It’s been quite a year for Struan Murray, who took our London-based novel-writing course way back in 2013. For Struan – as for many of our students, the path to publication has been long and started out bumpy: he finished a novel and gained an agent soon after his CBC course, but not a publisher. He then switched to writing YA, but still no deal … But Struan kept the faith and kept writing, and we were thrilled when, in February, he won the Bath Children’s Novel Award.
Our MD Anna Davis encouraged him to show the winning novel to Curtis Brown’s Stephanie Thwaites, who specialises in representing children’s authors – and even more thrilled when she took him on as a client. Finally, after a round of edits between Struan, Stephanie and her assistant Isobel Gahan, Struan’s novel was sold to Ben Horslen at Puffin Books in the summer – and he became the 49th CBC student with a major book deal. Here we talk to Struan and Stephanie about their journey …
Struan, It’s been an amazing 12 months for you – from winning the Bath Children’s Novel Award, to selling your debut to Puffin Books. Has it sunk in yet?
STRUAN: I’ve spent the last five years working on manuscripts and submitting to publishers. Orphans of the Tide is the third novel I ever wrote, and by the time I sent it off to the Bath Children’s Novel Award it had already been out on submission for a year and I’d pretty much given up on it. So for things to start progressing so suddenly and so positively has felt unreal, and I think I’m still trying to catch up!
And where did the idea for Orphans of the Tide originally come from?
STRUAN: The idea for a city that grows out of the sea came when I was on a holiday in Stockholm, where they have a museum by the coast that is essentially a huge building built around one immense ship. I liked the idea of a city that was so intimately tied to the sea that some of its buildings ended up underwater when the tide came in. And that led to the idea of a whale being found one morning beached on a chapel rooftop, which is how the story begins.
Judging from your twitter feed, you enjoy making illustrations of scenes from your novel. How does drawing help you with your stories?
STRUAN: I write my first drafts long-hand in a notepad, because if I try typing them then I find myself self-editing and can’t get beyond a single sentence. When I’m writing with pen and paper I end up doodling a lot, and these doodles often influence what I’m writing, particularly the look of the buildings and the characters.
Stephanie, What were your first thoughts when you started reading Struan’s manuscript?
STEPHANIE: First thought was – I absolutely love this – immediately. The opening was so arresting and the world so intriguing, rich and well drawn and really unusual and different to – I was totally hooked.
Struan, when you got taken on as a client by Stephanie, your debut was still pitched as YA – at what point was there a decision from you to shift it towards a middle grade audience?
STRUAN: The novel had already been submitted to publishers by another agent as YA in 2016, and we got some consistent feedback that it might work better as middle grade. I didn’t feel confident about changing the age range, though, because I had no experience of writing MG. But strangely I found myself writing a new novel that accidentally became MG, and I realised how much I enjoyed writing for this age-range.
When I sent Orphans of the Tide in its YA form to Stephanie earlier this year, her immediate response was to suggest changing it to MG, and she had a very clear idea of how this could be accomplished. I took that as a good sign and got on with the editing.
Could you explain briefly some of the markers between YA and MG? What kind of edits were needed – was it as simple as changing the ages of the main protagonists?STEPHANIE: Definitely not just as simple as the age! There was a romantic thread in there that felt like it was getting in the way of the story, as was the characters’ behaviour at various moments. There was a lot of angst that the story didn’t really need and we wanted to put more emphasis on the action and keeping the momentum of the story going. The motivation of the characters was something we had to look at closely too and the dynamic between them all shifted significantly. Changes to the length were also really key.
STRUAN: Cutting 30,000 words was the big challenge – a lot of the politics of the world had to go, reduced to just snippets, a few minor characters vanished and an adventure out to sea went too. I had to change the age of the characters from 16 to 13, but that didn’t end up being too much of a problem; it mostly involved tweaking their dialogue here and there. In fact, as the tone and material of the story became less YA and more MG, the characters seemed to fit into it more, almost as if it should have been MG all along. The most important thing to me during the editing was that none of the emotional complexity was lost. But in being forced to take the story apart entirely, and fit it back together bit by bit, I actually think it has become a much stronger book, regardless of what age it’s aimed at.
How many stages of edits did you go through?
STEPHANIE: We went through 4 and I kept telling Struan each time that we were really close. He was brilliant about it – so good-natured and he really rose to the challenge, taking on board feedback graciously and implementing some tremendous changes, which meant the manuscript kept getting stronger and stronger each time.
How do you approach the editing process – how much of it is a process of helping and encouraging a writer to get there by themselves?
STEPHANIE: Clarity is so important – there’s no point beating around the bush. Obviously lots of suggestions are up for discussion and not all will be taken on board by the author, but I do think our role is to point out where there are weaknesses and work together on trying to find the best solution.
What’s the feeling like when all that hard work pays off ?
STEPHANIE: It’s unbeatable! It’s incredibly rewarding and just the most exciting, thrilling experience to see that it was worth it for the writer, that they’re embarking on the next step of their journey towards publication with their ideal publishing partner. Of course there’ll be further edits in store but best to enjoy the moment before thinking about the next round of rewrites.
Struan, What’s next for you, fiction wise?
STRUAN: I’ve got the sequel to Orphans of the Tide to get to work on, which will come out in 2021. I’m hugely excited about getting back into the world of the story and figuring out the most interesting places to take it next. I’ve dreamed about what the sequel might look like ever since I started the first book, and it’s such a wonderful gift to be able to dig through all the piles of notes and doodles I made back then and start planning it out. I have other projects too, unrelated to Orphans of the Tide, ranging from science fiction to high fantasy. I enjoy going back and forth between different stories.
And how did the Curtis Brown Creative course help you in your journey as a writer?
STRUAN: It helped massively. Having the chance to meet with industry professionals, and get first-hand insight into publishing was hugely helpful, as was being part of a small group of people who were just as passionate about writing as I was. I still keep the notes I made in our classes – my tutor on the course was Nikita Lalwani, and her wisdom is etched permanently on my mind. I was still getting support and advice from Anna Davis long after the course ended, and it was in fact she who suggested I send my manuscript to Stephanie…