Ali Clack blog

The Good, the Bad and the Downright Ugly: My Journey to Publication

As most aspiring authors know all too well, finishing a book is only half the battle – getting published is a whole other matter. In this guest post, A. J. Clack, author of YA Thriller Lie or Die, shares her rocky, emotional journey to publication.  

Writing is a strange master. It demands so much of your time, your thoughts and your energy. It can be frustrating and all-consuming. It’s a solitary and somewhat isolating pastime.

And I love it.

I love it for all (and despite) the reasons above. I love it for the joy and satisfaction it brings me when an idea is born and a new world springs from the page with new characters that take form and come to life right in front of your eyes, often taking over and demanding their voices be heard. And I love sharing my thoughts and feelings with others in the hope that maybe, just maybe, my solitary musing may reach out and touch the life of someone else in some small way.

A marathon not a sprint

Since the publication of my debut YA thriller, Lie or Die, I have had a lot of writers asking me about agents and getting published. The optics on social media make the process look so easy and painless, the journey from first draft to publication a beautiful ride over gold paved cobbles. But my journey was neither easy nor golden, the cobbles were more like mountains and the experience was fraught with disappointment and rejection. And I know I’m not alone – the harder path is more the rule than the exception. Getting on the ladder is difficult enough – staying on it even harder.


Ali and ‘Lie or Die’ at The Young Adult Literature Convention


We are told many times along the way that the road to publication is a marathon not a sprint. And our brains may tell us that the journey will be hard and rough but our hearts all whisper that maybe, just maybe it will be different for us. When we swipe through the celebratory posts of debut authors, writers signing with agents, bestsellers and six-figure deals, that little spirit called Hope sits on our shoulders whispering that it was easy for them, maybe it will be easy for us?

I by no means want to be the giant party pooper in the corner, but writing is hard and getting published even harder. Realistically, your journey to publication is likely to be painful, debilitatingly depressing and very messy.

To be a writer you need to be a warrior.

I think it helps to go into it with those rose-tinted glasses firmly stored away in a locked drawer. I wish someone had warned me that those that do make it to the heady heights of publication are not always the best, most talented writers but often the most resilient, the thickest skinned and the most stubborn. To succeed, you need to bottle the love you have for your art and keep it close as a reminder of why you started this business in the first place.

Becoming published is a lot like childbirth – everyone who has been through it has a story to tell, the next often worse than the one before. And those of us who do make it, forget pretty quickly what the struggle to get here was like.

Starting out

Although I started my writing journey properly about seven years ago, writing was always something that fascinated me. I developed a love for theatre and for playwriting while at school and spent much of my early twenties writing scripts for theatre and children’s TV pilots. My plays were performed locally and I was commissioned to write a children’s play for the Edinburgh Fringe, which ran for two consecutive years. Sadly, nothing big ever came from this and I experienced the (now) usual disappointments and rejections. So, when I started a family and was working full-time, I found I had neither the time nor the energy to continue.

I started writing again when my youngest started school, having spent years pontificating and dreaming. Truth be told I was scared to start, scared of the inevitable rejections and the possibility of failure. I had an idea to write a novel, but had absolutely no experience in this or any clue of how to start. Eventually I gave myself a huge kick up the backside, sat down with an idea I had been stewing over for months and began to write.

And I loved it.

Suddenly the blank pages filled with words and ideas and characters came to life and wouldn’t let me stop. They demanded that the story be told and their voices heard. Now realistically what I wrote was pretty terrible; having no experience of novel writing other than being a huge bookworm, I broke all the rules – it was filled with so much descriptive, over the top ‘writerly’ self-indulgent waffle full of purple prose. But it was brilliant at the same time – brilliant because I had finally done it; I had written a completed novel with a beginning a middle and an end and it worked! And most importantly I had loved doing it.

A dose of reality

Of course, at the time I thought the novel itself was amazing too. I had no idea about first drafts or rounds of edits, so I got myself a copy of the Writers Handbook and proudly sent it away to agents.

Looking back, I cringe on my naivety and my lack of understanding of the profession I was trying to break into – and the lack of experience and knowledge of the craft I thought I knew. But the positive from this was that I had achieved what most don’t: I had written and finished a full-length novel.

What happened next was the start of a gigantic learning curve. Those first agents rejected the novel, some kindly and some with the usual form rejection or agency silence seasoned writers have come to expect and even joke about. But it was a very useful lesson.

Yes, I had written a book, but I was nowhere near being an author – yet.


Luna, one of Ali’s faithful writing companions


So, I began to learn my craft. I read books about the art of writing and threw myself into the online writing community. But it’s hard when you are a lone writer and the amount of information out there is vast – how do you know which piece of advice to listen to or which editing company to use?

The next few months were bumpy. Not being used to the online world and being pretty shy of social media, I was suddenly faced with complete strangers giving me advice and criticism, and they didn’t hold back with their opinions. I also got caught up in the very expensive world of manuscript critiques, but found them too far out of my budget and too bewildering to choose from for them to be any use to me.

I did have some success with that manuscript. One agent complimented me on a perfect submission package but later passed on the full. One loved it so much that she rang me 30mins after I had submitted to her in a flurry of excitement almost begging me for the full. At this point I thought this was it, publishing success here I come! I stayed up all night going through the manuscript proofreading one final time and submitted with bated breath. That agent then kept me waiting over a week only to pass for some reason I can’t even remember – welcome to the world of submissions!

I finally realised I had to let that particular book go. As my first book, I felt a real connection to it and the characters and the plot, and it was really difficult to put it in a drawer and say goodbye. In hindsight I have a lot to thank that book for. It may not have got me an agent or a publishing deal, but it did get me writing. It helped me get over the fear of failure that had paralysed me for so many years and proved to me that I could do this. It was by no means perfect, but it did get me noticed and I did have some agent interest. So I took that as a win.

I had climbed up the first few rungs of the publishing ladder and I hadn’t fallen off – yet.

Starting again

Starting a new book came with its own set of doubts: Was my first book a one-off? What if I can’t do it again? What if I spend all this time writing and it fails like the last one? Fear and imposter syndrome sat heavily on my shoulders as I penned that first draft, but thankfully as I began to fill the blank page with words the magic happened again, and characters and setting began to take on a life of their own.

This time when I finished, I decided to try something different. Knowing I still had so much to learn and looking for some advice, I signed up for a twelve-month writing course for novice authors who had a story partly or completely finished. This course gave me a structured learning, it gave me an editor to bounce ideas off, a fresh set of experienced eyes to look at my manuscript not as an isolated whole but as possibility and how that possibility would fit into the world of Children’s and YA publishing. It gave me a window from which I got to glance into the world of publishing. Most of all, that twelve-month course gave me connection to other writers with the same interest and passions as me. I met some of my best writing friends in that year, who have been shoulder to shoulder with me through this journey and today I look upon as very dear and valued friends. With them I went to writer meet ups, joined SCBWI, entered competitions, met agents face-to-face and got to know who liked what and who I felt I could work with. I discovered writing festivals and had a great time meeting new writers and industry people.

This manuscript was exciting; it enabled me to fast track through a mentorship programme and set me in front of agents. From there I had agents scrambling for the book. It had worked; this time I found my agent. It felt like I was bounding up the rungs of that ladder.

My new shiny agent and I set to work editing the manuscript and preparing for submission to publishers.

The same week that we went out on submission the UK went into its first Covid-19 lockdown. Publishing shut its doors and my beloved manuscript got lost in the pandemic ether. Not long after the radio silence, my agent decided to pull the manuscript from submission, and soon after that heartbreaking decision, we parted ways.

To say I slipped from the publishing ladder would be an understatement. I plunged headfirst with no safety net. I was left with a manuscript that had failed on submission and no agent. I was very much in the Dark night of the Soul (if you know you know, and BTW, you should know*). I had absolutely no idea what to do next and neither the energy nor the desire to pick myself back up and start all over again.

This is the point where my amazing friends and family stepped in. Without them I would have continued to drown in a pit of self-pity and despair, and would probably stayed there, wallowing. While resilience and self-confidence are not my strongest assets, stubbornness and bloody mindedness are. I also felt a responsibility to my kids to keep going after spending a lifetime telling them ‘never let fear define you’ and ‘it’s what you do when you’re down that counts’. Parenting had come back to kick me up the proverbial arse and I had four not so little people watching my rollercoaster journey and waiting for my next move. How could I give up when I was supposedly teaching my Mini Mes about the knock backs of life?

I had an idea that I had been playing around with for a long time. I loved the game of Mafia and I had noticed that my children now played it and it seemed as popular today as before. When I thought about settings it seemed only natural to use my background in TV and set it in a reality TV game show. I wrote the first 12 pages – and then stopped. At this point the only thing that was stopping me was myself. I was scared to write another story in case I became invested and it failed again – should I just call it a day? Was the universe trying to tell me that this writing thing was just not for me?

To make it easier I decided to enter the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices competition. I had 12 pages and three months to finish a first draft. If nothing came of it at least I would have a full story to work on. Luckily my gamble paid off and I ended up becoming a finalist with Lie or Die appearing in the 2022 anthology.

My (now) agent read my opening in the anthology and got in touch. I was back up that ladder in a thudding heartbeat.

And this time it worked. I signed to Firefly press. I had done it! I was going to be published.

The importance of timing

So much of this process is out of the writer’s control, and this is the bit about publishing which is the hardest to swallow. You may have a great hook and a great voice, but the third part of the puzzle – and the most elusive – is timing. You may have a great product, but there could be a sudden pandemic, you could hit the end of a trend, publishers’ lists could be full, or they may simply run out of budget.

Lie or Die, my dark and twisty YA thriller, is set in a reality TV game show (think Big Brother meets The Traitors). While on submission Big Brother was recommissioned, and just after signing with Firefly, a new reality TV show called The Traitors, based on the same party game Mafia, came out – reality TV was having a resurgence. Finally, the stars aligned and timing was on my side.


Ali with Fay Greaves, contestant on Series 1 of The Traitors

Believe in yourself

Whether you’re just starting out or you’re deep in the query trenches or you’ve had a run of bad luck like I did, please remember: you’re not alone!

Throw yourself into all opportunities and try to see each rejection, each seemingly backward step as a positive thing (incredibly difficult, but at least try!). Keep moving forwards and most importantly, never give up. Keep that nugget of faith in your pocket and never forget why you started this journey in the first place – focus on your love of writing and the feeling you get when you put those words onto the page.

Be a sponge; soak up everything there is to be learnt and read, read, read. Coat yourself with the very best armour and surround yourself with an army of like-minded friends. Remember, a good writer is a warrior.

Finally, believe in yourself. I have every faith in you – if I can do this, you can do it too.



*Save the Cat – Blake Snyder


Author bio: After University, A. J. Clack (also known as Ali!) moved to London to pursue a career in television. She worked on a wide range of shows from Teletubbies to Friends, while also writing development scripts/pilots for children’s tv and  plays for the Edinburgh Fringe. She now writes YA and lives in Suffolk with a houseful of teenagers. She can often be found freezing on the side of a rugby or football pitch.