The last time we met Liz Flanagan, she was a budding Young Adult (YA) fiction writer, and her first novel Eden Summer hadn’t seen the light of day. Two years on, Eden Summer’s not only sitting pretty on bookshelves across the world (out in paperback now) but she’s won plaudits from readers, reviewers and been nominated for a prestigious Carnegie Medal. We asked her to look back on her top tips with the benefit of hindsight.
It’s hard getting started as a new author. Liz’s approach was to ask for advice, and she went straight to the top, interviewing some of the best writers in Britain. Looking back here’s the advice that stuck.
1. Plot it your way
Each of the writers Liz spoke to had their own way of plotting and this gave her the confidence to find her own approach.
Eden Summer first began life as what Liz calls a ‘prototype’ – a 30,000 word draft which contained the same characters, but bore little relation to the book sold in stores today. It contained ghost scenes too, lots and lots of ghost scenes. She says:
“It had a beginning, middle and end – but in the first version my main character was dead. This made everything really complicated to read and to write but at the time I was really wedded to the idea – too wedded to it probably.”
Whilst dead leading characters have worked well in some stories, Liz always had a niggling doubt that she was wrong have a deceased lead character for hers and made a list of pros and cons to decide what to do. Plus, she received feedback from her agent and her PhD supervisor:
“Everyone told me that I’d need to be really careful having a lead character who was dead. After all, dead people can’t really do much – it’s difficult for them to advance the plot.”
2. All writing is rewriting
So after a lot of soul searching, Liz realized that it would be way more satisfying for the reader to have a character who was alive and kicking and could interact fully with the other characters – but this meant going back to the drawing board and revising her idea from scratch.
“In the end, I brought my main character back to life and this made the whole thing work far better. I learned that I should never be afraid of changing direction. I’m very grateful for that advice,” she said.
3. Persist, persist, persist
She went on to lengthen the novel to 65,000 words and after two further rounds of editing, produced a draft her agent felt confident enough to pitch to publishers – resulting in a two-book deal with David Fickling Books (DFB) – a highly acclaimed independent publisher.
Eden Summer went on to be published in 2016 and reviewed in The Guardian as a ‘gripping thriller’ and then went to be long listed for the CILIP Carnegie Medal 2017 and short listed for the Leeds Books Awards 2017.
4. Commitment is crucial – even in the face of rejection.
Now on draft four of her second book, Liz admits to now having a whole host of different pressures to contend with. She must take direction and feedback from a number of different sources – plus get used to working with editors with a range of different working styles. She says:
“When you’re working with an editor, you need to know that they understand what you’re trying to do – even if you haven’t quite pulled it off. They need to see the ideal version of your story that hasn’t happened yet – and they help you coax it out. It’s a complex relationship and you need to learn as you go. My editors have been inspiring and I’ve been very lucky.”
But even with a successful young adult novel under her belt and two-book deal, Liz still admits to feeling the fear of rejection.
“With my first novel, I wasn’t expecting anything too much – but now I’m probably expecting more of myself. Getting the book finished and making it good – not disappointing anyone!”
5. All life experience feeds into fiction
But aside from momentary flashes of self doubt, Liz feels she has progressed personally and professionally as a writer since her first novel.
“I have a far more positive attitude to risk taking and failure now – this is partly what my PhD has given me. It’s really important to make time to be playful and to do some scribbling.” Continuing, she said:
“I’ve also learned a lot from talking to readers and from reviews – external validation isn’t necessary but it’s great when you get it. I’ve really enjoyed taking the book into schools and answering questions about it– seeing how people relate to the characters has been amazing.”
Being immersed in the world of Eden Summer for so long, Liz is only now managing to gain a little distance from the work and the characters – as her head becomes full of her new book.
Saying that, Liz still finds it tough to ever see her first novel as done and dusted. She often changes the words when she reads from the book at events and book readings and her copy of the novel is crammed full of annotations and crossings out – a process that she admits isn’t likely to stop any time soon.
6. Playfulness and persistence work well together
Writing novel number one was tough at the time. But in retrospect, it was a relative breeze compared to her second novel – admits Liz. She likens the book she’s writing now – a fantasy story for 9-12 years olds (involving dragons) – being like a decorating project requiring multiple coats of paint.
Author David Almond told Liz to never forget to play and experiment with her writing – and that’s something she’ll never forget – however hard the writing process might seem.
7. Always make time to experiment and never be afraid to change direction
Three years on, Liz feels very grateful to have had company on the solitary writing journey from agent, editor and supervisor. Getting early feedback saved her from spending years on the wrong direction with Eden Summer.
“The best kind of editor-author relationships are when they know where you are trying to get to with the story or character and are willing to coax you in the right direction,” she said.