And So Our Story Begins . . .

by Amy Finnegan

When I vacationed in Scotland a few years ago, I was crazy excited to visit this wondrous country with its towering Highlands, history-making castles, and beautiful Loch Ness (if I were a sea monster, I’d live there, too). But the site I was most eager to see was a little cafe in Edinburgh called the Elephant House.

Trip to the UK 2010 040_2

As a writer—and especially a reader—it was #1 on my globetrotting bucket list. And this is why:

If you have eight extra minutes, watch that video. If not, here’s a summary: This is a very early interview with J.K. Rowling, filmed at the Elephant House. She often worked on the Harry Potter manuscripts at this cafe before . . . well, before she simply couldn’t step out of her home for fear of being kidnapped and forced to reveal the contents of the next book.

Here are just a few magical things in this video that make me smile:

1) Check out her awesome frazzled-author hair (Is she a Weasley or what? And I mean that as the highest compliment in the world! Okay, I’ll get serious now).

2) She is totally ecstatic at this point about HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER’S STONE selling over thirty-thousand copies in the UK (the series has now sold over 500 million copies worldwide).

3) I love her agent’s warning that she wouldn’t “make much money in children’s books.”

4) She says that the unprecedented American acquisition of the rights for the first book “scared the hell” out of her. She became “panic stricken” halfway through writing the second book, and was then very self-conscious about her writing. Just imagine how she felt later on.

5) When Rowling is asked to describe her plot, she can hardly get a coherent sentence out. Classic writer’s stage fright.

This has totally happened to me too . . . #5 that is. And #1.

My point is, everyone—superstar authors included—starts somewhere, and it’s always, always at the beginning.

Rowling says in this video that she worked on the first Harry Potter book for seven years before it sold. According to various sources, it was rejected by at least nine editors during her year-long submission process. Then she finally got an offer for it . . . with a £1500 advance. (Don’t all of you debut authors feel really good about your advance now?!) That, my friends, was her beginning.

When I first started writing, I thought my career would go something like this: I would finish a book every two to three months, send it off to a publisher, then a few weeks later, they would send me a big check. Then I’d write the next book, and the next, and the money would keep rolling in. I’d be a mega hit.

It’s incredibly embarrassing to admit how naive I was, but there it is. ((I might’ve also had a daydream or two about getting a call from Oprah because she loooovved my novel. Don’t even try to tell me that you haven’t done the same thing.))

Then about a year into writing my first novel, I finally started attending conferences that taught me about craft, and an absolutely devastating thing happened: I realized I sucked. SUCKED.

I out-sucked all of you, I promise.

mean-girls-2The thought of submitting a single sentence of what I wrote was suddenly horrifying. I imagined the cast of Mean Girls standing around a publishing house water cooler and reading my manuscript aloud for their afternoon entertainment. “OMG, did you see this? We should publish it as The Dictionary of Clichés!” Then Mean Girl Editor #2 would say, “I was thinking more like, Pathetic Teen Angst for Dummies!

Cue (size zero) belly laughter.

After a few more years of working twenty to thirty hours per week on learning the actual craft of novel writing—writing, revising, tossing out a few manuscripts . . . writing, revising, burning through a few laptops—I finally gathered the courage to start submitting.

I didn’t exactly get laughed at, but a line penned by Robert Munsch comes to mind: “Come back when you are dressed like a real princess.”

Long story short, after that glorious experience, I didn’t submit again for three solid years. During this period, I seriously questioned all the sacrifice, all the time away from my family, all the money spent, all the lunches I’d turned down with friends because I had to revise my novels. And for what? I felt humiliated. I now did everything possible to avoid discussing my writing. I didn’t tell anyone new in my life that I was a writer.

I dreaded hearing this same thing, over and over again: “You should self-publish instead. My brother’s boss’s wife’s second cousin just self-published a novel which is now #1 on Amazon. And she wrote the book in just thirty days while her triplets crawled around her ankles. You, too, can be a published author!”

(Okay, thanks. Clearly all I needed was some triplets!)

I said a lot of naughty words in my head during this time, while speaking to perfectly lovely, well-meaning people.

Trip to the UK 2010 045And now we come full circle, back to Edinburgh, Scotland.

This particular trip began on Interstate I-Suck, and ended in . . . oh, forget it, a map metaphor would be plain stupid here (see, I have learned a bit about craft). I’ll just say it straight: I had a life-altering moment while sitting at a table in the Elephant House.

I realized I was about seven or eight years into my dream of getting an offer from a traditional publisher, the same amount of time it took J.K. Rowling to first get noticed. Had she ever had similar thoughts of doubt? Of course she had. No one works on the same novel for seven years without questioning their ability as a writer, otherwise Rowling would’ve finished it up in six months and mass-submitted to every agent and publisher in the UK. Surely, she had also wondered, “Will all this work be worth it? What if I never get published? Why am I doing this?”

This last question really got to me as I took in a stunning view of Edinburgh Castle, framed perfectly by a large cafe window . . . sitting high atop dark craggy cliffs . . . mysterious and magical . . . and I was reminded of another castle I knew. A castle where I had spent so much time, I could’ve navigated the hallways and moving staircases in the dead of night, with or without the Marauder’s Map. A castle that had made me fall deeply in love with not only children’s literature, but with the idea of creating characters who others would want as their best friends, and fictional worlds that readers would wish they could live in.

Trip to the UK 2010 044_2Hogwarts cast an unbreakable spell on me (and I know I’m not the only one).

I traced it all back, right there at the Elephant House. In the beginning, it was the power of a beautiful story that gave me the desire to be a writer.

So during those long years of doubting anyone would ever find my manuscripts worthy enough to publish, I didn’t write because I still had lofty dreams of becoming a famous author; I continued to write because I’d grown to love it. Writing had become such a significant part of my very being that I couldn’t have let it go if I’d tried. My motivation for improving my manuscripts then evolved into an unshakable desire to create stories about characters who seem real, people who experience genuine joy and pain, heartbreak and love, just like we do. It now came from deep, deep within me.

This difficult period of doubt taught me that good writing doesn’t happen when we type the words, it happens when we feel them.

As I sat in the Elephant House that fateful afternoon, I recalled how Rowling had written on napkins when she ran out of paper, so I wrote something on my own napkin. I was too embarrassed at the time to show anyone what I wrote, but I’ll reveal it now. It simply said, “I am a writer.”

It was about time I at least admitted that to myself.


Crazy enough, all those years of hard work and patience actually did pay off. My debut novel for young adults—NOT IN THE SCRIPT—is being published by Bloomsbury, just like J.K. Rowling’s debut.

For me, it’s a perfect beginning.

((Disclaimer: Don’t read too much into this—I do NOT expect Rowling’s success, nor am I truly comparing myself to her. #ha! #keepinitreal #stillsendingmynoveltoOprah))

Has anyone else out there also had long periods of doubt? If so, how did you get through them? And . . . the all-important question, what/who inspired you to write in the first place?


IMG_0723-2Amy Finnegan writes Young Adult novels and is a host at Her debut novel, NOT IN THE SCRIPT, will be published by Bloomsbury, Fall 2014. You can follow Amy on Twitter @ajfinnegan, and Facebook (Amy Finnegan, Author). She is represented by Erin Murphy.

Just for fun—check out these messages I found on a stall door at the Elephant House (warning, big time plot spoilers here):

Trip to the UK 2010 048_2


Filed under Advice, Advice - Helpful or Otherwise, craft~writing, Introduction, Patience, rejection and success, Writing, Writing and Life

31 responses to “And So Our Story Begins . . .

  1. Honestly, I dont know who to submit my manuscripts to. How do I pick among the many publishers, and how can I approach big timers without an agent? I end up self-publishing because thats the best I can do.

    Who inspired me to write? I’ll have to say God. Since my talent came from him. He is also the one that helps me get through doubts.


    • Jeyna, I *totally* get what you’re saying about not knowing who to submit to. The whole process of traditional publishing can indeed be a mystery. There is no secret formula, no magic bullet manuscript, and certainly no guarantees. Even after a manuscript is sold to a publisher, it could totally flop. Trust me, there are still a lot of unknowns I’m concerned about. And there is nothing at all wrong with self-publishing. You’re getting paid to do something you love, just like someone who is traditionally published. You’re sharing your stories with readers, and in the end, that’s what it should all be about anyway.

      For me, personally, it came down to this: 1) I want to spend the bulk of my time and energy writing, not marketing and hustling. Someone once told me that the hardest work a traditionally published author does on a novel is before it’s released, and the hardest work a self-published author does is after (though a traditionally published author still has a TON of marketing and promotion to do). So I guess you pick your poison?

      2) Revision is a traditionally-published author’s best . . . frenemy. But even though revising is painstaking and often mind-melting, I feel this is when true storytelling starts to take shape. This is when good words become great, and a clever sentence can turn into something unforgettable. Characters come to life during revisions; they become three-dimensional, living, breathing beings. I’d never want it otherwise.

      3) My first or second draft of a manuscript is maybe 50% the “best I can do,” and this seems to be when many self-published writers make their work available (I’m not saying *all* of them; some of them are very good). Had I not had my heart set on traditional publishing, this is what I would’ve done, because I would’ve been eager to release my stories into the wild. But why not go that extra 50% and offer the “very best” I can do?

      So those are points that apply to me, but possibly not to you. If you’re confident that your manuscripts are 100% the best you can do, then for heaven’s sake, do whatever you want with them! If you want to attract a big house publisher, though, what you need is good information about how to submit to respected agents. If you write for children or young adults, start at to find the next writing workshops and/or conference in your area. Definitely attend either the fall or summer SCBWI national conference. You will be well on your way to knowing the “hows” and “whos” of submitting if you do this, and opportunities to do so will also be opened to you. If you write for adults, holy cow, I have no clue! (Who out there knows of a good conference that offers these same benefits for adult writers?)

      Jeyna, I can tell you’re a sincere type of person who just wants to write a good story and share it. There is a lot of right time, right place, right manuscript, in the right hands kind of luck to publishing, and that’s the part that sucks. But you’ll never meet a group of people who are more willing to give good tips than authors are, so you’re not alone. Find some good writing blogs, make some friends, and get involved.

      And most importantly, whether you continue to self-publish or not, just enjoy writing!!

      *I should also add that many traditionally published authors also self-publish some of their work, especially once they get their rights back on an out of print title. Sometimes a story is more of a novella, not a full length work, and sometimes it’s best for an audience smaller than the mass appeal most publishers are looking for. Just follow your gut, Jeyna, and go for it!


      • Thanks for the info! I would like to attend conferences but unfortunately my country has none. All I can do to get my name out there is join competitions by big timers.

        I will still continue writing of course, after all, its all about reaching and inspiring the readers, no matter how many of them 🙂


  2. Amy, thanks for sharing your story. How wonderful to get to visit the old haunt of your idol, and to have your epiphany while there! I hope you still have that napkin. 🙂 I’m really looking forward to NOT IN THE SCRIPT — the ‘net is abuzz already. I’m sure Oprah will love it.

    I have doubt all the time, but . . . well, no but, I guess. I have doubt all the time, period. I’m sure every writer out there can sympathize.


  3. Loved your post, Amy. And what a spot for a writing epiphany! I don’t think the doubt ever goes away, just shifts to different targets. The worst period for me was the three year stretch between finishing the first manuscript and signing with an agent. Having someone who knows the biz on your side makes a huge difference. I’m so looking forward to Not in the Script. Just from your post I can tell it’ll be loads of fun.


  4. What a fantastic intro post, Amy! Like you (and our mutual BFF J.K.), I worked on my book for MANY years (it’ll be 9 from first words written to publication date). I dealt with plenty of self-doubt, which generally resulted in my not working on the manuscript for months at a time (hm, that might have something to do with the 9-year thing!). Now, having an agent and editor who believe in my work is both confidence-inspiring and a little terrifying, since the stakes are raised on any new work I submit to them.

    I can’t wait for NOT IN THE SCRIPT, and more blog posts from you!


  5. This has to be one of the loveliest blog posts EVER. Thank you so much for being so honest with us about your journey to publication! I’m smack dab in the middle of feeling terrible about my novel, and reading this has given me lots of much-needed comfort.

    Also…I hope you have your napkin from Elephant House framed in your office!

    And another also: The first thing I read on the bathroom stall wall when I clicked on the picture was, “RIP Fred.” I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that I promptly burst into tears! I won’t go all “fangirl,” but…the Harry Potter books are beyond wonderful, aren’t they?


    • Thanks, Kim. And I’ll admit, I shed a few tears while reading that stall door. Most of them were happy tears, though. Can you imagine someone liking your books and characters SO much that they write about them on bathroom stall doors? That’s true love 🙂 My favorite on there is this simple message: Harry = Happiness. That just says it all!

      Tara, I love you beyond words. I can’t wait to hang out with you again!

      Jeanne, it IS amazing to have an editor and agent cheering me on, rather than causing me major anxiety whenever I think of submitting to them! I don’t expect the doubt to ever go away, as you said. Unfortunately!


  6. Mike Jung

    Possibly my new favorite blog post of all time. 🙂


  7. Amy, thanks for sharing your story! And to think I was in Edinburgh last year, and I didn’t even know that the cafe was where JK Rowling started writing the Harry Potter books. Big duh and head slap. I’m still trying to get my first picture book picked up by a publisher, and it’s a good reminder that it can take a long time, but it can still happen. (and maybe the Oprah thing too….how does she feel about pandas?)
    Even though I missed The Elephant House, I did get to see the Scottish pandas, so all was not lost!
    thanks again and be the bear.


  8. Amy…Wonderful! You described so many of my feelings. Funny, but I had doubts soon after I signed with Tricia. Whoa, Nelly! I have an awesome agent! She loves my stuff! But, as time goes on, can I deliver?
    I can’t wait to read NOT IN THE SCRIPT! Based on this post, it will be awesome :•)


    • Thanks, Penny!! I keep thinking the same thing, agent and editor wise. That they are soon going to see right through me and realize I’m just a hack. That’s what happens when we’re surrounded by amazingly talented people who we admire. We feel like we pale in comparison. Ah well, keeps us humble, no?


  9. Oh Amy! You have a great story. I hope to see you interviewed on a video at some point. Thanks for this blast from J. K.’s past!


  10. I love this story Amy, thanks for sharing!

    That door is brilliant!


  11. This post was wonderful! It also gave me a sense of intense deja vous, because I took the same writer’s pilgrimage to the Elephant House a few years ago while traveling with some students to the Edinburgh Fringe! I clearly don’t need to explain the power of that moment to you– sitting in the very spot where one of my favorite authors created one of my favorite books! I brought along my (then partially completed) manuscript, hoping some sort of mystical inspiration would bring me a Rowling-worthy epiphany, haha. I’ve since finished that novel, and although I’ve had no traditional publishing offers yet, I haven’t given up… after all, it’s only been four years; maybe seven really is the most powerful number, in publishing as in magic. 😉 In the meantime though, I am bolstered every day by my love for the writing process, and by how it makes me feel so alive! Best of luck with your book, which I look very much forward to reading, and thanks for sharing this experience with the rest of us!


  12. Rachel

    So glad I saw this post on Kim’s Facebook page. The Harry Potter books hold a special place in my heart and probably are one of a few reasons I thought I might like to write for kids. But, choosing the ‘writing life’ has come with rejection, second guessing myself, and periods of despair. Yet I still press on. Thanks for sharing your honest feelings. They are heartfelt. And by that, I mean, my heart has felt them. Congratulations on your upcoming book.


    • Yes, Rachel, the writing life is difficult. There is so much more involved than just writing. Sometimes I have to remember the famous words of Dory the fish: “Just keep swimming!” 🙂

      Thanks for reading my post!


  13. Carol

    Loved this post, Amy! Thanks so much. Can’t wait to read your novel!


  14. What a great post, Amy. Even though I’ve had one published picture book the doubts don’t go away. Sometimes it’s only the love of writing that keeps me going. Still, reading your post makes me realize I need to work harder. Thanks for the kick in the pants. You’re amazing.


  15. Kelsey

    I’ve been working on the same middle grade novel for going on 14 years now and I just JUST realized how to properly explain why there are zombie woodpeckers. lol But I’m okay with it all. Everyone I know knows I’m a writer. I’m a real writer– one that doesn’t give up. One that writes because she has to. One that declares to the world that I haven’t truly failed because I’m still submitting (or planning to submit now that I have to fix the zombie woodpecker thingy lol). My point is, be proud of your passions–at least you’ve got some.


  16. Pingback: What’s Up Wednesday No 14 | Alexa Barry

  17. Rebecca Birkin

    I’m so glad to hear about your success, Amy. I’ve always thought Not in the Script was a book teens would eat up like candy.


  18. Reblogged this on Jessica Burkhart's Blog and commented:
    This is such a fab story of a writer’s journey to publication! 🙂


  19. Pingback: Cover Reveal: Not In The Script by Amy Finnegan

  20. Pingback: Interview with Debut Author, Amy Finnegan | Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers

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