How To Get Published in Just 50 Easy Steps

(Did you miss me? After the craziness of the Distress Signals month-long blogging bonanza, I decided to give you all a month off from me. Well, a month and a bit. Also, since I last blogged WordPress have hidden the ‘justify paragraph’ button from me and it is driving. Me. CUCKOO. I can’t even look at this left-aligned. Oh my God. Deep breaths. Wait! Keyboard shortcuts! YES. Okay. It’s all okay. Everything’s going to be okay. Breathe… Okay. Anyway.)

As of February 1, this little blog is a staggering SEVEN years old. One of the first posts I published on here was a tongue-in-cheek How To Write A Novel in 37 Easy Steps. So, seven years and a bit on, and to break my post-blogging-bonanza fast, I’ve decided to update that – or rather, continue it.

How To Get Published in Just 50 Easy Steps! 

  1. Decide, aged 8, that you are going to be a novelist.
  2. Ask Santa for a typewriter.
  3. Ask your parents for an electronic typewriter.
  4. Ask your parents for a PC.
  5. Spend much of your late teens carrying the first three chapters of your first attempt at a novel, a Formula 1-themed thriller named Chequered Flag, around on a floppy disk. By ‘novel’ read ‘excuse to daydream about Jacques Villeneuve’s abs on the cover of Jacques Villeneuve: A Champion in Pictures’…
  6. Sorry, drifted off there.
  7. Avoid studying for your own Leaving Cert, i.e. the final exams in Irish school, by writing a funny but quite pointless YA novel about avoiding studying for the Leaving Cert. Submit it to a publisher whose office is 5 minutes’ drive from your house, because you think geographical proximity will help seal the deal.
  8. Get rejected.
  9. Tell your parents you need a laptop ‘for college’.
  10. Go to college.
  11. Drop out of college.
  12. Go to NYC for a week’s holiday and think this qualifies you to write from the POV of a NYPD detective. Submit your (god awful) attempt at a detective novel via post to a top London agent and get so swiftly rejected that SAE arrives back at your house before you do.
  13. Stop writing. Pretend that reading books about writing will move you closer to your published novelist dreams in the meantime.
  14. Quit your crappy job working in a greeting card store.
  15. Quit your pleasantly boring job working in an auctioneer’s office.
  16. Take a job in the Netherlands.
  17. Take a job in France.
  18. Take a job in Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
  19. Buy John Mayer’s Continuum album and put ‘Stop This Train’ on repeat for 36 days. (This is KEY.)
  20. Go backpacking in Central America.
  21. Start writing a book about number 18 after you return home to Cork.
  22. Find an agent who is interested in said book but cannot represent you on the strength of it due to there being only about 23 people in the whole world who’d be interested in reading it and even less in buying it (probably).
  23. Tell agent you are already writing a novel. (This is a big fat LIE.)
  24. Decide you can’t write the novel because your soul-destroying job is slowly but surely sucking all the life force out of your blackening soul and if you don’t do something about it soon your heart will be an empty abyss of abandoned dreams, bitterness and contempt.
  25. Quit your job – in the middle of a devastating economic recession, for maximum dramatic effect.
  26. Put a MacBook on your credit card, because you simply cannot work under these conditions.
  27. Use your savings to relocate to an isolated and slightly scary holiday home by the sea (in winter, in Ireland) with two coffee machines and your new computer.
  28. Write a comic, corporate satire, chick-litty novel. Describe it The Devil Wears Prada meets Weightwatchers.
  29. Start submitting the novel to agents and editors.
  30. Buy John Mayer’s new Battle Studies album and put the song Assassins on repeat for thirteen days. (No, really. This is KEY.)
  31. Self-publish the Disney book, i.e. Mousetrapped.
  32. Read an article about cruise ship disappearances in a magazine that someone left behind them in a café that your mum was in shortly before she picked it up and brought it home.
  33. Write a book about number 20.
  34. Self-publish that book, i.e. Backpacked.
  35. Get a meeting at a Major Publishing House by way of your friend Vanessa. The MPH don’t like the Weightwatchers Prada book, but they do like your writing. Tell them you’ll write something else.
  36. Writing something else (well, a synopsis and three chapters of it) and send it to the MPH.
  37. Writing something else else (well, a synopsis and three chapters of it) and send it to the MPH.
  38. Write something else else else (well, a synopsis and three chapters of it) and sent it to the MPH.
  39. Go for a meeting at the MPH and get offered freelance work using social media to promote their commercial fiction titles instead. Be very excited about this.
  40. Get an idea for a thriller from number 32. Write 30,000 words of it.
  41. Stop.
  42. Buy John Mayer’s Born and Raised and put the title track on repeat for the entire month of May.
  43. Let a year pass.
  44. Struggle to find anything to play on repeat on Mayer’s Paradise Valley. *tear*
  45. Decide to apply to return to university as a mature student to student English Literature.
  46. Panic when you actually get in, as this necessitates a move to Dublin. Use the panic to push past the 30,000 barrier and finish the thriller. Call it Dark Waters. Start submitting it to agents.
  47. Go to college. Stay this time. Use this as a distraction from the UTTER DEVASTATION OF REJECTION.
  48. Unexpectedly get offer of representation from dream agent while sitting in a coffee-shop near college waiting for your American Genres lecture and looking out at grey and gloomy rain. (Hooray!)
  49. Work with agent’s amazing in-house editor to write a second draft of the thriller. Change the name to Adrift.
  50. Get a 2-book deal. (Bigger hooray!) Change book’s name to Distress Signals. Start buying everything you see with an anchor on it and planning your book launch like it’s your wedding.

If you want to read Distress Signals, check it out here for Ireland/UK and here for the USA. Also if you’re in Dublin this Saturday, I’m chairing a panel on self-publishing at the Irish Writers’ Centre Women Aloud NI IWD event. Get more info on that here.

Also, on a more serious note, there’s an update on the Irish resident accused of murdering his wife on the MSC Magnifica. In a line that could’ve come from Distress Signals, his lawyer has said to reporters, ‘If this was murder, where is the body? Where are the witnesses?’ (There are neither because, of course, this is a cruise ship.) A working theory is that he allegedly stuffed her body into a suitcase and threw it from the balcony of their Deck 11 cabin. You can read more about this terrible case here.

Next time on Catherine’s blog: the Great Desk Redesign of 2017! It involves an actual pink typewriter. AN ACTUAL ONE. 

How Do You Write A Book?

Welcome to the Distress Signals Blogging Bonanza! What’s that, you’re wondering? Well, you can either go and read this post or read the next sentence. In a nutshell: Distress Signals was out in paperback in the UK and Ireland on January 5 and hits the U.S.A. on Thursday (February 2) and every day in between I’m going to blog as per the schedule at the bottom of this post. 

So Distress Signals is out and Book 2 is almost there. Although writing them were two very different experiences, without setting out to do it, I wrote both of them pretty much the same way (albeit in very different periods of time):

  1. Initial idea. Fun fact: both thrillers were sparked by magazine articles, although in very different ways. Percolation ensued, i.e. I didn’t immediately sit down and start writing.
  2. Post-It Plotting Party. I get a pen and a stack of Post-Its and I write down every idea I have about the book. This could be something big, like what it’s actually about, or something as small as a sentence a character may utter at some point. Then I take a chart of some kind – calendars are my new thing – and I arrange all these Post-Its on it in the order in which I think these events might appear in the book. This gives me some signposts to help lead the way.
  3. Vomit draft. A draft that doesn’t even deserve to be called the first one. A free-wheeling experiment. No editing as you go, no reading back if you can. This is where I figure out 70% of what happens in the book – the ideas come while I work through it. This is why Book 2 turned into a bit of a stressfest: because, drowning in self-doubt and distracted (oooh, shiny book launch stuff!), I pathologically procrastinated and didn’t leave myself enough time to do a truly vomit-y vomit draft. I had to go straight into a first draft, which proved to be a pressure cooker because I had to figure out if I could tell this story and how to tell it at the same time. Never again. Lesson learned.
  4. First draft. I give the book the break and then I go and re-do step 2. Except now that I have a vomit draft behind me, I know enough to plot out the whole book in more detail before I type ‘Chapter One’. This makes writing a first draft – the first one that could be read by someone else as a coherent book, realistically – much easier than writing the vomit one. Once this is done, my agent and editor come in and we start the editing process.

Here’s the thing though: there is no right way to write a book.

 

What Could Happen If You Worked As Hard As You Possibly Could?

Fact: I’ve never worked as hard in my entire life as I did last year.

(Because I’m a student, I now think in academic years, so I mean the period between  September 2014 and the end of May.)

Here’s another fact you might not know, one you might be surprised to learn: I had never worked hard before that.

Never.

In the last few months I’ve given this revelation a soft launch, telling a few people who know me in real life that I never worked hard before this past (academic) year. They have reactions like scoffing, eye-rolling, etc. ‘Yeah, right,’ they say. ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ I admitted to one person that I’m the laziest person I know and she said, ‘Lazy? Lazy? That’s not a word I’d associate with you at all.’

Well… Surprise!

I find it odd that people think prior to September 2014 I was a hard worker, but I must acknowledge that I’ve had a hand in spreading the lies. I constantly tell self-publishing authors that they’re not going to get anywhere without a lot of hard work – and that’s true. It is true that I did a lot of hard work. All the social media stuff, the million little things that go into self-publishing a book (or three), the speaking engagements, the blogging, etc.

But that is not the same as working hard. It’s certainly not the same as working as hard as I possibly could. I know it’s not, because it didn’t involve any real sacrifice.

Between March 2010 and March 2014, the list of tasks above was my full-time job. I did it for a few lazy hours a day, usually starting mid-morning. During the day, I was usually free to drop whatever I was doing and go out for coffee, or to see a movie, or basically to do whatever I wanted. At night you could usually find me watching TV with my laptop balanced on my knees typing a blog post or an e-mail or whatever, but that was more a habit than a necessity. There were times when self-imposed deadlines had me at my desk before dawn or into the night, but these occasions were few and far between. I had no other responsibilities. I was living with my parents. I never missed anything I wanted to see on TV, and I wanted to see a lot of things. Sometimes I even made a big flask of coffee and brought it upstairs, into my bedroom, so I wouldn’t have to walk all the way downstairs to achieve a caffeine refueling. That’s how lazy I was.

Things were going well – my self-published titles were keeping me in coffee grounds and ink cartridges as planned, I’d established a sideline career as a public speaker and a major publishing house had invited me to do well-paid freelance work for them that tied in with what I was doing for myself already – but they weren’t going as well as I wanted them to go. No where near it.

I still hadn’t got a book deal and, crucially,  I still hadn’t finished the novel I hoped I’d get a book deal for.

Almost all of the writer friends I’ve made over the last few years are now published writer friends. For a while there it felt like every single person I knew had a book deal. (Except me.) But whenever good news broke, I had to acknowledge that the person it was about was a person who worked a lot harder than me. Maybe they’d been getting up at 4:30am for well over a year now, to write before work. Maybe they’d been staying up until 4:30am because they couldn’t write during the day in a house full of kids. Maybe none of us had seen them in forever because every spare minute was spent adding to their WIP’s word count. They got what they wanted because they deserved it. They’d worked as hard as they possibly could.

Ricky Gervais has said that The Office was the first thing in his life he ever really worked hard at. I often wondered what would happen if I worked as hard as I could. My brother acts, and often he and I would say it aloud to one another: what could happen if we worked as hard as we possibly could?

In the end, I forced my own hand. I applied to do a four-year BA in English as a mature student, a move that would require a move to Dublin from Cork. I didn’t expect to get in so when I did, it suddenly meant that my novel had to get finished now, before the luxury of spare time completely disappeared. I got an agent during my first mid-term break, so I had to do a rewrite during term-time alongside all my classes, getting through my reading list, keeping up my freelance work and sleeping and eating and all that. Even my beloved TV fell by the wayside, and I didn’t read anything for pleasure for almost nine months. Actual sacrifices were made as opposed to me just “being busy”.

It was completely and utterly exhausting – after I delivered my rewrites I instantaneously developed a horrific flu and went to bed with Netflix for three days straight – but it was also exhilarating. Mostly because I knew it was going to lead somewhere, because I knew I was working as hard as I possibly could. I always thought I loved wasting time – Sweatpants & Sofa Time, to be specific – but it turns out I feel infinitely happier when I’m not wasting any time at all.

I also felt a seismic shift in how I approached my writing. Before, I’d have taken out my diary and looked for the blank spaces in which I could fit some writing time. Now, all time was writing time by default and everything else that I absolutely had to do – and only the things I absolutely had to do – would be squeezed in around it.

The most (pleasantly) surprising thing was the momentum that builds when you work like that. It got easier and easier to sit down at my desk and get going every day. I went from refusing to do anything unless I had a whole, clear afternoon, to scribbling sentences while the kettle boiled.

I have another crazy (academic) year ahead of me now: I have to deliver Book 2 by April, Book 1 comes out in June and I’m into the second year of my degree with its lecture schedule, reading list, essay assignments and, just after Book 2’s delivery date, exams. But now that I equate success with working as hard as I possibly can – and not a smidgen less – I don’t think I’d have it any other way.

What could happen if you worked as hard as you possibly could? What already has?

What do you think? Do you agree/disagree? How can you tell if you’re just doing hard work, or working hard? What’s the difference? Let me know in the comments below… 

(The featured image is of my Erin Condren Life Planner, which has changed my stationery-addict life. Find out more about her amazing products here.)

How Many Drafts Did You Do Of Your Book?

“How many drafts did you do of your book?”

In between getting a book deal and being able to tell people I got a book deal, I went to an event at Dun Laoghaire’s Mountains to Sea festival where an audience member asked Paula Hawkins, superstar author of The Girl on the Train, this very question. On hearing it, I rolled my eyes and groaned about it to my company for the evening (who rolled her eyes at my groaning), even though it wasn’t that long ago that I sat in the audience at writerly events and asked the very same thing of published authors myself.

Why the eye-rolling? Because I don’t believe the guy who asked wanted to know how many drafts Hawkins had done of her book. What he really wanted to know was how many drafts of his book he’d have to do – minimum – before his publication dreams came true, before his debut hit 2 million copies sold in the space of a few months (selling at a rate of one every 18 seconds, apparently), became the “recommended” book in the Audible sponsor message on Serial and started being tweeted and Instagrammed about by the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Jennifer Aniston and Mindy Kahling.

What he really should’ve asked was “How many drafts did you have to do of your book?”

I know this because that’s what I wanted to know when I asked – or silently hoped someone else would ask – questions like  “How many drafts did you do of your book?” (See also: “Was your book finished when you submitted to an agent?” and “Do publishers make offers on partials?” and “How many words do you write a day?”) In his memoir We Can’t All Be Astronauts, Tim Clare despairs when a pair of friends emerge from a day spent at the London Book Fair with a deal for an idea they sketched out on a single sheet of A4 paper. We’ve all heard of ten-way auctions culminating in six-figure deals for three chapters and an outline, and I know of at least one publishing story that actually involves scribbles on a cocktail napkin. Sometimes the folklore of publishing edges very close to fabled Hollywood pitches, like the one where James Cameron says “Romeo and Juliet on the Titanic” to studio execs and gets a green light on the spot.

As a writer whose ratio of writing a novel to daydreaming about having a novel published was about 1:10, these stories were music to my ears. I collected them. Fixated on them. Turned to them for encouragement. Because I wanted the spoils, but I wasn’t prepared to do the hard work first. Not if I didn’t absolutely have to.

But boy, is it hard work. Distress Signals is almost ready for copy-editing and it’s taken a lot of work to get to this point. Here is a very long blog post to tell you just how much.

Beginnings (Autumn 2012-Spring 2013)

So you have an idea for a novel…

I don’t actually know how many times I wrote the start of the book that at this stage was called Dark Waters. Four or five times, at least. When I say “the start” I mean the opening chapters; I think the furthest I ever got was 10,000 words. I was trying to figure out how to write the book. Who would be the narrator? At what point would the story start? I have a folder on my computer full of these fragments, and very little of them – almost none of them, I’d say – made it into the final version. But I wouldn’t have got to the final version if I didn’t mess around with these aborted beginnings so much first.

securedownload-8

Vomit Draft (Summer 2013)

The next major step in the process was a discovery draft. At least, that’s the professional-sounding name for it. In reality, it’s a vomit draft. You sit down and upchuck everything you know about the novel, filling in ideas for the bits you don’t know in between. By the time I sat down to do this, I’d spent the best part of two years kicking the idea around inside my head.

This was not a draft for anyone else’s eyes but mine, because it wasn’t a readable book. If I knew what was going to happen in a chapter, I simply wrote a summary of a sentence or two and then moved onto the next. The idea was to figure out what I didn’t know, so I skipped over the scenes I already had set in my mind. At the end of this I had about 50,000 words – but what I really had was the skeleton of the novel, the framework on which I’d build the book itself.

plan

First Draft 1.0 (AUTUMN 2013 – SPRING 2014)

By spring of last year I was up to about 30,000 words of my first, proper, readable-by-other-people draft and, egged on by writing friends (Sheena and Hazel, I’m looking at you), I submitted the first three chapters and a synopsis to an agent. Now in my heart I knew that neither I nor the book was ready to be doing this, but at the same time I needed to do it, because I needed to take the plunge. I was trying to scale a mountain of fear and for months – years – I’d been standing at the base of it, looking up, paralyzed. I wasn’t ready to leave the world where I might possibly get everything I wanted and move to the land of reality checks just yet.

I got a rejection, which was devastating, but it was a very detailed and generous one that pointed out what I now realized was a glaring flaw in my main character’s story, a development that just didn’t ring true. I scrapped most of what I’d written and went back to the start again.

You may wonder about the logic of taking one person’s subjective opinion and changing your entire book because of it. Well, I knew she was right. I simply knew it. It caught in my gut. I knew the best thing to do was to change that element of the book.

First Draft 2.0 (Summer 2014)

So I re-started my first proper draft and this time got up to around about 50,000 words. Then I stalled. Not because I didn’t know what was to come next, but because life got in the way. I’d applied to go back to university as a mature student and in May, I found out I’d got in. This meant packing up my apartment in Cork, moving back in with my parents for a couple of months while I house-hunted in Dublin (a full-time job in itself) and then, hopefully, moving myself to Dublin once I found a place. Writing fell by the wayside.

In an effort to kick myself up the arse, I submitted to another agent. My thinking was once I pressed “SEND” I’d be gripped by a fear that she’d come back and request the full manuscript I didn’t yet have, and would therefore get it finished immediately. But of course that’s not what happened – life was still in the way, fear or no fear – and when she did request the full manuscript  nearly three months later, I still didn’t have it.

Imagine getting that e-mail.

I decided to pull the old “Sorry, I Was on Hols” trick, which was plausible considering that we were now into August. I cancelled everything and spent three weeks in a caffeine-fuelled haze, finishing the last 30,000 or so words of the book. Thankfully I was working from a detailed outline so I knew exactly what to write, but still, it was tough going. After a few days of re-reading, re-jigging and revising, I sent it off to the agent…

… who swiftly rejected it. But this time I didn’t listen to the criticisms that came with the (very nice) e-mail. Why? Because they didn’t catch in my gut. They didn’t stick. I didn’t think she was right. I thought that this was simply a case of this novel not being for her.

When I read over the novel again – this was a month after I’d finished it by now – I remember thinking, “Hmm. This is actually okay!” So now I still didn’t have an agent, but I did have a finished book I was happy with.

This being the first time in the process I had a full manuscript I felt confident about, I decided to go all in on the agent thing and do a simultaneous submission to my ultimate agent wish list. Two of them offered representation and at the very end of October I signed with Jane Gregory – who I almost hadn’t bothered submitting to, because I thought the odds were so fantastical.

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Second Draft (Winter 2015)

Gregory and Company can spend up to two years working with a debut author before their novel goes out to publishers, so I knew that now the real work would start. It was time to do a re-write of the Novel Formerly Known as Dark Waters Now Known as Adrift with Stephanie, Jane’s in-house editor extraordinaire.

I think this was the most enjoyable part of the writing experience for me, because enough time had passed – we were into the New Year now – for me to be able to look at the novel afresh and, with Stephanie’s input, make it much better. There were no structural changes to do (plotting is my strong point, I think) but there was plenty to be done about my characterization (my weakest link). This was also an opportunity to layer in more complexity and to tighten all the nuts and bolts. I spent about 6-8 weeks on it, and then there was another week where I worked on the changes Stephanie suggested after I sent her back the draft, and then another couple of days for typos and addressing my favourite hobby, missing words. The manuscript grew to about 105,000 words in the process (up from 85,000).

Some writers don’t like being edited and although this will sound harsh, I’m not sure if those writers really know what writing is about. Being edited is absolutely wonderful. It’s like one-on-one tutoring in how to make your book better – and not just this book, but every future book you’ll ever write. A good editor doesn’t tell you what to do – they’ll just point you in the direction of where the potential problems lie. It’s up to you to figure out how to fix them. But amazing things happen along the way. New ideas. Better ideas. A better book, by far.

It was difficult time-wise because I was in university by now and re-writing when I should’ve been writing my last two essay assignments and starting to study for my exams, and the moment I finished it I spontaneously developed the world’s worst flu. You can read more about what happened next here.

Third Draft (Summer 2015)

Now for the scary bit: the first edit with Sara, my editor at Corvus (Atlantic). The novel was now called Distress Signals. When I first met her in London we talked about some of the things she thought needed reworking, and again, I agreed with them all. I knew she was right. But when the marked-up manuscript arrived in the door with lines through some of my favourite sections, my palms started to sweat.

It was soon obvious that the entire third quarter of the book needed to be rewritten. I’d given my readers a breather half-way through, much like the moment in a horror movie when the sun comes up after a horrific night of terror. But what I’d actually done is bring the narrative drive to a halt, to slow the pace to a crawl after spending 50,000 words working to crank it up. Elsewhere I needed to dump a few research dumps, and there was more work to be done on characterization.

But, again, I really enjoyed the process. Who wouldn’t enjoy making their book better? It’s like the first draft is the cupcakes and editing is the icing and decorating bit. It’s the fun bit. The hardest part is done. Now you get to make things look pretty. (This analogy doesn’t go the distance, does it? But you know what I mean.) By the end of it I was really, really proud of my book – and still in love with it, crucially.

If I can give you one piece of advice it’s to write a book you are madly in love with, because that love is going to need to last a long, loooooong time. It’s going to have to be stronger than your desire to start a bonfire when you’re reading it for the 53rd time.

Last week I heard that my editor loves the changes and the rewriting is over. We just have some line editing to do on the new sections and then Distress Signals will be off to the copyeditor.

That’s how many drafts I had to do of my book.

What next? Oh, just the little matter of doing this all over again with Book 2.

More coffee, please.

 * * * * *

Introducing… 

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Since I got a book deal, the most common question I’ve been asked is why the book isn’t coming out for a year. The next most common question is how in the name of the fudge I’m going to squeeze the writing of a whole book into the time between now and next April, when – as evidenced by this thesis of a blog post – it took me approximately five times that to write the one I’ve just finished. (Darling, let me tell you: we’re both dying to know the answer to that). So between now and next summer, I’m going to do a monthly series called Book One/Two, where I update you on the publishing process and my attempts at doing this all over again. Consider this the prologue. I’ll hope you’ll stick around for the rest! 

UPDATE 17th August: Oh my, Freshly Pressed! Thank you so much, Freshly Pressed Elves. This is, somehow, the third time I’ve been FP’d. (Whaa…?) If you’d like to read the other two, they were Why, For Me, Print Will Never Be Extinct and Self-Publishing? Read This First.

What I Thought Of… HOW I BECAME A FAMOUS NOVELIST by Steve Hely

Oh, how I do love me a bit of satire, and how I love it even more when the target is a part of the world I’m somewhat acquainted with. Therefore I was, admittedly, pre-disposed to liking How I Became a Famous Novelist, a brutal but hilarious send-up of the publishing industry in which no one emerges unscathed. This is Steve Hely’s debut novel but he has a long list of stellar TV writing credits, including The Late Show with David Letterman, the animated comedy American Dad and what might be my favorite show on TV at the moment, 30 Rock. He’s currently writing for the US version of The Office.

And I think I might love him.

His book, I mean. I think I might love his book…

How I Became a Famous Novelist is the story/downward spiral of Pete Tarslaw, a directionless twenty-something who lives in jeans because they double as a napkin, drinks soda for breakfast while standing in the shower and calls his lunchtime dash across a four-lane highway “the most invigorating part of the day.” He works for a company called EssayAides, re-writing college application essays for foreign students and thus practicing questionable ethics on a daily basis. This bland and bleary-eyed existence suits him just fine, until he gets word that the only good thing that ever happened to him – his ex-girlfriend Polly – is getting married, and he begins to think about having to attend the wedding as a Grade A Loser. What can he possibly do to turn things around, so dramatically and in such a short space of time?

The answer comes from the literary darling du jour, Preston Brooks, who reportedly scored a “high six figures” for the rights to his novel, Kindness to Birds; Pete will simply become the bestest selling bestselling novelist of all time. His decision is cemented by a TV interview with Brooks, filmed at the author’s gabled West Virginian mansion. Brooks is the epitome of literary pretension: he claims he discovered literature in an alleyway the morning after a drinking binge, when a discarded copy of Of Mice and Men showed him “there was stronger stuff than whiskey”, he only writes on a typewriter (“If it was good enough for Faulkner…”) and says of his office, “I call this the dance hall. Because characters will appear, and introduce themselves and ask me to dance. The character always leads. I bow, accept, dance for a while.” Brooks also has the requisite position at a university, where he teaches Creative Writing to a bunch of attractive twenty-year-old women who hang greedily on his every word.

Pete promptly concludes that Brooks is not a literary genius but a complete con artist, and that he can become one too. And he can do it in time for the wedding.

After an in-depth study of the competition (key to success: include at least one murder), one writing class and a few false starts (“Did you just start writing sentences? That seemed a bit rash.”) Pete finally bangs out 331 pages of “greeting card level crap” with the help of whiskey, coffee and an experimental drug used to treat hyperactivity that he cons off his med student roommate. The Tornado Ashes Club is a, ahem, literary novel about a murder at a Las Vegas hotel, a mysterious mission to bring a soul to the afterlife, a quest along America’s highways and World War II. Oh – and chasing tornadoes. Obviously.

Next step: get The Tornado Ashes Club published. Pete sends the manuscript to his college friend Lucy, now an assistant editor at a New York publishing house who tells him that no one in publishing can even tell the difference between good and bad anymore, and confides that she cries herself to sleep at night because the books that move her don’t get published while “the ones that don’t make sense and have adverbs” sell ten million copies and get turned into movies. “Do you realize how many manuscripts we get?” she asks Pete. “Thousands! Tens of thousands! Just stacks and stacks! Some people don’t have desk, they just have stacks. And there are people whose whole job it is to throw them in the garbage. Huge bins! They use shovels! But the manuscripts never stop coming in…” And yet despite this, Ortolan Press is desperate for new talent; Lucy’s boss has sent her to MySpace in search of it, and makes her trawl through blogs. “If I hear the word blog one more time,” she says, “I’m gonna put my neck on the subway tracks.”

In fact, so desperate are Ortolan Press that they agree to publish The Tornado Ashes Club, but Pete soon discovers that getting a book deal isn’t even half the battle. Between him and his wild writer dreams (which include, somewhat bizarrely, snorting cocaine off a manuscript with Zadie Smith, and making a cameo in the film version of his book as “a French resistance fighter or a tornado expert”) are still the hurdles of disastrous Amazon sales ranks, getting bumped from a San Diego BooXpo and terrible book reviews. (The San Francisco Chronicle calls Ashes Club “a road trip that makes you wish you’d taken the plane.”)

Still, all is not lost. After some product placement in the Christian market and a spot on Law and Order: Criminal Intent – in one scene a child molester is reading Pete’s book as he awaits his sentence – things start to look up for The Tornado Ashes Club, and with it, Pete’s appearance at Polly’s wedding…

And that’s when the fun really begins.

A large part of the fun of How I Became a Famous Novelist is the fact that it’s filled with thinly veiled digs at some of the biggest names in publishing today – very thinly veiled, in some cases. Pamela McLaughlin, for instance, is the author of a series of bestselling crime novels featuring the feisty detective Trang Martinez; a tie-in cookbook and a range of wine coolers has helped pay for McLaughlin’s private island and helicopter. This is despite the fact that her books, as Pete points out, “can by read and forgotten in the time it takes for ordered Chinese food to arrive.” Then there’s Tim Drew, a “content producer” who farms out most of his books to Creative Writing grad students, a shining example of the “new model of literary capitalism” and according to a profile in the Boston Globe, last year’s 44th largest economy. His latest title is The Darwin Enigma, a thriller involving a devious secret society, a band of shadowy monks, Charles Darwin, Jesus and Buddha. Phew.

One of the pages that gave me the most giggles is a fake New York Times bestseller list that Pete studied prior to writing his book that gives us – and him – a brief glimpse of his competition. Do any of these remind you of anyone?

  • The Balthazar Tablet by Tim Drew: The murder of a cardinal leads a Yale professor and an underwear model to the Middle East, where they uncover clues to a conspiracy kept hidden by the Shriners.
  • Expense the Burberry by Eve Smoot: A young woman in Manhattan spends her days testing luxury goods and her nights partying and complaining.
  • Indict to Unnerve by Vic Chaster: A prosecutor is the target of an investigation spawned by the daughter of an international assassin he paralyzed in a golf accident.
  • Cap’N Jay and Us by Matt McKenna: A newspaper columnist and his daughter learn lessons from a mischievous squirrel.
  • Abandon the Creamsickles by William Su-choi: Humorous essays on family and childhood by the author of Which Dog Means I’m Fired?

This book was published in 2009 but in light of the recent epidemic of Franzen Fever, it felt even funnier this past weekend when I read it for a second time. Even the blurbs on the “Praise for…” page are chuckle-inducing, and reminiscent of the rash of reviewers clamoring over each other to find new and hyperbolic ways to describe Freedom. One of them – by “Susanne Friedegger, author of Myopia Dystopia” – claims that, “You wish to do more with this book than just read it. You must eat it, consume it, make it a part of your physical form, as it is already consuming your mind space. It must have physical space too. It demands it.”

For my own part, I would say that if you don’t read this book your life will forever be plagued by a nameless void that could otherwise have been filled by this searing satire that delights as much as it mocks.

Or something.

I love, love, LOVE this book, and demand that you go read it immediately. Some of it is so close to the truth it’ll make your cheeks blush with embarrassment, but mostly it’ll make them wet with tears, either from laughing so much or recognizing your own wild and completely unattainable published writer dream-related despair.

You can thank me later.

Click here to purchase How I Became a Famous Novelist from Amazon.co.uk.

Click here to read an interview with Steve Hely from The New Yorker.