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Perfectly Preventable Deaths by Deirdre Sullivan

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Deirdre Sullivan © 29 July 2019.
Posted in the Magazine ( · Children & Young Adult · Interviews ).

The journey from a thing you’re making to a thing that you have made is not a straight line. And even when you reach a milestone- having your work be published, for example, it’s only a kind of ending. The impulse to correct is always there, to shift or alter a lazy word choice. Put a satisfying line through something unnecessary. I’m far from the only writer who sometimes takes a red pen to their books, after reading aloud. Nothing is ever perfect, or right, or finished. It’s just a matter of getting to good enough. And good enough takes time, and work and patience.

With Perfectly Preventable Deaths, my most recent book, getting to good enough took almost seven years and eighteen drafts. It started life in November 2012. I had found Nanowrimo (writing 1167 words a day for a month in the hopes of getting a draft down) helpful the previous year, when I’d written a strange small book called Needlework, and I was keen to try it again. The first draft was a witchy joy to write. It flowed out of me. I loved thinking about the world the twins lived in. How people worked, and what their secrets were. And I loved the protagonist, Madeline. When I got to that 50,000 milestone, I felt triumphant. The story would take more than that to tell. But the beats were there, and it was a good start. I finished it, gave it a cursory polish and cheekily sending it to an agent in a fit of ‘how great am I, I finished a book?’. I’m MORTIFIED to think of it now. The lovely agent had a very kind book-person read it, and she phrased her ‘do some redrafting, you unprofessional ego monster’ in a more ‘this has many fine qualities but needs work come back to me when its’ finished’ way.

I was very appreciative of the opportunity, but I ended up setting the book aside, as I was writing Improper Order, the second book in the Primrose Leary trilogy. It was the book I came back to it between books, to tweak and alter, I worked away at it, while editing Improper Order and later Needlework, for Little Island, my publisher. I had told them about Perfectly Preventable Deaths, but they didn’t seem keen. Horror fiction is not to everyone’s taste. But I still loved the book, not as it was, but as it could be. I wanted to do justice to Madeline. So, in the summer of 2014, I started sending out the revised manuscript to agents, while working away on something new as well. I find having a project that is new and exciting and your own really helps when you are sending something out to gatekeepers. It makes the inevitable rejection (not being pessimistic, just realistic about the way things went for me, and tend to go for most people) easier to take. Reminding you of why you write, and that the best part, the most nourishing part, is the one you have control over.

In March 2015, Clare Wallace at Darley Anderson Children’s requested a full manuscript, and I was thrilled to bits. Clare was kind enough to invest time in my work, and gave me really helpful edits, that I spent the school holidays working on. She was then happy enough with the manuscript, and my voice, to take me on. And then we did several more rounds of edits (during one of which, I read a book called Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert which I would highly recommend if you’re at the end of your tether on a writing project) before it was ready to go on submission in the summer of 2017.

Submission is a hard time, and it was the agent thing all over again. I squirreled away at another project to avoid thinking about the uncertainty of it all and tried not to think about it (and thought about it constantly). Hot Key, my eventual publisher, expressed interest, but with a few reservations, as they wanted the book to work as a standalone, rather than the two or three books I had imagined. So I did a synopsis and chapter-by-chapter breakdown of the way the book could work with some re-structuring. They liked it and took me on. And then I did a few more rounds of edits, to get the book to where it needed to be. Every edit, from the quick polish I did myself, to the copy-edits at the very end, caught something that needed to change in the book, and helped it get to where it needed to be to be good enough for readers.

The last edit I handed in was number eighteen.

Seven years seems like a long time for one book, but they take the time they take. It’s also not the full story. I didn’t work a 40 hour week at it for all that time. Months passed without opening the word document.  I wrote other books, and prioritised the deadlines that came with them. I worked full-time (writing, even six books in, in no way pays the rent). I went back to college and got a certificate in teaching methodologies for students on the autism spectrum. I got married. Life happens. None of us have this huge swathe of time to live in a cottage and contemplate the scenery, and if we do, there’s something else we’ve sacrificed to get that. I recognise all the good fortune I’ve had along the way. My books are on shelves. Readers can buy them. Sometimes they win things. But with each new project, you begin again. And sometimes they don’t make it. The journey to ‘good enough’ changes for each book, and everything you write, even the bad stuff, teaches you something, if you take the time to reflect. And those internal milestones are every bit as important as the external ones.

But do be careful on the bumpy roads. Protect your heart. You’ll need it for the next time.

(c) Deirdre Sullivan

Deirdre Sullivan is from Galway. She has written three YA novels, Prim Improper (which was shortlisted for the Bisto Children’s Book of the Year Award 2010-11.), Improper Order and Primperfect. She has also ghostwritten three books for the Nightmare Club series under the name Annie Graves.

About Perfectly Preventable Deaths:

Sixteen-year-old twins Madeline and Catlin move to a new life in Ballyfrann, a strange isolated Irish town, a place where the earth is littered with small corpses and unspoken truths. A place where, for generations, teenage girls have gone missing in the surrounding mountains. As distance grows between the twins – as Catlin falls in love, and Madeline begins to understand her own nascent witchcraft – Madeline discovers that Ballyfrann is a place full of predators. And when Catlin falls into the gravest danger of all, Madeline must ask herself who she really is, and who she wants to be – or rather, who she might have to become to save her sister.

‘Sullivan has an eye for the uncanny, a taste for the macabre, and a gift for beautiful prose. Perfectly Preventable Deaths is her best book yet.’ Louise O’Neill

‘This is the novel the recent Sabrina reboot wishes it could be – a thrilling, eerie exploration of sisterhood, first love and dark powers hiding out of sight.’ Dave Rudden

Order your copy online here.


Deirdre Sullivan is from Galway. She has written three YA novels, Prim Improper (which was shortlisted for the Bisto Children's Book of the Year Award 2010-11.), Improper Order and Primperfect. She has also ghostwritten three books for the Nightmare Club series under the name Annie Graves.