‘The week I sent Three Little Truths to my editors, I had a mini breakdown’
Eithne Shortall tried and failed to write the novel her editors wanted. Then she followed her heart
Eithne Shortall: I saw myself as an employee, paid to delivery something specific. I never considered myself an artist. I barely accepted I was an author
Even before I was an author, I knew publishers were not looking for writers to diversify. I’d interviewed enough chastened novelists to know editors rarely wanted an author to burst into their office and say: “I’ve got a book that’s like nothing you’ve ever read before!”
What they did want to hear – preferably via email sent by an agent, not uninvited office intrusion – was: “You know that incredibly successful book that everyone bought in bucket loads? Well, I’ve got something exactly like it.” If the author has already written a couple of books, then the magic words are: “I’ve got something exactly like what I gave you before, only with even more commercial appeal.” What sends shivers through their bones is when an established author muses: “This time, I thought I’d try something different…”
I knew all this when I decided to write a love story with a big cast of characters. I knew it when I sold that debut, Love in Row 27, in a two-book deal and needed to pitch ideas for the second novel. My editor and agent politely received my and-now-for-something-completely-different proposals before I got the message and settled on an idea that also dealt with love. Grace After Henry, my second novel, doesn’t exactly constitute a love story – it starts with the protagonist’s partner dying – but it can still sit easily in the same section of the bookshop as its predecessor.
When it came to my third novel, I didn’t even bother pitching the idea that had been building in my mind. For several months, I had this image of two women moving to a neighbourhood at the same time for mysterious reasons. I could see one woman, in her forties, sitting at her new kitchen table, staring into space as each radio show ran into the next and her day slipped away, lost to some silent concern in her head. Across the road I could see a second, younger woman, blocking out her own worries with her mother’s constant chatter. I saw what had brought these women here and I knew how their lives would be linked. What I could not see, however, was a prominent love story. So, I parked it. Instead, I sent in a more suitable pitch and my editors gave it the thumbs up.
I began my usual routine of heading to Mayo alone for a couple of weeks to give myself a good run at this new love story. Only this time, I never got off the starting block. Everything I wrote was trite. After a week of pulling my hair out, I admitted defeat. I emailed my editors to tell them the book I’d pitched hadn’t worked out but nobody panic, I had another idea and it was also a love story.
For the next six months, I worked on this runner-up to a runner-up. It was a dreary, painful, frustrating half year. I usually get the bulk of a first draft written in six months. With this, I couldn’t make it past the 20,000-word mark. I reworked the same chapters over and over, but they never got better. Every time I read over them, my stomach dropped and refused to get back up. I dreaded heading to my desk.
Sunday was the only morning I didn’t wake up feeling ill because Sunday was the only day I didn’t wake up to write. But I told myself I had to keep going. My publishers had already paid my advance and I, in turn, had used it to buy a house. There was no getting that back. I had to get a first draft done and, ultimately, I had to publish the thing. The latter thought caused me to burst into tears in a Phibsborough café at 8am one Thursday.
It became a battle to get my hands onto the keyboard (think Jim Carrey in Liar Liar trying to force himself to say that the blue pen is red) until, eventually, I quit. Not out of any great artistic integrity but because I feared giving myself an ulcer. I scrapped six months of work. I can write that sentence so quickly that it does a disservice to the experience: Half a year’s toil down the tube. I started writing the book about the two women – the one that had been percolating for almost a year now, the one without an obvious love story, the one nobody wanted.
A big part of why I didn’t scrap the thing earlier was down to how I thought about myself. I was so amazed, and slightly embarrassed, to have a publishing deal that I became hung up on that part. I saw myself as an employee, paid to deliver something specific. Publishers talk about authors being the most important part of the chain and while I believed this to be true for everyone else, it wasn’t for me. I was more concerned with my editor liking the manuscript than I was the reader. All of which is, of course, the wrong way to go about it. I never considered myself an artist. I barely accepted I was an author.
I gave myself a weekend to write the story I wanted and the words just flowed. So, I gave myself two more weeks. I got to 20,000 words – a feat that had taken six months with the previous project. I mustered up enough self-belief to email my agent and tell her what I was doing. I was three months off deadline and I was writing a book nobody had asked for. She broke the news to my editors. They weren’t delighted. Not only was Three Little Truths not a love story, but I couldn’t tell them what it was: a mystery, a family drama, a domestic thriller? It was funny and serious. It was all of the above.
I understand publishers’ reservations. They put time and money into establishing an author as one thing, into building a readership – why would they want to start all over again? But my publishers didn’t ask for their money back just yet. They gave me the three remaining months and lo, a romantic storyline did appear. It’s a subplot but it’s there.
The week I sent Three Little Truths to my editors, I had a mini breakdown. I became convinced they wouldn’t publish it. I googled what happens when writers break the exact terms of their book deals. I thought about who I could borrow the money from when I inevitably had to pay back the advance. I considered other career prospects. I went a little insane.
Then my American editor got in touch: she loved it. Like proper loved it – more than Grace After Henry, the book she’d originally bought. The UK was really excited too. Three Little Truths had enough in common with its predecessor: strong cast of supporting characters; Irish setting and wit; unpredictable twists. As for the differences, it was good enough to warrant investing in a slight change in marketing direction. Reader, I wept again.
And then I took six months off.
Switching lanes is exhilarating when you don’t crash, but it’s also exhausting. I’d like to motor on quietly for a bit now, before I push it too far and run out of road.
Three Little Truths is published by Corvus, at £12.99