Today we’re lucky enough to be joined by bestselling author Sam Blake, aka literary legend Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin (founder of http://www.writing.ie), who tells us how a chance conversation with an agent led to a three-book deal
Thank you so much for joining us, Sam. Your debut novel Little Bones (published in 2016) was shortlisted for Irish Crime Novel of the Year, and each of your novels since then has been a bestseller.
However, it took you 15 years to get that first novel published. Could you tell us a little bit about the obstacles and set-backs you faced on the road to publication? For example, did you write many novels before finding success with Little Bones?
Little Bones was my fifth novel written – learning fiction writing technique was quite a long process! I started writing in 1999 when my husband went sailing across the Atlantic for eight weeks – I had no kids, lots of time to kill and an idea for a book. The bug bit! By book three I realised that there was still a lot I didn’t know about fiction writing, that I needed to learn – I was almost there, the rejections were getting better, but they were still rejections.
I did a weekend workshop/writing course in Dingle and while I received the validation that I could write, I could see I had a long way to go. I couldn’t get to conventional courses due to my husband’s shifts (he was a Guard and we had two children by then) so I decided to run my own.
I set up Inkwell, running the first one-day intensive fiction writing workshops in Ireland, facilitated by bestselling authors. It turned out that I wasn’t the only person in this situation, and they became hugely successful. I learned loads and built a community.
That grew into developing www.writing.ie (now one of Europe’s biggest – and award-winning – writing resources websites) and a full-blown publishing consultancy plus many other exciting projects, programming literary events and developing innovative resources like the National Emerging Writer Programme for the library service, which is all on YouTube and has had over a million views.
I kept writing while having two children and building a career in the publishing sector, so the fifteen years was well spent!
When Little Bones came out it was in number one in the bestseller list for four weeks and stayed in the top ten for eight. It was worth getting it right!
Did you ever doubt yourself and, if so, was there anything that helped you to stay motivated?
I am (possibly ridiculously) an incredibly positive person – I felt I could write a bestseller. It was just a matter of time and learning to make that happen. I never see obstacles, only opportunities, so I’m very self-motivated.
When I was in college I found a quote by Febvre that sums me up and I love: ”there are no necessities, but everywhere possibilities; and man, as the master of these possibilities, is the judge of their use”.
While trying to get published, you set up the Inkwell Group literary consultancy and www.writing.ie, an online writing magazine and community for writers, and also organised writing events. Did those endeavours help you on your own journey towards publication?
Hugely – I set up Inkwell because I needed to learn how to write and I wanted to hear from bestselling authors about how they did it. There were no one-day intensive fiction writing courses running in Ireland at that time, so I started my own. I still learn from every single author I speak to or interview, and those workshops helped form my own practice.
Writing.ie grew from the Inkwell newsletter. I realised that there was no central point for writing in Ireland, and it’s what I needed when I started writing – everything is on there now!
I’ve stopped running workshops now but I run an online writers’ group, Writers Ink, which focuses on coaching and mentoring – it keeps me close to the rock face and enables me to pass on the knowledge I’ve learned over very many years!
You’re represented by the literary agent Simon Trewin. Did it take you long to find an agent and how did you go about it?
When the bottom fell out of the workshop market in the first recession, I pivoted to turn Inkwell into a publishing consultancy – and as part of that I started formally scouting for agents and publishers. I’d been doing it informally for years, very successfully – scouting is a bit like matchmaking, it’s about finding an agent or publisher who loves the work, and knowing their tastes helps hugely in that.
Simon was one of the agents I’d initially met at an event and then started scouting for. In a chance conversation over coffee, I mentioned my writing (he hadn’t realised I was a writer too!) and he asked to see the book. Which was fabulous, but also terrifying – I went straight home and read it though.
It was a while since I’d looked at it and I felt if he hated it, or it was rubbish, then my credibility could be in tatters so I wanted to make sure it was okay first!
Can you tell us how your three-book deal with Bonnier publishing house came about?
Simon had lunch with Mark Smith (who had recently sold Quercus) and who was in the process of setting up a UK fiction wing for huge Swedish publisher Bonnier. Mark wanted to see what became Little Bones. They had lunch on Thursday and Mark offered a three-book deal on Friday morning!
Was the book deal as lucrative as you had hoped or expected? Was the advance (and subsequent earnings such as royalties and/or the sale of translation rights) substantial enough to allow you to write full-time?
I love doing all the other things I do around the publishing industry, and I find interaction with people fuels my creativity, so I’ve never considered writing full time – the thoughts of being shut away with my book would be terrifying!
I write in the gaps and having limited time means my productivity is better.
The first deal was very nice, and I sell particularly well in audio so those rights sales and royalties are always a bonus!
How did you feel when you realised you were finally going to be a published author? Can you remember if you did anything in particular to celebrate?
I think because I know a lot about the business I knew there would be a long time between signing the contract and the first book appearing, so I was thrilled but I don’t think I did anything significant. When Little Bones hit the bestseller list I celebrated!
Congratulations on making your first foray into YA fiction with Something Terrible Happened Last Night! Gill Books bought the rights for this book as part of a two-book deal. Can you tell us how this book deal came about? Do you now have two publishers – one for YA and one for adult?
Yes, now I’ve got two publishers! Initially I’d arranged a coffee with the editor at Gill to have a chat about the writers on my network and catch up with her, but when we sat down she said she’d read Remember My Name and loved Emily Jane (who is 16), and asked if I had ever thought about writing YA. I hadn’t at that stage thought about it at all, but then I had an idea, and Frankie, Sorcha and Jess came to me, so I had to tell their story!
Your most recent crime book The Mystery of Four was published earlier this year, and Something Terrible Happened Last Night was launched in May. What is the secret to being so prolific… is it just plain old hard work? Do you have a set writing routine, or any rituals that help to inspire you
Massively hard work, but that’s partly due to the timing. Writing the books was fine, but editing and copy editing two books and then promoting them takes lots of time!
The Mystery of Four was actually done and dusted before I spoke to Gill (in writing terms – the industry is always working a year ahead of release), but the next adult book Three Little Birds was in the works.
The Gill deal is for two books so I had to write the second while jiggling the edits on Three Little Birds and doing the promo for The Mystery of Four.
Now I’m doing promo for Something Terrible Happened Last Night and have just finished the copy edits on Three Little Birds, and I’m waiting for the verdict on whether the second teen book works!
I don’t have time to have rituals or routines, I have to write when I can (I’m still doing the day job and sit on two boards for writing organisations The Society Of Authors and The Crime Writers Association).
I’m very focused and compartmentalise so I can get through a lot of different projects, but when I’m writing I try to clear the decks so I can get the first draft done – that takes priority over everything at that stage.
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring authors trying to crack the world of publishing, but who might be getting disheartened?
The best advice I was ever given was ‘just keep writing’ – you get better with every word. And understand that it might not be your first book that gets published. You need to learn the ropes. Once you’ve got the writing end of things working, a great book comes down to a great plot, and that takes practice too.
If you get rejected, it’s not personal, they aren’t rejecting you, and sometimes it has nothing to do with the writing – there just might not be a slot for your book with that agent or publisher at that time.
As with everything in life, often there’s a little bit of luck in each deal, but I can believe you can help make your own luck by understanding the business and networking. Once you understand how things work and why, it makes things much easier.
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