GUEST POST: Julia Gray's Publishing Journey

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Heyo, internet! Today I have the wornderful Julia Gray, author of The Otherlife, talking about her publishing journey for her debut. This is part of the YA Shot 2016 Blog/Vlog Tour.

Julia GraySeptember 2012: The story of The Otherlife begins over lunch with my friend Gill at Brasserie Blanc in Covent Garden. We are both thinking about our submissions for our ‘Writing For Young Adults’ module in October, as part of our Creative Writing MA programme. I complain that I don’t have any ideas. Later on, I bring up one of my pet subjects: that I feel that children are often subjected to too much pressure. Gill says, ‘That’s the book you should write.’

October 2012: I volunteer to submit 4000 words for the second workshop of the term. The literary form I’ve chosen is a diary. I know my narrator is twelve, very smart, very bored by their existence, and probably a borderline sociopath. The first character I make up is a girl; I call her Kata. Unconvinced, I start again. My next creation is called Hobie. Suddenly I feel like I know him already. I can see him, sitting on the deck of a fantastically expensive yacht, scribbling in a royal blue journal… I write another diary for a character named Ben. I feel like I know him too. I’m VERY nervous about workshopping this idea, but feedback - from tutor Julia Bell and from the others - is pretty good. People are having trouble differentiating between the two voices so I make the decision to dispense with Ben’s diary, and concentrate on Hobie’s.

November - December 2012: I submit three more extracts over the course of the term. Each time good points are made about characterisation, pace, language. I try to balance trusting my instincts with trusting the subjective viewpoints of others. In a tutorial Julia Bell draws a possible outline - a way I could incorporate Ben’s narrative - on her whiteboard. I copy it into a notebook.

January 2013: My first draft is complete. It’s about 70,000 words long and is in three parts: present-day Ben (aged 17), latter-day Hobie (aged 12), present-day Ben. I’ve also added extracts from a story called ‘Ragnarok’ that I wrote when I was younger. I send the manuscript to my friend Imogen, who among other bookish things is a brilliant freelance editor; I know she will give me honest feedback.

March 2013: Imogen’s notes are painstakingly detailed: it’s clear to see what she thinks is working and what she thinks needs improvement. Her suggestion is to “rewrite to address some structural issues that I feel don’t quite add up yet, and some contradictions in Ben as the protagonist”. It’s good advice. I keep Hobie’s diary pretty much as it is, but go back to the drawing board with Ben. I make him younger - 16, not 17. And, realising that at the moment he’s lacking in interests, I relive my own passion for Metallica by making Ben obsessed with heavy metal.

26889448May 2013: With the book rewritten, it’s time for another scary step: contacting agents. I spend a lot of time researching children’s agents and ask for a lot of help and guidance. In the end I send The Otherlife to five people. Feedback is not as slow as I’d thought it might be, and is quite encouraging. One agent turns it down as it’s not the kind of book he usually represents; another suggests ‘removing anything that’s not to do with plot or character’. Another thinks the story is MG, rather than YA. Then two different people (at agencies I’d contacted) get in touch asking me to come in for a chat. I go and have two chats with two delightful and committed agents, each of whom has interesting ideas for where the story could go. I’m in the lucky-but- tricky position of making a choice, and I do.

June - October 2013: My new agent is the splendid Louise Lamont, and she thinks there’s more work to be done on The Otherlife. I send her three more drafts; each time I feel like I’m getting closer to telling the story I want to tell. Although it can feel demoralising to think that it’s not ‘perfect’ yet, I enjoy the process of making changes and improvements. New ideas continually occur to me - especially to do with The Otherlife itself and the way it appears to Ben, and Ben and Zara’s relationship.

January 2014: The day after my birthday, Louise sends The Otherlife out to publishers! I’m so excited that I write down the names of all the editors and learn them in alphabetical order so that I can recite them in a kind of votive chant. She tells me that the process can be VERY slow and advises me to work on something else. I try to, but find myself incredibly distracted by anticipation. Sometimes I go to Waterstones and stare at the shelves, willing The Otherlife to appear there.

April 2014: Disappointment is like a slowly-dripping tap as responses - many painfully pleasant - trickle in. Then Chloe from Andersen Press gets in touch and she sounds cautiously positive; Louise and I go to meet Chloe and Charlie, who is head of editorial, at their office in Pimlico. Over millionaire’s shortbread and tea, we discuss the book and Chloe and Charlie talk about the areas that they feel aren’t working. Charlie points out that as the author only I can come up with solutions. I go away and rewrite again, and again I find I’m enjoying the chance to make it a better book.

August 2014: Chloe emails Louise and makes an offer for The Otherlife. When I read the forwarded message, I burst into tears.

January - August 2015: Over this period I make more changes to the book, sending Chloe new drafts in January, April and July. Each set of revisions is briefer than the last, but I’m still working on coming up with a compelling opening scene. There’s a couple of months where I’m unable to do much work as I’m in the early stages of pregnancy and feel too tired to sit at my desk for hours on end. Finally, while on holiday in France in mid-August, I sit at a cafe in Beaune and come up with an opening scene that I think will do the trick. Luckily, Chloe agrees. It’s a much longer book now - about 90,000 words. Work has now begun on the cover, which is very exciting. It’s a wolf!

September - October 2015: The copyedits. I’m very anxious not to let any typos through the net. Fortunately Chloe is brilliant at seeing things I’ve missed, and so is Talia, the copyeditor. Next thing is to check the typeset version. Great fun is had double-checking that we’ve got all the Old Norse accents right. I ask Dr. Richard North, professor of Old English at UCL, for help with this. I am still checking things on the morning that I go into hospital to give birth to my son.

January 2016: I meet lovely Eve and Harriet at Andersen to talk about publicity ideas for The Otherlife – things like blog tour posts and Metallica cover songs and the possibility of wolf cupcakes. (The cupcakes become an actual thing at the launch party, impeccably baked by Chloe.)

March 2016: A printed copy arrives in the post. It’s the most thrilling delivery I’ve ever had (apart from my baby, of course).

July 2016: Nearly four years after I first started writing it, The Otherlife is published. I walk into Waterstones in Notting Hill Gate, nerves jangling, and find it in the Teen section. Just where I’d always hoped it would be.

Thank you Julia for sharing your journey with The Otherlife! Her novel is fantastic to read, and you can read my review by clicking here. To find out more about Julia, click here, and follow her on Twitter by clicking here.

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