New York-based professor and writing tutor Colm O’Shea has quite a diverse portfolio; from anthologised poetry to an academic monograph and a debut novel, both published at around the same time.
After receiving an Opening Section Review from us, Colm had his first brush with indie publishing. His first novel, a speculative sci-fi titled Claiming de Wayke, was published by Crossroad Press in April 2022. We caught up with him about writing in different contexts and what querying looks like for the modern author.
JW: Tell us a little about you and your history as a writer. What were your first major writing projects?
I started writing for pleasure around age seven—short poems and stories composed on the fly in the schoolyard. Writing was an escape pod from whatever I was “supposed” to be doing, such as schoolwork. By my teens I wanted to take literature more seriously so I did a degree in English and Philosophy.
Once you make your escape pod your permanent home, your relationship with it changes. Now writing is the thing you’re “supposed” to be doing, and if you’re like me you start looking for a way to escape that. I got good at composing college essays about other people’s writing as a way of avoiding writing my own fiction or poetry – and his led to a Ph.D. thesis on the work of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. In that strange book, there are two brothers, Shem and Shaun. Shem is a cartoon mess of a creative writer (full of self-loathing and doubt), and Shaun is a pompous, know-it-all professor. These contrasting personalities struck me as a possible solution to my need to use writing always an escape from what I’m supposed to be doing.
Once you make your escape pod your permanent home, your relationship with it changes.
Now I split my time between being a professor—someone who teaches and writes critical analyses—and a fiction writer and poet. Creative writing is my escape from my teaching and research, and my teaching/research helps me avoid taking my fiction and poetry too seriously. I’m amused that my first two books have come at the same time, one being a sci-fi novel about a mess of a man who is full of self-doubt (with Wayke in the title) and the other being an academic monograph about Finnegans Wake. The two books complement each other: a set of oppositional twins.
JW: Your first sci-fi novel, ‘Claiming De Wayke’, was published in June 2022. Can you tell us about your journey to publication?
I wrote the novel about ten years ago. It’s set in the wake of a respiratory pandemic, and explores how some people are in a rush to return to business-as-normal while others wish to remain hiding in a virtual reality universe. I sent it out to a few agents and got the cold shoulder, and reluctantly I gave up. I told myself: Stop kidding yourself that you can write fiction.
And maybe this happens to everyone, but in the years that followed I kept seeing films and books released that reminded me of things in my own book—it felt like a series of gut punches. Then the pandemic hit, and I saw various factions squabbling over how to handle it (as happens in my novel), so I thought the time had come to revisit the manuscript. I’d been lurking on the Jericho Writers’ site for a while, consuming their free content, and decided to invest in their Agent Submission Pack Review (my query game was abysmal). After that review, I got requests from agents for the full MS—this was a major shot in the arm! I decided to splurge on getting an Opening Section Review, and was paired with sci-fi writer Alma Alexander. She helped me pare down flabby sections and clarify some murky exposition. To my surprise, Alma said it was such a good debut that if I didn’t find a publisher then she would publish it herself. That vote of confidence from someone (not a family member, but an actual writer) freed me from a lot of stress and self-doubt.
Their slushpile functions like Tinder: they’re sifting through endless submissions and swiping left on almost everything that doesn’t conform at a glance to a precise—but constantly changing—set of demands.
I kept submitting to agents, but now they were saying things like “This is good writing, but no one wants to read about a pandemic now that we’re in one.” I thought about how much time I had spent querying agents, as opposed to working on my writing. I don’t know what it’s like to be an agent, and I’m sure they’re good people and know their job, but from my perspective it felt like you have to be the literary equivalent of photogenic to catch their attention.
Their slushpile functions like Tinder: they’re sifting through endless submissions and swiping left on almost everything that doesn’t conform at a glance to a precise—but constantly changing—set of demands. It can feel like anything odd or misshapen, or not perfectly on trend, is ignored. And being told you’re “nearly attractive” is not comforting—it’s infuriating! I went sobbing to my editor Alma and she surprised me again by acting as a matchmaker, setting up a meeting with an indie publisher who offered me a contract. You hear about luck being a factor in success, but in my case that’s particularly true—I have a fairy godmother.
JW: How have you found the experience of working with an indie publisher?
My novel has only recently come out, and my experience is specific to one publisher, so results may vary. A major upside was the terms of my contract: I get 75% of profits. (I’ve seen traditional publishers offering 10% or less.) For a Luddite such as myself, a bonus was that I didn’t need to navigate the technical demands of getting the book formatted for Kindle or deal with printing. Also, I got to design the book cover—or to be more accurate, I was able to enlist James Guinnevan Seymour, a wonderful Irish illustrator whose work seemed to speak the language of my story, to create it with my specific input. This creative control might appeal to some writers whereas others could see it as a hassle. Finally – and this is the worst part of indie publishing from my perspective – I’m largely responsible for marketing. This is a major hole in my skillset. I’m hoping to learn more from sites like Jericho about how to market work that’s already published or about to be published in the future.
JW: Do you have any advice for writers looking to finish their books or query agents?
If you studied literature in college, then you might be at a disadvantage! I’m only half-joking—when I studied English, the focus was very much on literary theories and finding thematic elements to analyse. For some young fiction writers, this might train them to craft things for a more academic audience who are interested in reading for concepts.
I wish I’d found Jericho Writers sooner so I could have got my head around this a few decades ago.
Seeking out agents and publishers has taught me that the market is crowded, highly competitive
, and as a consequence, focused on lean, engaging, high-concept fiction. It seems to me that contemporary fiction increasingly resembles screenplay, and many agents are looking for novels that would adapt well to the screen. There are obvious exceptions, but the sprawling interiority of the 19th-century novel, and the experimentalism of 20th-century modernism, has largely been supplanted by could-be-a-film-script prose. Lucid, tantalizing pitches reign supreme in this landscape. I was probably in denial about this, and Jericho Writers helped me face it head-on.
A Tinder-like situation might not be ideal, but it doesn’t have to stop you—not if you can train yourself to think in terms of legible, intriguing pitches. I wish I’d found Jericho Writers sooner so I could have got my head around this a few decades ago. At a minimum, if your manuscript is nearly finished and you’re about to submit to agents, I’d suggest that you get someone skilled to have a careful look at your query letter. The world is full of agents itching to swipe right on you.
Colm O’Shea teaches essay writing at Tisch School of the Arts, New York University. His poetry has been anthologized in Voice Recognition: 21 Poets for the 21st Century (Bloodaxe), and Initiate: An Oxford Anthology of New Writing (Blackwell). His first novel, Claiming De Wayke,is available from Crossroad Press, and his book on sacred/morbid geometry in Finnegans Wake, James Joyce’s Mandala, is from Routledge. Visit him at colmoshea.com