Bernice Barrington speaks to Ciara Doorley, Editorial Director at Hachette Ireland for writing.ie
For anybody trying to write, the idea of a big scary editor scoring their manuscript with red lines and writing the word ‘rejection’ at the top of the page is often what puts them off submitting; however, when I meet Ciara Doorley, commissioning editor at Hachette, she is about as far away from the scary stereotype as you can imagine.
“I have nothing but admiration for people who write and put themselves out there. It’s such a scary thing,” she says with the tiniest hint of a Cork lilt.
“Oh yes, that,” she laughs, when I comment on it. “Well I went to college in Cork and studied English, although originally I’m from Co. Offaly.”
Ciara always knew she wanted to work with words and books “in some way”, so after college she completed a master’s degree in publishing at Napier University, Edinburgh. Upon return home, she was offered a position at Columba Press, a small specialist press in Dublin, and stayed there for two years.
In 2005, she moved to Hachette Ireland (pronounced ‘Hash-ette’), which was just establishing itself in this country. Hachette is the largest book publisher in the UK, and is made up of several publishing companies and imprints including Headline, Hodder & Stoughton, Orion, and Little, Brown.
“I was really lucky to get that job,” says Ciara. “I started off as editorial assistant and basically just worked my way up.”
For those interested in working in the publishing sector, she admits that recruitment is certainly “tight” at the moment but adds a “really good knowledge of books” will stand you in good stead.
And what about a master’s?
“No, I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary,” she says. “For example, if you’ve had experience working in a bookshop or press office, that’s also great – nothing beats on-the-job experience. And people who come from bookshop backgrounds are often very clued in about covers and trends.”
Ciara links her talent at editing to her star sign. “I think it’s a Virgo thing,” she laughs. “But, yes, I suppose I’ve always loved reading [she cites Enid Blyton, Jilly Cooper and Marian Keyes as early influences] and it does come naturally to me to look at a script and want to bring out the best in it.
“That’s what it’s all about really – recognising what the author wants to achieve and helping them reach that. You’re also working with the designers to get the cover right, so you really need to have a very clear concept of where you see the book fitting.”
What do publishers want?
And now for the $64,000 question, what is it editors are looking for these days?
“Well, we’re always on the lookout for quality fiction” Ciara explains. (Hachette Ireland does not accept unsolicited submissions, so all potential scripts come via agents.)
“It is definitely more difficult to get published than a few years ago, but if something really brilliant lands on your desk, of course you are going to pick it up.”
“You want a voice that is distinctive and original,” she says, citing Maria Duffy of Any Dream Will Dofame – published by Hachette last November – as a good example.
“Maria was spotted by her agent Sheila Crowley over Twitter. And, yes, in her novel there is this voice that is very Dublin, very humorous. And the hook of Twitter itself was also a great one.”
This idea of a clever hook brings us neatly onto the current phrase du jour, the ‘high concept’ novel, a phrase that has been doing the rounds ever since David Nicholls’ One Day was published to enormous acclaim.
Ciara agrees that, with the rise of book clubs, readers have an appetite for books that challenge both them and their concepts of fiction.
“Room by Emma Donohoe is a great example of this – it’s based on a horrible story but it’s actually a beautifully written book. I think high concept really means just telling a story in a new or different or interesting way.”
Others books she cites are Sarah Winman’s When God was a Rabbit and Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.
And what about contemporary women’s fiction – that much maligned category often referred to as ‘chick lit’? In 2011 there were numerous articles claiming this genre was dead. Does Ciara believe this?
“Absolutely not,” she says. “People’s tastes don’t change that dramatically. It’s true a lot of titles were published within that genre and, yes, it’s become a lot more difficult to get published, but if the quality of the writing is there, I think it’s still very much possible.”
As evidence of this, Ciara cites her namesake Ciara Geraghty.
“She is doing really well in the UK as well as in Ireland and you can see that she is really evolving as a writer.”
We both agree that Geraghty’s work has a very strong literary sensibility, and moves away from clichés about women and indeed what contemporary women’s fiction should be about.
“Yes, Ciara is almost beyond genre. She’s telling her stories from a new and different perspective, and that’s what makes her so interesting.”
In terms of inspiration, Ciara encourages writers to “keep an eye on what’s going on around you.”
“Newspapers can be very relevant, or just what’s happening in society. We have a new book coming out called the Forced Redundancy Film Club by Brian Finnegan. It’s reflecting what’s happening to Irish people and there’s definitely a market there for that.”
Ciara is also very excited about Kathleen McMahon’s book This is How it Ends, published by Little, Brown, which garnered the author a huge advance at the London Book Fair last year.
“Again it’s an example of basically a simple story but reflecting current realities and with a slightly different take on things.”
When to send
One question that often intrigues me is how polished a manuscript should be before submission. Can editors overlook the odd spelling or even stylistic mistake if the raw talent is there?
“Well basically yes,” Ciara explains. “It’s about the writing and the characterisation and whether that is really strong. The other stuff I don’t tend to worry about too much.”
However, Ciara adds that an editor must really love a book to take it on. “You have to feel passionately about it, because you have to sell the concept to colleagues and the wider public so you really have to believe in it yourself.”
Where does that leave you though if your work gets rejected? Is it a sign that your book is not capable of stirring up strong emotions for an editor? Should you just abandon ship?
“Absolutely not. There can be so many reasons why a publisher decides against taking on a script. Perhaps they already have someone on their list who is very similar; maybe it’s just not the right time. There can be all kinds of reasons – that’s the business – but it doesn’t necessarily mean your writing or story isn’t good.”
And if you get a positive rejection (i.e. the publisher liked certain aspects of your book and goes to the trouble of telling you this) don’t dismiss this in the disappointment of not getting published. “Keep writing. Maybe this story wasn’t right for them but your next one may be.”
Ultimately though Ciara says you have to look at your own motivations. “If publication is your sole reason for writing then you may end up very disappointed. I think you really need to write because you love it and are passionate about it. And as you write try not to think about some imaginary editor or agent reading it and criticising – try to be free and write for yourself.”