Today we’re honoured to be joined by one of Ireland’s most successful writers, the multi-million-copy bestselling author Sheila O’Flanagan. Sheila talks to us about agents, advances and becoming a fulltime author…
Thank you so much for joining us, Sheila. I’ve read that as a child you used to write stories for your younger sisters to bribe them to do your share of the housework (what a great reason to write stories!). However, it wasn’t until your thirties that you became a published author. Can you tell us a little about your path to publication and how your first book deal came about?
The path to publication in the 1990s was very different to today, as it was in a pre-internet, pre-social media time. I got myself a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook (now available online) and read up on how best to submit a manuscript.
I could see from the information that the only agents in Ireland seemed to deal with very literary books, so I decided to submit directly to a publisher instead. The first publisher told me that they didn’t publish my kind of book but the second got back to me within a couple of weeks and offered me a publishing deal.
How did you feel when you realised you were finally going to be a published author? Can you recall if you did anything in particular to celebrate?
Actually I was at home with a really bad cold at the time and could hardly speak. I’m not sure if it was from excitement or the sore throat. I think the best I managed was an extra Lemsip.
Is it true that you got no advance for your first novel? At what point in your writing career were you able to leave your trading job and write full time?
It is absolutely true that I got no advance and unfortunately I signed a contract with the publisher for three books so there was no advance for books two or three either. This is why I always advise writers to get an agent – no agent would have allowed me to sign that contract!
I realised my mistake even before the book was published and got myself an agent.
But it wasn’t until after I’d written the first three books that I was able to give up work and become a full time author, thanks to an advance for the next books.
I love the quote that you refer to on your website www.sheilaoflanagan.com, that ‘a professional writer is an amateur who wouldn’t quit’. Were there ever tough times when you felt like you might not make it as an author?
Plenty of times. Before submitting my first book I’d written lots of short stories and half-novels. I wasn’t sure that I’d ever find my voice or be published. But I kept going because I believed in myself.
Do you have a set writing routine, or any rituals that help to inspire you?
I very deliberately decided not to have any rituals for writing as I was afraid that I’d attach too much importance to them. Nor do I have a set routine although when I’m writing I consider it a working day and get to my desk in the morning, not leaving till around 5pm. I usually go for a walk at lunch time where I think about what I’ve written and what I’m going to write next.
You’ve spoken before about splitting your time between your Dublin and Alicante homes, and about finding yourself in a more relaxed, contemplative frame of mind in Alicante. Do you find that ideas for your novels flow more easily in Spain as a result?
I tend to start my books in Ireland and edit them in Spain. I’m able to look at them from the perspective of the reader when I’m in a different place and a different frame of mind. Travelling through Spain does spark ideas though. My book, The Hideaway, is an homage to Valencia and its wonderful orange groves (Alicante is in the province of Valencia).
Congratulations on your first foray into historical fiction with The Woman on the Bridge. The rights for this book and a second novel (due out in 2024) were acquired by your publisher, Headline, last year. Can you tell us how the second novel is coming along and whether it will also be historical?
The second novel is contemporary and it’s coming along slowly because I had to take a break while I had surgery earlier this year. I foolishly thought that having nothing to do while I was recuperating would mean writing time but I couldn’t actually sit at my desk! I’m hoping to get to Spain in a few weeks and concentrate on it there.
What has been the highlight of your incredibly successful writing career?
Every time I see one of my books in a shop I get the exact same thrill as I’ve always done. I never tire of it. But I’m especially delighted that The Woman on the Bridge reached No 1 in the bestseller charts.
I was extremely proud to see a poster from my grandfather’s autograph book in the window of Dubray Grafton Street. I’m sure my grandmother (whose life story inspired it) would be both proud and shocked to know that part of the family history was visible on a street that she loved so much.
Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring authors trying to crack the world of publishing, but who might be getting disheartened?
You have to believe in yourself and your work and you have to separate your own creativity from the more brutal commercial world. Authors have more input into their own publicity now which is both good and bad as you can get side-tracked by social media. It’s important to remember that every minute posting on Twitter is a minute when you’re not actually writing a book!
While most authors want the traditional publishing deal there are many many more ways to get your work noticed than before and traditional publishers do keep an eye on the self-published area too.
As I’ve said already, I really recommend getting an agent, many of whom now have a presence on social media. Check them out and try submitting to an agent who already has writers in your genre – it means they have experience in selling your type of work. But it’s really, really important to follow the guidelines on their websites. If you do you’re far more likely to have your MS read!
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