With a three-book deal in the bag and a debut novel, Plague Land, to be published this autumn, it’s easy to forget that SD Sykes (or Sarah to her coursemates and tutors at CBC) was once a nervous student, arriving for the first teaching session on our Spring 2012 Novel-Writing Course. A lot’s happened since then, of course, as she reveals here.
My book deal with Hodder & Stoughton was pretty much concluded around June of last year, and it was then that the big push to tame my manuscript into a publishable book really began. I’d been lucky enough to be offered a deal on the basis of a very rough second draft of Plague Land. The narrative structure was in place, but the book itself was still very raw. In fact it didn’t even have a proper name, having been sold as ‘Black Death Crime Novel’ – which gave a flavour of the book, but could hardly be described as a catchy title.
The first stage in the process was to work through the exhaustive notes I had been sent from my editor, Nick Sayers. He liked the book, but knew it could be better – and that felt strangely comforting. Writing a novel is a lonely business – particularly as I’d always written scripts in the past, which is always collaborative. So to have a trusted editor on board was very reassuring for me. To broadly summarise Nick’s thoughts – the novel needed refocusing. I’d written a strong subplot involving family secrets and intrigue, but this plot was threatening to drown out the main plot, which was a murder mystery. At the end of the day I was writing in the historical crime thriller genre, so my readers would expect the murder narrative to be the main thrust of the story. You can surprise your readers, but you should never disappoint them. Particularly not in genre novels.
But one thing Nick was always very clear about – this was my book. And not at any point in this whole process have I ever felt any differently. That’s not to say there haven’t been times when I wished it wasn’t my book. In the autumn I worked almost ceaselessly on the rewrite, which had to be delivered by the end of October. I was cast adrift in some sort of 1350s netherworld populated by murderers and plague victims, and at times, yes, I wanted to throw the whole thing on the fire and go back to a normal life. But what you learn about publishing – particularly as a debut author – is to meet your deadlines. Don’t piss your publisher off.
Thankfully the redraft passed muster and then this document, now called ‘the final manuscript’ went off to a copy editor. This was a completely new experience for me. A person I’d never met before went through the novel with the proverbial fine toothcomb. This was also the truly cringe-inducing stage – when it was pointed out to me that, for example, a character started a chapter by riding in on a horse, and then left on foot. Where did the horse go? Five men went into a scene. Three came out. At this point I also discovered that my grammar was on the spectrum of fairly useless to tragic, even though I had always prided myself on being something of a grammatical pedant.
So then it was finished. Or so I thought. But no. After this, there was one final stage. My page proofs arrived on Christmas Eve for checking over. At the same time they were being read by a separate proofreader – a person who managed to find sentences where I’d used the same word three times. Even after I had probably read this very same sentence at least 25 times. I can only call this embarrassing.
And then Plague Land was signed off. My novel, which I’m enormously protective over, but also (if I’m totally honest) I then needed a break from, went off into the sunset like a teenager at Freshers’ Week. I would support it. I was very proud of it – but I couldn’t change it. Pressing the send button that final time was terrifying.
I’ve been really lucky, however. I’m working with a team at Hodder that really care about my baby as much as I do. I’ve been asked for my input in jacket design. I’ve been given the opportunity to write a series of blogs for their History Lives webpage. They’ve put me forward for the Harrogate History Festival. I have a publishing date of 25 September 2014. I know that Hodder are giving my novel every chance to succeed – and you can’t ask for much more than that.
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