A Book From the Beginning

My good friend/author extraordinaire Samantha Shannon has been running a blog since 2012 called A Book From the Beginning. It's about, as you might imagine, her publication journey with The Bone Season series from the very start. 

I found it immensely interesting as it was unfolding for her, and extremely helpful after I landed my book deal, and so, to pay homage to it, I shall be blatantly plagiarising the premise here. 

The story so far

On the last day of high school, my English teacher asked me what my plans were for my future.

"I'm going to be an actress," I said with dramatic flair. 

“I think you should write,” she said bluntly, which was the way she said most things.

The thought had never crossed my mind before. I was destined to be an actress. I was going to win Oscars. I was going to transition to something behind the scenes, and be the first person to win an Academy Award in the categories of acting, directing, writing and producing, all for the same film (if you’re gonna dream, dream big, amirite?).

There was only one problem with my aspiration: I hated acting.

I’m still a good public speaker, and can turn in a decent performance for speeches and the like, but by the time I left high school the thought of being on stage or getting in front of a camera was repulsive.

Maybe I could write, I thought. Not as a career. Just as a hobby to keep me occupied while I saved enough money to escape my sleepy hometown, move to Sydney, study at NIDA and eventually rule the world/Hollywood with my acting prowess.

So I started my first novel a few weeks after my 18th birthday. My intention was to give myself three months to have it totally finished, six months to have it sold. I’d then use the profits/prestige to get into NIDA, breeze through my degree, and start collecting those gold statues.  

There were some issues with this:

1) I didn’t know how to write a book.

2) I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry. 

Regardless, I started writing my epic urban fantasy that was destined, surely, to outsell Harry Potter.

I took all the parts of every book I’d ever loved and tried to jam them into a single plot line. It did not go well. 

The story and characters consumed me. At first I wrote in the afternoons after work, as a kind of hobby. Then at lunchtime on my breaks. Then in the mornings before work. Soon, it became apparent that the book had a life of its own and I could no longer sustain both a) my writing schedule and b) my job. So I quit the latter, without telling any of my friends or family.

I started writing all night and sleeping all day, like a literarily inclined vampire. After three weeks, when it became clear that I wasn't actually "on vacation", I finally had to admit to my mother that I was an unemployed aspiring novelist. Words no parent wants to hear.

It took me five months to finish the first draft. It was a hideous Frankenstein’s monster of a book, oozing clichés and pockmarked with plot holes. I loved it. 

I queried one agent, who sent me a lovely personalised rejection letter a few days later explaining that she’d liked the writing but wasn’t taking on any new clients at that stage.

What I read: YOU ARE A GIGANTIC FAILURE AND THE BOOK IS TERRIBLE.

I spent the next three years trying to fix it. And by “trying to fix it” I mean reading and re-reading every chapter, moving around commas, plucking hairs from the story when I should have been breaking bones. 

Letting go of your first book is like letting go of your first love. Really, really, really f**king hard. But I did. I let it go. I didn't know if I'd ever be able to write another book again.

The year I started university, I received a message from one of my friends telling me about a girl who was a year younger than me who’d signed a six-figure, seven-book contract with Bloomsbury.

“Better get to it, she’s beating you!” it read, followed by a link to an article about said writing prodigy. I opened it. I read. I left class to go start working on my second book.

Who the hell was this Samantha Shannon girl and why was she stealing my dream? HOW VERY DARE SHE.

(Eventually, I became friends with her. We started tweeting, and then I read The Bone Season which was – much to my chagrin – very good, and instead of being absurdly jealous of her, I became absurdly proud. Then I stole her blog idea! Everything comes full circle.)

Book two was a total departure from book one. This time, instead of a huge, sprawling urban fantasy, I wrote a tight, small scale thriller…That turned into a huge, sprawling science fiction. It was a very different writing experience from book one, much more structured. I wrote from 6-9am every day, including on weekends. I managed to study fulltime, work two jobs, and complete the manuscript in about four months... After which I put it away in a drawer, never to see the light of day. 

I still love this book, though I knew when I was writing it that I wasn’t equipped, yet, to do the story justice. I knew it wouldn't be the one that would get me published, but I wrote it anyway, because I needed to get better. 

Book three was my 2013 NaNoWriMo project, written feverishly in the space of about two months. I'm pretty sure it gave me RSI. Even though I sometimes lose sensation in the last two fingers of my right hand because of it, I still love the world. I still love the characters. I very much hope it will be my third published novel one day. 

And then came OUR CHEMICAL HEARTS. I’ve never really been in love with someone, but I think that old adage “When you know, you know” works for writing books too. I knew, from pretty early on, that this was the one. This was one that would go all the way.

It was the best and worse writing experience I’ve had.

Best because it came to me so easily. I didn’t have to set myself strict hours for when to sit down and write, but it didn't take over my life either. Words just poured out. I wrote in class, at work, in front of the TV. Sometimes I wouldn’t write for a week, and then a chapter would materialise in a single session. OUR CHEMICAL HEARTS helped me find my most comfortable writing style (which essential boils down to: whenever it feels right. It is dangerously easy to procrastinate with this system!).

Worst because I was getting my own heart ripped out through my kneecaps at the time. In the end this, too, was a blessing, because OUR CHEMICAL HEARTS is not a book I could have written before that, or a book I could write now. I wrote it in the early hours of the morning when anxiety wouldn’t let me sleep. I wrote it when I’d receive a message from He Who Shall Not Be Named, twisting the knife a little deeper. I wrote it in the eye of the storm, amidst the carnage of two people being torn apart, and it’s all the more raw and heartbreaking for it, because it’s real.

Let me be clear: the story is not my story. The characters are not me, not him, not us, in any way. But whatever burning black thing crawled up inside my ribcage and died while I was writing only served to make the book that much better. That much truer.

I like to think of myself as the Taylor Swift of novelists.

I finished the first draft in April of 2015, and immediately set about querying agents. (This, children, is a Very Bad Idea - you should edit the s**t out of your manuscripts before you query agents, because you only get one chance to make a good first impression.) 

I still remember exactly where I was when I received Catherine Drayton's email saying she wanted to read the first 50 pages. It was nighttime on the Valkenburgerstraat in Amsterdam and I was walking back to my apartment from a friend's house. It was cold and dark and raining, and I was miserable. It'd only been 12 hours since I'd sent out the query, and I'd already received two form rejections - this, surely, would be another. 

Except it wasn't. Catherine Drayton, an agent who'd been on my radar since I started writing when I was 18, wanted pages. I raced home and sent them to her. 

It still makes me giddy/sick/nervous re-reading our email chain back and forth, even though I know how the story ends. Ten days after she'd requested the first 50 pages, Catherine asked for the full manuscript. Two days after I sent her that, I missed two calls from a New York number, which almost gave me a panic attack because a) I Googled it and it was from Inkwell, b) I was a poor uni student and thus had no phone credit to return said call immediately, and c) I was a on a train on my way to a colour festival on the outskirts of Utrecht, aka the middle of nowhere.

It was the least enjoyable festival of my life because I was so goddamn anxious the whole time! When I finally got home that night, I emailed Catherine to set up a time to talk. By 10am the next morning, she'd offered me representation - and the rest, as they say, is history.

Over the next seven months (seven months!) until OUR CHEMICAL HEARTS is released, I hope to update the blog on each aspect of the publication journey. I found it immensely helpful as an aspiring writer when Samantha Shannon did it - I hope you will too.