From non-fiction to fiction: Return to The Secret Lake book launch…

This time last year I had my head down writing How to Self-publish and Market a Children’s Book (Second Edition). It was a huge undertaking, and one of which I immensely proud. As with the first edition, feedback has been fantastic since its publication in May 2021. There is a LOT to know about children’s self-publishing and this book really does bring everything under one roof in plain English in the form of a practical reference guide.

The 130+ reviews on the first edition are also worth checking out (still on Amazon but now out of print with old copies being sold by third parties). The new edition includes the same content but updated where necessary and with many extra sections including audiobooks, foreign rights, translation and more.

How to Self-publish and Market a Children’s Book (Second Edition) is based on over 10 years’ experience, almost half a million sales, countless school visits, and translation and foreign rights contracts.

Of course, the challenge with any non-fiction book on self-publishing is how quickly the market changes. This was one of the reasons I turned down a traditional publishing deal to write a book on this topic several years ago; the proposal was for a seven-month lead time. The irony of following that route (and royalty rates) were other factors.

The main change that has come about since last May is the rise of TikTok, which at that time was only just emerging as a social media platform for authors. Beyond one trial TikTok post, I’ve simply not had time to try it out, but I will try to rectify this at some stage soon and add notes in online resources folder that you can link to from How to Self-publish and Market a Children’s Book. In the meantime, I’m sure that searching online will reveal lots about how well it’s working for children’s (as opposed to YA) authors!

Back to the main reason for this post…

Last March I had no idea that by now I would also have planned, written and published the sequel to my international bestseller The Secret Lake but I am thrilled to say that has happened. Truth be told, I’m as surprised as the next person after the 10-year gap!

Available online or to order from your local bookshop

From discovery writing to outlining…

Return to the Secret Lake, which published in early March 2022, comes in at 272 pages and 52,000 words — over twice the length of the first book. Despite this, it actually took half as long to write — another surprise!

The key difference is that, whereas with The Secret Lake I simply sat down with an idea and started writing (that idea being children discovering a time tunnel that led to their home and the children living there 100 years in the past), with Return to the Secret Lake I prepared an outline before starting.

I learned the hard way with The Secret Lake that discovery writing (or ‘pantsing’) time travel stories is fraught with risks, and over the many months I was writing, I found myself going around in circles and having to rewrite huge chunks. Nine months in and it still wasn’t right! It then went into a box for 10 years and was only finally published after several more rounds of editing when I pulled it out again. Timeline issues were definitely part of this.

I have a background in business writing and wouldn’t dream of writing non-fiction without a plan — heaven knows what possessed me to try The Secret Lake without one!

Where I started with Return to the Secret Lake

My outline method for Return to the Secret Lake stemmed from the one thing I knew about the future book, which was that any follow-on story would begin with one of the children coming from the past to the future because of an emergency. This idea had been tumbling around in my mind for years. I also knew that the cover would be of that child standing below Stella’s window in the middle of the night. Just who it was, and why they were there, I wasn’t sure.

My starting point was to immerse myself in Edwardian London through research — reading non-fiction around the social and political history of that time, listening to podcasts, viewing vintage footage on YouTube, visiting museums and so on — looking at transport, social etiquette, politics, medical advances, children’s and women’s rights and so on.

Research phase for Return to the Secret Lake

I had been able to keep my research quite high level for The Secret Lake because Tom and Stella from the present never ventured beyond the inside of their past-time house, and were only there briefly. In the sequel I knew they would be going out in to London, and so needed to paint an authentic picture for young readers of that time through Tom and Stella’s eyes and ears, and through the detail provided by the narrator.

What I loved about this research was diverting off in different directions and discovering little ‘aha’ moments which I knew needed to be in the story in some way, such as the craze of ‘rinking’ in Edwardian time (rollerskating in dedicated rollerskating rinks for those who could afford it), and bylaws being demanded by some to outlaw children rollerskating on pavements. Those children tended to come from poorer backgrounds who couldn’t afford to use the rinks, and I was pleased when reading Hansard reports from 1910-11 to see the young Winston Churchill standing up for them.

Beyond this, I read lots of children’s fiction set during the Victorian and Edwardian periods — both more recently published stories set in that time, and classics such as Oliver Twist, which I realised had never read!

Having filled my creative well with research, and having had several more tingly ‘aha’ moments, I finally felt ready to begin to shape a page-turning story that would be set against the historical backdrop. After brainstorming ideas freeform on paper over a week or so, I used Word’s outline mode to start to map out a structure. This allowed me to create a bird’s eye view of my story in high level bullet points, which I could edit by moving things around using drag and drop. (In Word, choose View > Outline)

I started with key chapters then filled in sub-bullet points for the main scenes within each one. By the time I sat down to write four weeks later there were still some gaps and question marks, but I had a good sense of where the story was going, and knew I had the flexibility still to allow things to change as I wrote. Any major change was reflected by dragging and dropping back in the outline document. In fact, there was one overarching problem in terms of the structure that still needed resolving at the end of my outline phase, but I realised that I needed to get writing to try to sort it out, and that is exactly how I solved it. I drafted the full manuscript in Word. I once tried Srivener but it wasn’t for me, though I know that others swear by it!

Goddards, Surrey ~ I started the first hand edits of Return to the Secret Lake here during a writer’s retreat with friends in November 2021. A great time was had by all. We even had a resident ghost!

By the start of November my first draft was ready — just in time for a Writer’s Retreat I was booked into for five nights at Goddards, an Edwin Lutyens arts and crafts house, built during the Edwardian period. If you look closely you’ll see a box on that long dining table. That contained my manuscript and I did most of my hand edits at that table, though also a little in the main drawing room where you’ll see the papers on the right-hand side of the table. As is always the case, when I started to re-read what I’d written I had a sinking ‘What was I thinking?’ feeling. We’ve all been there…!

I got there in the end though, and by the time I handed my final manuscript to my editor in early January I was pretty pleased with what I had. Thankfully, so was she.

Why wait so long to write the sequel to The Secret Lake?

Many children and teachers have asked me over the years if I was going to write a sequel and I always said, ‘Only when I’m sure it can be as magical as the first story.’ It took exactly 10 years finally to put pen to paper. As well as having so much else on with my other books (which tend to come to me and demand to be written!), I think it was the fear of failing that stopped me trying sooner. In short, I didn’t want to ‘spoil’ the first book by writing a sequel for the sake of it only to find that it didn’t measure up.

It so happened that the timing was perfect after How to Self-publish and Market a Children’s Book (Second Edition) was finally out. For the first time in years my desk was suddenly clear — so it was a case of ‘now or never’. Once I started writing everything felt right. It was wonderful to reconnect with my characters who had been waiting so patiently — and to meet a few new ones who popped up unexpectedly…

Advance readers and early feedback

Over the years I’ve built up a mailing list over my author website and I used this to recruit a small team of a dozen or so advance readers. This was a mixture of children, teachers and parents. It also included a few children’s authors on my list or whom I know personally.

Once the book was as good as I could make it — including taking in all of my editor’s comments —I sent the uncorrected proof copy out offering a month in which to read and hopefully be prepared to review at launch if they enjoyed the story. I also gave children the chance to have ‘review snippets’ appear inside the front cover if they enjoyed the book. Happily the feedback was overwhelmingly positive and I have been able to include those children’s snippets as planned.

I was also pleased to receive extremely positive feedback from two primary school teachers who were sharing the book with their Y4 and Y5 classes. These teachers had previously written to me to say how much their classes were enjoying The Secret Lake, so I made a point of emailing them individually to ask if they’d like to join my advance team. I’m sure you’re doing it already, but, in short, make use of your warm contacts and biggest fans for your book launches.

Below are a couple of review snippets from my advance team.

“Immerses the reader in the early 1900s and is really thought provoking for middle-grade readers. A great fictional adventure and an excellent choice for connecting history with reading for pleasure.” ~ Michelle Gilbert, Primary teacher and Year 4 Book Club lead

“This book will keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish! Each chapter brings new challenges, which the children face with determination and mastermind ideas. I loved their quick thinking and wittiness. But what stood out most was how much they cared for and looked out for each other.” ~ Méabh ~ Aged 11 bookwork and YouTuber

You can follow this link to read more about Return to the Secret Lake’s and its plotline, and to see more early reviews.

Watch this space

I have no idea how well Return to the Secret Lake will do in relation to Book 1. The Secret Lake is a very hard act to follow in terms of sales, and its sequel is a much longer book, so I’m expecting reviews to come in more slowly and sales to be more gradual. What I do know is that the story more than measures up to its predecessor, so I shan’t lie awake at night worrying about that. From the feedback so far others seem to feel the same way, which is a huge relief!

The Secret Lake sales and reviews — a question I’m often asked

As you may know, I first self-published The Secret Lake back in September 2011 and for the first few years hand-sold most of my copies at school events and book signings. Amazon advertising wasn’t an option for self-published authors in those days, so gaining visibility there was impossible.

By the end of 2017 I had sold around 7,000 print copies and a few thousand eBooks. However, the moment Amazon advertising opened up I saw the sales start to rise online and the rest is history. Given the feedback the book had received at schools this didn’t surprise me though I never dreamt it would go on to sell in the numbers it has. At the latest count it had sold over 440,000 print copies on Amazon alone and over 25,000 kindle copies. Globally it now has over 12,000 reviews. I also sell to high street bookshops through separate print runs via Clays with Gardners wholesalers acting as distributor. This is all covered in my non-fiction book.

Still Pond in Isabella Plantation, Richmond Park ~ the inspiration for the lake in the Secret Lake

I am often asked how I’ve sold so many, and how I’ve managed to get so many reviews on Amazon. I can honestly say there is no secret sauce. I have never made the eBook free. And I have never (ever ever) paid for a review for The Secret Lake — all I can think is that it’s word of mouth, which in turn means that it’s the story that is resonating with children around the world, and enough for them to want to leave a review and, crucially, tell all their friends.

Of course, like all good indie authors I do ask at the end of the book if they will leave a review, as it helps other families find the story. Hopefully you are doing this too! If you aren’t then go and add this to the back of your book. Again, this and much more, with wording examples, is all in my non-fiction book.

Beyond this all I can say, is write from the heart and write the very best book you can. Don’t rest until you are sure that all those niggles and plot weaknesses have been ironed out. And, of course, use a professional editor and cover designer.

Once your book is out, the marketing starts… This is a whole other topic covered in detail in my non-fiction book! This blog post is already too long so best I leave it at this!

That’s it for now — with two major projects out of the way I hope to blog here a bit more often. In the meantime if you or your children buy and enjoy Return to the Secret Lake, please do take a moment to leave a short review on Amazon and/or Goodreads or your other preferred online site. Thank you so much! And if you’re a children’s author just starting out or struggling with marketing, do check How to Self-publish and Market a Children’s Book (Second Edition).

Here’s hoping the world will be a safer place when I next write here.


About kareninglis

Writer of children's fiction. Copywriter and web content strategist.
This entry was posted in Children's Books, Marketing, self publishing, The Secret Lake, Writing & Editing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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