|Shirley McMillan's Debut|
A Good Hiding
The Learning Curve - Insights from Debut Authors
For many the road to publication is long and fraught. For others, a publishing deal comes relatively easily. Those who are still trudging the path may find it hard to imagine what it’s like to be a debut author, and authors with a few books to their name may only dimly recall the original experience.
So what is it like? Does life change? Do dreams become reality and with a deal to your name does it all become plain sailing? And what is the process from slushpile to contract to published novel actually like? I asked debut author, Shirley Mcmillan, about her journey to publication.
From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal?
I have been writing since I was a child but I was about 20 years old when I decided that I was going to seriously pursue writing as a career. That’s when I began to send things off to publishers and agents. That was 20 years ago, so it took me 20 years to get a publishing deal.
It is said that writers have to be persevering and have a tough skin – did you find you grew in endurance and perseverance? Did you ever think about giving up? What made you keep going?
Twenty years sounds like such a long time but I quickly found out about things like slushpiles and how many letters publishers and agents get every day so I lowered my expectations quite early on. That made it easier to persevere with sending things away. I gathered as many stories as I could about famous writers who had had loads of rejections before they sold anything. The more that I saw myself as following in their footsteps, the more getting rejection slips seemed like a thing that real writers did. So although I always hoped that the SAE (yes, I’ve been doing this since before email existed...) that came through the post wasn’t going to be *another* rejection, I really expected that it would be, and I told myself that this was me being a writer- it was part of the journey. In my case, a BIG part! Haha!
I never thought about giving up writing. I remember complaining to a friend one time about how I felt everything I was writing at that time was rubbish and I wasn’t getting anywhere. He said ‘Well why do you do it then? What’s the point if it bothers you so much?’ I knew the answer straight away. I can’t help doing it. Writing is something that has felt like a part of me for a very long time, and even when I don’t love it, it’s still me. It is the thing in my life that makes me feel like myself. So giving it up is not something I ever considered.
How did you feel when you first landed your deal? Did it feel like the world had changed? How long did the excitement last?
I felt dizzy and I still feel dizzy when I think about it. To say that I can’t quite believe it sounds like a cliché, but I actually literally have trouble believing that I have a book coming out soon. The excitement is still very much with me.
If you think about the amount of work you did on your story pre-deal, how much more work did you have to do once you’d landed your deal – did you realise the real work had only just begun and how surprised where you by that?
I wrote ‘A Good Hiding’ as part of my MA in Creative Writing which I did at Manchester Metropolitan University. It’s a privilege to be able to do a course like that because you get to experience a little bit of what editing with someone else’s help is like, and you get to meet people who work in the industry and ask them what the process of publishing is like. It was the same with getting into the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices anthology- you get to meet industry professionals who tell you how much work might be involved once you actually find an agent/publisher. So no, I wasn’t surprised and I think that the MA and UV were both really good ways to prepare myself for the world I’m now entering.
Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story?
I think it made my story clearer. This is what I have loved about the editing process. I suppose I had expected that it might require changing my story, but actually my story was the story they wanted to publish. Editing has been a process of letting it come through in the best way possible. I feel really privileged to have been able to work with professionals on it.
How have you found working with illustrators and cover designers? How much involvement have you had with the graphic content of your book (covers or illustrations)?
My publisher asked me a question about a specific aspect of my book because she wanted to pass the information on to the artist. Apart from that I haven’t had much involvement with it. I saw one design which was then slightly altered to make the final design. I loved the first one and the second one was even better. It’s something I would never have been able to imagine by myself, so again- a real privilege to have a professional artist working on it.
Do you think that having had your first book published, your writing life will be easier and your career will be on track? Do you think it will all be easier the second time round?
I don’t know. I feel enormously relieved and happy that I am going to have two books published professionally. I’m trying my best to stay grounded and to let myself get excited without anxiety, but I’m also trying to live in the moment and enjoy this for what it is. I have no idea what will happen next and I certainly don’t feel that my career will be sorted for ever more. I imagine that you have to keep working at it, like everything else. I am sure that being published will bring its own challenges and I just hope I can learn a lot with the first book being out and apply what I’ve learnt to the second time.
Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with?
The biggest challenge to me right now is making time to write. I have a part time job, a husband who works full time and some evenings, and I have two kids (and one of them is a toddler)... it is really, really, hard to find time to write! I have had deadlines before but never under a contract so it’s really important that I stick to my writing targets and try to make up any writing time that I’ve missed on the holidays. It’s a great motivator! That is by far the thing I’m finding most difficult although I’m sure there will be a steep learning curve once A Good Hiding is published as well.
What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal?
It has all been a bit of a whirlwind so far to be honest. I suppose I have been surprised by how fast everything goes once you have got a deal. It took years to find an agent and then when I finally found one (the lovely Jenny Savill!) I was pregnant and just about to give birth, so it was a few months before I could get stuck into the revisions I needed to do before she could begin sending the novel to publishers... This made the process seem quite relaxed and then BOOM, I had a publisher, and a month or two later they had sent me the edits and suddenly there was a book cover and then proofs... wow! When I signed the deal and people started to ask ‘When’s your book out?’ you could see this look in their eyes like, a year from now? That’s forever! To me it’s unbelievably speedy considering the time it took to get here :-)
What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time?
One of the things I have found most wonderful about working with an editor is that it forces you to consider your own writing in ways that you maybe hadn’t before. For example, A Good Hiding was absolutely full of things that only a Northern Irish audience would have understood and my editor was always asking ‘Is this a Northern Irish thing?’ Sometimes it made me doubt myself and I had to go and talk to my friends to find out if it was *was* an NI thing or just some weird little saying that was personal to me or my family. I loved that about editing- it drives you to consider a wider readership and to consider how each word you use says something not only about the story and the character, but about you and your own world. My advice would be to lap that up with a spoon. It’s impossible to do by yourself and it will make you a better writer. I didn’t change all my Northern Irishisms but I did change some things to make my writing clearer for other readers.
Now that your first book is out – what next?
More writing! I’d love to do as many readings and as much meeting and engaging with people as it’s possible for me to do. I live on an island and as I said, life is busy, but I am looking forward to those challenges.
Can I thank SCBWI here too? It is such a great organisation. I think you get to a point in your writing life where you know you could possibly, just about, maybe make a writing career happen... but it’s hard to bridge that gap between being a complete unknown, writing as hard as you can, and getting noticed in the big, big world of children’s literature. SCBWI offers so many opportunities to get involved in that world and I am so grateful for the help they have given me. I’d recommend anyone who feels like they’re in that place to join up and get involved.
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And you can buy her book …A Good Hiding- coming soon to... hopefully everywhere!