Sarah Daniels studied on our six-month online Writing Your Novel course in 2017. Now she's represented by Curtis Brown literary agent Felicity Blunt and she has an exciting book deal for her dystopian YA duology with Penguin Random House Children's, the first book in the series The Stranded will be published later this month.
We spoke to Sarah about her time studying with us, the surprising joy of sharing your work with others for the first time and the inspiration behind her debut.
You took our six-month online Writing Your Novel course in 2017. How did your time on the course impact your approach to writing?
I was a secret writer before the course. I’d spent years writing alone, trying to learn everything I could from YouTube tutorials. Nobody (apart from my husband) knew that I spent hours and hours at my desk trying to get words down. Sharing my work for the first time on the course was exhilarating and mortifying all at once. During those few months I learnt to embrace feedback and other writers as essential parts of my process. Now I’m excited to get feedback on my work because I know it’s going to help make my stories even better.
Many of our students find their writing community whilst studying on our courses. Are you still in touch with any of your course mates?
It’s not an exaggeration to say the people I met on the course are lifelong friends. Six of us keep in touch most days over WhatsApp. It’s mostly writing talk, running ideas past each other, getting opinions and checking grammar. But throughout all the stresses of lockdown they’ve become a group of wonderfully supportive women. We’re all navigating the road to publication and I’m so grateful to be part of the group.
You’re represented by Curtis Brown literary agent Felicity Blunt. How did you know that she was the right fit for you and your writing?
Felicity read my submission at the end of the Writing Your Novel course, and when I’d finished reworking it she invited me down to the Curtis Brown office for a chat. She had loads of ideas about how to develop The Stranded and she was so enthusiastic about the story and the characters that I knew I wanted to work with her.
Your debut The Stranded will be published by Penguin this July. This near-future YA novel is set on a once luxurious cruise ship, which has been transformed into a refugee camp after an apocalyptic war. Can you tell us a bit more about the novel and the inspiration behind it?
The Stranded follows two teenagers trapped aboard a derelict cruise ship – The Arcadia – which hasn’t been allowed to make landfall in forty years. There’s a sprawling shanty town covering the ocean all around the ship, decks controlled by violent criminal gangs, and a brutal police force that uses drones and futuristic technology to terrify and subjugate everyone on board. Esther and Nik are both trying to escape, but they’re taking very different paths. Esther is a straight-laced medical track student, who’s been offered a new life on land if she works for the oppressive government regime. Nik’s the polar opposite. He dedicates his life to a rebellion that wants to free everybody on board. They can’t both succeed, so when their lives collide sparks fly immediately.
Do you have any worldbuilding tips for writers looking to set their own novel in a dystopian future?
Learn how to catastrophise. You’ll find all the inspiration you need by observing things happening in the world right now. From that point of inspiration build the world by asking yourself: How bad can things get? My point of inspiration for The Stranded was a ship overloaded with people searching for a safe port. But what if nowhere would take them? What if they were never allowed to leave the ship? From there the Arcadia grew into a monstrous floating prison where people are trying to survive in the most desperate conditions.
What does a typical day of writing look like for you – do you have any rituals?
I’m very much an early bird and I like to write before everyone else wakes up and there are too many distractions. I get up around 4am, make coffee, and then have a scan through whatever I’m working on while my brain’s at its sharpest. I sit down to write properly about 7-8am and I need a stretch of a few hours to really get my head in the right place (I’m in awe of those people who can write in the gaps of five minutes. It’s a superpower I just don’t have.). Because I start my day early, I don’t really do much creative work in the afternoons, instead I do emails and read and play x-box.
What books have you enjoyed reading recently?
I’ve read some breathtaking dystopian books recently. I loved The End of Men by Christina Sweeney-Baird, and Melissa Welliver’s The Undying Tower. Also Mindwalker by Kate Dylan that’s coming in September.
If you could only share one piece of advice with aspiring authors, what would it be?
Enjoy each step as you reach it. Getting published can take a long time so if you can enjoy the process of writing and querying and submission then it can make things much less fraught.
Finally, what’s next for you and your writing journey?
The Stranded is book one in a duology, so I’m busy working on book two. And I’m getting ready to hit the road on the Penguin Platform Roadtrip from 5 - 8 July.
Pre-order your copy ofThe Stranded. Out 19 July.