aspiring author

Behind Can I Stray: The 10-Year Journey to Publication

When I was fourteen years old, I went into my local newsagent and bought a blue notebook. Inside it I was determined to write my masterpiece. My moneymaker. I told my parents not to worry about student loans – I was going to pay for university, with the royalties from the next bestseller. I was a little naive back then.

As one notebook swelled into three, I spent hours scribbling at the lunch table, evenings curled up in my bedroom with pop punk music blasting. On the days I didn’t take the notebooks to school, I left them in the freezer, reasoning with some questionable logic that it would be the last place to burn down in a house fire. My parents actually got me a fireproof safe for my birthday, just so I’d stop keeping notebooks in the freezer. It’s safe to say I was kind of obsessed.

It took me two years to write the pile of garbage first draft. It was a few days before my Year Eleven prom that I proudly scribbled “The End” at the bottom of the page. So now I had a handwritten heap of vomit book, I guess it was time to type it up, at the very least.

Only I didn’t type it up. I left those notebooks in the fireproof safe for two more years, and it was not until I was in university halls (paid for by loans) that I took out the notebooks and started typing them up, editing as I went. If I managed to make it out of bed an hour early, I could type up two pages before lectures.

The manuscript was fully digitised by the summer after first year of university, and redrafts became something of an annual thing. Very very tentatively, I would lend my manuscript to one or two trusted readers to ask for feedback. I remember a friend very kindly telling me over strawberries and tea that she thought I had “a great skeleton for a book.” I felt my heart sink; I’d been hoping it was nearly done. I had, after all, spent years on it already.

But those years had been made years by my fatal flaw: clutching the manuscript to my chest, terrified of anyone seeing so much as the title page. Fear of judgement, a desire to make it perfect before anyone saw it, prevented me from letting anyone read it. If I’d got feedback sooner it might have knocked a few years off the title of this blog post. How could I possibly make the manuscript perfect – or at least better – without feedback?

With her honesty, my friend was doing me a great service. There was nothing I needed more, right then, than to be told exactly what was wrong with my manuscript. If I truly believed I was holding something finished in my hands, I was wasting my own time. What I needed was to be told it was still needed work, so that I could release the illusion that it was basically done, face up to the fact that it needed more work, and then get my head down. As John Green says, “permission to suck” is a critical asset for a writer.

Once I digested my friend’s tactful criticism, I realised she was right. So I redrafted – and I mean a whole rewrite, starting from scratch for many scenes. And this is when I started to really enjoy writing. This draft was nowhere near perfect, but it was miles better.

I graduated from university and started my first job. There I’d spend lunch breaks poring over a hard copy manuscript, wasting my time swapping commas around. I figured it was time to send it to a publisher, or perhaps pay for a freelance edit. How wrong I was. A friend of mine suggested I start with beta readers. This is where it got real.

I started with five beta readers. Well, more than that, but sometimes people stopped replying, so five readers made it to the end of the book. Their feedback was really helpful – big plot changes, lose this character, fix the ending. Upon reflection, what they read was pretty embarrassing, but their feedback gave the book the biggest boost it saw in ten years.

So I did another in-depth redraft which, around working full-time and trying to enjoy at least some of my twenties, took the best part of a year. Then beta round two: this time I had ten readers, and I knew I was moving in the right direction, because their feedback was more like scene-level changes or paragraph-level changes. The redraft for this was quicker: it was 2020 and I was furloughed, living with my parents with nothing else to do. By the time I went back to work that September, I’d nearly finished the eighth (eighth!) draft. A third round of five beta readers confirmed that the book was getting there, with changes being line-level at this point.

After a “final tweaks” redraft at the start of 2021, I figured the book was as good as I could possibly make it on my own. It was time to spend hours and hours watching YouTube videos about submission, research agents and independent publishers, and get querying.

Once my book got picked up by the awesome people at Neem Tree Press, it faced even more editing before it was ready to see the light of day – not to mention cover designs, marketing materials, and a whole load of organising. This is the part where the long road to publication became a lot less lonely. Working with some really smart, skilled, dedicated people makes all those years of typing away alone in my room feel worth it. So yeah. It’s been a journey. 

On an emotional level, fourteen-year-old me believed this book would be more than a book. This book would be the key to my success. This book would open doors for me. This book was going to make me rich and famous and happy and make all my problems disappear and my life would be easy from then on. That didn’t happen.

The problem with this mindset is not only that it’s unrealistic, but it’s pressure. It increases the fear of failure, which is why most aspiring writers put down the pen and never pick it up again. It makes it hard to accept feedback, even if that’s the only thing that can make your manuscript better. It makes it hard to walk away from a book that’s no longer serving you and find something new to write about.

Receiving feedback, growing up, and really gauging the nature of the publishing industry gave me a much-needed reality check. Dreaming of fame and fortune, of accolades and awards, were all the wrong reasons to be writing. Because even for the small minority of writers who do get big advances and win awards and have the luxury of writing full time, most of the job is just that. Writing. You still have to be at a desk all day. You still have to be typing. It’s not all glitz and glamour; most of it is long hours and hard graft and spending the day with the people that live in your head.

So that’s what you should dream of, I reckon. Not award shows, not movie premiers, not thick-cut paycheques and your name in lights. Dream of getting up in the morning and being lucky enough to just get to write. Getting to sit at the laptop and start typing. That’s the real dream.

Catch more of my journey to publication in my Diary of a Debut with The Book Network.

The unmissable, conversation-starting debut CAN I STRAY is out now!

Click HERE to order a copy now.