the fact that writing no longer felt joyous. Add in some major personal trials, and the compounding rejections made me feel bitter. I resigned myself to my fate and spent two months traveling through China.

Peter-BikeChina changed my life. I lost myself in the streets of Beijing, seeing things from the perspective of a completely different culture. In many ways, the labyrinthine hutongs were a form of rediscovery as I found what was important to me. That’s also where a friend introduced me to the woman who would become my wife, Angela, who in turn, with my in-laws, taught me what family really was.

During my time abroad, I was surprised when I got emails from two literary magazines notifying me that they’d accepted my stories. I’d gotten so many rejections, I had to re-read the emails to make sure they hadn’t made a mistake. I was very happy, especially because they were magazines I really liked. Cautiously, even reluctantly, I began writing again. Not with any expectations, but more out of a sense of curiosity and fascination as I wanted to describe everything I was experiencing. I wrote many short stories in a Beijing cafe while I waited for Angela to get off of work and ended up spending almost six months with her before eventually returning to the States for my job. We were separated for almost eight months and I wrote a flurry of short stories that were essentially love letters to Angela. Many of them took strange forms like a man who could fly, a death artist, and a couple playing basketball in the Forbidden City. I was shocked when almost all of them were accepted and many from prestigious magazines I’d long followed like the Indiana Review, Evergreen Review, and ZYZZYVA. I had enough stories to assemble a collection together.

watering-heaven-book-coverThree years since I’d contemplated giving everything up, my first short story collection came out from Signal 8 Press in 2012. They were a smaller, but amazing, press based out of Hong Kong to whom I’d sent the collection as a cold submission. I really liked working with the publisher, Marshall Moore, who showed me the ropes early on. Watering Heaven received a lot of critical praise which was stunning for me. I still remember receiving my first review and feeling awe that someone actually liked a book I’d written. It was great in giving me the confidence I needed to take the next step- tackling a new full length novel.

Bald New World started as a novel where everyone lost their hair. It was actually a fictionalized autobiography of my life with baldness becoming an allegory for my past and some of the things I’d never fully been able to deal with. I had no idea where to send it, only that I wanted it to be somewhere special because it was so dear and personal to me. I seriously flirted with the idea of self-publishing in case it proved too unusual an idea for any publishers.

BaldA writer whose work I really admired, Craig Wallwork, was generous enough to introduce me to his publisher at that time, Perfect Edge Books. To my surprise, they accepted my novel in late 2013. I had no idea how it would do, started getting worried as I second guessed myself over the title which made it sound like a farcical play on Aldous Huxley’s classic. Fortunately, I got a couple of really awesome breaks. Buzzfeed featured it. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review and included it in their best of science fiction list. Positive reviews were popping up in some of my favorite literary magazines as well as profiles at places like Yahoo! and the Huffington Post. I found Bald New World in many of the libraries I visited. It even got nominated for the Folio Prize, much to the chagrin of reviewers who were befuddled why a book with such an absurd and ridiculous name got chosen over famous luminaries (my sincerest apologies Mr. Ian McEwan for taking your spot with my baldies!).

Marc Aplin wrote an article last week exploring the question, will a small press add value? In the case of Bald New World, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Did I know that going into it? Not at all. As far as I knew, I was just happy to get my work out there. But it just goes to show something my wife likes to say: once you release a book, it takes on a life of its own.

Keep-TryingThose desperate times in my literary career were what made it possible in the first place. They were a sort of perfect edge where I sharpened myself and grew as a writer. They were depressing, hopelessly depressing (I still can’t believe the hundreds of rejections I got over those five years), but essential. If I hadn’t made my way through, I wouldn’t be the writer I am now. This is, of course, a heavily condensed version of all that happened and I’ve left out so many people who were so supportive during those years (as well as a whole lot of other setbacks). But when aspiring writers ask me for advice, I always tell them, live life, write, submit, get rejected, repeat, and persist, not thinking about where your writing will take you. It’s understandable to want to skip that rejection stage as it’s so painful. But it can also be a time where you can hone your craft through the often mentioned literary forge. I took that time to try out different types of writing including essays, reviews, and interviews too, which proved really valuable in growing as a writer.

Bald New World’s positive reception gave me the courage to take up a topic I’d long wanted to write about-  the tragedies that happened in WWII to Asians. That’s when I started writing United States of Japan.

Constructing A Robot

USJI’ve written in a previous essay here about the inception of USJ, particularly in relation to The Man in the High Castle. The first version of the book took about a year and a half to write (probably the thirteenth draft or so as the story and structure had changed so much). I’d had some publishers contact me after Bald New World and was thinking of sending it their way. That’s when the opportunity came up to submit to Angry Robot Books and their editor, Phil Jourdan. I’d been a fan of Angry Robot, especially after reading Wes Chu’s hilarious and compelling Tao trilogy. I eagerly sent them the manuscript of USJ in November 2014.

As the decision to publish was made by the whole of Angry Robot and Watkins Media staff, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. It took USJ about four months to get to “acquisitions” which is the meeting where they make their choice to “acquire” or not. I got an email from Phil the week of the acquisition meeting telling me when it was going to happen. I could not sleep the night before and kept on hitting refresh on my emails, awaiting final word. The notification came from Phil on March 5, 2015 with a simple subject line: “You’re in.” Even though it was late, I got up and started dancing in what might be better described as an awkward fumbling of my hips.

I was ecstatic.

AR

The lovely Penny Reeve on the left and the very cool Mike Underwood on the right. They do the important job of making sure readers hear about Angry Robot titles!

From the very beginning, Angry Robot distinguished itself with a personal approach. I’d never talked directly with any of the editorial or marketing staff of my previous publishers except via email, so it was pretty exciting when an initial meeting was setup over Skype. That’s how I first met Mike Underwood, our North American Sales & Marketing Manager, and Penny Reeve, Fiction Publicity Manager. The conversation was to walk me through the next steps, what to expect, how the editorial and marketing process would go. But it was also just about conversing face to face, getting to know one another. It was under an hour, but it was the first time I felt like an “official writer” with an “official” publisher. It was one of the coolest moments I’ve ever had.

While my agent, Judy, worked out the contractual details, a trip to the San Jose Japanese American Museum shook me to the core and made me want to rewrite the whole opening sequence. Originally, USJ almost immediately jumps into 1988. I added three new days following Ben’s parents as the Japanese Empire first conquers America. They were short, but important. When I told Phil about the idea, he was very supportive. I took a month to write that sequence before we dived into the main editing.  

Phil

This is Phil Jourdan, Consultant Editor at Angry Robot and author of What Precision, Such Restraint.

The editing process was amazing. Phil’s a great writer by his own right. His collection, What Precision, Such Restraint, is hauntingly brilliant and I love all the essays he posts on his site. He’s the ultimate writer’s editor.

I can’t emphasize how important it is that you find the right editor. Even John Steinbeck had Pascal Covici and Ernest Hemingway had Maxwell Perkins. A great editor is someone who gets what you’re trying to say and helps bring out your own vision while understanding your strengths and style rather than remolding the work into their image. I’ve had instances where an editor asked for so many changes to a short story, I no longer recognized it, feeling no ownership over it either. Fortunately, Phil is the best kind of editor, guiding you to the right place but making sure it’s the road you want to traverse. A huge chunk of the editing with Phil happened over a really long conversation where we just talked about the characters, their arcs, and their relationship to the Japanese Empire. One of the most startling moments came when he pointed out things I’d been doing subconsciously in my writing I hadn’t noticed, which he in turn asked me to emphasize even more with intent this time. We spent a lot of time working on Akiko who I’ve always viewed as the main protagonist of United States of Japan. It’s amazing how adding a few sentences here and deleting a few there can totally change a character.

USJ1

Map by artist & fan Chang Yune

There were some things I really wanted to do in USJ that I felt I hadn’t done in Bald New World. One of the biggest was to make the worldbuilding feel more organic and less dependent on exposition, something I did a whole lot in BNW because it was told from a first person perspective. People who inhabit a society don’t stop in the middle and pontificate on why this is so and so, but rather, you infer it from their behavior. I also wanted to make sure USJ maintained a sense of distance between the characters so that you never knew for sure what anyone was thinking or what their motives are. This would heighten the sense of tension and you’d be forced to get a sense of personality from the dialogue alone, aware that what they were publicly presenting might only be a mask. This would starkly contrast with some of the subconscious meanderings the two protagonists, Akiko and Ben, had as there would be an explosion of prose, a visual vortex of sorts connecting back to current American events as commentary on its relation to the world of USJ. All tricky things to pull off. Phil had an intuitive sense of where the story worked, where it didn’t, and where the plotlines became excessive. One of the biggest cuts he asked for was in an over the top mecha combat scene against a huge Nazi monster, which in retrospect, was absolutely the right call as it felt out of place with the gritty atmosphere we were going for in USJ.  Good editors can save you from yourself.

In film and games, we always say the first 95% is the easy part. It’s the last 5% that takes the longest, especially as you chisel away to get to the next level. We spent a lot of time locking down the ending which, ironically enough, was the very first thing I wrote. There’s a surprise revelation that ties the whole book together and we hammered on it. After a few rounds of the editorial revisions, we finally got to a point where both Phil and I were happy with the book (or as happy as can be as I don’t think I’m ever fully happy with a book). USJ had expanded from an initial 73K words to about 90K, with many of the additions coming in the opening prologue I mentioned earlier, as well as extensive changes throughout the book to the characters, the setting, and the dialogue.

Phil, along with Phil K. Dick, are the two Phil’s I dedicated United States of Japan to. The dude inspires. I love working with him.

Behind the Curtain

angry-robotPeople often ask me, should I self-publish or go the traditional route? I don’t think there’s a definite answer as each individual case is different and self-publishing can have its advantages. What I can say is that in the case of United States of Japan, Angry Robot has been amazing in ways I didn’t even expect, especially with a team of people who have supported me every step of the way.

After Phil and I had finished our editing, Paul Simpson came in to do the copy edit. That meant going through line by line, focusing on the technical aspects, fixing formatting issues, and also pointing out any inconsistencies. The book is told chronologically over several days and Paul suggested breaking up each time shift into its own section which I felt helped a lot with clarity in the final version.

Once the copy edits were approved, we sent it off so that it could be distributed as an eARC to reviewers. I thought we were finished. But at this point, two proofreaders came in and scoured the book for typos. Amanda Rutter and Trish Byrne found the minor mistakes those with an eARC might have noticed. I gave it another look, as did the publisher, Marc Gascoigne, before we shipped off for final. The attention paid to the manuscript and the level of polish was extremely reassuring. Angry Robot takes their books very seriously and devotes the resources to make sure it’s in tip top form.

This is Marc Gascoigne, MD at Angry Robot. He is also a very talented writer in his own right.

This is Marc Gascoigne, MD at Angry Robot. He is also a very talented writer in his own right.

Marc was the one who supervised the look of my cover. After my friend John Liberto generously provided a mecha image to announce USJ, Marc thought of hiring him as my cover artist. Considering that a lot of the attention the book has gotten was because of the superb cover art, it was an excellent decision for which I’m very grateful. Marc is also the person behind all the robot magic and is the guiding hand behind everything awesome in Angry Robot.

I know in the past, I naively thought that once a book is written, it would just go out there and spread like wildfire. But there’s a lot more work that goes into the marketing, especially since there’s so many amazing books available. The cover is important, but so is the right synopsis as well as the accumulation of blurbs and advance praise to try to position the book in the best place possible. In that respect, the person I most deal with is Penny Reeve, a generous and thoughtful PR manager who is also superb in handling all the publicity. She is the best friend your book can have in its corner in the boxing match of publishing. Working in conjunction with her is Mike Underwood, who, as an aside, writes some incredibly fun books. I’ve called his Ree Reyes series a love letter to pop culture. The book business can be complicated and I’m glad Mike manages everything related to that end of writing. I’m always grateful to him for being able to explain even the most esoteric concepts in easily understandable terms as well as giving really good advice.

11252759_955524014520745_9182714533928531505_nWriting can be one of the loneliest professions around. A lot of it is plagued with self-doubt and moments of joy can be wiped away instantly with a rejection or bad review. But having a crew that you can lean on like Angry Robot can make the next step feel a little less daunting. This also includes all the fantastic Angry Robot authors, many of whom I’ve befriended online and a few with whom I’ve even hung out (one of the cool privileges of joining the army is gaining access to PDFs of all the titles). I find it amusing that for a place called Angry Robot, they make me feel everything opposite of anger.

Conclusion

The path to getting your novel published can be a long and arduous one. Whenever I feel discouraged, I try to remember that moment right before I left for China, thinking I had to give up on my dream of being a writer. I don’t know how USJ will do, don’t know how many more chances I’ll get to share my stories. But I always remind myself how story-telling is the currency of imagination and that I’ll do my best repay my debt to publishers and readers alike for every loan I’m able to make.

United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas is out March 1st (US) & March 3rd (Europe) from Angry Robot Books. Here’s the blurb:

USJDecades ago, Japan won the Second World War. Americans worship their infallible Emperor, and nobody believes that Japan’s conduct in the war was anything but exemplary. Nobody, that is, except the George Washingtons — a group of rebels fighting for freedom. Their latest terrorist tactic is to distribute an illegal video game that asks players to imagine what the world might be like if the United States had won the war instead.

Captain Beniko Ishimura’s job is to censor video games, and he’s tasked with getting to the bottom of this disturbing new development. But Ishimura’s hiding something…kind of. He’s slowly been discovering that the case of the George Washingtons is more complicated than it seems, and the subversive videogame’s origins are even more controversial and dangerous than the censors originally suspected.

You can find Peter Tieryas online at his website and@TieryasXu on Twitter.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar Shack says:

    What a great article. It takes so long to succeed. You have to love writing for its own sake otherwise the knock backs and rejections and near-misses can get the better of you – especially the closer to ‘making it’ you get.

    I look forward to reading USJ

  2. Avatar E.Maree says:

    Fantastic, inspiring article. I’m really looking forward to reading USJ.

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