EP51: The Impossible Choices Of Samantha King

Samantha King is a bestselling debut novelist, and her book The Choice taps into parental fears. Sam has also worked in publishing and has a unique perspective on the process of writing, editing, publishing and promoting a bestseller…

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EPISODE TRANSCRIPT (HIGHLIGHTS)

Samantha King is a bestselling debut novelist and her book The Choice taps into parental fears. Sam has also worked in publishing and has a unique perspective on the process of writing, editing, publishing and promoting a bestseller…

Your book The Choice has been called a mother’s worst nightmare. Why is that?

It was certainly my worst nightmare: If you could only save one of your children, which child would you pick? How would you make that choice, and what would the repercussions be? I think in that respect it’s probably every parent’s worst nightmare. It was definitely mine and essentially that’s the heart of it.

You have children. What do they think of the book?

I haven’t told them all the detail of the story, but I have been plagued with ‘So which one did you choose? And why did you choose that one? And what did she do?’ It isn’t based on them. The children in the story are twins, a boy and a girl, and they’re ten. I’ve got a girl who is age eleven and a boy who’s eight, so it isn’t based on them, but obviously I’ve drawn very heavily on my feelings as a mum, and yeah the kids are fascinated by it and they do grill me quite regularly. I haven’t described them, they’re not similar in terms of their physical characteristics or really even their personalities, but there are certain elements and definitely the kind of dilemmas the character Maddy weighs up in the story; is my affinity greater with my daughter? Is it greater with my son? What is the difference of a parent’s relationship with a boy and a girl?

I have a boy and a girl so obviously there’s a huge amount of material and emotion to draw on there. But they’re not based on my children, and the male character in the story isn’t based on my husband either, as as a neighbour actually feared and came to speak to me about. So, no one’s based on anyone but I have drawn on a lot of my own family experiences.

That’s that’s the crux of a great story isn’t it? You give your character an impossible choice. Was that always the intent?

The title of The Choice was actually my brilliant editor’s suggestion. And in the first draft of the story that she read, it wasn’t so heavily in the story, it was more about a mother feeling that she was becoming invisible in her life, and it was about what she has to do to come back to feel like she’s really present in her family. But part of that was choosing between her children and then gradually, over the different drafts of the story, that really did become the shocking heart of it. One of the things that readers have said they’ve been surprised about is that the choice does happen fairly or early on in the book, so it isn’t a long build up ‘Who’s she going to choose?’ The actual choice is really kind of incidental, and it’s the springboard for what happens in the unraveling of a family and a relationship.

Where did the idea of a choice come in the process?

I started writing the story when I was sitting at the kitchen table and my two children were arguing, and I looked at them both and I I was gripped by the thought of, ‘What if they don’t know that I love them both so much? What if they just have no idea how much I care about them? And how would I ever choose between them?’ So I did start writing with that idea, but what it triggered in me was that exploration of a mother who cares so much about her children that she almost becomes invisible. My original title was ‘The Woman Who Vanished’. I wanted to write about that kind of relationship. It became the choice after the first draft where my editor read it and what leapt out at her was the the idea that a mother could choose.

It was all in the story but it became crystallised with each successive draft.

 

Then it became more about drilling down into ‘But why this? And why that?’ but essentially I started writing with that feeling of a mother’s connection with her two children and the impossibility of saving one and not the other.

How many drafts did you write in the end?

I don’t keep count. Complete drafts, it’s hard to say. I did about three where first half was was more or less there, and then the second half I rewrote, and revised, and polished several times. I don’t even know how to count, and then then I went back and I polished on scenes. A lot.

There was a lot of rewriting, a lot of redrafting.

 

How different did your final draft of the finished book compare to your first draft?

I think the heart of it, the essence, and the tone is there. The actual plot changed considerably. The bad guys in the final version weren’t the bad guys in the first version, so that changed and the motivations are slightly different, but I think the voice, the shape, and the heart of the story was there in the first draft.

You’ve worked in publishing as an editor and you’ve managed imprint can you tell us about your background?

I’ve been an editor for more than twenty years, and my background was very much in commercial fiction, so covering romance, suspense, thrillers. The whole range for a global fiction publisher, and I loved being an editor. The thing that I did that I loved the most was finding new new writers, new voices, and I set up an imprint called Red Dress Ink, which was part of the Harlequin publishing company, and that was all about discovering brand new voices, cutting edge stories. I was really inspired at the time by The Lovely Bones. This brave, audacious, raw voice, and I thought there are all these voices out there and I want to find them. I worked with lots and lots of authors. I then went freelance and worked for different publishers, different agents, and all this time I was kind of writing a little bit myself. But I never really took it very seriously. I think it was the book before The Choice that I finished and I thought I might try and get this published, and have a go and see. That didn’t go anywhere, but I learned a huge amount, and I had to say the process is completely different on the other side of the desk.

Why did you want to do jump from one side to the other?

It wasn’t deliberate. I never set out to have a career as an author. I just love writing, and I love storytelling, and I love characters. I just love to write. It’s so different from editing, it is a completely different skill set. I don’t think necessarily that you have to be successful as one to be as successful as the other. I just couldn’t not do it. I just love to do it.

Were there any big shocks or surprises being an author for the first time?

I think the amount of work. As an editor, I would often say to an author,  ‘This strand of the book isn’t quite working, maybe you could take it out?’

I now realise that is is so much work, because you can’t just remove it.

 

You don’t just take it out of a book, you’ve got to reimagine the whole story. Every character. It changes an entire book. That was a surprise, exactly how hard it is. Even knowing the market, knowing the importance of appealing to a market, none of that really helped me when it came to sitting down and looking at a blank page and thinking, ‘What am I writing about?’ It had to come very much from me, and not ‘publishing’ me.

Did you write with a market in mind?

I should probably say that I did, but I didn’t. To begin with, I wrote the story I really wanted to tell. Actual consciousness of the market has come in more with writing my second book, to be honest. The first time around I just wanted to write a good book that told the story that I wanted to tell, and was engaging. The revision process, and working with my editor, that did bring the market more into mind. Where does this fit? How would we publish it? I understand that’s really, really important.

Would you advise an author to think of the market first, or would you say to them write the book that you love?

It is a little bit of both. As an editor, it was it was very much a process of; I needed to fall in love with the book. You don’t always fall in love with a book because it fits your list, or it has the right plot, or the right characters, it’s very much that there’s something about it that really engages you. If you try to pin that down too much, and say it has to have XYZ, the magic just goes I really feel that you can’t say, ‘Oh, this book is sold, therefore I’m going to write in that style.’ It might not suit your style, it might not suit what’s in you. The story you need to tell. That said, if you want to get published you do have to have an eye on the market. What kind of genre? Where would you fit in? It is a little bit of both, but I don’t think you can write to order, and I certainly don’t think you can say, ‘Gone Girl’ was very successful, I’m going to write another ‘Gone Girl.’

It just has to be your story, and I think that’s what will appeal to a publisher.

 

What would you say to authors who have a string of rejections and are wondering should I go on?

I have had rejections and they are crushing. You feel like it’s so personal, and it is personal because it’s something that very much of you. For an editor, they’re not rejecting you. They do have a slot on their list, they have to think what can we sell. If they like your writing — I’m speaking for myself but I think most editors would agree — if they see potential in your writing, they would encourage you, and you just never know when you’re going to hit on that story that works.

I wrote a family saga, I wrote a romantic comedy, they just weren’t right.

 

When I started writing The Choice it tapped into something in me that brought out the best in my writing. Every rejection, you’ve got to pick yourself up, you learn from it. It isn’t personal.

You dabbled in different genres before you settled on this one, so was that a question of you kind of finding your voice?

Very much so. I always start with the story, and the characters. I told the stories I wanted to tell and explore the themes.

But also as you grow up, what interests you in life, and your own life experience, changes you.

 

Being a mum and a parent had a massive impact, and training as a counsellor and in psychology, became more fascinating to me, and that really has filtered into my writing.

Has studying psychology helped your writing?

I think it is probably the single most important thing that I did. When I left working in-house for a publisher, I left to retrain full time as a counsellor. I qualified as a counselling psychotherapist. I actually worked with young people, that was my sort of speciality as it were. But just the training itself in terms of self-development, that questioning of everything, that peeling back the layers, and examining myself really as much as learning to understand other people’s psychology…

It’s about looking deep into people’s hearts and minds, to sort of coin a cliché. That’s what counselling training taught me and it’s incredibly useful for writing as well.

 

Do you use it in the development of your characters?

I do. One of the things my editor always has to remind me of is, ‘What do they look like outside?’ I start my characterisation very much from the inside. What motivates them? What do they care about? What are these people all about?

I go from the inside out, and keep questioning, and keep layering.

That’s what fascinates me about people. What makes them tick? And what fascinates me in writing. There’s no one good character, one bad character. People are very complex, and it’s exploring that. Put a good person in a difficult situation, what happens to them? And it’s all those kind of stories about people’s lives that I find really compelling myself.

You’re writing under a pseudonym. Why did you do that?

I didn’t set out to be an author, as such. I didn’t say, I want to be famous. I want to write books. When I first wrote, it was with great trepidation, and I when I was offered a publishing deal I was really excited but I thought, I’m not sure I want to tell people about this.

That’s the fear of failure, I suppose. I almost thought I would go under the radar. I was very naive. I thought I would just pretend it’s not me, and no one will know.

 

None of my friends. And then of course I realized that’s stupid. To be successful, which I did want, you had to tell people about your book. It’s almost like this glass door; when you’re being published you walk through this door, and there’s no turning back. You cannot just act like this hasn’t happened, and bury your head in the sand. That was a really, really big turning point for me, when I realized that. I did want my book to be read, I wanted readers to love it, and to achieve that I had to start talking about it. The pseudonym was intended to be a little of a privacy screen, but that’s kind of gone.

Did you set yourself any goals?

I wanted to write the best book I could write. I felt a lot of responsibility to the characters, to have that sort of integrity to their story. I really wanted it to be the absolute best, and that came in with all the rewrites.

Until my editors said, that’s it we’re done, it’s good to go, I would said I will rewrite it as many times as you need me to for it to be the best book that it can be.

 

I didn’t really measure anything in terms of sales. That was then. Now the book’s out there it’s different. You get the bargain. It’s kind of like wanting to be an A-student. I want my book to be the best. I want people to love it. I don’t want to fail. I want people to buy it, so I think the goalposts actually do change the further on through the process you go.

What are your ambitions for your second book?

To finish it. With the second book you do have a little bit more commercial awareness. I’ve read all the reviews for my first book. They do get in your head. It’s the worst thing you can do in a way. I still believe you have to get back to the heart of the story you want to tell, and almost ignore what people are saying, and just work with your editor. I’m still working on my second book with my editor, and I’ve finished a couple of drafts, I’m going back through the process, working on it and rewriting. Again, I just want to make it the best book I can.

How was it reading reviews?

Terrifying. And I have to say that’s where again my editor was so brilliant, because where there were things that weren’t necessarily clear in motivations, we really worked to make it watertight before it went out. Because she knew that once it’s out there, it’s like throwing something to the vultures.

It does feel like you’re throwing your child to the vultures, and they’re going to shred it.

 

It’s really hard. The first few reviews; fantastic. I would say to my husband it’s like getting my school report and A-level results every single day of my life. Someone standing over me saying, ‘You could do that better, that wasn’t great, I wouldn’t have done that…’ It’s hideous. When you get A grades, fantastic, it’s lovely. When you get bad reviews it’s demoralising and they hurt.

You only remember the bad ones. I can get twenty five-star reviews, and I do take them on-board… there was one lady who put a review on Amazon, and I did reply to her personally. I do know (you) don’t reply to reviews, don’t argue, don’t even thank. You have to rise above it. But I did reply to her to say, ‘I feel like you’ve seen inside my head, because she totally got the book.’ But there are people who write stinky reviews, and they wound. They really do, and equally I have to try to ride above those, too.

You have great social media. Were you new to that, or was it something you did already?

I was on Facebook, but very rarely used it. I had been on Twitter sporadically before I dipped into it. I set up my Samantha King page the day the publishers said they were going to send out the press release, that the deal had been done as it were. And I suddenly realized I needed a platform to announce it, and to engage with readers, and where people could get to know me.

Social media did not exist when I worked in publishing. Word of mouth literally meant go and talk to people.

 

Now word of mouth means click LIKE and SHARE. It’s a whole new world and it’s good and it’s bad.

Were you given any social media training?

The only thing I was ever told by my editor and publicist was to be myself, and I’m sure people do have media training, but for me I just I genuinely just try to be who I am. Engaged with people here and there. I realise I’m trying to sell my book, so it feels a little bit awkward when you crowbar that in, ‘By the way, my book is 99p on Kindle!’ And I do feel I’m saying it a lot.

Did you get any media training for your publicity duties?

I haven’t had media training. I suppose having been an editor for a long time I was used to doing some public speaking, talking at conferences, and that sort of thing. The hardest thing I find now is that it’s all about yourself. Previously, I was talking about other people’s books, doing publicity for your own work is much harder. To be honest, it has been quite difficult. My first experience of writing something and seeing it appear in a national newspaper was pretty terrifying. Because it’s all about you, and it’s not just about your book. It’s going public and people judging you. If you’re a very confident, social person, and you’re out there, then you’ll probably love the publicity side of it. It’s the thing that I enjoy the least but it is very necessary. I try to approach it by being myself and doing what what the publisher asks me to do.

I do want to sell my book, and I will talk to whoever is interested to hear. Possibly that that changes with time, but at this point I think it is just doing whatever the publicist and publisher ask me to do. I trust them.

Any tips for as both author and editor as we work on our post-edit draft?

I actually love that, when you’re going through and you’re tightening. For me, personally, I think leave it a little bit if you can. I always read it on my Kindle app, once I’ve finished a Word document I then read it try to read it as a reader, and just let go of all that kind of editing process.

I read it as a reader and I see what’s feeling clunky, what doesn’t feel like it’s moving fast enough. And then just ruthlessly tighten. Anything that doesn’t seem to be impactful or necessary, just cut it.

 

One of the things I did when I left publishing in-house, and worked freelance, was I copy edited. That was an invaluable process because you’re working really close to the text and you pick up on an author’s style and the phrasing that they repeat a lot. I’m very aware of my own repeated phrasing, and for a reader it can start to grate, so you have to kind of be aware of your own foibles. But that said, it is your voice, and on The Choice, when it came to the proofread and the proofreaders raised certain points of style, I got the message from the editor that the author’s voice has to carry the day. So, if you write in a certain way, and that’s your style, then that’s your style. You don’t want to edit out your style, but at the same time if things are repeating, they lose their impact a little bit.

Don’t over-egg it. It has more impact if it’s clean and tight.

 

I’ve cut sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters that I loved, that I thought were remarkably well written, and you know the reader doesn’t need to read it.

They’re interested in in the emotional impact, the story, the characters. Less is more.

 

The Choice is available on audiobook. What was that experience like?

It was absolutely brilliant, and before they made the audiobook I got a chance, very luckily, to choose which voice I felt suited the story. I picked the one that I liked the most, and I think she’s an absolutely fantastic job. Hearing my own words come back to me? Very, very strange but powerful and I felt really proud hearing it, actually. I love audiobooks.

Where did the idea for book two come from? And is it something that’s changed because of your experiences with the first book?

The prologue of the second book is in the back of the paperback of The Choice. It’s another story that came very much from an emotional scenario that grabbed me. A dilemma, a parental predicament, with a lot of suspense and unraveling. I think that’s very much what I write about. Extraordinary situations that characters might find themselves in, and how they deal with it, and how it turns everything in their life upside down and the choices that people have to make. It’s another emotional story, very hard-hitting, I hope.

When you’re dealing with stuff like this it must take a toll during the day, or can you go in and out of character?

It does actually, that’s a very good point. I think when you write things, when you’re plumbing the depths of your emotion, and you are imagining scenarios that are very real… That’s the other thing I try to to write about; the stories I’ve written are things that really could happen every day to people, and in some cases have. It is draining. I work. I drop the kids at school, I come home, I write solidly all day, and then I go pick the kids up again. It’s full on, I don’t break, I write very intensively, and by the end of it it is draining. Yeah.

Where do you see yourself in five years’ time? Are you still writing as Samantha King? Still writing these kind of big emotional thrillers with difficult dilemmas?

I’m sure I will evolve in what I write. I think as you change as a person, your writing inevitably changes. The experiences you go through. I really enjoy what I’m writing at the moment. I’ve got lots more ideas for the future, so hopefully I will still be writing and still be published, and we’ll see where the stories grow and change.

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