13th Oct2014

Bringing a book to life – Amanda Jennings

by Lloyd Paige


When you read a book do you ever wonder why the author chose that particular plot and what had

influenced their decision making? Creating a good novel takes a considerable amount of skill, time and

effort, and can be emotional too. Concept. The Process. The Edits. Publication. The author of Sworn

Secret, Amanda Jennings, talks here about her latest book, The Judas Scar, and how it

all came together.

There was one principle incident that sparked the idea for The Judas Scar. For a few years my husband was a chorister at a well-known choir school. It was a time in his life he didn’t enjoy – the school had a dark and nasty atmosphere, and though he didn’t know exactly what was going on, two members of staff were committing heinous abuse of a number of boys at the school. It was a time of his life he didn’t ever talk about. He felt it was irrelevant to his present day life and, though I knew it wasn’t a happy time, we never discussed it.
Then a few years ago he got a phone call whilst at work. The woman introduced herself as a police officer but before she had even told him why she was calling, he asked if the call has anything to do with his prep school. Yes, she said. How did you know? He told her he’d been expecting the phone call for 25 years.

I realised just how fascinated I am in the emotional responses of ordinary people to extraordinary trauma.”

What both upset and intrigued me was the Pandora’s box of emotions that was opened up. He became obsessed with finding out what had happened to those boys he knew had been abused by the two teachers. He needed to know what they’d gone on to do, whether they’d married, had children, whether, essentially, they’d survived their ordeals and managed to find happiness. Tragically, most hadn’t and this hit him hard. I quickly became preoccupied with the idea of damaged childhood, not just damaged by physical abuse, but by all sorts of things – the death of a parent, for example, or bullying – and how this damage, this trauma, is carried through to adult life.

Whilst writing Sworn Secret – which looks at the family of a teenage daughter killed in a fall from a roof the year before who are still caught in the grip of grief, and then find something out about her that raises questions surrounding the circumstances of her death – I realised just how fascinated I am in the emotional responses of ordinary people to extraordinary trauma. I like to read and write books where crime underlies the story yet it’s the characters that drive the narrative rather than the whodunit aspect of more traditional crime, which might use a police detective, for example, to direct the story. I like a whydunit, really. Psychological drama gives me a great vehicle to explore human reaction and emotional response to a variety of disturbing and difficult scenarios.

…once the characters develop they start to guide the story.”

I write with a vague plot outline.
By vague I mean three or four full notebooks of ideas, characters profiles, themes, and a story arch with a beginning and an end and a few key scenes that act as markers, guides if you like to keep the story moving in one direction. What’s interesting is that between the first and final drafts the beginning and ending might often change markedly, but the key scenes – the markers – rarely alter. It might sound like a cliché, but once the characters develop they start to guide the story and try as you might to keep to your map, they have very different ideas! You start to realise, hang on, Jon would never do that, he’d do this, and the story will ricochet off in another direction. The beginning and ending of The Judas Scar bear little resemblance to the first draft I wrote a few years ago.

My editor made a few suggestions early on, shortly after he bought the book. But there was nothing too major, nothing too terrifying. We decided to knock back some of the reveal, in order to keep facts from the reader until later in the story, and I’m grateful for this advice as I think it helps keep the story moving I leant a lot from this book. Second novels are notoriously tricky and this one was no exception. I have definitely learnt that with every book there will always be The Fear, the Beast of Self-Doubt that sits on your shoulder and tells you you’re wasting your time, that you’re no good, that you’re fooling yourself to think that people might be interested in your writing. The Fear will always be there, it’s an integral part of writing a book. And I really hope that I have learnt just to accept its presence and ride the rough bit out and that – hopefully – all will be well in the end.

To be told that your book has affected a reader in some way is surely one of the greatest pieces of praise!”

I’m not sure an author would be human if they weren’t nervous on publication day. It’s that moment where you have to reveal yourself to the world and quite literally bare you soul. The book has ceased to be yours about six months earlier, when you handed the copy edits over to the publisher. It belongs to the publishing house, they are in charge of marketing, of choosing the cover, setting the typeface, selecting quotes for the front, and then suddenly, on publication day, it becomes all yours again. It’s your name on the front. You have ultimate responsibility for whether people like it or loathe it.

Nerves run riot!
Most authors are the same, we just want our books to be read and for them to find those readers that will enjoy them, sometimes even love them. You get used to the bad reviews, after all reason tells us that not everyone likes the same book. I only have to think of all the widely loved books that I haven’t enjoyed or the ones I’ve loved that my friends haven’t to understand that, but it’s terrifying nonetheless. I’ve been very lucky and had some wonderful feedback from press, bloggers and readers of The Judas Scar. I think one compliment I read more than most is that it’s a compelling story about flawed and real characters. To be told that your book has affected a reader in some way is surely one of the greatest pieces of praise!

Social media is very important to me.
I genuinely love it. I have been incredibly lucky to be supported by some incredible and very generous people on Twitter and I will always be grateful for that. I try not to flood my feed with sales tweets. I don’t think they sell books, in fact, I think that approach puts most people off. I use social media for fun and for light relief during my writing day. I would be a very lonely writer if I didn’t have my Twitter buddies to play with. I do share book news with them – things like foreign publishing deals, successes, book blogger reviews, and daily deals if the books get selected for one – but really Twitter is a playground slash newsroom slash water cooler. And a jolly lovely one it is at that!

Visit Amanda’s website


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