Today on the blog, Helen Maslin talks about her journey to publication with her debut YA book Darkmere. Welcome Helen!
My Journey to Publication began when I joined a creative writing group which met in a pub at the end of the road. It was really good fun. Some of the other members were extremely talented – such as the lovely Kate Riordan who landed a deal with Penguin around the same time I was offered a contract with Chicken House. Knowing I would have to read something aloud to writers who were so good forced me to get better quickly!
One group member – a retired PE teacher, was deeply disapproving of any swearing or sexual references in our writing. Of course this prompted other members to read out increasingly obscene stories while the rest of us tried hard not to giggle. One week, I worked hard on a story featuring a trans character without considering what this particular woman might make of it. When I finished reading, I looked up to see that she’d gone puce! She broke into a furious lecture – in front of everyone else – in which she pointed out that she was here to learn how to write and I’d wasted her time and money. She ended by slamming a pile of thick text books about grammar down on the pub table. I can remember staring at those books during the silence that followed and thinking: ‘Don’t cry…remember you’re a grown-up…don’t cry…don’t cry…’
Later of course, I stopped feeling upset and felt angry instead. I was angry that I hadn’t told her how rude she was. Angry that hundreds of schoolgirls must’ve had to turn to her for their PSHE advice. And angry that she’d said my writing was worthless – and there was nothing I could say or do to disprove this. Apart from get it published. Negative criticism can be as useful as encouragement when it come to spurring you on – I probably should’ve thanked her in the acknowledgements.
‘My firm belief: anger and spite are the best writing motivators. I can’t do what? *middle finger* Watch me.’ (Patrick Ness on Twitter)
One person, I did thank in the acknowledgements was the tutor of the writing group – Judith Green, who was brilliantly inspiring. She told me I didn’t need anyone’s permission to be a writer, I was allowed to simply go and do it. (Secretly, I took this as her permission to go and be a writer.) So it was a very proud moment when I finally posted a shiny copy of my debut to her.
My first attempt was rejected, as most first novels are. In fact, I had to force myself to send it to a reasonable number of agents (13), because I knew after the first few rejection letters, it simply wasn’t good enough. I was disappointed of course, but I’d learnt so much from it I was already eager to move on and write the next story. It wasn’t worthless – it taught me that I could keep going until I’d written a full-length book. I just needed to think up an actual, you know – plot, for the next one.
It took me another a year, but I enjoyed it. I knew my writing was improving and I knew I would eventually finish it. This time, I was braver with my subject matter. I set some chapters in the past and tried to come up with historical details. I added a ghostly element, an ancient curse – oh, and even some murders. I had fun!
‘Enjoying the actual writing is the thing. If you do that, then you’ve won.’
That’s a quote from writer Rachel Ward during a Twitter chat the other night. She was responding to questions about the negative aspects of being published. She’s right too. Enjoying the writing is the only thing that matters in the end.
On the other hand, the submissions process was a lot less fun the second time round. The first time I’d tried it, I blithely expected my terrible first novel to be snapped up simply because I’d written so many words. I’d bought the Artists and Writers Yearbook (2012) and spent a fortune on stamps, giant envelopes and rubber bands for my paper submissions – mostly because it made me feel like a real writer. The second time, I was more practical. Paper submissions were on the way out and I really didn’t need another Yearbook, so I didn’t spend any money. And this time I steeled myself for the rejections that were the likeliest outcome.
I sent another thirteen submissions out – a few at a time – by email and then I waited. Most aspiring writers will be familiar with The Wait. I started a new book, redecorated the house, baked cakes, took up painting, sewing, volunteering at my children’s school – anything I could think of to distract me from The Dreaded Wait. Some rejections came quickly; others took longer and made me wonder if an agent had been considering me. And all the time the hope gradually seeped out of me like I had a slow puncture.
Of course I got the ‘Didn’t love it enough’s, the ‘Not quite right for our list’s and the ‘Not taking on anything new right now’s…and then after almost two months… ‘I really like your writing and it would be great to read the entire manuscript’.
Wait – what?
The email was from Rowan Lawton of FurnissLawton. A real, live agent, who liked my writing. I was thrilled, but I tried very hard not to get too excited. After all, I had writing-group friends who’d got to this stage and been turned down – it was still the likeliest outcome. I spent the following month checking the email on my phone to make sure I hadn’t imagined it, and murmuring ‘Wow!’ very quietly when it was still there. After a week or two my children were pleading with me to stop with all the ‘Wowing!’
The next email from Rowan asked whether I had submitted to any other agents…which seemed promising and of course, started up all the “Wowing!” again.
The following month, she sent me pages of detailed editing suggestions which seemed totally OBVIOUS the moment I read them. (Although I knew perfectly well I’d never have figured any of them out without someone pointing me in the right direction.) I set to work on the edits and two months later Rowan invited me to her offices in Kew for coffee. Hurrah! After a mere nine months – agent achievement unlocked!
That wasn’t the end of the edits, though – there were plenty more for me to wade through before Rowan began submitting the manuscript to publishers. At the end of 2013, she called to ask if I’d like to go to Frome to meet the Chicken House team and maybe pick up a little feedback on my MS.
To be honest, I can’t remember much about it. I was too weirded-out on excitement and nerves. My impression of the Chicken House offices is that they were bright and homely and mis-matched and arty – with piles of books and box-files everywhere. And everyone was so nice.
We talked about books and writing and publishing. And Barry Cunningham gave me a copy of Chamber of Secrets dedicated to my ten-year-old son and signed by boy wizard himself (Barry is one of only three people who can legally sign things with Harry potter’s signature – the other two being JK Rowling and Daniel Radcliffe). Do you see what I mean about the niceness?
I got The Call on Friday 7th February 2014… My agent said, ‘Can you speak? I have news.’
She told me she’d received an offer from Chicken House and used words like ‘contract’ and ‘foreign rights’ and ‘your editor’, but I don’t think I took much of it in. Over the top of her voice, I kept thinking ‘You’re a writer…an actual writer…this is what you do now…you can tell people and everything…’
I wanted to tell my husband – as if telling someone else would make it feel real. But he was in a meeting at work and couldn’t take my call. In the end I sent him a text message – ‘Have got book deal. Am author.’
But it didn’t feel real for a long time.
Sometimes, it still doesn’t.
In June of 2014 my contract arrived and my husband took a photo of me signing it. After I posted it on Twitter, my editor Rachel Leyshon took a photo of Barry signing it when it reached the Chicken House offices.
Being an author turned out to mostly involve editing, editing and more editing. There were structural edits, line edits, copy edits and edits I’ve probably forgotten about. When my story had been changed – almost beyond recognition – I edited some more. So I burst out laughing (hysterically) when it still received a review on Amazon recently that read: ‘I am only giving it four stars as I felt it could have done with a sharper editing hand.’
Not that I can complain – I’ve been very lucky with reviews, both on Amazon and Goodreads. And some of the comments on various book blogs have made me teary with gratitude. Those reviews have made up for any number of rejection letters. They’ve made me grin soppily for hours – days even. They’ve made me want to track down each reviewer and hug them. My earliest and nicest reviews came from Morag and Lorna Haddow. From Michelle Toy, Sally B and Michelle Moore. Seriously, bloggers are some of the loveliest, most generous people in the world – and they make writers feel as if having a book out there isn’t so scary after all.
Darkmere was published on 6th August 2015 and real people began to tell me they’d bought it. Or read it. Or even enjoyed it. Twitter friends sent me pictures of Darkmere on the shelves of their local bookshops. I had a launch party and signed copies – which felt so weird. But good weird. Very good weird!
From early cover designs…
…to finished book.
And – of course – I want to do it again. I want to hear my children say ‘My mum’s a writer,’ rather than ‘My mum wrote a book once.’
I know that it’s possible to be published now – truly, anyone can do it!
Perhaps the hardest thing about writing a second book is that knowledge that real people will definitely see the results of those terrible early drafts one day.
But I’ve printed out the best bits of my most inspiring emails or reviews and hung them in tiny frames in a corner of the attic where I write. Hopefully, I’ll get to add more frames one day…