First-time authors are in a unique (and enviable) position of recently having their first novel published. Many readers want to hear about their experiences writing their first novel and then wading through the agent acquisition and publication process. With that in mind, “On Writing” has become a regular feature here at The Debut Review in which I ask debut novelists 10 questions about those very things. If you have suggestions for possible questions to ask first-time authors, contact me.
What led you to start writing Blood and Feathers?
The story, put simply. I wanted to tell a story about a young woman called Alice, who had never got over the death of her mother, and I wanted to tell a story about a disgraced angel called Mallory who had got himself into a mess and didn’t know whether he could ever get out again. Fortunately, it happened to be the same story—although it took me a while to work that out.
How close did the final story match how you originally envisioned it? Why did these changes come about?
It’s pretty close, as it happens. I think the only real change involved a minor alteration to a character’s death. Even though the change was fairly small in itself, it altered a lot of the relationships between the other characters (not that it helped the poor unfortunate whose number was up…) It was something that I hadn’t been happy with when I first wrote it, but couldn’t quite work out how to fix—and it was only by talking it through with my editor that I got it to a point where it felt right.
Tell us about the writing process you followed with Blood and Feathers.
It was fairly straightforward, I think: once I’d realised it was actually one long story—and not the three short ones I’d originally thought it to be—I spent an afternoon working out a rough beat-sheet which picked up important plot and character developments and then I followed that as I wrote. It meant I always knew more or less where I was headed and where the characters should be at any given point, but I also had a reasonable amount of freedom.
Another thing I did was keep a notebook where I wrote backstory and character sketches for the majority of the characters (I think there’s 11 in there for Blood and Feathers, and I’ve started adding more for Rebellion, the second book) and that’s where I wrote down all my research and worked out the rules for the world. Anything I needed to look up, it was in the notebook. It’s bright pink—which is unusual for me!—so it’s pretty easy to keep track of…
I’m fairly boring, I’m afraid: I seem to be following much the same pattern now. The beat-sheet and notebook approach feels like it works quite well for me, although I had to do a much more detailed plan for my publisher ahead of Rebellion. I’m certainly a lot more critical of my own work now, though—it slows everything down a bit as I’m forever rereading what I’ve written.
What was your biggest challenge in writing Blood and Feathers?
On the one hand, finishing it. I had a huge amount of upheaval in my personal life while I was working on the last third, and it was very difficult to find the time and energy to write. On another hand, I enjoyed the world-building, and I quite often had something rattling around in the back of my mind even when I wasn’t actually writing. I suspect I was quite trying company for a while.
What was your experience like with the submission/agent-acquisition process?
Mine was possibly a little unusual in that I wasn’t agented when I submitted my book. I’d met Jonathan Oliver, the editor-in-chief of Solaris, a few years before, and he had shown an interest in my writing and asked me to pitch for an Abaddon shared-world novel, which I did. They turned me down (and rightly so, in that case) but we kept in touch and would bump into each other at conventions, and we were actually at World Horror 2011 in Texas when he asked what I was working on. I told him about it, he sounded interested and asked me to send it to him. I did… and a couple of months later, I got a mail saying Solaris wanted to publish it. I think I might actually have burst into tears. In a good way.
After you found a publisher, what was the editing process like for you?
It’s a strange thing, editing. Possibly the hardest part of it was realizing that there is someone out there who has read your book and paid very, very close attention to it. It feels a bit like you’re sitting an exam, in a way, when each round of edits come back. Jon’s very reassuring: the margins had some extremely polite, but quite firm, comments when things needed tweaking, and of course he was right. It’s not until you’ve actually finished the whole process, though, that you can see how much stronger the book becomes during that process: it’s kind of magical.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in getting your book published?
Me. I was very much in the right place at the right time when it came to submitting—there’s a huge amount of luck involved in publishing—so I can’t complain, but I found it very hard to put the manuscript out there, in the world, and let go of it.
It’s hugely exciting knowing that other people can now read it (and I hope they do!) and it’s a tremendous privilege, too, but getting your head round that idea’s a bit tricky to start with. It’s just such an incomprehensible, wonderful, terrifying thought.
In more practical terms, signing a contract (an actual contract. With my name on it, and big words and things) was a touch intimidating.
What was the biggest surprise you encountered during the process of getting published?
How involved I was, at every level. I wasn’t expecting to have as much say (or to put it another way, to be allowed to stick my nose in as much!) as I did. Solaris are a great team and a lot of fun to work with: I’ve learned a huge amount about publishing as a result of them being so open and inclusive. I was allowed a lot of input, and they didn’t even throw things at me. Well. Not often, anyway…
What’s next for you?
We’re about to launch Blood and Feathers (at Forbidden Planet in London, no less), so a lot of my time at the moment is spent sitting in a darkened room, gibbering in terror ahead of that. When I’m not gibbering, however, I’m working on the follow-up, Rebellion, which will be out next summer. I’ve also got a couple of short stories I’m very proud of coming out in anthologies over the next few months: one in the Solaris Magic anthology, and one a fairly dark circus story in an anthology put together by Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane for PS Publishing. And in between all that, I can usually find time to harass my lovely (and patient) agent Juliet Mushens at PFD about a whole range of needy-writer issues…