This week’s entry in the My Path to Publication series belongs to guest author, Sarah Linley. Sarah’s debut novel, The Beach, will be published in 2020 by HarperCollins’ digital publishing division, One More Chapter.
Me, Myself and my book
I have wanted to be a writer since I was a little girl, but I didn’t really do anything about it until I reached my early 30s and decided that if I was ever going to get published, then I needed to take it seriously.
In 2014, I booked on to the Festival of Writing and entered all the competitions with my first novel. I was incredibly lucky and was shortlisted for Friday Night Live. At this point, I had no idea how big or influential the festival was. I thought I was going to be reading to 20 people in the back room of a pub. That was terrifying enough. I had never read my work out loud before.
I arrived to find a huge room, a stage, a microphone and an audience of around 200 writers and literary agents. Cue major stage fright and the conviction that I was going to vomit in front of everyone. I eyed up the exit and considered making a run for it. Fortunately, the other writers were equally nervous, incredibly supportive and I got through OK. People even laughed (which was good – it was a comedy). Joanna Cannon won that year and became a major literary superstar. I had two brilliant one-to-ones. I had requests for full manuscripts. I thought ‘this is easy’. I was so wrong!
That book did OK. For a first attempt, I’m surprised that I did get full manuscript requests and helpful feedback but ultimately no agent. Fair enough, I thought, I’ll try again.
I switched to crime. I read a lot of crime. I know and love the genre. My favourite books are psychological thrillers and I felt that was the right fit for me. I wrote another book. This time, I knew a bit more about story structure (thanks to Julie Cohen); psychic distance (thanks to Debi Alper) and the four-act structure (thanks to Allie Spencer). Harry Bingham had taught me to challenge my prose and to really care about its quality. I realised I needed to include some setting (which was conspicuously absent in my first book).
I went to the next Festival of Writing feeling confident with my first chapter and my synopsis fresh off the printer. In retrospect, I should have waited. It bombed. The feedback from my one-to-ones was completely true, but hard to swallow. There were tears.
I got onto the Curtis Brown Creative novel course, which was fantastic, and I learned to accept, welcome and value criticism. I met my amazing critique partner, Phil, and I revised the novel. I went to the Festival of Writing again and the feedback was more positive but still generally ‘meh’. To be honest, I was feeling the same way about book two myself.
I gave up on trying to win over the industry. It just wasn’t going to happen. I licked my wounds a little and then decided to write something just for fun. If it didn’t get published, so what? I was just going to write something that I loved and if no-one liked it, then at least I would be proud of it. I wrote my third novel free from expectation but there was something deep inside me whispering ‘this is the one’.
I started looking at digital-first publishers who would read manuscripts without an agent and had a faster track to publication. When I got the email from Killer Reads, a digital imprint of HarperCollins, I automatically thought it was another ‘thanks, but no thanks’. I had to read it several times to convince myself that it was a ‘yes’. I had a book deal. I stared at it for a long time, wondering if they had made a big mistake, sent it to the wrong person, but no, it definitely had my name on it. (NB Killer Reads has now amalgamated into One More Chapter).
By the time The Beach is published in February 2020, it will have taken the best part of a decade to get a publishing deal. And I still haven’t managed to secure an agent!
From manuscript to publication
I got the book deal in March, just as I was about to embark on my third and final backpacking trip with my husband.
The next stage was structural edits which came at the start of June. I was really pleased with the suggestions put forward. I thought they made the book stronger and I felt that my editor really understood what I was trying to achieve with the book. I didn’t have much to do with the title and the cover, but I thought they were both great, and I absolutely loved the blurb. They did a much better job than I could have done! I am now just awaiting the copy edits.
I have just the one contact at HarperCollins – my editor Kathryn Cheshire – and everything is done via email. I did get chance to meet her at the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate this summer though which was lovely.
It would have been so helpful to have had an agent when I received the publishing contract as I didn’t have a clue what to look out for! Harry Bingham’s Getting Published was invaluable for helping to explain the terms and conditions and I am fortunate that one of my best friends is a lawyer, so she helped me to understand what I was signing.
I had read a lot about the industry beforehand, so I haven’t really been surprised by anything so far. I suppose the weird thing about getting a publishing deal is that suddenly people are interested in your writing in a way they weren’t before. You go from writing something quite secretly, perhaps sharing it with some writing friends, to everyone from your boss to your next-door neighbour promising to read it, and that feels very strange!
I think you have to accept that your novel will never be perfect, so my test for letting go is: if this version was published tomorrow, would I be happy for people to read it?
Beta readers are fantastic for letting you know what’s working and what isn’t. Pick people who are going to be honest with you; there’s no point otherwise and listen to their feedback. You don’t have to agree with it, but you should always consider it.
Also, deadlines help. Either your own or your publishers. As a former journalist, I am used to working to deadlines and I take pride in always meeting them, so if someone asks me for something by the end of July, it’ll be ready by the end of July!
I am currently working on my second novel. It’s the same genre and style as The Beach, but it’s not a sequel. I am trying to finish a complete first draft by Christmas and I’m really enjoying being back at the start of the process again, creating and developing plot and characters. Also, the research for this new novel is a lot of fun!
About Sarah Linley
Sarah Linley lives in Yorkshire and works as a Communications Manager for a housing charity. She spent two years backpacking around South-East Asia with her husband. Their travels inspired her debut novel, The Beach.