Writing A Novel As A Books Journalist: The Familiars by Stacey Halls
Every day I open countless jiffy bags, and I’m always excited to see what slides out on to my desk. My job at Fabulous magazine reviewing books allows me a broad view of the market. Knowing what is out there, being bought and sold and represented and published, can be both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, I know how hungry publishers are for new material. Every year there’s a blank schedule: they want to publish books; they want to find new writers. It’s how they make money. But on the other, all you hear about from writers is rejection: the hours, months, years spent hunched at a desk, pouring your soul into your keyboard, only to be told: “Not for us, kind regards.” Every novelist great and small has a rejection story on the tip of their tongue, a framed letter in their study. It’s enough to make you not bother. Almost.
When I wrote my first novel in 2015, I’m not sure being a books journalist helped me. I touted it to agents and was rejected by all of them. It wasn’t soul-destroying, but it was difficult to not think of all those lunch breaks spent scribbling on a bench, all those weekends not seeing friends, as wasted. Really, though, I should have drawn on my experience more. Although I’ve seen thousands of titles over the years, I don’t read all of them. I probably don’t even read 5% of them. Really I’m just receiving the Waterstones “new books” table six months before everyone else sees it. I browse like anyone else, only at my desk; I read the backs, and examine the cover. I make decisions based on what it looks like, and how it sounds. Sometimes a book has a big fanfare, and I’ve heard about it before I receive it. Most of the time, though, I get sent things unsolicited – just like agents.
I gave up on that first novel. Even now when people ask me what it was about, I can’t tell them, because it didn’t have a clear plot, or the hallowed “elevator pitch”. I’ve read enough press releases to know that if you can’t sum up your book in a few lines, no one can. I struggled to imagine opening my novel at my desk: what would slide out of the jiffy bag? What might the cover look like? How would my publicist have written the synopsis? I still draw a blank, and there lies the problem.
When it came to writing The Familiars, I spent a lot more time thinking about what it would be. I wanted to write a book set during the Lancashire witch trials of 1612 that told the story of two women from very different backgrounds, whose lives are both at risk. I settled on my protagonist: the teenage wife of a highborn landowner, who is desperate to give her husband an heir after three failed pregnancies. Enter Alice Gray, her midwife, who is caught up in the rumours.
Before I’d even typed a word, I tried to imagine what would slide out of the jiffy bag. Visualisation is a powerful tool, and I created a Pinterest board of beautiful historical fiction jackets I loved: The Miniaturist, The Essex Serpent, Burial Rites. I honed a synopsis, and plotted the story on flash cards to pin to the wall of my spare bedroom to remind me of the story, always the story. What is it about? What is it really about?
In the summer of 2017, when I’d completed several drafts of The Familiars and was ready to submit to agents, I read the backs of some of my favourite books to try and learn about synopses from the experts. A synopsis has to distil an entire story into less than 200 words, while making you want to read on. It’s a novel in miniature, and in a good one you’ll find a catalyst (that kickstarts the story), setting, leading characters, a sense of peril and an idea of what’s at stake. I went to a coffee shop with a notepad and pen and wrote the synopsis of The Familiars, and somehow, miraculously, most of those words have made it on to the final jacket copy.
I’m not sure if there’s a clear answer to whether or not being a books journalist gave me an advantage when it came to being a writer. I see a huge range of what’s published, but you can do that in a bookshop. I have friends in the industry who read my manuscript for me and gave me feedback. But I am proof that having contacts doesn’t get you an agent: my first book was rejected across the board. One agent, however, replied asking me to send her the next thing I wrote. I sent her The Familiars, and she offered me representation.
Reading and reviewing books for a living doesn’t make it any easier to write one. Pulling 90,000 words out of thin air is difficult whether you are a book reviewer or a builder. But it helps to keep one eye on what’s out there, just as an entrepreneur would. If you want people (publishers, agents, marketing teams) to invest in you, it makes sense to do your research. Read jacket copy. Read acknowledgements for agents’ names. Read the sort of books you want to write. And then write the book you want to read.
(c) Stacey Halls
Stacey Halls grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire, as the daughter of market traders. She has always been fascinated by the Pendle witches. She studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and moved to London aged 21. She was media editor at The Bookseller and books editor at Stylist.co.uk, and has also written for Psychologies, the Independent and Fabulous magazine, where she now works as Deputy Chief Sub Editor. The Familiars is her first novel. You can find her on Instagram @staceyhallsauthor and Twitter @stacey_halls
About The Familiars:
In a time of suspicion and accusation, to be a woman is the greatest risk of all . . .
Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir. When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn’t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy.
Then she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife. Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong.
As Alice is drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the North-West, Fleetwood risks everything by trying to help her. But is there more to Alice than meets the eye?
Soon the two women’s lives will become inextricably bound together as the legendary trial at Lancaster approaches, and Fleetwood’s stomach continues to grow. Time is running out, and both their lives are at stake.
Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.
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