From first draft to first book deal – debut novelist Sarah Linley’s path to publication

Congratulations on your publishing deal for The Beach. Where were you when you heard the news from HarperCollins’ digital division?

Ironically enough, I was in Thailand! We were on our third and final stage of our backpacking trip when I got the publishing deal through and I had to run around Chiang Mai to find a printer. It all had to be done via email which wasn’t ideal. Keeping quiet about it until it was officially announced was very difficult!

Tell us about your path to publication…

I started my journey to publication back in 2010, so it’s taken nearly a decade to reach this point! The Beach was the third novel I wrote. The first was a romantic comedy. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing but it went down pretty well with agents. Sadly, not well enough to secure representation. The second book, a psychological thriller, didn’t pick up any traction. By this time, I was getting fed up. I decided to stop worrying about getting published and just write something that I would want to read. That book was The Beach.

Getting longlisted in the Bath Novel Award 2017 gave me the confidence to keep going despite the rejections. I didn’t manage to get an agent, so I submitted the novel to digital publishers who had open submissions. I submitted The Beach to five digital publishers and got three offers.

You’ve redrafted The Beach six times since we read it, changes did you make along the way?

The basic plot has more or less stayed the same, but the characters have developed and changed a lot since my first draft. Beta readers said that my main character was bland and irritating (thanks for the honesty, guys!) so I knew I needed to tackle that. I think the characters in my first draft were very generic but now (hopefully) they all have distinct personalities. I worked hard on their back stories to fully understand their motivations and how they would respond to the challenges they face.

I also added a second narrative which I think has strengthened the book. My editor encouraged me to include more scenes as the characters are backpacking around South-East Asia which I really enjoyed writing.

The Beach is the story of a teacher in the Yorkshire Dales who starts receiving anonymous messages and photos. They stem from a tragedy which took place years earlier, when she and three friends went backpacking in Thailand. What sparked this plot?

I started with the setting. I wanted to write about Thailand because it’s a country that I have been to several times and I love it. I contrasted that with the Yorkshire Dales, which I know very well. At face value, the two places are very different, but water plays a huge role in drawing tourists to both. I was fascinated by landscapes that are beautiful, but deadly, and that really gave me a starting point for the novel.

I was fortunate enough to go backpacking with my husband in 2017. We travelled extensively around South-East Asia and I was fascinated by the world of backpackers. For many young people taking a break after school or university, it is a time of becoming independent, finding themselves and making new friendships. But it can also be a frightening experience; you’re away from family and friends, in a strange country with different customs, traditions and laws. What would happen if you were involved in a suspicious death, but you were too scared to come forward?

When and where do you write?

I had plenty of time to write while I was backpacking but I don’t think I was any more productive. I tend to write in short sharp bursts, getting about 750 words done in any one session. I enjoy writing in coffee shops because I like to observe the people around me, and libraries because they are nice and quiet, and you are surrounded by books! I write on evenings and weekends and am quite disciplined about blocking out time to write.

Tell us about working with your critique partner…

Phil and I met on an online course run by Curtis Brown Creative. He writes fantasy and I think it really helps that we write in different genres. He is the first person I show my work to, and I know that he will always give me his honest appraisal. We have supported each other through the challenges and frustrations of trying to get published and have celebrated each other’s successes. I feel very privileged to read his work before anyone else and we respect each other’s opinions.

We’ve never actually met in real life! I think it helps to have a critique partner who is a bit distant from you, who only really knows you as a writer. Friends and family will probably just tell you what you want to hear.

You’re sponsoring two entries for low income writers to the Bath Novel Award 2020. Why was it important to pay it forward?

Being longlisted for a competition such as the Bath Novel Award is a massive boost to your confidence. It’s also a great thing to include in your covering letter when you are submitting to agents and publishers. The Bath Novel Award is very well-respected in the industry and opens doors.

However, it can be quite expensive to enter writing competitions, particularly for full-length novels. Hopefully this will encourage talented writers to submit their work and get the recognition they deserve without worrying about the entry fee.

Lastly, any advice for writers thinking of entering this year’s prize?

Polish your entry as much as you can before you submit it. Don’t leave it until last minute because you want your submission to be the best it possibly can. Lots of people talk about having a killer first line or first page, and it’s great if your book has that, but what the first few paragraphs need to do is hook the reader and reassure them that they’re in safe hands. Your writing needs to be confident from the very beginning.

Read it out loud to catch any clumsy sentences and get someone else to read it and give you honest feedback. And if that little voice inside your head is telling you not to bother as you won’t win, find a way to silence it!

Interview by Caroline Ambrose

Sarah Linley lives in Yorkshire and works as a Communications Manager for a housing charity. She spent two years backpacking around South-East Asia with her husband. Their travels inspired her debut novel, The Beach. When she is not writing, she enjoys walking in the Dales with her dad and his dog. Follow Sarah on twitter @linleysarah1

The Beach is out in February 2020 and you can pre-order a copy here

It should have been paradise. But it turned into hell…

It was supposed to be the perfect trip. Four friends, fresh out of university, backpacking around Thailand. But among the sun, sea and sand, something went horribly wrong…

In the years since, Holly has tried hard to push memories of that terrible summer from her mind. Now a schoolteacher, she believes her life is finally coming together when she meets Tom and his adorable five-year-old son, Jack.

But then, Holly starts receiving anonymous messages, showing photos which Holly was sure she destroyed years ago. Someone clearly knows the truth about what really happened. The only question is, how far will they go to get revenge?