An Interview with Amy Lilwall - Part 2
On how it took Amy FIVE YEARS from the first draft & edit The Biggerers, and why that process was so rewarding.
Welcome back! To recap, in Part 1 of this interview with novelist and lecturer Amy Lilwall, we covered Amy’s inspiration for The Biggerers and a little bit about her background in writing. In this second part, I’ll be sharing her industry knowledge — her experience getting her debut published — and her exciting next novel, which is already with the publishers!
So let’s drop straight into it.
You said at the launch of your debut The Biggerers that your first draft was completed five years ago — how many drafts did it take to get to your final one?
Oh god, loads. So the first one was five years ago. That was nearly 180,000 words…
When I took it to an agent, they told me I needed to cut it down by a third. So that included a lot of editing. And then it didn’t go any further with that agent unfortunately - they weren’t able to move it onto an editor - so I got another agent and I had to reissue the original draft. I was told to put it on a diet again. I managed to cut it down by about 40,000 words.
So yeah, many, many drafts. But that’s just the editing process in general. What’s funny is that I just don’t write in the same way anymore. It was written five years ago and it’s been heavily edited, but it’s still representative of a style I don’t really use anymore.
It’s really quite strange when I read it. I think, ‘oh, I wrote that. I don’t write like that now.’ [The editing process has] been a real learning curve, definitely.
I can imagine! Five years worth of editing…
Yeah - I think that’s quite common though. It’s such a long process. When you see a book, you imagine it being written, then submitted, then published. And maybe that whole process will take about a year. It’s not the case at all. It’s very long, which is quite nice because today’s world is so fast. I quite like that process of taking your time.
Thanks, Amy. That leads on nicely to my next question, about the publishing experience. Can you run us through the process a bit, as you experienced it?
Okay, so I was quite lucky because I was guided by my PhD supervisor who said, ‘you have got to find yourself an agent’, which I did, three times (which gives you an idea of how complicated the process can be). I found three agents, one after the other. And for some reason or the other it didn’t work with the first two.
Usually if you’re finding an agent you need to submit a ‘first approach letter’, but I was quite lucky again as my supervisor knew one of them, so just kind of bunged them my manuscript and that was my ‘in’. So anyway, it didn’t work with the first two, and then the third one it did work, which was great!
They approached my editor One World, who had already shown an interest, and then I had a meeting with One World, where they told me what they liked about the book and what I was going to have to do if they were going to take me on.
[One World] took me through some aspects of the editing process and then on the train home, I got a phone call saying ‘oh yes, we’d like to offer you so much for your book’ and I said ‘oh yes, thank you very much.’ To be fair, I wouldn’t have cared if it was a tenner, because I was so desperate to get published. And [Point Blank] are a really great publishing house as well, so I was really pleased that they chose me.
And from that point onwards, I think it was about a year and a half. It was basically a long process of back-and-forth emails, saying how I could improve upon the draft. I would resubmit it and then they would give me more edits. Then there was a proof-reading stage - you know, all of the bits that you would expect - then they showed me what they wanted the cover to look like, which was a really exciting moment.
Then yeah, finally publication. It was quite long and drawn out.
So you did the first draft in a year, submitted it to the agents at the end of that first year, and it took five years from that first submission to get it ready for publication?
Yeah, well no, because I already had an agent. I should have said that - I already had an agent for a previous book I’d written, but nothing had happened to it. So when I finished writing The Biggerers, I was still with that agent. But then nothing happened with that agent again, so I had to get another one, and another one again.
I mean, I don’t want that to seem like a disillusionment to you - I think that’s quite a normal way to go about it - but it doesn’t always happen like that. Usually it’s very quick, if you’ve got the right thing. But The Biggerers is quite unusual, so a lot of editors didn’t know what to do with it. They didn’t know how to class it - you know, what genre is this, what will the audience be - because these questions remained unanswered, they were unwilling to take a risk on it.
So this isn’t the first book that you’ve finished writing and submitted then?
No, the first one I wrote a novel for my MA, which has been binned I suppose. I think that happens a lot as well. And I haven’t revisited it at all actually, I don’t even know if I’ve still got a copy. I must do… That would be really bad!
So yeah, someone showed some interest in that which was great, but it didn’t go any further unfortunately. And then I wrote The Biggerers, and since then I’ve written The Dream Leaders, which is finished.
I was about to ask about The Dream Leaders! At the launch, your summary was ‘ghost insomniacs that fly into your ears and watch your dreams’, which I think is a wonderful idea - can you tell me a bit more about it?
Okay yeah, so it’s based around dreams really, which is apparently something that you shouldn’t do. You shouldn’t use dreams too often when you’re writing something, but I don’t know why. It’s just this unwritten rule. Have you heard of that?
I have… But I also think dreams are fascinating, so I think we should ignore them!
Yeah, well that’s what I did. So yes - these big floaty ghosts, they watch dreams for entertainment - it’s like their telly really - but they don’t just watch them, they have some control over them. And basically, when you go to sleep at night and you have a dream, they can control what you do within that dream. They assign you different roles.
It’s silly, but people who go to sleep and don’t remember their dreams, they’re being assigned a different kind of role. Sometimes a more horrible role. They’ve been given that function of not remembering for a reason. It’s actually very dark.
It’s like a dystopia (or more like a totalitarian regime) that takes places inside your head. But these floaty ghost things, they appear to be very nice and a bit stupid, but actually they’re quite sinister and nasty.
So you’ve got two regimes, one in The Biggerers and one in The Dream Leaders. There are themes that are crossing there, despite being two very different ideas.
Yes, that’s true. [The Biggerers] is a domestic dystopia. It’s taking place at home. And [The Dream Leaders} is psychological, or metaphysical, whichever way you want to look at it… I’ve been trying to write magical realism, but it keeps turning into dystopia!
Have you submitted The Dream Leaders to your agent yet?
Yeah, it’s gone out to my agent who likes it and shared it with One World, but One World don’t want to take a risk on it just yet, because they’re unsure of how The Biggerers is going to be. So we’ll see. Hopefully something will happen with it because I really like this last novel. The Biggerers, I like it but I’m not super attached to it. Whereas this new one, because it’s more recent it involves more of me, I suppose. It’s really nice, I like it. I enjoyed writing it. It’s nice when that happens, isn’t it? When you have a passion project.
And how does it feel to have The Biggerers out there now, being read?
Oh yeah, that’s really scary. The scariest thing are the reviews, because they’ve started coming in. Can you imagine, it’s like - *grits teeth and groans* - I understand how you guys must feel like in peer reviews now, it’s really scary.
Some of the reviews have been very good. One of them has been particularly bad. And yeah, I made a decision (in fact, Wyl [Menmuir] told me, ‘don’t read Goodreads or the Amazon reviews, just don’t bother with it, it will make you crazy’). So I was like, ‘okay, I won’t do that.’ So I’m only reading the ‘legitimate’ reviews, in inverted commas.
They’re all legitimate reviews, but yeah, it’s a pretty scary experience. But as I said before, because I’m not super attached to this novel and because I look at bits of it and I think, ‘well, that’s dreadfully weak’, I can understand where people are coming from. So that’s absolutely fine. And it is a bit of a marmite book, I suppose.
But I’m really attached to [The Dream Leaders], so I’m probably going to be heartbroken if I get bad reviews for that one! But this one is okay, just as long as there aren’t too many!
Thanks Amy. And my last question - what would your advice be for aspiring authors, particularly in regards to publishing (maybe things to expect or be cautious of)?
Okay, so if I could do it all over again, I would pay real attention to the structure and the plot. It depends what you’re aiming for. If you want to write a crowd pleaser, I think that’s really important, because you can lose a reader’s attention quite easily I feel. I know this, because I often put books down in the middle of reading them and I just don’t go back to them, because it’s not gripping enough for me.
So yeah, concentrate on the plot, the structure, but without forgoing the quality of the writing. And also, I think it was Eimear McBride who wrote The Girl is a Half-Formed Thing and that sat in a drawer for seven years, apparently. And I took five years.
Just keep believing. It’s a bit cheesy, but it’s important.
So, there we have it. Just keep believing. Work hard, and prepare to do LOTS of editing!
Also — if you STILL haven’t read The Biggerers, go out and get a copy now. Trust me, it’ll be worth it. Especially if you like anything to do with mini people, or dystopian realities…
by Charlotte Rayment