Wednesday, 25 April 2012

The story so far

I'm never sure how to introduce a blog – it's rather like starting a novel in that respect. How do you grab attention? How do you hold it? How do you make people believe that your life is worth reading about? I could type out a long-winded narrative about the twenty years I've been scribbling all over the place, but it wouldn't be quite as interesting a description as a description of one of my characters.

My name is Samantha Shannon-Jones (pseudonym Samantha Shannon, which is also my birth name). I was born in Hammersmith in 1991, and currently live with my mum Amanda, and stepfather Mike. My dad Phil, a retired police officer, lives in Banbury with his wife Emma. I have four half-siblings between the ages of two and nine: Jordan, Alfie, Amy and Jack. I went to school in the little-known town of Ruislip (end of the Piccadilly line, around where The Inbetweeners was filmed), and I'm now just over halfway into a degree in English Literature at St Anne's College, one of the younger colleges at Oxford University. More recently, I signed up with Bloomsbury for three novels, part of a planned series of seven – which is what this blog will be about. 

I started writing The Bone Season, officially called my debut novel, in mid-2011. Before that time, earlier in 2010, I was a very different person. I was nineteen and still wearing braces, with the added threat of elastic bands, which had given me such bad social anxiety that I'd found it difficult to make a lot of friends. I was convinced everyone was looking at my braces. I did nothing extracurricular. Instead I had spent my first months at university tapping away at my true debut: a sci-fi romance epic, Aurora. The novel was somewhere in the region of 200,000 words long altogether – a real monster – and I'd been writing it since early 2007. It was the product of sweat, blood and tears, and I loved it. Most of my friends at school knew I was writing it; it was hard to miss, as I spent every break scribbling in my notebook. 

My obsession with Aurora soon began to impact my health. All through my years at school my mum had been worried about how addicted I was to writing it. The story was part of a trilogy, but I never wanted to move on from the first one. I was too exhausted to wake up in the morning. I had panda eyes. I was pale and sickly. At weekends and during holidays, I would spend up to fifteen hours a day hunched over my keyboard. By 2009 I wasn't even writing anymore; I was just editing, obsessing over every sentence, using Self-Editing for Fiction Writers and other DIY books as my guide. I also consulted a local short story writer, who advised me to trim down my convoluted sentences and was generally an enormous help. Finally, when I was just about happy with my flawless, surgically perfected grammar, I bought myself a copy of The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, and I started sending Aurora to agents.  


Then disaster struck. My book was getting rejections. I'd never even considered this possibility. I developed a fa├žade for my mum and stepdad, telling them it was fine, that I could deal with it – but inside I was beyond heartbroken. All my work, gone. I'd call my mum and ask her constantly if there were any acceptances, if anyone would take me on. She told me later she threw away several rejections, not wanting to damage my confidence in my writing. I'd dreamed of being a writer for years. Why couldn't the agents see what I could see in my novel? I'd poured my life and soul into this story, devoted half my teenage years to it. Why couldn't they feel what I felt about it?  


A chance encounter soon gave me an opportunity to find out. My stepdad had met someone who knew a very good literary agent in London. When I said I was writing a book, he gave me an email address for David Godwin, a London-based agent and founder of David Godwin Associates (DGA), and strongly recommended him. After an exchange of emails, David agreed to take a quick look at the manuscript. I was thrilled to have the chance to get some constructive criticism from an agent 
 I'd always received standard rejections before, and I hoped I'd get something a little more substantial this time.


David was very kind about Aurora and said he'd enjoyed it, but decided he couldn't represent it personally. I told myself it was fine – that my work just wasn't David's thing – but it soon became apparent that my Aurora dream was over. I put my printed manuscript into a box and shut it away. 

It took a long time to recover from Aurora. Three years of my life, in my eyes, had gone down the drain. That's when I made a new decision: I would go and do an internship at an agency or publishing house. I would find out why my manuscript had been chucked on the slush pile, and if I couldn't get published, I would learn to be an agent or a publisher myself, so I could always work with books. I asked David if he would give me a placement, and he said I could spend two weeks at DGA in July. In the meantime, early in 2011, I slowly began to develop a idea for a new novel, a better one, and jotted parts of it down, playing with a dystopian setting and developing the best ideas from Aurora.
This story I kept very secret. I told my friends and even my immediate family that I was no longer writing, that my book was on a back-burner while I did my degree – but privately I was brewing the novel that would change my life.  


The internship was amazing. I had such a wonderful time reading other people's stories and doing book reports and exchanging emails with people like Simon Armitage that I began to wonder: Is this the career path I should be taking? Should I be part of what makes an author, even if I couldn't be one myself? My parents liked this idea, and it gave me some direction – but in my heart I knew it wasn't right. I had so many stories inside me; it couldn't have been for no reason. So I would bide my time, learn and grow, and wait for when the time was right. My next term at university was undertaken with much more confidence, and I tried my best to come out of my shell. I won a position on the St Anne's College JCR and started to work for a local student newspaper.  

The Bone Season was written in first-person. I'd previously used third-person, dipping into the head of a different character in every chapter or half-chapter, and I wondered if that was the reason that agents hadn't connected well with my characters. Maybe they hadn't got deep enough into their heads. Maybe they hadn't properly understood their motives, or heard their voices. I'd soon fashioned myself a protagonist-narrator, Paige. I had a synopsis typed out by the time I finished at DGA, and I was soon typing away feverishly. Seven Dials, where DGA was based, had given me a perfect setting. Now I just had to write this story, to pull all my ideas into something coherent. This didn't feel like Aurora. After three years of editing, Aurora had started to feel like a sort of addictive chore, a drug I couldn't stop taking. This was different. The words were coming thick and fast. I realised as I wrote that I'd never truly been in love with Aurora 
just with the idea of publishing it. The Bone Season, as it was eventually named, was very different. I was in love with each and every character. I was in love with the story. Every writing session was enjoyable, but I could still set it aside for a few hours and do other things. It became something I could look forward to, some peace and quiet after a busy day. I "suffer" from creative insomnia, and would often write deep into the night, but I made sure I got at least seven hours sleep and ate properly in the morning. 


I'd finished most of The Bone Season by early 2012. In February, an opportunity arose at college: the chance to talk to Ali Smith, the Weidenfeld Visiting Professor of Comparative Literature for the term, author of Hotel World (2001) and many short stories. Matthew Reynolds – one of my tutors and a huge Ali Smith fan – suggested any budding writers in the college should send her a chapter of work to critique. With trepidation, I bundled up the first chapter of The Bone Season and sent it in. After so many rejections for Aurora, I was certain I could deal with disappointment if Ali didn't like my work, so I prepared my notebook and went into the office at my allocated time, ready to take down all the constructive criticism possible.

I was stunned by Ali's response to The Bone Season. She had read it and loved it. This was a huge vision, she said, and I should send it to agents as soon as possible. I came out of the room in a daze, overwhelmed by such a positive reaction. I spent the next few weeks doing feverish edits. I visited Ireland with friends in March and got hugely inspired, which prompted me to do another edit when I got back.
Finally, I sent the manuscript to David at the beginning of April and asked if he knew of any agents that might be interested it. The next surprise was even bigger: David read the novel, loved it – and wanted to represent it. I turned numb when I saw the email inviting me to London to talk it over. Was this really happening? Just after I'd gotten over Aurora, was somebody going to take on my new novel? 


It wasn't just David that had read The Bone Season. The whole office had read it. I listened in a haze as they told me how much they'd enjoyed it – and, more importantly, that they wanted to represent it. Soon David was pitching the novel to publishers at the London Book Fair – which is where the story of The Bone Season's journey to print begins.

Over the coming year I intend to keep a blog of every stage of publishing a novel. I hope it will be both interesting and helpful to aspiring writers, and to anyone who reads The Bone Season next year. Thanks for visiting.