I met Jackie years ago in an online writing forum. We later spent time in the same writer’s group and whenever I’ve had to take time away from the group, I beg Jackie to keep sending me her stuff. I’ve been lucky enough to read a lot of her books and I’m rereading her latest now. Jackie is so good at creating characters who feel like real people – the kind you think about long after you’ve finished reading. A big reason for that is her ear for natural dialogue that makes you feel like you’re eavesdropping on an actual conversation. Her new novel, The Bookshop of Second Chances, is like that. I got her to talk to me about her writing style and publishing journey.
Talk a bit about your most recent book. How long did it take to write? Who is your audience?
The Bookshop of Second Chances is commercial women’s fiction. It’s about Thea, who loses her job and splits up with her husband when she discovers he’s been sleeping with her friend. Her great-uncle has left her his house and collection of books in Lowland Scotland. She goes up there to sort out the house and sell the books. She meets Charles and Edward, estranged aristocratic brothers, and decides to stay for the summer, getting a job in Edward’s second-hand bookshop. And so on.
I’d hesitate to say it’s entirely romance, although it’s stuffed with romantic tropes, some more foolish than others. I wanted to see how far I could go with that and still write something I’d like to read. So the audience is ‘me’ and by that I mean ‘women of 45 plus who like a happy ending but don’t always find older women in romance novels particularly relatable’.
It took about five or six months to write altogether – I began in September 2016 and it was more or less done by the following spring, although I had some trouble with the ending. I did a million drafts.
Tell me about your writing process. At what stage of writing do you find outside feedback helpful? How do you sift through differing advice?
I have an idea for the beginning of something, and usually an idea about the central relationship. Then I just hammer it out. I don’t fight it if I get stuck, but I do make myself keep going if I’m bored of typing. I work it out scene by scene (at night usually) and sometimes I’ve done that well enough in my head that actually getting the thing into the computer seems a bit tedious.
Like everyone, I have good days and bad days, on a good day I can write 8000 words, but usually I manage much less than that. I edit as I go along but not in a decisive way – I just often re-read and amend sections as I’m going. My aim is always to just get the first draft finished, though, not to make it ‘good’ in any way. I put the speech marks in at the end, because writing dialogue is my favourite thing and punctuating it gets in the way. Apparently this is a bit weird.
I do a number of drafts and don’t share it with anyone until I’m pretty happy with it. I go on the waiting list for the Women’s Fiction Critique Group (on Facebook, run by ex-Authonomites). The Bookshop went to be critiqued in February 2018, so I’d probably waited, I don’t know, six months for that? I can’t remember. I was writing something else by then, anyway. So it went off to be critiqued. I think it was the fourth of my books that went to the WFCG, and the response was pretty good. I’d been a bit worried that it might be too ‘romantic’ (they don’t do standard romantic novels) but generally it went down a storm. I was slightly surprised, even though I did think it was quite good. (British sense of ‘quite’ there – as in ‘reasonably’.)
I got some good, useful feedback, particularly about the end as I recall, plus a significant suggestion about changing the location of one scene. I usually copy and paste all the comments into a document and work through them. Critiques are so useful, even if you disagree wildly with what people are saying. Anyway, I did a ‘final’ draft, and then probably another three. By 2019 I was trying to make myself submit it. I don’t always submit my books, I find it quite difficult, even though rejections don’t really bother me. But submitting is hard work, I hate writing synopses because my books have very small plots that can look quite feeble, and the whole thing is wearisome.
Do you plot it all out on note cards or does the ending come as a surprise to you, too?
Ha, no, I don’t really plot at all. I just ‘put some characters in a room and see what happens’. As I say, I usually have a vague idea – I mean the question is always ‘will X and Y KISS?’ and the answer is ‘YES, OBVIOUSLY’ – it’s not very complex. However how they get there and what the ‘apparently insurmountable barrier to congress’ will be is less clear.
What do you do if you get stuck?
I stop and do something else and assume my subconscious will fix it, which is usually does.
Do you read in the same genre(s) you write in? Are there particular authors who inspire you?
Ah, so this is a tricky one and the answer is… not really. I like literary fiction best. Which I can’t write, although I do try sometimes. I also read a lot of non-fiction (which I also write). Recently I have read a few more books at the lighter end of the women’s fiction spectrum because one ought to read in one’s genre. But I read all sorts of things, and I’m basically inspired by everyone who writes well, in whatever genre.
In terms of my own genre, Georgette Heyer is my greatest inspiration because her books are funny, and her characters are almost always convincing, however silly her plots may appear. My favourite authors include Iain Banks, Douglas Coupland, Claire Fuller, Terry Pratchett, Hilary Mantel, Susanna Clarke, Sarah Perry, E M Delafield, Stella Gibbons, and Kate Atkinson, who I absolutely love. (Interestingly, Atkinson says she’d write books even if they never got published and I would too – that is, after all, what I’ve done my whole life up to now.)
Can you describe your path to publication?
Well. Simon & Schuster UK have a Digital Originals imprint and every year in July they have a one-day open call for commercial women’s fiction submissions. Last year I noticed this on the actual day, and the extremely short deadline was very motivating. I sent off ‘five hundred words about me’ plus my first chapter. That week they came back and asked me to send the full manuscript. I’d never been asked for a full before, so this was quite the thrill.
Then everything went very, very quiet. In October one of the team shared a pic on Twitter of their Kindle with my words on it, which was exciting, but then it went very quiet again. In January they started talking about #OneDay2020, so I assumed it was a no, and planned to email and ask for a formal rejection (for my Rejection Spreadsheet). But when I opened my emails that morning there was one asking me to go to London for a meeting. Obviously I cried.
Anyway, I went to the meeting (I was extremely, surprisingly nervous) and we talked about the book and my soon-to-be-editor suggested a couple of revisions. I went home and did those and then we signed the contract. As an editor myself, receiving my copy-edits was really exciting, and, dare I say it, enjoyable.
I’ve been very lucky, as they’ve sold the rights in Germany and the US, so there will be a German edition (for my German in-laws to read!) and an American one – which will be a physical paperback. (The US edits were extremely bracing – I also had to write an extra chapter for them.) Plus there’s going to be a large print library edition, and US and UK audio books. I’m astonished frankly.
What can we expect to see from you next?
I’m writing two new things at the moment and hoping they’ll want to publish one of them. One’s about a woman who runs away from home, and the other one is about a woman who owns a fancy house that she rents as a retreat for artists and writers. I’ve nearly finished the first drafts of both, and am at the stage of having no idea whether they’re any good.
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