Jericho Writers member Julia Stone has had a long and varied career, often using her background in psychology as a springboard into her writing and other creative pursuits.
Her first book, a psychological thriller called Her Little Secret, was published by Orion Dash in August 2021. We were honoured to talk to her about her journey to publication, and the expectations and surprises of commercial publishing.
JW: Tell us about your first published book, ‘Her Little Secret’. Where did the concept come from?
JS: When doing therapy work with couples, I sometimes hear two completely different versions of events; like a mirror image. She paints him as a miser. He describes her as wasting their savings. Both believe their interpretation is ‘the truth’. But how would I know if one of them was lying about the other?
As a therapist, I don’t get to meet my client’s friends and family, I don’t see them at work or at home in the evenings. All I have to go on is what I see, hear and feel in the therapy sessions. But what if someone came for therapy and didn’t tell the truth? What possible reason could they have…? These were the questions that got me thinking.
Cristina, the therapist in my novel, has been trusted with a lot of secrets. Her client, Leon, is being selective with the truth because he wants something – something only Cristina can tell him. The story idea blossomed from there.
JW: Had you done much writing before then? What’s your background as a writer?
JS: My earliest published work was a letter to Jackie magazine in 1974 – I pretended to be a Vulcan and not understand the concept of love! My mother encouraged us to be creative and we wrote our own stories from a young age – although I have to admit, most of them were rip-offs of ‘Mallory Towers’.
In my 30-year career as a business psychologist, I wrote professional materials for client companies and contributed to managerial text books. Then in my early forties I came back to my creative side, completing an art degree part-time and studying scriptwriting. I brought writing into my artwork, as each sculpture was always accompanied by an imagined ‘backstory’. I also self-published an artist’s book – ‘Heavy Clumping Cat Litter‘ – a flash fiction/photography collection inspired by found shopping lists.
Around this time, I was lucky enough to be shortlisted in several competitions for a script idea, a short story, and the early chapters of a novel. That encouraged me to think more seriously about novel writing. I had loads of ideas half-written in my bottom drawer but now I’d rediscovered the creative writing bug, so in 2017 I applied for the Faber Academy Writing a Novel programme.
JW: What was your journey to getting an agent?
JS: During the six-month Faber course I produced a draft novel that sparked some interest from agents with three manuscript requests, but sadly no one offered representation.
In 2018 I signed up to Jericho Writers and attended every workshop I could which really fired me up with enthusiasm. An idea came to me when I was driving on a long journey and I started work on a new story. I was thrilled when it was short-listed for Best Opening Chapter at the Festival of Writing that year. That gave me the courage to enter the Blue Pencil First Novel Award. As the book went from longlist to shortlist I was amazed and didn’t expect anything more. I was on my way to London for a meeting when I heard the novel had won and Madeleine Milburn wanted to offer me representation! I was so surprised and excited I missed the train, but it was the best ever excuse to be late for a meeting.
In 2018 I signed up to Jericho Writers and attended every workshop I could which really fired me up with enthusiasm.
Managing expectations and emotions
JW: In what ways has your work as a psychologist complimented or contrasted with your work as a writer?
JS: My background is in management consultancy where deadlines are set in stone and ‘time is money’ – back in the 1990s we literally had to keep timesheets and account for what we were doing every half hour. So, the time lags in the writing & publishing process were a bit of a shock. For the writer, there seems to be a lot of waiting – for a response, for feedback, for edits – and no idea of when this might come. Agencies and editors are inundated and it can leave the writer in a reactive position, feeling a bit in the dark. And, as we all know, that is when the doubts creep in. I do wonder if more could be done to explain what is happening and manage expectations?
On the other hand, my work and experience in psychology helps me to cope with the ups and downs of the journey. I’m not immune but I know the tools and techniques that help manage any emotional reactions to disappointments and setbacks. Psychology has also helped me to understand personality, motivation, and behaviour. This is a great help with developing rounded and believable characters, although I don’t think you ever stop learning your craft.
For the writer, there seems to be a lot of waiting – for a response, for feedback, for edits – and no idea of when this might come. Agencies and editors are inundated and it can leave the writer in a reactive position, feeling a bit in the dark. And, as we all know, that is when the doubts creep in.
The publishing industry: expectations vs. reality
JW: You signed a deal with Orion Dash, a digital-first imprint. What was that experience like? Was it what you had been expecting?
JS: To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect. What has pleasantly surprised me is the speed; the time scales are so much quicker than traditional publishing. The offer from Orion Dash was made in March 2021 and ‘Her Little Secret’ was published in August, having been through a significant structural edit in that period. The whole thing is a learning experience for me and I’m loving it.
JW: You’ve also had work published before in your professional field of psychology as well as having experience in scriptwriting for training videos. How did this background inform your expectations of commercial publishing, and did anything surprise you?
The rounds of editing! Aside from proof edits, no one has ever given structural feedback on anything I’ve written in my professional field. It was fascinating and something I hadn’t expected, although I really see the benefit. I think it would be helpful for writers to know how many rounds of rewriting they will need to go through at all stages: before they submit to agents, then before their agent submits to a publisher, and finally, with the publishing editor. You’ve got to love the characters to stick with them through all this!
I think it would be helpful for writers to know how many rounds of rewriting they will need to go through at all stages: before they submit to agents, then before their agent submits to a publisher, and finally, with the publishing editor.
JW: What are you working on now? If you’re writing the follow-up, how are you approaching it?
I’m currently halfway through rewriting a previous psychological suspense novel, which has a totally different feel to ‘Her Little Secret’. (That said, the protagonist is once again an unmarried, child-free woman in her fifties!) As always I start by working out the key plot points and write a 2-4 page synopsis as if I am telling someone else the story. I then find images that represent the main characters and anything relating to their environment and stick them in a notebook. Obviously, the story changes as the characters take it off in unpredicted directions, but this gives me enough to get started. By the time I’ve finished the first draft, the notebook pages are bulging with scribbled notes, mind maps, sketches, quotes and articles torn from newspapers. It’s the only way I know how to do it!
JW: Any final advice to those starting out?
Obviously sign up and get involved with Jericho Writers! From my own experience, I strongly recommend taking part in workshops, writing groups, and competitions. Ideally set up or join a writing group. I wouldn’t have stuck with it had I not been part of a mutually supportive writing group that I met during the six months at Faber. Writing can be a lonely job and we need all the support and encouragement we can get from others who are on this journey.
Julia Stone applies her creativity in her work as a writer, ceramic artist, coach, supervisor and therapist. She has had a long career in psychology and psychotherapy and now works part-time. She loves learning and was recently thrilled to pass her Level 1 exams in British Sign Language. Her second book will be published by Orion Dash in 2022.
Her Little Secret is available in ebook, audio and paperback from Amazon.