It’s quite hard to judge where this story begins. Getting my first novel published in many ways feels like a journey I have been on most of my life, from that first moment at age eight when I decided that writing stories for a living might be fun.
But don’t worry, I’ll start instead at the end of 2011. By then I had been running the business side of BBC Drama for six years. I loved it, but being up close and personal with some amazing writing talent, I realised that although I had a privileged job, enabling other people’s visions to be realised on screen, there was something fundamental missing. The desire to tell my own stories was now burning brighter than ever.
But my past was littered by then with unfinished projects. That Christmas, I revisited them all – the good, the bad and the ugly. I realised, with absolute clarity, that if I was going to finally complete a novel and send it out into the world, then I had to address those critical things that had stopped me finishing anything. That boiled down to just two things. Firstly, I knew I had to find the time to write regularly so ideas stayed fresh and I didn’t lose interest. Secondly, and this was a big revelation for me, I realised I hadn’t spent enough time before I started writing on really working through my story – beginning, middle and end. Some writers don’t of course, they find the story as they write it. But sat in front of me was a mound of evidence that I wasn’t that kind of writer. I was going to need to make a map.
Making that map was the hardest thing I’d ever done at that point. I took one of the simple openings I’d written twenty years earlier, an idea I’d always loved, and blocked it out, building it slowly, character by character, beat by beat. It was overkill maybe, but I wrote over 17,000 words, including character biographies and historical research. I was religious in not letting myself write a single sentence of the book until the detailed roadmap was there.
Most writers would agree that plotting is the part of the job that makes your head bleed. It’s like giving birth over and over. I found some great techniques by the end, but the process took 6 months before I felt that this was I story I could believe in, and therefore a story I could finish.
I spent a day a week writing, and the first draft took fifteen months. The map had another benefit too – no more writer’s block, I knew exactly what I was trying to do. This was the enjoyable bit, and the story just flew onto the page, the characters too.
By the middle of 2013, I had the first draft. All 190,000 words of it. I’d gone from never finishing a novel to writing a ridiculously long one. OK, so maybe I’d overdone the map, put too much in there. After a year of rewrites, I managed to chop it down to 150,000 words. It was the best I could do on my own.
Then I sent the first three chapters out to agents, lots of them, over a period of two years. Some of them asked to see the whole book, some of them wrote nice letters of rejection with thoughts for improvement, but most of them didn’t.
Finally, I sent it to Jonny Geller at Curtis Brown. My agent strategy had been all over the place – I’d targeted smaller agents, and more junior agents at the bigger agencies, thinking they’d be more likely to take me on. As I ploughed through my list, the names became more intimidating, and approaching them felt like a longshot.
Amazingly, he asked to meet – all I knew was that he’d read the book and wanted to chat. Face to face, what he actually said was ‘I really enjoyed it, there’s just two problems. One is your lead characters gets in the way and the ending doesn’t really work.’
So came the hardest part of this whole journey – PROPER rewriting. Not tinkering with sentences, or punching up dialogue, but the stuff that makes your head bleed all over again – dismantling the plot to take it in another direction. It’s like having to undo your knitting because you dropped a stich somewhere. Not only are you back into the map again, but this time you’re having to kill your favourite babies. But Jonny was right, I could see that, and I was determined to be brave and get to the other side. I’d come too far not to.
Here’s the timeline so far:
- Fannying about: 40 years approx.
- Plotting i.e head bleed part 1: 6 months
- Writing 1st draft: 15 months
- Ineffectual rewriting / agent rejections: 2 years
- PROPER rewriting i.e. head bleed part 2: 1 year
And then the final stage – finding a publisher. Drum roll please – 10 days. That’s all it took. The fantastic Ed Wood at Little Brown picked it up. With Jonny’s critical feedback, I’d finally done enough. It was another year until the hardback was published, working with Ed and the rest of the team on finessing the manuscript and working on the marketing strategy, all of which would be articles in their own right. But this part of the process isn’t yours to own as the writer; the hard work you do comes way before that.
The pile of ideas is still there, but I hope I’ve added the other critical ingredients now – a commitment to what it takes to know your story, and a robust openness to feedback even when it kills you.
Of course, I’m now starting the whole process again for my second book, and it doesn’t get easier. Hob nobs, whiteboard and big girl pants at the ready. Here goes….
(c) Claire Evans
Author photograph (c) Charlie Hopkinson
About The Fourteenth Letter:
One balmy June evening in 1881, Phoebe Stanbury stands before the guests at her engagement party: this is her moment, when she will join the renowned Raycraft family and ascend to polite society.
As she takes her fiancé’s hand, a stranger brandishing a knife steps forward and ends the poor girl’s life. Amid the tumult, he turns to her aristocratic groom and mouths: ‘I promised I would save you.’
The following morning, just a few miles away, timid young legal clerk William Lamb meets a reclusive client, whom he was never meant to meet. He finds the old man terrified and in desperate need of aid: William must keep safe a small casket of yellowing papers, and deliver an enigmatic message: The Finder knows.
With its labyrinth of unfolding secrets, Claire Evans’ riveting debut will be adored by fans of Kate Mosse, Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Jessie Burton.
Order your copy online here.