June 1st, 2009


How It Happened

It is June, and tomorrow I will be a happy but nervous wreck. But before I do finally stumble right into publication, I wanted to make a final stumbling towards publication post.

Several people have asked 'But how did you write this book?' And I found this question a little puzzling, since I wrote the book the same way I'd written more than twenty others: sitting propped up on four pillows in bed when I should have been sleeping, curled up in front of the television with my friends or my family, sitting outside on a beach or under a tree, on the sly when I should have been working. I've been writing my whole life: it's what I do.

I told the hopefully-funny incidents of researching the book, being mistaken for a health inspector or an overenthusiastic fan of mechanics or a knife-wielding lunatic (well... I haven't actually told you that story yet, but I have no doubt I will). But I finally figured out that people might mean: what did you feel when you wrote it, what were you doing as you wrote it. Who were you, while that book was happening?

And that question I can answer. I suppose it starts with me returning from New York. I'd loved that city, and returning home I felt displaced: I wasn't sure what the next step in my life was going to be. I ended up moving to England at the end of the summer to do an MA in publishing and writing, and then to work part-time in a library to see whether librarianing might be what I wanted to do (all I knew was, it was going to be something to do with books) and also to keep me in toasted cheese sandwiches.

The summer before England, though, I was at rather a loose end. I missed New York, was feeling dubious about my future, and I was having personal problems that, well, do not belong on the world wide web. But they meant that I couldn't write.

I do not know how people who do not write cope at all. Without having characters and stories to think about at all my odd moments, I go sort of crazy with boredom. Apparently the Marquis de Sade wrote on the walls of his lunatic asylum in blood. I go jogging.

I never, ever go jogging otherwise. My parents were extremely alarmed. 'Fine! Fine! I'm feeling fine!' I'd tell them, and then I'd go running out on the beach, running and running until I was exhausted and the buzzing urge to write something faded, because I could not think of anything to write.

It was August or late July, and I was collapsed on the sofa while my father watched a very dull documentary. And then something about it caught my attention: my head came up, and after it was over I had a few images in my head. I went upstairs to the computer and started to use wikipedia in a flailing sort of way, sure that I was onto something and not quite sure what: I ended up, among other things, reading essays on Stephen King's Pet Sematary. In the morning my sister Gen came in and stared at me. 'Have you been here all night?' she asked warily. 'Is it morning?' I asked vaguely, drawing something. '... What is that?' she continued. 'Is it a sheep?' My drawing skills are legendary. I have all the artistic ability of a squirrel who has fits. 'It's a demon's mark!' I said triumphantly. 'Oh...' Gen said. 'Right.' She looked at me, a little doubtful, but Genevieve is much more used to having a sister chained to a computer than jogging on the beach. 'Have fun,' she concluded, and went off to eat breakfast.

I was so relieved and so happy just to be writing again, I was in kind of a frenzy. This was not so great for my friends, who I was due to go on a trip with to London. We walked about museums with me scribbling on random envelopes. I sat outside Westminster Abbey and told them all the new stories running around my head. We unexpectedly encountered a naked stranger in our hotel room, and even this did not really shake me from my writing haze. At one point in a bar, the Durham Lass edged us a little away down the bar, and instead of saying 'Sarah, you are a lunatic, put down your pen, we are on holiday' she talked patiently and at length with me about timelines as I made notes on a bar napkin. 'Thank you,' I said at the end, a little calmer. 'I'll name a character after you.'

She just smiled and nodded, bless her. (I did name a character after her.)

I was well into chapter four by the time I moved to England and to live with Penelope, one of the Seven Wonderful Flatmates of the World. We were living in quite a small town near England, and I did not click with the place in the same way I had with New York. It took me a while to make friends. Eventually I did make them, and in the end England was wonderful, but I was a little lonely at first. But I was writing again, so it didn't matter: taking the train down to Salisbury on the weekend to research, scribbling by the side of the cricket pitch near our flat, playing insane amounts of country music, which Penelope never pointed out in some countries probably qualifies as flatmate torture and grounds for eviction. In January I finished the first draft, and said in a dazed way 'I'm done.'

I wasn't, of course. There were rewrites to get started on almost immediately, and while I was doing those midnight madness and my addiction to agents' blogs impelled me to query Kristin Nelson, and then she asked to see a few chapters - and then a while later the whole thing, and then she offered to represent me. But, she said, she'd like me to do some more rewrites, and she knew I had another offer of representation. Which I did - I hadn't queried anyone else, but a very excellent agent for a friend of mine had been so extremely kind as to express interest, and she send she'd send the book out to editors right away. Either way I would have been in great hands, but - well, I loved the thoughts Kristin had, and I wanted my book to be the best book I could make it. I signed with Kristin and spent some more months rewriting, and have never regretted that.

I was so excited about signing with an agent. Every time I'd started a book since I was a kid, I thought: well, maybe this one is the one, and of course I was thinking more and more. Maybe, just possibly, this one would be published, and even if it wasn't I knew Kristin would stick with me as I wrote more books until one was. I would plan things out with Penelope, who is pretty much a chain-smoking angel.

This book had a protagonist probably only I would like, and gay characters, and no eternal romance to speak of. I was fairly sure it wasn't commercial. If this book got published, of course it would be very small, but I could build on that, and then maybe in about ten years I might be doing quite well...

So the book went out to editors. 'Sales are slow in summer' said Kristin. 'Buy a lot of ice-cream. Prepare for a long wait.' I did. Penelope was in Greece at the time, but my English friends (and a couple of my friends visiting from America, which was wonderful timing!) rallied around. I bought ridiculous amount of raspberry sorbet ice lollies. I was set for my long wait.

The book went out Tuesday. An editor called Kristin with an offer Thursday. There were more offers. I listened to what Kristin was saying with polite bewilderment. I freaked out with a couple of my friends, one who called from America and stayed on the phone for about a million hours telling me soothingly about fairytales. I wondered what I was going to do with all that ice-cream.

I was much too overwrought to sleep in my bed. I went and lay down on the kitchen floor. I possibly caught a couple of hours napping with the toaster as a pillow. The sun came up and it was all sinking in, and the sky was turning violet and pink and gold.

Like all dreams come true, it came with stress, panic and terror as well as incredulous joy: the move back to Ireland, the fretting over whether I could edit the book well enough, which I could control, and what else I could or should be doing, and about things like covers which of course I couldn't control much at all, but I worried anyway! In the midst of a million different feelings, I have felt extremely grateful: to my agent and editor and publisher for both taking such a chance with me, and to my friends, who have been unbelievably amazing: comforting, advising, occasionally whacking me with whatever was to hand (teapots, books, one very upset salmon) and to you guys. I have had an astonishing sounding board which most first-time writers don't have: I've used this blog to talk about my life and its various mishaps for years, and when I got my agent and especially when I got my book deal the congratulations just poured in. One of the things I miss the very most due to the recent hideous hacking is losing all the kind words on that post. And people reading the stumbling towards publication posts I started putting up have come with me on a journey that I really needed companionship on: this blog meant that at cons, there were some strangers I could chat with, that waterbird came to my signing at the London Book Fair and brought me brownies, and that when this journal was deleted hanelissar and many others rushed to help me.

Thank you all very much for that. Tomorrow the book comes out, and I am scared and exhilarated and thrilled and still, very grateful. Whatever happens next, I have had amazing moments on this journey with you - and right now I feel like I'm lying on the kitchen floor again, with the sky turning violet and pink and gold.