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Emylia Hall’s Journey to Happy Writing

Emylia Hall. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Emylia Hall
July 2, 2023
July 2, 2023

At The Novelry we passionately believe writing should bring great happiness to the writer. Our mantra is ‘happy writing’ and we foster a writing community taking joy from every step of their writing journey, whatever their personal goals or ambitions.

On our blog today, our writing coach Emylia Hall discusses tackling a new genre of fiction, and the long and winding road she’s taken to reach this moment: from a Richard and Judy book club pick with her first novel, followed by three more contemporary fiction books, then a few experiments in other genres that ultimately didn’t find publishing homes. This weekend, Emylia’s new novel The Shell House Detectives is published and already receiving rave reviews. Sarah Pearse (author of The Sanatorium) said: ‘This beautifully written cosy coastal mystery packs a real punch! With wonderfully atmospheric prose and twists and turns aplenty, the plot will have you riding a wave of suspense long after you'’ve turned the final page. If you love Cornwall, you will adore this book.’

In this article, Emylia shares an honest insight into remaining hopeful when the going gets tough and finding deep pleasure in your writing. Read this if:

  • You tried to write in one genre unsuccessfully
  • Your novel has been rejected by literary agents
  • Your novel ultimately didn’t get bought by a publisher

Emylia will offer the hope and silver linings you may need!

A new beginning

As I write, I’m gearing up for the release of my first cosy crime novel, The Shell House Detectives, on 1st July. The second book in the series, The Harbour Lights Mystery, will be published this autumn, with The Rockpool Murder following next spring. I need to stop and re-read this paragraph to take it all in.

It was a particularly winding road that led me to this point and the going wasn’t always easy – not least because the path was strewn with the corpses of three other novels. So, consider this my traveller’s tale. It’s a story I want to tell because I learned so much along the way, including the value I place on writing in my life. If you’ve ever had a book rejected or are worried about the outcome of what you’re working on, perhaps I can offer some solace or inspiration.

The journey to get here

My last novel, The Thousand Lights Hotel, was published in 2017. After four contemporary fiction books with the same publisher, I was out of contract. I spent the next two years working on a story set in Los Angeles and by the spring of 2019 I was on to my third draft. It was coming together well – my agent, Rowan Lawton at The Soho Agency (one of our trusted literary agencies here at The Novelry), agreed – but I began to have a creeping feeling that I’d fallen out of love with it. At the time I was working as a Fellow for the Royal Literary Fund at the University of the West of England while also running an Arts Council-funded writing program for new mums. I was working on the book in pockets of time, and I desperately wanted these sessions to be pleasurable – the delicious simplicity of just me and my book – but instead it began to feel like drudgery. And worst of all, I seemed to have lost the ability to suspend my own disbelief.

When I write, I need to be convinced that my fiction is real: that my characters are people and I’m telling their story. Trudging through the third draft, I realised I was too self-consciously ‘writing’. I felt like I’d taken my son’s set of Story Cubes and was arbitrarily rolling them to decide the next chapter or bring in some new dimension of character.

The more I thought about ditching that novel, the more liberated and relieved I felt. But it was a big decision. Since the launch of my debut, The Book of Summers, my subsequent novels hadn’t troubled any bestseller lists. Commercially, I was up against it (the industry calls it ‘bad track’, and exactly why that’s a lousy term for authors would require an entirely separate blog); I knew that whatever I wrote next would, in some ways, be a harder sell than if I was an unpublished debut author. But I wanted writing to feel like fun again, and that desire for pleasure overrode all else. I didn’t consider the last two years to be wasted. They helped me realise what I wanted from the writing process – and sharpened my own conviction.

On a practical level it helped, too, that at the time I had other means of income (the work as a Royal Literary Fund fellow and the Arts Council grant). These weren’t limitless but gave me enough financial security in the short-term to feel a sense of freedom. My husband Robin Etherington is a writer too, and in our desire for an expansive and rich creative life we’ve learned how to live small in other ways. I think it’s possible to write with professionalism and ambition and commercial intent, while also understanding that in the creative industries, nothing is guaranteed; for me, it’s a great deal easier to be accepting of this uncertainty when I’m not solely dependent on it for my income. Whatever attainment might come through being published, nothing about it is promised.

The only thing to do is make peace with precariousness. I’ve found that removing any sense of entitlement is, as with most things, the way to go.

Trying a new genre

With the encouragement of my agent, I started anew, turning to a genre that I thought could offer me the kind of creative reboot that I needed: crime. I liked the idea of plotting a mystery, scattering red herrings, puzzling over the components to draw it all together with the spirit of ‘fair play’. Trying something new, and something that has a degree of formula – crime, investigation, solution – was enticing.

My first foray into crime fiction was a locked room mystery set on a writing retreat, and the process was every bit as refreshing and invigorating as I’d hoped. I felt super-charged, writing faster than I ever had before. It ended up as two novels (and – spoiler – two of those literary corpses I mentioned earlier). The first version was set in the French Alps, and it went out on a limited submission in the spring of 2020. The initial rejections from editors kept bringing up that there were several alpine-set thrillers either just published or in the pipeline. I didn’t want my novel to be turned down based, however partially, on its location, so I took a deep breath and asked my agent to hit pause on submitting. I decided to relocate the story to Mallorca. I knew this would be a big job as, for me, the setting is always deeply woven into story, but I was up for it. And I liked the feeling of resuming control. As it turned out, I ended up holding on to only 15,000 words of the original manuscript, as I made inevitable story changes too. If I’d known that from the outset, I wonder if I’d have gone ahead with the rewrite, but by then I was buzzing on this new version. And I was still in love with the novelty of writing a mystery.

In the early autumn of 2020, it went out on submission again. It was a strange limbo period where things felt out of my control; my sanguine attitude tested in a way that was, I think, proportionate to how much I cared. I made a full-time job out of hitting refresh on my inbox, hope and dread surging in equal measure. As I cooked for my family, I played tunes that I thought might bring me luck; there I was, making bolognese and yet I was secretly communing with the spirits. (Which? Any!) Sometimes, at night, silent tears ran off my cheeks and soaked my pillow at the thought that I’d tried my best, my absolute best, and yet it still might not be enough. This might all sound dramatic and, honestly, it is. There are far harder ways to make a living, and wanting to be published is always a choice.

There was to be no happy ending for this version either though. It came agonisingly close with one publisher in particular – a senior editor loved it – but it failed to make it through an acquisitions meeting where it was deemed to fall between two stools: ‘not cosy enough to be cosy crime and not shocking enough to be a shocking thriller.’ I was truly gutted.

On the same day my agent drew a line under the submission process – 1st December 2020 – I slipped getting out of the bath and cracked my ribs. I spent the next week barely hobbling, with moments of excruciating pain (never sneeze with cracked ribs!). As a writer, I managed to enjoy the metaphor – and on a physical level it was an excuse to wallow for a bit too. I might have been temporarily felled, but, ultimately, I wasn’t discouraged. I don’t think Leonard Cohen was singing about ribs with ‘Ring the bells that still can ring/ forget your perfect offering/ there is a crack, a crack in everything/ that’s how the light gets in.’ But sure enough, the light flowed in.

Looking for the silver linings

I know it’s a great deal easier for us to look back on failure when we’ve moved beyond it to a place of success, but I truly believe that there will always be good things to take from most situations – it might take a while to see them, that’s all. Sylvia Plath was right when she said ‘the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt,’ but that’s an enemy I think we can work to overcome. There are so many crushing realities in this world that we owe it to ourselves to try and keep our faith in the magic of creativity – and our right to enjoy it. Hope as an act of rebellion? Damn right.

The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.
—Sylvia Plath

I think everyone’s version of the following will be different, but positivity and perspective were my personal motivators. Despite having an inbox full of rejections, I had compliments too and I held on to these. I didn’t take rejection as a judgment of me as an individual: it was about a book. As personal as our writing feels, we must remember that it isn’t us; preserve self-worth at all costs, because in our fight to keep going, it’s our best armour. I also told myself that if I’d written this novel a year earlier – before there were so many contemporary locked room mysteries in idyllic settings – it might have been different. That was pure speculation but hey, it was a good thought, and undoubtedly luck and timing is part of it all. Another thing that played into my response was that I’d had a bit of a health scare around the same time, but it ended up being nothing to worry about and the pure relief of this put everything else into perspective. So, my novel got turned down? Well, no biggie, I’ll write another! There are some things we can control in life and some things we can’t. Choosing to write another book – or not – is something we can control.

Finding a happy place with writing

Rejection aside, I’d loved the experience of writing crime and wanted to keep at it. I reflected on the feedback from that acquisitions meeting; I didn’t really know what a publisher meant by cosy crime but, aware that my natural inclination is more to the cosy than the grisly, I thought this could be the place for me. So I revisited my Agatha Christies. I read The Thursday Murder Club and loved it. I thought of all the times that I’ve settled in to watch Inspector Morse or Death in Paradise or Midsomer Murders and I thought... ‘OK. I think I know what I want to write next.’ For me, cosy crime would mean an enticing setting, and characters who are good company. I wouldn’t trivialise death or skimp on emotion, but I’d be writing with a light touch. I emailed my agent and she said, ‘Go for it.’ As I broke out a new notebook, I felt optimistic, but I had my eyes wide open. I wanted to give it my best shot, while now knowing full well that my best shot might not be enough.

At this point I need to talk about The Novelry, because I have no doubt that my working life helped fuel my optimism in my writing life. I joined The Novelry as a coach in the summer of 2020 and it didn’t take long for me to realise I was in a very special place. I loved the collective creative energy, the emphasis on finding pleasure in writing, and the commitment and compassion of our worldwide community. Three years on, I love it still.

Our mantra at The Novelry is Happy Writing. It goes right to the heart of what we believe is an essential mindset for getting the best from our writing. Whether we’re working on the most twisted psychological thriller, a searingly honest memoir, or a delightfully fun-filled rom-com, Happy Writing means drawing personal enrichment from the process. It means sitting down to write feeling empowered. Permitting our creativity to thrive and nurturing its roots however best suits the individual. And being open to learning, no matter how much we might think we already know; embracing the challenges as they arise.

It isn’t always easy, channelling Happy Writing, but it’s important that we do all we can to protect our sense of pleasure in the process. I love how George Saunders describes literature as ‘a form of fondness-for-life. It is love for life taking verbal form.’ If we’re ever struggling to feel this tenderness towards our novels in progress, or indeed ourselves as writers, we need to take steps. That could mean being choosy about our community – online or otherwise – and limiting the voices we let ourselves hear (comparison can be a motivator, but it’s a hell of a tightrope to walk). It might require some very active rekindling, to remember why we wanted to write in the first place and fall in love again with the work itself. It might even mean stopping writing for a bit and reading instead or just… living life. Finding that pleasure in other places. Our notebooks will always be there for us when we’re good and ready.

[Literature is] a form of fondness-for-life. It is love for life taking verbal form.
—George Saunders

Happy writing can take you to both real and imaginary places

That winter of 2020, I was good and ready. Covid was raging, we were locked down and home-schooling, and I was worried about aging parents and vulnerable friends. I knew that, through writing, I could find both the freedom and the control that felt so sorely lacking in daily life. And, crucially, I could write myself somewhere that I wanted to be. I was longing for the wide-open skies and seas of west Cornwall. We hadn’t been able to make our annual trips to St Ives and Gwithian that year and I was missing them with an almost bodily ache.

An image kept returning to me: a weatherboard house in the dunes and a woman living on her own at the edge of things. This was the landscape I was dreaming of. And this is where The Shell House Detectives began. I spent the tail-end of winter 2020 planning and plotting, and on 1st February 2021 I started writing.

I loved every moment of that first draft. Mostly writing pre-dawn, I’d bring up a webcam of Porthmeor Beach and watch the light flow in, my coffee, candle and notebook by my side. The setting was my happy place from the off and as I crafted my fictional village of Porthpella I experienced all the joy of wish-fulfillment. The shifting dunes and swaying marram grass. The electric sunsets over vast and mirrored beaches. The buzzing song of skylarks and relentless cry of gulls. God, I lost myself in that place. This is when writing feels like magic to me: an act of transportation that is no less real for being lived on paper. But as my characters took shape, my heart swelled.

I can honestly say this is the first novel I’ve written where I love everyone! I always wanted a likeable cast – this is, I think, one of the hallmarks of cosy crime – but they’re complex characters too. The joy of writing a series is that I get to play out longer storylines and emotional arcs; I can write more of the natural ebb and flow of life, too, which all builds towards the feeling that this is a real place with real people. And while, as crime, these novels concern death, they’re really a celebration of life, and the difference that kindness, compassion and community can make to others. That summer The Shell House Detectives went on submission, and it ended up finding the perfect home at Thomas and Mercer.

The next steps

I’m setting out on a new journey now, and who knows what the road ahead looks like. Will readers like it? Will it sell? Will anyone stick around for the other books in the series? Uncertainty abounds. But I’m travelling hopefully, secure in the knowledge that I’ve done my best and had a great time doing it. When my mum first read The Shell House Detectives she said, ‘It’s full of the things you love.’ And she’s right. The fact that it crossed the desk of an editor who also found things to love – Victoria Haslam, to whom I’m incredibly grateful – is where the luck comes in. But if it hadn’t gone my way? For all the other emotions, I wouldn’t have regretted a single moment of writing The Shell House Detectives. The way that story feeds my soul has little to do with any expectation of commercial success or external validation. The true joy is in the writing.

A creative life brings all kinds of challenges and none of us can dodge the hard parts. But I think if we keep showing up anyway, if we decide to stay open to every experience that comes our way, then we can make sure our writing keeps being pleasurable, no matter what happens after we type The End.

The Shell House Detectives by Emylia Hall is published by Thomas and Mercer. Find out more about writer coaching with Emylia Hall here.

Someone writing in a notebook
Emylia Hall. Author and The Novelry Team Member
Emylia Hall

Emylia Hall is the award-winning author of four women’s fiction novels and a six-book cozy crime series. She is a Fellow of the Royal Literary Fund.

Members of The Novelry team