Caramel Hearts is my second book. It’s published just eight months after The Book of Learning – Nine Loves Trilogy I, it’s a different genre and written for a different age group, and it also interrupts my trilogy (The Book of Shadows – Nine Lives II is out in September). Confused yet? Try explaining in person!
When I do explain about my books and the order they’re coming out, I get one of three reactions. A shake of the head in disbelief, a nod of admiration, or a look of horror; most frequently, it’s the latter. After all, doesn’t it say in the rulebook that you should stick with writing in the same age group and genre to establish your career? Well, here’s the thing – there are no rules. Not really.
Of course there are some definite basics you should follow – like, don’t harass agents or publishers (they will not want to work with you), don’t send first drafts (they will NEVER be good enough, no matter who you are), and don’t ignore agent/publisher submission guidelines. These are common sense; but when it comes to writing and the writing process, every writer is different. Authors can offer advice and reveal what worked for them, but these are simply guidelines that you can maybe identify with and learn from or be inspired by.
Why did I change age group and genre?
The answer is simple: timing. I wrote Caramel Hearts at a time when The Book of Learning had been rejected by lots of publishers, despite plenty of interest. I wasn’t going to give up on my dream of being a published author – I was determined – but I knew it was time to shelve that first novel (after all, it had got me an agent, I could be happy with that) and write something else. And that something else needed to have a different tone. If I’d tried to write something in a similar style to the first book, it wouldn’t have worked. I was too close to the characters and story – as well as the disappointment of rejection – and the voice wouldn’t have flowed. I would have been forcing it.
And so instead, I listened to my heart and my instinct. Caramel Hearts was the book that I needed to write next. The character of Liv Bloom had been harassing me for some time and I had to give her story a voice. I wanted to explore her world – and as she was coping with her mum’s addiction, it had to be a realistic story. The age group shift was determined by the storyline – the decisions made were right for the book. And I think that’s the key; as a writer, it has to be all about the book and what’s best for the story.
We’re Not Alone!
I’m certainly not the first to take this route. Lots of amazing and successful writers switch genres and age group – Roddy Doyle, John Banville, and J.K. Rowling are just a few examples. Yes, these people are much more established in their careers, but there are so many uncertainties in the world of publishing, I don’t think we should let fear of the unknown hold us back. It’s all unknown, really. One writer who has proved that you can change direction early on in your career is Louise O’Neill; her first book, Only Ever Yours was dystopian fiction, and her second book Asking For It was set in rural Ireland, exploring rape culture. And guess what? Both books are bestsellers and have won multiple awards.
I felt that it was a natural move for me to switch from middle grade to young adult, and urban fantasy to complete realism. It wasn’t my original intention, but your paths may shift and change as your writing career develops – and you can do this with the same goals in mind. As Alana Kirk wrote recently in her writing.ie article on getting published, “It’s really important to make sure your goals aren’t ruthless to your dreams.” At the time of writing Caramel Hearts, the change in direction was also what felt right for my development as a writer. And this didn’t affect my career negatively in any way; in fact, it’s had the opposite result…
Two Book Deals in Six Months, Three Books Published in One Year
This sounds amazing – and, of course, it is – but it took five years of hard graft to get there, along with plenty of disappointment, risks and brave decisions. Thankfully, my agent, Sallyanne Sweeney, represents a variety of genres and believed in my story and my writing and was behind me all the way. As soon as I finished Caramel Hearts and the manuscript went on submission, I reread The Book of Learning and still really believed in it, so it went on submission again also. Amazingly, different publishers snapped up both books within 6 months – and now, I’ll have three books hitting the shelves within a year. Two down, one to go – and my first, The Bok of Learning, was chosen as the 2016 Dublin City of Literature Citywide Read for Children!
There’s no such thing as an overnight success; people don’t see the work that goes on in the background, but I can promise you this – keep going, because every bit of the anxiety, uncertainty and long hours of writing is worth it when you finally hold your published book in your hands. (If you need a bit more convincing, read this article on not giving up your publication dreams by Catherine Ryan Howard) And if changing your direction in terms of age group or genre is part of that journey, then so be it.
I think that sometimes we can get so caught up in the end result – achieving publication – that we forget about enjoying the process. We start worrying about random things like what will publishers think? How will I market this? What will readers think if I switch genre? And that’s before the manuscript is complete. These things are important for pitching etc, but in truth, the book should be your sole focus until you’ve got the story. And sometime that cant happen until you’ve redrafted and redrafted and redrafted some more. So put those worries aside for a moment, and concentrate on the writing. Write the book you can’t not write.
Be Brave and Flexible, and Write From the Heart
I’m not suggesting that everyone should purposely write in different genres and for different age groups – that would be wrong. Anything forced would come through in your writing – it would be like painting by numbers rather than creating your own masterpiece and finding your own voice. What I am suggesting is that you don’t necessarily have to pigeonhole yourself from the get go. But you do – and I can’t say this enough – have to write the book that you’re passionate about.
Sometimes your characters will lead you down different paths or you have to make difficult decisions and create challenges for yourself; for instance, I originally wrote Caramel Hearts in third person. After many drafts, the voice wasn’t quite right and so I experimented – I wrote a few chapters in first person. Guess what? That was one HUGE rewrite! But the voice cam alive, the plot fell into place and the story grew wings. If something like this happens to you and you know it’s the right thing to do – go with it. Be brave.
Working with two different publishers and in two different genres has been very liberating and now, as I’m starting my fourth and final book (the final chapter of the Nine Lives Trilogy, out September 2017), I’m already open to the possibility that I can work on whatever I want to next, so long as I listen to my heart and write the very best book that I can. If you’re looking to start something new, whether you’re published or unpublished, go with your heart and gut instinct as that’s going to be the book that only you can write, and your voice will shine through.
(c) ER Murray
More about Caramel Hearts…
Can a book full of secrets unlock the past?
Liv Bloom’s life is even more complicated than that of your average fourteen-year-old: her father walked out on the family when she was young, her mother is in a recovery centre for alcoholics, and her older sister is struggling to step into Mum’s shoes. The only person she can turn to is her best friend Sarah, who gets her out of scrapes at school and is a constant source of advice and companionship. One day Liv discovers a book of recipes written in her mum’s handwriting, which sets her off on a journey towards self-discovery and reconciliation – but a theft, a love rivalry and a school bully are just some of the many obstacles on the way.
Structured around real cake recipes, Caramel Hearts is a coming-of-age novel about love, disappointment and hope, and discovering the true value of friends and family, no matter how dysfunctional they are.
Caramel Hearts is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!