In Part One of this interview with Jo Sandhu, we looked at how she started out writing and how she got her foot in the door of the publishing house at Penguin. In Part Two, we drill down into the details of publication, editing and bringing out a series, and more. Jo has woven some great writing and research tips into this interview, that I’m sure you’ll find enriching.
Jo, aspiring writers are often told to write what they are passionate about. How was this Tarin of the Mammoths series informed by your interests and what research did you need to do?
I’ve always had a passion for history. One of the very first stories I remember writing was a creative piece for history in Year 7 – I had to imagine I was living in any time in the past. I wrote about a Stone Age clan sitting around the camp fire. Since then I’ve always read a lot of non-fiction and watched a lot of documentaries. So I already had a broad knowledge of the past when I was thinking about the setting for Tarin’s story.
I tossed up using a Bronze Age setting, but I have a fascination for Neanderthals and our older ancestors, so if I wanted to keep the history as authentic as possible, that meant looking at a time about 30 000 years ago.
Once I had decided on that, I could focus my research. I read widely and followed the research of a lot of archaeological digs. So much is still being discovered about our past. My research was very extensive and I often spent days tracking down links and obscure facts that I didn’t actually use, but I still found fascinating. I might use them in any further books. I don’t think any research is wasted!
Tip: if you find you are spending too much time researching, set a timer. Be strong with yourself! Document EVERY link. During the editing process, I was checking my facts and inspirations and I wasted a lot of time re-finding my sources.
Great tips, thanks Jo. Sounds like you learnt from experience!
You set this series in such a distinctive time and place so long ago. How did you go about layering the text so that it is authentic and rich, so the reader is immersed in Tarin’s world?
I think ‘layering’ is the operative word here. The most important thing was always the adventure and the plot. I didn’t want this book to be a history text and I certainly didn’t want big info dumps destroying the pace and flow.
I used the senses a lot, adding in touches of sight, sound and smell as Tarin travelled, or was washed down the river, or as he huddled in the corner of the earth lodge waiting for the Clan Meeting to decide his fate. I used my own experiences in snow and bitter cold. I lived in Lapland, Finland, for a year as an Exchange Student when I first left school, so I know all about the extreme cold, the Polar Night of winter when the sun doesn’t rise, and the Midnight Sun of Summer when it doesn’t set. I also shamelessly used my kid’s experiences, because they are younger and stronger than me. On a research trip to Finland, I had them try to force their way through two metres of snow in the middle of the forest. It was funny to watch, and I assured them their suffering was for a good cause. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t brave the icy rapids for me, so I had to use my imagination for that.
Tip: have all your fascinating details from your research listed, then drop in a fact here and there. There is a great term ‘Orient and Anchor.’ Orient your reader so they know where they are, then drop in a detail to anchor them in the setting. Intersperse this with some action or some dialogue and your layers grow.
I also think you can’t do this all in the writing stage. I layer more with each edit, as I smooth out the pace of the story and determine what needs building up or cutting back. I do a lot of edits.
Another fabulous tip! And I love your hands-on approach to research, using your kids (ha!).
How did it work for you, bringing out a series? How much had you written before sending it out?
It was contracted as a trilogy, because I submitted the three completed books at once. Book One was already edited within an inch of its life. Book Three had gaps, but I had the ending.
You told us last month how it was picked up for publication, but can we recap here?
It was picked up via a paid Publisher Assessment at the CYA Conference in Brisbane. I had submitted to Penguin previously and already had conversations regarding other manuscripts with them, so my track record did help, I think. My previous contact with them also came about via CYA. Many years ago I won their Middle Grade writing competition and Penguin requested my winning entry. That was passed on, but a couple of years later, I won the YA section, and again Penguin requested my full submission. That one came even closer to being published, but it was third time lucky with Tarin’s submission.
That’s a good advertisement for attending conferences and paying for professional advice. So once it was picked up, can you tell is what the editing process was like?
I edit SO MUCH. I’ll talk about the editing process after signing the contracts because I’ve lost count of the thousands of edits during the writing process and in the years of submitting.
So – first I received the Structural report from Katrina Lehman, my Penguin editor. We changed a few chapters around, shortened some and further developed others. Once we had the overall shape correct, we went to the Copy Edit.
We cut out a lot of unneeded punctuation. Apparently I over-use ellipses… [ha, ha! I over-use hyphens – apparently!]
We further refined the dialogue, cut a lot of waffle and tightened the language.
Then came First Pages. Now it was no longer a Word Document, but a PDF, so it looked like a book should. Further minor changes and refining overall. Looking at where the page breaks and chapter breaks were and the ‘white space’ on the page that assists readers.
Then Second Pages to check our changes. Sometimes this process continues. Sometimes we just go straight to Final Pages. By this stage, there shouldn’t be any more changes. This is the final check before Proof Reading.
Editing is exhausting but so satisfying to see the shape change, the waffle cut away, and the shining gems remain. It’s also a complete group effort. A good editor is worth their weight in gold! Katrina was brilliant.
So, more hard work, but made worthwhile with a good editor. I imagine too, that in bringing out a series, time pressure is a real worry. You have to have written all the books before your readership grows out of them. What’s the best and hardest things about writing a series?
Timing was certainly a big consideration. I know from my own kids how many series they lost interest in because they grew out of them before they were finished. In writing a series, I like to have a very strong idea of the plot outlines and the eventual ending. I would hate to start strong, then not be able to complete. Of course, it depends on the length of the series, but I’m talking three or four books here.
The best part of writing a series is the extra details you can weave into the characters and the world. You can give them more depth and more growth.
The worst part is the pressure of completion and there’s the danger of the story drawing out too long and becoming repetitive. I think you need to strike a balance.
What a great insight into writing and editing Jo has shared! Next month we talk about discouragements, encouragements and the writing community, as well as some more top tips. Until then you can check Jo out here:
And me here: