I fell in love with the story behind Jessica Redland’s debut, Searching For Steven, before I even opened the book – although that more than lived up to my (very high) expectations.
Since then she’s written four more wonderfully romantic, funny, feel good stories with the latest, Bear With Me, released earlier this year (and, at the time of writing, having ALL five star reviews on Amazon).
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing and in my latest Behind The Book interview, Jessica not only offers some fantastic insight into the writing process and indie publishing but she also has some very helpful and encouraging advice for anyone perhaps having the odd doubt about their own work (ME!).
I am really thrilled to share her answers with you.
I LOVE the backstory to your first book, Searching For Steven, can you please share it again?
Aw, thank you. In the early noughties, I was working in Reading as a graduate recruitment and development manager. My manager often said that my reports read like a story and I should write a book. He’d planted the seed but I had no idea what I’d write about so I pushed it aside.
In 2002, I’d split up with my boyfriend and our house was on the market. The original plan had been to stay in Reading and buy a house on my own, but I had this gnawing idea of moving back home to the north-east and setting up a teddy bear shop. Slightly different! A friend gave me a gift voucher for a telephone clairvoyant. It wasn’t really my thing but I decided that it was worth giving her a call. Perhaps talking through the situation with a stranger might help me get some clarity in my own mind.
The clairvoyant told me that I would move back home and open my own business and she was very accurate about when this would be and how long I’d live with my parents before moving into my own home. She also told me that I’d meet the man of my dreams when I moved back home and he’d be called Steven. How exciting! And what was equally exciting – perhaps moreso – was that I suddenly had the illusive idea for my story.
So, you had a fabulous story idea but had you always wanted to be a writer? How did you get started on your first book? How long did it take to write and how many versions did you do before you started to send it off to publishers?
I’d love to say that it was six months, or even a year, but I’d be telling a porky pie. It actually took me well over a decade to write Searching For Steven. The clairvoyant conversation which prompted the premise for the novel happened in September 2002 and it brewed for a few months. I moved back home in April the following year and opened my bear shop the month after. It was then that I started putting fingers to keyboard.
I have no idea how many versions I wrote of Steven but it was a huge number. HUGE! I started in first person, then changed it all to third, then changed it back again. I started in past tense, then changed it to present, but thankfully changed my mind on that one before I’d changed the whole manuscript. The beginning caused me an absolute nightmare. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I said I had about 40 different versions of that.
Over the next decade, I wrote and re-wrote Steven many, many times. I had significant periods of time where I didn’t write at all, though, and had several life events during the years like closing my business, getting married, having a baby, moving three times, and changing job several times.
In 2012, I joined the RNA (Romantic Novelists’ Association) through their New Writers’ Scheme (NWS). I knew that Steven was overly-long but was ready to seek his critique by early August that year. I edited him (including the start again) based on that feedback and put him through again the next year, then massively edited him again after that second critique (and yes, you’ve guessed it, the start changed yet again!)
It was late 2014 when I felt he was ready to seek a home with a publisher or agent. Yes, it was scary, but it’s one of those things you just have to crack on with. Several of the publishers insisted on postal submissions so I had many nervous waiting for the post to arrive days. The thing that surprised me about the process was that I didn’t get upset at any passes. Getting a no meant that I at least knew the outcome and could move on with a new submission. The hardest challenge was publishers who promised a 12-week turnaround … then took a whopping 9 months to say no! This actually happened to me twice. That’s a very, very long-time to be kept nervously waiting.
You secured a three-book deal but parted company with your publisher in 2016 to go it alone. Can you talk a little about your decision?
In summer 2014, I’d been submitting to publishers and agents for about nine months. I’d had a couple of “near misses” from agents (really positive feedback to say that they loved it but only took one or two new writers a year and didn’t love it quite enough to make me one of them) but I hadn’t found a home for Steven. I had him with three more publishers and had decided that I was going to wait for the outcome of those submissions but not try any others. If none of them wanted Steven, I was going to go indie. I was really into the idea and fully expected that to be the way I got my work out there so I was a little stunned when two of the final three offered me a publishing deal. It was a tough decision because, deep down, I thought indie was right for me, but I knew I’d regret turning down the opportunity of a publishing deal and that, if it didn’t work out, I could still go indie later.
Everything was fine at first. My publisher was new and they were really enthusiastic and committed to making it work but this seemed to wane over time and, when the owner secured another job, I wondered if the writing was on the wall for the company. After the trilogy was released, I had an open and honest conversation with the owner and she agreed to release me from my contract and revert my rights back to me.
It wasn’t an easy decision to part company. Steven was doing reasonably well. He certainly wasn’t setting the Amazon charts alight but I was selling a reasonable number of copies each day. I worried about losing that momentum, but I knew that I would feel happier being indie and that there was nothing I was getting from my publisher that I couldn’t do myself. I liked the idea of being in control of my covers, deadlines, pricing, promotions and so on.
What I hadn’t expected was how much momentum I’d actually lose. Although I was able to get all reviews transferred, it was like completely starting from scratch and I had several months where I sold no copies at all which was pretty heart-breaking. It took a free promotion on Steven over May Bank Holiday weekend in celebration of the launch of my fourth novel to finally get sales moving again.
The ideas just kept coming and you’ve written four more since Steven. Are they all taken from things that have happened to you? How much of you is in the books?
When I started writing Steven, I quickly realised I had a trilogy on my hands because, as I developed the characters of her two best friends, Elise (the focus of Getting Over Gary) and Clare (the focus of Dreaming About Daran), I knew they both had stories to tell that were way bigger than a sub-plot in Steven would allow. Their stories are 100% fictional, as are they as characters. Raving About Rhys is a novella set before Steven and, again, it’s purely from the depths of my imagination.
Steven, however, has a lot of me in it and the protagonist, Sarah, is predominantly modeled on me. When I set up my teddy bear shop, I arrived at work one day to find a business card through the door for a sign-maker … called Steve. I got a call from a company to say a rep was in the area … called Stephen. Eek! Stevens/Steves/Stephens seemed to be everywhere so I used these types of scenarios in the story, although how they played out is very different. I certainly didn’t humiliate myself like Sarah did when Stephen the plasterer arrived. Sarah’s personality and her phrases are very me too. Friends and family members who’ve read the book tell me how much of me they can spot.
As for Bear With Me, I am indeed an arctophile (collector of teddy bears). I ran my teddy bear shop and I can also make jointed bears so I drew on that experience and passion. My shop was called Bear’s Pad and I’ve given that name to my protagonist’s mum’s cottage. The bears I make are called Ju-Sea Bears so I used that brand in the book too. Other than those nods to my past, the knowledge about bears and the experience of having a bear shop and being a bear-maker, everything in Bear With Me is absolute fiction.
How do you deal with it if the odd person doesn’t who like your books as much as you’d like? Do you take it personally?
I’ve mainly had amazing reviews for Steven but there have been a couple of reviews where the readers haven’t loved Sarah quite so much, saying she’s naïve or silly and wouldn’t do those things. I don’t take this personally and, because I know that I’ve been in some of those situations myself, I know how I reacted and if that was naïve or silly, so be it.
How soon into book one did you have the idea for book two? And how do you develop it, are you a planner or do you write and see where the words take you?
Although I set out to write a standalone novel, I discovered I had a trilogy on my hands pretty quickly. I needed Sarah to have two best friends so that one would believe the clairvoyant reading (Elise) and one would be completely dismissive of it (Clare) and their perspectives would pull Sarah in two different directions. As the two characters developed, Clare in particular held my interest. Elise is a very placid individual and Clare’s quite spiky and I felt that there had to be something in her past which had made her that way. Her story is the final one in the trilogy but it’s my favourite as it’s full of twists and turns.
When it comes to my writing approach, I’m part-plotter and part-pantser. With Steven, I knew what the ending would be and kept writing and experimenting until I got there. With so many re-writes, I decided that I would plan Gary to avoid being in that situation again. But I didn’t end up sticking to the plan because my characters kept pulling me in different directions so I decided there was something in the “just go with it” approach. With Daran, I had a loose plan but massively developed him as I wrote, then tweaked a few plot holes in the editing process. Bear was the same; a rough idea and he pretty much wrote himself.
Can you talk a little about the technical side of self-publishing. How difficult is it?
I’m lucky because my husband’s day job is as a typesetter so he lays out the pages for me and converts them into the file that’s needed for KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing). He has also designed all of my covers so I leave the technical bits to him. It’s pretty straightforward, though.
After release, there’s a KDP dashboard on which all your books sit. You can make changes through that e.g. to categories and pricing. You can also keep track of sales by the hour which is helpful.
Is writing your full-time job? If not when do you find the time to write. How soon after one book is finished to you start another?
I wish! It would be amazing to write every day and earn enough from that to pay the mortgage but that is a distant dream. Other than my career break with Bear’s Pad, I’ve always worked in Human Resources. Now I’m an HR Tutor. I work from home, marking assignments for students studying their CIPD (the HR professional qualification). I also tutor on weekend workshops and I’m a Brown Owl, running a Brownie Pack for 24 seven to 10 year olds.
Time to write is therefore rare and precious. I don’t watch much TV which helps, I’m used to working very long days (often still working until 10 or 11pm), and I grab my moments were I can although I wish I had a lot more time.
When I worked on the trilogy, I had a stage where all three of them were a work in progress in that I was still editing Steven for publication, still editing Gary ready for submitting to my publisher, and still writing Daran. I would have moved onto Bear straight after Daran but my day job was so demanding that I had to take a few months off before I could work on that. As soon as I’d published Bear, I started on my Christmas novella and I’m hoping to have that finished in a couple of months so I can start working on another full-length novel.
Any words of encouragement for those who are perhaps struggling with either writing their stories or getting them published?
Think about why you write. I’d imagine that, for most pre-published writers, it’s because they couldn’t imagine not writing. Creating characters and worlds gives them joy. Hang onto that joy. It can be really easy to lose this when you’re getting rejections, or when you get your work out there but it doesn’t sell loads, or when you get your first low-star review.
Don’t give up when you get rejections because it doesn’t mean your writing is poor; it just means it’s not right for that publisher or agent at that particular time. But it may be for someone. Or it may be that you were meant to go indie instead.
And, it’s got to be asked, did you find your Steven?
Ha ha ha. No! I came across several Stevens in my search but the closest I came to romance was a few dates with a Simon who then dumped me by text, confessing that he’d only started seeing me to make his ex jealous and it had worked. Nice! A couple of months after opening Bear’s Pad, I met Mark and we’ll have been married for 13 years this September. His middle name and his surname have no connection to the name Steven.
Thank you so much to Jessica for taking the time to answer my questions in such detail. I found them really entertaining but also inspiring; I was buzzing with enthusiasm for my own story after I read them. I hope, if you are in need of a little encouragement, they do the same for you. Thanks also to Susanna Bavin (her debut, The Deserter’s Daughter, is out now) for introducing us.
If you enjoy contemporary romance I can highly recommend Jessica’s books (I’m a HUGE fan, can you tell?). You can also find out more about her work via her website , you can buy her books via Amazon and also follow her on Twitter.
I’ll have another Behind The Book post for you later in the month but for now you can catch up if you’ve missed any here.