As this year’s Festival of Writing draws near, I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be judging the Best Opening Chapter competition with my agent, Jenny Savill. I wonder who will be in the shortlist and what they are doing right now. Perhaps they’re commuting to work, or hanging out the washing, pouring a second glass of wine, or changing a nappy (or perhaps doing both at the same time). In this very moment as they glance up at the sky, or put on the kettle, they don’t know that, in a few weeks, their life will be transformed.
The festival had that impact on me. So, after signing with my agent, what happened next? More drafts. Another four to be exact. A Thousand Paper Birds is a many layered thing. Based in Kew Gardens, with five characters, two love triangles and a mysterious death, it’s told from multiple perspectives and two time-frames. Add in a speculative thread and the folds of origami, and you can imagine why it took a while to pin this particular girl down. I learnt a lot in those two years – not just about my characters and craft, but also about perseverance and passion. There were days when it felt like I was entering a boxing ring, wrestling the pages, and leaving the desk with my jaw bloodied. In one particular draft, I tried so damn hard to please that I took on every suggested edit and ended up with a Frankenstein manuscript, the stitches so coarse you could see the seams. It had no blood in it. No heartbeat. I had to go back and lovingly unpick it, gently resuscitating it back to life and asking it to forgive me – and thankfully it did. It’s a delicate balance – taking in other people’s advice, but also staying true to the world you’ve created and to the book’s anima, or spirit.
In September 2015, the manuscript was ready and we sent it out on submission. What a terrifying process! But within 24 hours, an editor in Italy had read it overnight, fallen head over heels and wanted to make a pre-emptive offer. Other offers started to come in – Portugal, Netherlands, Russia – then I heard that a few UK editors were taking A Thousand Paper Birds to acquisitions. This is not an easy hurdle – the entire team has to love it and, in the run-up to Frankfurt Book Fair, there’s a lot of books vying for attention.
Trying to keep positive, I took myself off to Kew Gardens (the book’s location) to hear the Director’s Talk. As I left the event, my phone rang and THE MOMENT happened. Bloomsbury had put in an offer. I was standing outside the famous Palm House, in the perfect spot. A couple of times I had to ask Jenny to repeat herself – partly out of disbelief, partly because the ducks were quacking, but there I stood by the glasshouse, my dream solidifying in the trees, the lake, the sky, my body.
This elation continued in Frankfurt when Germany offered me a 2-book deal. Signing for a second book felt like the start of a career; a validation.
So guess what happened next? Yup. More drafts. Thankfully, my editor, Alexa von Hirschberg, is one helluva talented & insightful lady. Sensitive, funny, wise, stylish, she was a joy to work with. The copyedit too was a wonderful experience. The copyeditor’s attention to detail was love-filled. It’s the fine work of the scalpel … ‘do you really want ‘in’ twice in a sentence?’ (see, I’ve just done it again), ‘should it be ‘garden’ or ‘Gardens’? Did you realise that you swap between imperial and metric?’ After all the large scale edits, it was a pleasure to focus on the miniscule.
Ten drafts in all. So many different versions, characters cut or changed, whole passages gone, and for a while I worried that I would grieve for all the different ‘Paper Birds’ that had vanished. But when I read through the final edit it was the book it was always supposed to be. Everything had come into focus.
During this period, there was a lot of other stuff happening too. While I was writing the draft(s) of my life I also had to set myself up as a business, dealing with foreign tax forms and complicated contracts. An illustrator was working on a map of Kew Gardens, blurb copy was needed, copyright permissions required, author photos taken, the jacket design approved (oh my, it’s so flutteringly gorgeous!). Then there was also a pregnancy that involved me injecting myself in the stomach for 9 months daily, a premature baby and the usual sleeplessness and chaos that comes with a new-born – but that’s a whole other story…! And now, I have a year to write Book 2 (the first one took 7 years so you can understand why my eye is twitching…).
There’s a host of unknown and wonderful things ahead. And I’m frightened. Of people reading it. Of people not reading it. The author events, the promotion – all challenges for a publishing virgin. But in the end, away from the noise of twitter, book sales, reviews, I know my main job is the work itself: to write the next book better, using everything I’ve learnt. The landscape of language, the puzzles of plot and pace, the intimacies of character – this is where I’m happiest, and how privileged I am to be able to spend my day at the typeface, conjuring up things to believe in. This passion (obsession? endless curiosity?) is both anchor and fuel.
So, yes, since York, life has changed. After years of writing alone, it’s amazing to be part of a collaboration with some of the most talented, brilliant people in the world.
Good luck to all of you coming to the Festival, and if you aren’t shortlisted for any of the competitions don’t be disheartened. I didn’t and I still came away with interest from 8 agents. So much can happen in the 1-on-1s, in the coffee queue, at the bar … the quickening of fate can happen in the most unlikely places.
As for the six chosen for the Best Opening Chapter, I’m so looking forward to reading your work. And for one of you (or more), hold on tight, the rollercoaster is coming to get you.