L. J. MacWhirter: My Writing Journey

L J MacWhirter author photo
Category: Writing

A month ago I enjoyed the surreal thrill of my first book event for my debut novel, Black Snow Falling. Doubly surreal, because it was at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. I absolutely loved every moment of discussing this novel that has gripped me for 16 years. I felt so ready.

My journey to publication has been an adventure and I hope it encourages other new writers.

Advertising sharpened my writing and developed my nose for ideas

The stories started as a child. Later I went on to study English Literature and became a copywriter. Advertising sharpened my writing and developed my nose for ideas. One weekend in 2002, I was volunteering in Glen Etive for Venture Scotland, helping young adults who had faced many challenges in their lives. As we hiked back to the van, one participant told me that he wanted to become a gardener. I found myself quietly wishing for nothing else to happen to him that would snatch away his hopes and dreams… and the idea of a dream halo and the dream thieves came to me. I knew it was a novel. And I knew I had to write it.

Fortunately I found a wonderful literary agent, Lindsey Fraser, straightaway. For the next five years, the manuscript inched forwards in the margins of the day; I was a lone parent with a full time career.

In 2007, the Scottish Arts Council awarded me a £3,000 New Writers' Bursay. Self-doubt has always been an issue but this boosted my confidence and bought time to write. The resulting draft led to lunch with an editor at OUP, who suggested changes. The rewritten MS didn’t make it to acquisitions. The rejection – while technically ‘positive’ – felt discouraging and I embarked on a new WW2 novel. I had to set this aside while writing a 30,000-word website, and by the time I returned to the story, the spark had vanished. I re-read the early draft of Black Snow Falling, loved it, and saw exactly how to restructure the historical timelines to make the story better.

Rewrites are how I learnt to write a novel

Umpteen rewrites followed, dropping scenes, deleting characters, killing darlings. It’s how I learnt to write a novel. Along the way, SCBWI workshops and Arvon Foundation courses helped, as did reading the best historical and science fiction. Single parenthood continued, and so did the demands of a full time career.

My personal circumstances changed recently. Then another major publisher considered the MS, commenting that the writing was ‘fantastic’, but the concept was ‘so strong’ that it sometimes overshadowed Ruth, the main character. I added the point of view of her secret love, Silas, which changed more of the plot. For the first time, I felt that this complex story had reached a simple place. It just felt right. The publisher said I had ‘cracked it’ but it was ‘too serious’ for their list; it didn’t reach acquisitions.

Six months later, another literary fiction publisher, Scotland Street Press, expressed interest. Over a coffee in Waterstones, Jean Findlay told me that it was the very seriousness of the novel that she loved – it was clear she was the right publisher. Scotland Street Press invested in producing a beautiful hardback with de-bossed silver foil. Black Snow Falling is now on the shelves of many bookshops. Another surreal thrill.

Ultimately, the rejections strengthened my creativity and enabled Black Snow Falling to find its true north. If I may quote C.S. Lewis, “One fails forward toward success.”

L.J. MacWhirter

Black Snow Falling by L.J. MacWhirter, “a wildly original Elizabethan fantasy” (Elizabeth Wein, author of Code Name Verity). L.J. MacWhirter lives in Edinburgh and is available throughout Scotland for events through the Scottish Book Trust Live Literature Programme. Black Snow Falling is nominated for the EIBF First Book Award – voting closes 12 October 2018.