JW: Lovely to chat with you. Where are you at with your writing process right now?
S: At the moment I’m doing structural edits – it’s all new to me. I’ve had my work looked at through manuscript feedback, but it’s nothing like this. Structural edits are much more detailed, and all in your hands. Rather than being given specific suggestions on where and how to make changes, you’re tackling specifics where you have to read the whole novel again and again to tweak and implement changes. It forces you to go deeper into your characters, makes you interrogate who they really are and why.
JW: Your debut, ‘This Other Island’, comes out in May 2021. What can readers expect from it?
S: It’s fresh, it’s different. It has lots of twists, turns, and surprises. Working with my editor, Isobel Akenhead, is helping me produce a novel which will have the biggest impact on readers it can possibly have, and I’m loving it.
JW: How did you land your book deal?
S: I was submitting to so many agents and just getting nowhere. Three or four of them said nice things in their rejection, but it was still a rejection. Then I signed up for a book surgery offered by Peepal Press. It was suggested that mine was quite a common journey for black writers – they often end up at independent presses because they can’t get an agent, and so it was suggested that I tried submitting to independent presses, like Peepal Press. I felt quite demoralised, but I submitted to a few independents. And then the Jericho Writers Summer Festival of Writing came up. I watched the Bookouture interview with Jenny Geras, and thought, ‘I really like this woman.’ Sometimes you just get a really good vibe. Jenny was saying all these nice things about how they don’t believe in slushpiles and you don’t need an agent to submit to them. I still didn’t submit – I thought I’d just get another rejection. Then the Jericho Writers newsletter came out and Harry did a write-up on Bookouture. He was very encouraging. He mentioned that if you do the maths, you’re more likely to get through with Bookouture than you are with an agent, just based on the number of submissions they accept per year. And there was another Jericho Writers piece about Bookouture encouraging black writers to submit to them. So, in the end, I submitted twice!
JW: How did you feel when you found out Bookouture wanted to publish your novel?
I was so overwhelmed. I’d had so many rejections from agents, I think I’d had 28 rejections. But then Isobel’s email said she was so pleased my book was assigned to her because she ‘absolutely LOVED IT’. I couldn’t believe it – it was an amazing moment.
Debi Alper [who runs our Self Edit Your Novel Course] was the first person I told because she was always there with me. Every little disappointment, every time I had doubts, she’d say ‘just keep going!’ Every time I contacted her, she came swiftly back and really helped to prop me up.
JW: That’s a lovely relationship to have. Do you think you’ll contact Debi for the draft of your second book as well?
S: Yes, I’ll always be running things by her! I feel really blessed that I’ve met her, that she believed in me and that she kept encouraging me to hang in there. ‘Keep submitting,’ she’d say. ‘You just need to find the right person at the right time.’
JW: How did you discover our Self-Editing Course in the first place?
S: I joined Jericho Writers in August 2018 mainly because I’d get access to loads of webinars and other things that I could tap into to learn more about writing and getting published. Then I saw the Self-Editing Course advertised and I thought, ‘well, I’ve got this novel I’ve been working on for the last ten years. Let me see if I can get moving on it.’ I’m not working – well not paid work anyway. I look after my mum who has Alzheimer’s, so I applied for the bursary and thought, nothing ventured, nothing gained. When Jericho contacted me to say I’d been successful, I couldn’t believe it. That was my first opening door.
“I feel really blessed that I’ve met [Debi Alper], that she believed in me and that she kept encouraging me to hang in there.”
JW: What has it been like to work with Bookouture?
S: So far, I’ve found everyone to be very on the ball, easy to talk to and efficient. When I was submitting to agents, I noticed how young many of them were and I remember saying to Debi, they’re not going to get me, they won’t get my story. Not only am I a mature writer, but I am also a black writer. She told me I should just go for it.
My editor, at Bookouture, Isobel Akenhead is young enough to be my daughter, but she knows her work and has a good eye for what works and what doesn’t. Also, she loves my work and actually gets it.
JW: That’s exactly what you need. Sometimes, especially for a debut author, the publishing process can be really daunting. What was it like to negotiate the deal without an agent there backing you up?
S: I didn’t like it. It took me away from the creative process to something more business orientated. On Debi’s advice, I joined the Society of Authors, and I sent the contract to them for feedback and advice. They gave advice on things I should query, but very little changed at the end I thought I’d take a chance and be positive about Bookouture because this is the contract that would launch my career, and they seem like a great fit.
Everything moved quite fast. I just couldn’t believe this was happening to me, or that I was the person this was happening for.
JW: It must be very overwhelming. Bookouture do things like royalties slightly differently don’t they?
S: They don’t do advances, but they give you 45% of your sales. It really suits me.
JW: They’re doing a few things that are quite radically different, which I think is so intriguing. Are there any challenges that you’re facing right now as an author, and how are they different to challenges you might have faced in the past?
S: I feel now that I’ve signed a contract, I’ve joined the big league. So, I can’t get demoralised, or say, ‘I can’t be bothered to write today.’ But the great motivating thing about it is that I’m not writing in the hope that a publisher or an agent will take me on. Things are clearer, I know the stories I’m writing will be published. I love writing, find it satisfying all my efforts are being rewarded and it’s exciting, so it’s all great.
JW: How long have you been writing for?
S: I started writing seriously in my thirties. I wrote a novel when I was living in Abu Dhabi, despite knowing nothing about writing. I sent it off to all these agents in England, and all of them said ‘get stuffed,’ basically. I abandoned it, and then when I came back to England I started going on courses and getting my short stories published. I was really into Octavia E. Butler, who wrote sci-fi. All her main characters were black, and I liked that about her – I liked that they were women as well. I thought perhaps I could write a story like that.
My first novel, which was the one I submitted to the Self Edit Your Novel course, was literary fiction with Caribbean magical realism (there are lots of myths and legends in the Caribbean). I’d been writing that for so many years and couldn’t get past a certain point, and the course helped me to get past that point and actually finish it!
JW: Let’s talk about first drafts. Do you have a method that you stick to? For example, do you give yourself a certain amount of words to write each day or set deadlines?
S: That’s exactly what I do. For my second novel, which I’m writing now, as part of the Bookouture deal, the target is 1500 words each day. Sometimes I even manage 2000. For my previous novel, the target was 500 but then I realised I could do much more! You definitely have to have an element of planning. I didn’t do enough of that for my first novel. But as you’re writing it’s like some magic happens in your brain – ideas just come to you. Things just happen! You just have to keep going until you’ve got that first draft completed. Put it down for a bit, then come back to it for a second draft, which is likely to be more challenging than the first because that’s when you change things, find certain things don’t fit well into the plot; some characters disappear, another might enter etc.
“That’s the writing process. It just has magic in it.”
JW: How different is your final draft to your first?
S: With ‘This Other Island’, I started the first draft thinking I’d only have one point of view and one protagonist. My final draft has three points of view and the plot itself has become much more intertwined – with more twists and surprises. Having to write a synopsis, query letter and pitch, helped me to identify the main theme in the novel. When I was submitting to agents, some asked which novel or author your novel would sit comfortably next to. Though irritating at the time, that helped to get me focused on the themes in my novel too. With the help of Isobel, I’ve identified more themes running through ‘This Other Island’. And I feel even more proud of the novel. I have always been fascinated by the consequences of not knowing who your parents are.
JW: That’s interesting, where do you think that fascination comes from?
S: I think it comes from my culture – perhaps a historical thing from slavery when many children were sold off and didn’t know their parents. Parents had children they had to say good-bye to and never see again. I think it’s important to know who you are, who your people are, and who you’re connected with biologically If you don’t, it could lead to dire consequences.
JW: Of course. Do you feel like writing became a kind of catharsis in that sense?
S: Maybe, but unplanned. The idea for this novel actually came from my mother, when I listened to her talking about her journey to England on a ship. Then whilst plotting and getting the story out, things came through and eventually the whole thing worked. That’s the writing process. It just has magic in it.
JW: Do you have any tips for writers who might be working on their first draft?
S: Have a plan – you don’t necessarily have to know the end, but make sure you know what the characters are going to go through and have a rough idea of what you want to happen. Many seasoned writers say write the first draft for yourself. Don’t worry about the reader yet. I agree. It’s the best method for me.