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My debut year: highs, lows and some tips

It’s the last day of 2018, so I am being all pensive and reflective and shit and thinking about my year as a debut author. (Technically 9 months, 1 week and 2 days, as Out of the Blue came out on 22 March, but let’s round up.) It’s been a strange year: one of my very close relatives passed away in March, so it’s been extremely sad and difficult in some ways, but really great and exciting in others. I saw a finished copy of my novel for the first time on the day of their funeral, which kind of encapsulates the mixed bag that 2018 has been for me! Anyway, here’s a wee review of the highs and lows from the writing side of things:

The highs!

  • Seeing Out of the Blue in shops for the first time! (And also the second time, third time… it’s always very exciting, to be honest.) My main aim in life was always just to get a book published and on shelves, so when I’m not feeling so confident about my writing or my career, it’s good to remember that I achieved that goal. Anything else is really just a bonus.

  • My book launch. This was held at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, where I used to work, and I had such a great time: loads of my friends and family came, my lovely publicist Nina decorated the whole room with Tunnock’s Tea Cakes and pink feathers, and Macmillan gave me a lovely feather print as a present. It was perfect!

  • The support that the book has had from my friends and family. I feel like almost everyone I know has a copy and people are still sending me photos when they spot it in shops… it’s been really touching and has made me feel really lucky. My mum and my mother-in-law are probably responsible for about 34% of sales between them.

  • The response from readers. I’ve had a few lovely messages from LGBTQ+ readers in particular who have been excited to see lesbian/bi rep in the book, and a couple who have said seeing those characters made them feel more confident about themselves. That’s really why I wrote it, so it’s the best feedback I could ever get! F/f novels don’t often get a lot of hype or sell very well (though Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire recently became an NYT Bestseller, so hopefully that’s a sign that this is changing) but hearing things like that is so encouraging and a good reminder that they really are important.

  • The writing community. I live in Spain and I’m not great at social media, so honestly I haven’t made as many writer friends as I’d have liked, but I’ve really enjoyed being part of the Electric 18s debut group and getting to know some other authors and publishing people a bit better. It’s genuinely really exciting to see people you know doing well, too.

  • Speaking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with Sally Gardner. This was such a big thing for me, partly because I’m terrified of public speaking, so just doing it felt like a huge achievement, and partly because I’ve gone there as a reader for so many years. I really felt like a capital-a Author.

  • School visits. I’ve only done a couple so far, but they were much more enjoyable and less terrifying than I’d imagined!

  • Being nominated for the Carnegie Medal! It’s a very, very competitive list so I know I won’t get any further but it’s a real honour to be nominated with such amazing authors, including some - like David Almond - whose work I loved so much when I was younger and who had such a huge influence on my own writing.

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The lows!

  • Second Book Syndrome. It’s a real thing! I wrote Out of the Blue before I had an agent, without any real expectations of getting it published, whereas Last Bus to Everland was under contract and the pressure made it a lot more difficult. Second books often don’t get nearly as much hype as debuts, either, so it can feel a bit like it’s sinking before it’s even gone out to sea. (Just going to casually leave this preorder link here...)

  • Not being kept in the loop. Ideally I would like to know every tiny little detail about what is (or isn’t) happening with my book, but obviously publishers are super busy, they can’t keep you updated on everything, and there’s really not any reason for them to anyway. Once a book is (traditionally) published, it’s pretty much out of your hands. I’ve found this frustrating and I’m still working on learning to just let it go.

  • Feeling a bit overlooked. I had pretty realistic expectations for Out of the Blue and I’m pleased with how it’s done in the UK, but America is a bit trickier: it’s much bigger and there are so many more books being published there, so it’s harder to get noticed. I’ve had some great reviews from US trade journals and some readers and bloggers over there have been very supportive of it, which I really appreciate, but it’s hard not to feel a bit disheartened sometimes.

  • Also school visits. Like I said, I’ve really enjoyed doing these but I’m awful at them. I mumble, I find it hard to project my voice, I rush through my presentation… I figure I’d get better with practise but that’s not as easy to get living outside the UK. I’m hoping to do a few at international schools in Barcelona in 2019 and hopefully improve.

  • This is a random one but I gave a copy of Out of the Blue to a library near my parents’ house that I practically lived in when I was a kid, and when I went in the next day I realised they’d shoved it in the take-for-donation box with some tatty old cook books and a Will & Grace DVD from 2001. The rudeness!!! So I took it back and left. Pah!

I was going to give some tips for people going into their own debut years, but I hate giving advice… It makes me feel like a fraud, basically because I still have no idea what I’m doing in any aspect of my life, and because everyone is different anyway. But here are some things I wish I had done differently or known before this year:

  • Made more writer friends earlier on in the year. Publishing can be quite stressful and frustrating at times, and other writers get that better than anyone, so it’s good to have friends to commiserate with. I also think, personally, that I’m less likely to compare myself to other authors or feel jealous of their success when I know them even a little - I’m usually just happy for them instead.

  • Asked more questions. I was unusually lucky in terms of publication - I never had to query, and Out of the Blue was the first book I ever finished - and going in I felt like I knew a lot less about publishing than most other writers at my stage. I wish I’d just been a bit more honest about that and asked ‘hey, how does this work?’ because I really doubt anyone would have mocked me for it and I would have been less baffled.

  • Not read reviews. Everyone says this and I wish I’d listened! Until pretty recently, I was constantly checking Goodreads and Amazon and scouring the depths of Google for reviews. I actually don’t get too bothered by bad ones if the reader didn’t like the story or style, but some comments - like saying the characters are only diverse to “tick the PC boxes” or that it was unrealistic that two girls could meet and both turn out to be gay/bi - kind of got to me. I’m going to be much stricter with myself with any future books.

  • Not stressed about retweeting praise. I used to worry a bit about if it came across as big-headed and honestly… even if it does, I don’t really care any more. I worked hard on that book, I need to promote it and as long as that’s not the only thing you’re doing or talking about online, I think that’s fine. With bloggers, especially, I almost always RT now as they’ve clearly put time and effort into their reviews and it’s good to give their work a boost.

  • Stressed less in general. Like I said above, I’ve found it hard not to know everything that is going on book-wise, but 99% of it I can’t control anyway - I wish I’d just put it out of my mind and focused on the next one, because really that’s all you can do.

So, that was my debut year! I hope that doesn’t sound too negative because overall it’s been a really great year, and I feel extremely lucky. For 2019, I’m of course very excited for Last Bus to Everland to come out in May and to hopefully see the French, Chinese and Bulgarian translations of Out of the Blue. I’m planning on finishing what will hopefully be my fourth YA novel, completing a rough draft of my fifth, and starting work on an adult novel, too. I hope you all have a happy and productive year - all the best for 2019!

Favourite reads of 2018

It’s December, which means yearly book roundup time! I haven’t read as much as I’d have liked to this year – my Goodreads challenge page is a pit of failure and despair – but there have been some real gems. I’m also planning on cramming in a ton of books over the holidays, so there may be some last-minute changes to these lists in a few weeks… but for now, here are the top 5 adult and top 5 YA books that I read in 2018:

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Top 5 Adult Fiction

Pachinko - Min Jin Lee
Multigenerational saga, spanning around seventy years, about a Korean family in Japan. Absolutely incredible, and I’m very excited for the TV adaptation.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine - Gail Honeyman
I was so addicted to this, I got up at 5am to read it before work: a funny, touching and uplifting story about a lonely woman with an very dark past, slowly opening up to the world around her.

Home Fire - Kamila Shamsie
The story of three British Muslim siblings and how they’re affected when the youngest follows in their jihadi father’s footsteps and goes to Syria - devastating and very insightful.

Rainbirds - Clarissa Goenawan
A brilliant debut about a Japanese man investigating his sister’s brutal murder. Lyrical and dreamlike - a good one for fans of Murakami.

Life After Life - Kate Atkinson
I’d been meaning to read this for years so I’m glad I finally got around to it! A story of an English woman born in 1910, living her life over and over until she realises what she’s supposed to do with it.

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Top 5 YA Fiction

Long Way Down - Jason Reynolds
One of my top 3 books of the year: a short but very powerful novel in verse about a teen boy on his way to kill his brother’s murderer.

Darius the Great is Not Okay - Adib Khorram
Really beautiful story about a Persian-American boy’s first trip to Iran, his relationship with his father and his budding friendship with his grandparents’ neighbour.

Our Year of Maybe - Rachel Lynn Solomon
I adored this - a complex story about a girl who donates a kidney to her best friend, who she’s in love with, and how it changes their friendship.

A Line in the Dark - Malinda Lo
A dark and atmospheric thriller about a girl secretly in love with her best friend, who begins dating another girl from an elite boarding school.

The Summer of Jordi Perez (and the Best Burger in Los Angeles) - Amy Spalding
This was so cute! A fun and summery story about a lesbian plus-size fashion blogger falling for a rival intern at her summer job.