Today I’m pleased to welcome Helen Giltrow to the blog. Helen’s novel, The Distance, out now in paperback and will be reviewed here soon.
Today Helen talks about the journey to publication.
Tell us about your journey to publication. When did you start writing?
I started young. I’ve still got the first book I wrote, when I was six. By my teens I was writing full-length novels. I even sent one to a publisher – I got rejected but the editor wrote me an encouraging letter, suggesting I submit it elsewhere.
And did you?
No – which in retrospect was crazy. But I did keep writing.
In my twenties and early thirties I worked in educational publishing, but the more my career took off, the less time I had to write. Finally I thought, ‘If I don’t have a proper crack at this now, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.’ I’d had an idea for a book that really intrigued me, and I’d got some money saved, so I decided to take a year off to write it. I entered the opening for the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger, and quit my job. But half an hour before my leaving party, I got a call to say my elderly dad – whose behaviour had become increasingly erratic – had run away from home. He was found a few hours later. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s followed, Mum (also elderly) decided she wanted to look after him at home, and all my plans changed overnight.
I made the Debut Dagger shortlist. Stephen King’s editor Philippa Pride was on the judging panel that year and she wrote to me, asking to see the manuscript. But by then I’d put the book aside.
How long was it before you got back to writing?
I worked on the book in short bursts when I could, but for years one crisis seemed to follow another, and there were long stretches in which I didn’t touch it. I didn’t hit clear water again until early 2009. The first thing I did was dig out what I’d written. As you’d expect from that sort of writing process, it was all over the place. But I still loved the story and I thought I could make it work.
When did you finish the novel?
October 2011. I sent it out to three agents during November, and two of them asked for meetings. One of them was Judith Murray at Greene & Heaton. She hit me with a whole heap of comments, but I really liked her, and I liked the way she was pushing me to make the book better. I spent a few months reworking the manuscript, then Judith sent it out to publishers. But secretly I felt it still wasn’t quite right. I thought nothing much would happen.
We got the first offer a week later. By the middle of the next week, six editors had asked to bid – two of those were within the same publishing house, so one had to drop out, which left us with a five-way auction. I couldn’t believe it.
How did you decide which publisher to go with?
I spent three days going from meeting to meeting, with a heavy cold, dosed up to the eyeballs and trying not to cough all over everyone! Bill Massey at Orion was the last editor I met, and within twenty minutes I knew I wanted to work with him. He saw the book exactly as I did – problems and all. And he made me laugh.
Shortly afterwards I signed up with US and Canadian publishers too. So now I had three sets of comments coming in.
Was that difficult to deal with?
The hardest part was the waiting. Two sets of comments arrived in early May … then nothing. I tried to work on revisions in the interim, but I found I was looking over my shoulder all the time – what if the last editor saw the book in a completely different way?
Ten more weeks passed before the last set of comments came in, but at last I could start serious work on the edits. There was one particular issue that took a lot of unravelling – one plot point I’d put in almost without thinking, but which caused a host of problems down the line. Eventually I realised I’d have to take it out completely. It meant big changes, but once I’d done it, everything else fell into place.
You’ve worked as an editor yourself. Did anything about your journey to publication surprise you?
Loads of things! Educational publishing is a world away from trade fiction. And even where the basic processes are the same, as an author you’re coming to them from a completely different angle. For the first time, it’s your book you’re talking about. That makes a world of difference.
So what’s next?
A sequel. There’s been talk of a TV adaptation too. After that – who knows?
About the book:
“They don’t call her Karla any more. She’s Charlotte Alton: she doesn’t trade in secrets, she doesn’t erase dark pasts, and she doesn’t break hit-men into prison. Except that is exactly what she’s been asked to do. The job is impossible: get the assassin into an experimental new prison so that he can take out a target who isn’t officially there. It’s a suicide mission, and quite probably a set-up.
So why can’t she say no?”