Sunday 18 March 2018

How to get the book in you out on to the shelves

Successful authors talk to Claire Coughlan about clinching that crucial 'first book' deal

EVERYONE has a book in them, so the saying goes. Once you can tap away at a keyboard, or scratch words on to a page, you could potentially be the next Cecelia Ahern, or Roddy Doyle, or Marian Keyes. Of course, this is true up to a point. All of the above authors wouldn't be where they are today if they hadn't once decided to have a go themselves.

However, novelist Joseph O'Connor gives the following advice on, a must-read resource for aspiring and established writers alike: "Writing isn't easy. It's like singing: most people think they can do it, and most people can, a little, but doing it beautifully doesn't come naturally to most of us. We have to work at it."

For debut Irish authors Claire McGowan, Kathleen MacMahon and Sarah Crossan, who have all had their first novels published this year to critical and commercial success, the first novel they wrote wasn't necessarily the one that got published. In fact, all three had previously honed their craft with an unpublished novel before signing their book deals.

Claire McGowan, whose crime novel, The Fall, was published by Headline in February, had already written lots of other things for years. "I think it's quite unusual to get your actual first book published," she says. She began writing The Fall while she was waiting for agents to get back to her on her previous novel and she completed it in three months. Claire, an Oxford graduate, says that entering competitions is an effective way for unpublished writers to get noticed. When she found out that the prestigious Dylan Thomas Prize was running a competition for unpublished writers under the age of 30, she decided to enter with The Fall, even though the closing date was that day.

However, it was being short-listed in this competition that gained her the attention of her agent, Francesca Barrie, of London-based agency Johnson & Alcock.

"I had positive reactions to the first book but it was 'no' in the end," she says. "And one of the other agents took six months getting back to me and I thought, 'I have to do something else.'

"When The Fall was short- listed, it was covered in all the book-trade press, so I suddenly got all these agents and editors contacting me. I'd gone from me contacting agents and -- well, they will look at it eventually but it goes into a pile and they may not read it for months -- to suddenly they were coming to find me and asking to see the book."

Kathleen MacMahon, author of This is How it Ends, which was published by Sphere in April, is in the enviable position of having had her book in the number one spot in the Irish Original Fiction charts for five weeks running. Not bad going for someone who initially struggled to show her work to anyone else, let alone an agent.

"It's a really big jump because it's such a solitary thing -- you're used to sitting at a table by yourself, going over and over your work and fighting with voices in your head, going: 'you're wasting your time, nobody's going to want to read this, you're going to make a fool of yourself'," she says.

"You're trying to dispel those voices and find some kind of level of common sense, which is some kind of judgment of your own work, which is some way objective. And it is possible to reach that, to a certain extent. If I hadn't got to that point, I wouldn't have sent it to anybody."

This is How it Ends was actually Kathleen's second novel. The first came close to being published, but Kathleen admits she wasn't quite ready for that at the time.

"I'd written one very slowly over a long period of time because my kids were smaller and it was more difficult to find time," she explains. "I think it was me testing out whether I could write a novel or not. And I learnt a lot from that; I learnt that I could."

Some authors say that writing itself is a chore, but Kathleen, who is taking a year's sabbatical from her career as a journalist with RTE, says she thoroughly enjoyed the process.

"That wasn't ever something that I had to force myself to do," she remembers. "I seized on quiet times. Because of the nature of my life, which is unpredictable, I would work in stops and starts, which can be frustrating. But what it meant was, where I did get a chance to write, that was a joy.

"Then life would intervene, either I'd be very busy at work, or a child would come down with a cold and everything would go out the window for a few days. So it meant actually that instead of being a duty, the writing was a treat."

Irish-born debut author Sarah Crossan had her first children's book, The Weight of Water, published by Bloomsbury, the publishers who helped make JK Rowling's name, back in January. Sarah had, similarly to Claire and Kathleen, previously completed an unpublished novel -- for adults -- before she wrote The Weight of Water, the book that landed her an agent and publisher.

However, Sarah admits that even getting a major publishing deal doesn't automatically dispel the self-doubt and trepidation that plagues all writers. "I think it was submitted in November, although it wasn't until January that I got the Bloomsbury offer. I was teaching at the time, and I took the phone call in my car so I could make any noises that I needed to make; I couldn't make them with the kids around," she says.

"It was funny because Julia [Churchill, her agent] said to me on the phone, 'are you all right?' Something happened to me, for just a moment, and I said, 'no, I'm fine.' And it was this horror that came over me for a few minutes of 'oh my God, now people are actually going to be reading what I've written'. So even though I was so delighted and excited, especially because it was Bloomsbury, I had a little bit of trepidation. It's euphoria, but that's also mixed with self-doubt."

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