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.


Interview with Literary Translator James Christian Brown 

To celebrate International Mother-Language Day we interviewed literary translator James Christian Brown. He tells us all about his journey into becoming a book translator, his recent work translating The Book of Perilous Dishes by Doina Rusti and the importance of reading books in translation. 

Tell us a little bit about yourself?  

I am originally from Scotland but have lived in Romania since 1993. I teach in the English Department of the University of Bucharest and translate Romanian books into English. My first book-length translation from Romanian to English was The Păltiniş Diarby Gabriel Liiceanu (2000). More recently I have translated Răzvan Petrescu’s collection of short stories Small Changes in Attitude (2011), the play Mihaela, The Tiger of Our Town by Gianina Cărbunariu (2016), the volume of philosophical talks About the World We Live In by Alexandru Dragomir (2017), and Doina Ruști’s novel The Book of Perilous Dishes (Neem Tree Press, 2022)

What was your journey into becoming a book translator?  

I kind of fell into translation. I had no plans. I have been teaching since the 1990s and there was a great shortage of native speakers who were very much in demand to translate Romanian into English, so people came to me with requests and I learnt how to do it. You don’t have to be a native speaker to be a good translator.  

What other work have you done? 

The first full size book I translated over 20 years ago was a philosophical memoir and since then I have translated a number of books and articles about Romanian history. This includes various short stories and plays. Recently, I have worked on a very different novel called In the Shadow of the Apocalypse along with The Book of Perilous Dishes.  

How did  you come to translate The Book of Perilous Dishes? 

I met Doina Rusti for the first time ten years ago at an event by the Romanian Cultural Institute. It was sometime later that we made contact and she asked if I would be interested in translating one of her novels. I jumped at this opportunity because at the time I was enjoying a book by Doina. We decided together that the one to work on was Fridays Cat which we agreed in English should be called The Book of Perilous Dishes which will become obvious to anyone who starts reading the books.  

What attracted you to the book? 

I was attracted to it because of the way Doina evokes the world of 18th century Bucharest and at the same time I was working on a non-fiction book dealing with the same place and time period. These were a number of journal articles about Romanian life, so by a happy coincidence everything fitted very well together. I was going from the scholarly research to the fictional recreation. 

What did you enjoy about translating the book? 

It is a very engaging story and it kept my attention from beginning to the end with a whole lot of surprises along the way. It combines the detailed recreation of the past that you would expect to find in a historical novel with a story about a young character. I was capitated by the fantastic elements and it combines a brisque narrative with the poetic imageries that you make you stop for a moment and think what it is about. That for me is the most satisfying part of the job and translating literature. It is solving puzzles, finding a solution that works when translating between two languages and of bringing to the reader what the author is trying to convey. However, there is never going to be a perfect solution. As translators we try out best to represent the author faithfully and give the readers a wonderful reading experience.  

Why is it important to read books in translation? 

It’s a question that is difficult to ask in Romania because most of the books in Romania are translations. In the English-speaking world, things are different because there are so many people speaking and writing in English than in Romanian. Think about what you would be missing because there are so many voices in the world, especially in the continent of Europe, expressing themselves in a variety of languages. We can’t learn to read all these languages of course, but at least we can read translations and find out what some of those voices have to say.  I hope that the enjoyment I had in translating Doina’s book will come across when you read the book and that I succeed in sharing some of my enthusiasm with those of you reading the book in English.  


The Book of Perilous Dishes is available to pre-order from your local book shop and online.


Watch James’ Interview Below