With our January event looking at How To Get Published, our #SYPchat series wanted to do the same. So, for our latest, author Samantha Shannon gave us a little insight into her life as an author who started writing while at University, and now has a seven book deal with Bloomsbury for her Bone Season series.
So, let’s start at the beginning: How did you get into writing? “I’ve been writing a lot since I was about 12, although I did write before that,” explains Samantha. “That was when I started wanting to be an author. I then started my first proper novel when I was 15, which was never published. (Fortunately.)”
The Bone Season series is the result of work she started at University, surrounding clairvoyance. Where did she find the concept, and does she ever want to move outside her universe? “Oxford University + crystal balls + extremely overactive imagination. I don’t feel stuck in the universe – it’s amazing to be writing seven books! – but I try to find time to write other things too. I’ve been working on a high fantasy novel alongside the series, started when I was waiting for notes on TBS3 from my editor.”
It seems she’s far from out of ideas – does she worry that’ll happen later in the series? “I think all authors probably have a worry that they’ll run out of ideas,” she admits. “But the Bone Season books are mostly mapped out. I like to leave a little bit of uncertainty and room to change my mind, though. My ideas for the series are constantly developing.”
But how does she keep on top of the expanding world? JK Rowling had a scrawled table, George RR Martin is said to have an epic spreadsheet. “I actually don’t keep many notes! Most of the world is in my head. When I do make notes, they’re to do with plotting.”
She currently has two books out, the third coming this year – what’s been her favourite part so far? “My favourite part of the publishing journey is seeing the cover for the first time. It’s just the most wonderful feeling. And holding the finished book, of course! But when you see the cover, it’s like your baby has a face.”
Samantha’s journey wasn’t without rejection, which led to her moving onto a new project, which became her career. “My first manuscript was rejected by letter/email at least 10-15 times. My mum started throwing the rejections away at some point. It’s actually quite a small number of rejections, but I didn’t know that when I was younger, and every one broke my heart. For The Bone Season, I was very lucky – no rejections. First agent I sent it to was the one who took it on.”
Approaching agents is one thing many writers are uncertain about. “When you approach agents, make sure you read their submission guidelines! They’re usually on the website. My rule of thumb for agents: Calm, Courteous and Confident. Don’t put yourself down in the query letter.”
What about a synopsis? “I literally had no idea how to explain The Bone Season to my agent. Synopsis wasn’t easy at all. Writing synopses is a fine art in general. You have to find a line between engaging an agent and giving the whole story away. Even now, I get funny looks if I try to summaries it. ‘It’s about, like, clairvoyants in the future, but with a puppet government’.”
Advice is a common question for someone so settled into her journey as an author; so first, what about young writers that can’t sort out their ideas? “When I can’t sort out my ideas, I find it quite helpful to bust out a good old-fashioned pen and get them all down on a page. It makes it easier to visualise each element of the story and connect it to others. I’ve got myself out of some plot knots that way.”
What about students trying to find time and balance their workload hoping to write? “Being able to write at uni was about time management, for me. I had to sacrifice some things to make time for writing. I usually sacrificed social time and, um, some lectures. Most lectures. (Don’t say I recommend this, students).
And editing a book? “Don’t over-edit,” she says. “Publishers are looking for potential, not perfection. I think you can edit a book to death in the end. I edited my first manuscript so much that all the rawness and passion and life was gone by the time it went to agents.”
And entering writing prizes? “I’ve never entered my writing for a prize, so can’t advise from that angle, but I was a judge on the BBC Young Writers’ Award. I was attracted to unique and experimental voices and interesting concepts. More on that here.”
For fledgling YA fantasy authors? “When you’re writing in any genre, don’t be afraid to break out of the box. Mix genres, if you like. Defy expectations. Genre, by its nature, has certain conventions, but don’t be afraid to try something new.”
A word of help for first time novel writers: “There is no right way to write. Be bold. Experiment with form and style. Your imagination is the limit. And never let anyone tell you your story is too weird.”
And to herself, now that she knows more about the industry? “I had an unusual introduction to the industry. I was called the Next JK Rowling for about a year, which was a lot of pressure. I would have been more confident in myself when I went into the industry, and less daunted by that pressure.” But the biggest surprise is “how many people work together to create one book! Designers, editors, copy-editors, publicity, marketing…”
Samantha is an active voice on social media – how important is that for authors? “I think social media is great, but I don’t think authors should feel pressured into being online if they’re not comfortable there. For me, it’s been a wonderful way to connect with readers and hear from them directly (just like this!).
Social media is also useful for research, but it’s part of a bigger picture. “My favourite research book was The Book on Mediums by Allen Kardec. Helped me out when I was creating the Seven Orders system. I generally like to read books for research when I can. Internet is great, but good to double-check. For my high fantasy, I joined the British Library to research certain countries’ history. Best decision!
“Twitter advice does sometimes make it into the books! Usually stuff related to language. Twitter’s a great resource in that if you ask a question, there’s a high chance someone will know the answer.
“I get a lot of inspiration from cities. In a city, every building, every street, every person, has a story to tell. When I write about cities in my books, I try my best to visit them first and get a feel for their particular character. The Song Rising is set in London, Manchester and Edinburgh. Visiting each one and writing the scenes there was so inspiring.”
As for how she finds literary festivals, “I really enjoy [them]. I love being on panels – it’s a great way to exchange and debate ideas with authors and readers. I have very fond memories of Edinburgh Book Festival. I got to meet Margaret Atwood, author of my favourite ever novel.”
As someone who actively follows topics in publishing, are there any shifts going on at the moment that she feels are particularly important? “There’s now more awareness that books and publishing need to be much more diverse, which is a long-overdue shift in the industry. I’m also glad that YA is getting more awards recognition, and that illustrators are pushing to be named on the front of books.”
Samantha on Twitter: @say_shannon