The Debut Author Series - Liz Flanagan

The Learning Curve - Insights from Debut Authors 

Nicky Schmidt 

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, LIZ FLANAGAN, about her journey to publication. 

From the time you first started writing, how long did it take to get a publishing deal? 

That’s a hard question to answer! I wrote at school, and then I stopped writing after doing an English degree and working as an editor – I think I was so in awe of other people’s words that I lost confidence in my own. Then I started writing again when I had children: somehow writing for them helped me ignore that inner critic. If I tell you that my eldest daughter is twelve years old, that gives you an idea of how long it took for me to write a publishable novel! 

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? 

Yes, I did think about giving up. Eden Summer is the third novel I’ve written. I think the first novel was a good training ground, but when I read it now I can see its many flaws. However, it did allow me to sign with my agent, Ben Illis at The BIA, so it was good for something! The second novel was easier to write, and I loved the characters so much, it was very painful when it was also rejected, even though it received some encouraging feedback. That’s when I almost gave up. However, I thought I would give it one last try. I had another story to tell, one that was closer to home in all senses. That’s what made me keep going. 

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 ecstatic! Particularly as my publisher, David Fickling Books, seemed like such a wonderful company. The excitement has lasted most of the ten months between agreeing a deal and publication, although it was hard to manage last year when I couldn’t tell anyone! In a way, the world feels changed, but in other ways it doesn’t: the writing routine of sitting at my desk is still the same. I still take my dog for walks every time I hit a plotting problem… 

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 this novel for my PhD in Creative Writing at Leeds Trinity University, so I’d already had some feedback and support from my supervisor, the YA novelist Martyn Bedford. I think that meant it was more polished than my previous attempts when it was sent out on submission. However, there were several rounds of editing with my wonderful editor Bella Pearson at DFB – adding scenes, changing emphasis, re-structuring the flow of the narrative. Then there was copyediting, followed by proofreading. So, yes, there was definitely more work, but it felt very satisfying work and I’m pleased that I pushed the story as far as it would go. 

As the creator of your story, having always been in control of your characters and your plot, how did you find taking on board someone else’s comments and suggestions – was it like losing control and did you ever argue with your editor? 

It never felt like losing control. It felt more like being deeply understood and supported to the next stage. I especially liked the final edits where Bella had written comments or suggestions in notes inside the Word document – this felt like a final round of snagging, very methodical and pleasing to fix the last issues. It was interesting to me that both the eagle-eyed copyeditor and proofreader queried some of the phrasing I’d used, where I’d tried to capture local dialect. I wanted my characters to speak in the language of my town, and when I explained that, they respected it, but it made me smile that it seemed ‘incorrect’ at first glance. 

Assuming you took the majority of suggestions on board, how do you feel it impacted on your story?

I feel as though the story is stronger for the edits, particularly the changes to the conclusion of the novel, to keep the focus more fully on Jess, the main character. 

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)? 

I’ve found working with DFB’s designer and illustrator very exciting and rewarding. They kept me fully involved, from the earliest ‘mood board’ stages, through a few early cover designs that were later discarded. When the proof cover was designed, with a cloud-and-sun weather symbol, I think we all had a lightbulb moment. That image was then illustrated by Tree Abraham for the final cover, which I absolutely love. 

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 wish that were true, but I know it’s hard to predict these things, and most writers I know still have a day job! Some things will be easier the second time round, knowing what to expect. However, inevitably I’m worrying that the second novel might not be as good… However, having an editor there feels like a wonderful safety net for the whole process. 

Aside from the editing, what other aspects of being an author have you had to come to terms with? 

I have had to develop strategies for chatting on social media, which can occasionally be a tricky thing for an introverted writer! And I’m definitely getting better at public speaking. Mostly, it’s wonderful to connect with readers and all the fantastic professionals out there: librarians, booksellers, teachers. However, sometimes it can feel quite exposing, having to go into the world and talk about your creative process and why you wrote that particular story. But when you meet a young person who has read and loved your story, that is the best part of being an author. 

What have been your biggest lessons since landing a deal? 

There is no shortcut with writing or editing – you just need to put in the hours. 
Be patient: everything takes longer than you think it will. 
The children’s publishing industry is full of extraordinary, kind and talented people. 

What one key piece of advice would you offer unpublished writers when working with an editor for the first time? 

When you first hear feedback, it can be tough and feel like lots of criticism all at once. But if you take it away and mull it over and see your way through, then it becomes the start of something new and positive and belonging to you. 

Now that your first book is out – what next? 

I’m writing a very different book. I’m about three-quarters of the way through this draft, so I just need to get on and finish it, knowing there will be more drafts ahead! 

Sarah Mason Photography
You can connect with and find out more about Liz Flanagan in the following places:

Twitter: @lizziebooks
Buy: David Fickling Books

SCBWI-BI “member abroad”, Nicky Schmidt is an ex scriptwriter, copywriter, and marketing, brand and communications director who "retired" early to follow a dream. Although she still occasionally consults on marketing, communications and brand strategies, mostly she writes YA fiction (some of which leans towards New Adult) in the magical realism and supernatural genres. When not off in some other world, Nicky also writes freelance articles - mostly lifestyle and travel - for which she does her own photography. Her work has been published in several South African magazines and newspapers. As well as being a regular feature writer for Words & Pictures, Nicky also runs the SCBWI-BI YA e-critique group. Nicky lives in Cape Town with her husband and two rescue Golden Retrievers.

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