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  • Writer's pictureElnora Gunter

It's Just A Thriller!: Paula Gleeson

Updated: Feb 12

It's close to the weekend

And something with a C or O is lurking in your mind

Under the Gmail tab

You see a notification that almost stops your heart

You try not to scream

But excitement makes the sound before you stop it

You start to freeze

As horror looks you right between the eyes

You're paralyzed

'Cause this is a coupon, a coupon, 50% off one-time sale

And no it's not that offer or request for a phone call

You know it's not THAT email you wanted

You're fighting for your life inside a querying or submission hell (pelvic thrust MJ style)

But what happens when the fight stops and you iron-claw your way into a #pubwin. Read on to find out how Paula Gleeson did just that!

1.Welp, the first question is the one all in the writing community love to know! What’s the story of your publication journey (agent- first published book)? 

My publishing journey started when my Grade 4 teacher told my parents I had a gift for writing stories. Boy did I take that feedback and run with it. And by run with it, I did nothing seriously for decades—deciding to pursue a career in film/TV instead. 

At an age where I should be well and truly settled into my career until retirement, I decided to give writing a real shot back in 2017. I started out writing what would now be a version of my debut ORIGINAL TWIN (back then it was called THE GEMINI TWINS). 

Living in Australia, with a much smaller pool of agents, I quickly had to navigate the US publishing world and did so by joining the, at the time, thriving writing community on Twitter. I started querying agents with my adult mystery/thriller and very quickly got feedback that I had written a young adult book and had I considered that market. I hadn’t! I didn’t even know much about the YA space. So I took all the agent feedback and decided to see if I could write a YA specific book from scratch, which I did. 

I got into a mentorship program called YA4YA with that manuscript and when I queried it, got multiple offers. Yay! I was set. Dear reader, I was not even close to set. As I was doing revisions with my agent to go on submission, this agent unfortunately went through a breakdown of sorts and was quickly fired. The whole thing was horribly handled by the agency, so I got out of my contract and decided to query again. This would mean a whole new manuscript. A YA contemporary with mystery elements. Lots of requests. No offers. So I wrote another YA mystery. A 70% request rate, but no offer. So I went back to my very first manuscript GEMINI TWINS, aged that down to YA. Rinse, repeat. 

Tired yet? Yeah, me too! I figured I would need to write another manuscript, this time a middle grade contemporary and started querying that as well. Did I feel like getting my first agent was a fluke by this stage? You betcha! I was exhausted, defeated. I wanted to give up multiple times. Not to mention I was incredibly burnt out from writing five manuscripts in a matter of years.

Only, something exciting happened. An agent I had queried passed over my YA mystery to a colleague and this colleague loved it and could we get on a call? I mean, YES! This call would lead me to my current agent, Gwen Beal from UTA. I knew I had finally found my advocate and it was well worth the wait. 

We went out with my YA mystery, called MIXTAPE MURDER, and it got a great response. This was it! I could feel it. Only, after going to acquisitions multiple times, it didn’t get an offer—granted I knew the unique structure was going to be hard but this was really heartbreaking. 

I did have some feedback that resonated though: did I have any adult manuscripts that might be easier to get across acquisitions? I did! But I’d aged GEMINI TWINS down to YA, remember? Blah! So I pulled the very first manuscript I ever wrote and queried and I rewrote it from scratch. I still kept my late-teen protagonists but I wrote it for an adult market. I did this during the pandemic, while going through a divorce and couch surfing (1/10 do not recommend). 

My agent and I polished that rewrite up and got it back on submission. In two months, I had a six-figure, two book deal with one of the editors who had specifically asked to see my adult projects. After writing multiple other books it would be the first one that would end up as my debut: ORIGINAL TWIN. So the hustle and pivoting was worth it—but yikes what a journey to get here. No wonder I am debuting as an old fart (insert “it was 84 years” meme here.) You probably aged a few years just reading about it. Sorry about that. Can I offer you an eye cream before we proceed?

2. Your forthcoming novel, THE ORIGINAL TWIN, follows the disappearance of a twin sister and is cimped to authors as Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbot! Please tell us more about the inspiration behind this book. Was it based on a  real crime? A dream? Where did the idea sprout?

It began with a whisper, late one night. A persistent girl. Saying she had a story to tell me and to pay attention because she wasn’t the most reliable of narrators. Oh, and she had a twin sister. 

Their names were May and June, one born just before midnight on May 31st and the other just after on June the 1st. That’s where it all began. I knew nothing else. May whispered to me all the time, telling me her twin was missing and she had to find her. So I started writing. Having no idea what this weird tale was about. Then June came in, not whispering but yelling that she wanted to tell her story too and it wasn’t just about May. They were a handful those sisters but I listened and slowly a whole book appeared. I’d like to think it was my own sister who sent May to me. She always knew I wanted to be a writer and, when I lost her when she was eighteen, I missed that sister connection so badly it felt like I’d left a piece of me had gone with her, never to return. Writing about sisters, with a mystery at its core was exactly how it was meant to be for my first published novel.

3. Your books fall under the thriller genre. A genre that usually follows a very specific plot structure and beats. What is your go-to for plotting within this genre? Does it lend itself more to plotters or pantsers?

Okay, look away if you’re hoping for some easy go-to solution here because my writing is pure chaos. Haha. It usually starts with a high concept idea like my YA mystery MIXTAPE MURDER: “a girl hears a cry for help on a mixtape,” for example. I know nothing beyond that. I will then ask my characters to come and say hi, tell me their secrets. The characters are always how I am guided by the plot and story. It’s also how I choose whose POV (or multiple POVs) I am going to write in. So for this book, the girl on the tape came first. I knew she was dead and her timeline would be in the past. Then came the girl in the present who heard the tape. What was the connection? The car she hears the tape in and they both receive the same car on their seventeenth birthdays, thirty years apart. That’s it, that’s all I need to know to start writing and complete a whole book. I never know the ending, who the killer is, how everyone is connected, or anything in between. I only know my main character/s and start there. They tell me everything, I trust them, and when the reader finds out any twists or the killer’s identity is also when I find out. I guess that’s why my books are always character heavy because they whisper in my ear and I type it all down blindly. Yep, pure chaos but if I even try and plot and think I know better than my characters then I have a mutiny on my hands. And by mutiny, I get shocking writer’s block. Not even pizza helps. I know, terrible! I wish I could plot, I really do—it would save me lots of angst and wrangling of characters but as Popeye said: “I yam what I yam.”

4. When thinking of the thriller audience, how do you think an author should go about catering to those wants and not slipping into more of what a mystery or suspense reader would want?

Let’s be honest, I mainly write mystery and it’s always going to be labelled thriller because of how the market likes to shelve things—and that’s okay! For me, it is always about getting that first draft down and not worrying what sub-genre I am technically writing in. That first draft is just for me and my characters. We get to know each other, I trust them even if I don’t understand it and I have faith that there will be enough of a foundation for the mystery/thriller and not to worry about this until I revise. It’s in revisions I might start considering the reader, but not always. I know enough about story structure and mystery/thriller beats from reading this genre since I was a little girl to know what works and what doesn’t. I also like subverting where possible but without it being a cheat. I think too that the line between mystery, suspense, and thriller has really spilled over in recent years and most things are called a thriller these days when it probably isn’t. No biggie. I don’t worry about that and focus on writing the story I want to write. As long as a book can be shelved in the right area, it will usually find its correct audience and looking too far ahead means I write for the reader first and myself second. Never a good idea. 

5. Do you think there is a separation between mystery and thriller and suspense, or a book that just contains elements of those genres? If so, what is it? Should these books be marketed toward the same audience?

I mentioned this in the previous answer, but it bears repeating. Mystery, thriller, and suspense are technically different but will always be categorised together and readers will gravitate to these types of stories no matter what they are called. This is a good thing as it means that more readers are finding books within these genres. My book literally has “A Thriller” on the cover, yet it is actually a mystery. I also know, for example, when my debut comes out it will be shelved in some bookstores under “crime”. So what? As long as all these genres are being shelved together, it doesn’t matter what we call it. There’s plenty of murder and mayhem for everyone.

6. How do you continuingly come up with twists and turns as a thriller writer? What ways do you keep things fresh-feeling as opposed to “yeah, I saw this in such and such and this is probably about to happen”?

My twists always come from my characters. They surprise me all the time. Just as I think I know how my story is going to go, they blindside me. I’ve tried to pre-plan twists and fantastical endings before and they always fall flat or I get blocked badly. I don’t think about other books or film/TV projects as I write, I am completely immersed in my own world and with my own characters. In revisions, I might consider if anything in other projects is close to the story I’ve just written but I don’t worry about it too much. Story ideas and concepts have been done to death (pun intended) and it will always be the characters that keep it fresh. If my characters are whispering their secrets to other authors at the same time—well, then I am in big trouble. 

7. While U.S. traditional publishing isn't the world's only publisher, it is the dominant publisher that has the most resources and probably the better financial compensation for authors. With this being said, as an author living in Australia how do you keep a finger on the pulse of the American publishing industry? How can international authors keep up with an industry that is not based in their home country?

This is a great question and is ever evolving, to be honest. When I first dipped my toe into the US publishing industry, I learnt a lot from Twitter. The writing community, including agents and editors, aren’t as active on Twitter anymore though, so now I get most of my information from author Discord or Slack groups. Getting free email alerts from Publisher’s Weekly is also a good way to keep up with all forms of publishing news. I used to think me being in Australia would be a hinderance, but I’ve realised that it isn’t unless I let it. My agent is based in the US, so is my publisher. They understand that time zones need to be considered or that I will have different requests because of being Australian, but this is very common and a lot of authors are based all over the world. Yes, it’s a massive learning curve to research overseas agents and publishing trends etc… but it’s no different from trying to get a new job in any industry and researching the good and bad about companies and their players. My biggest advice to anyone pursuing a career in publishing—no matter where they live in the world—is find community. Be that on social media, via mentorships, or interacting with other writers who you think you might align with—don’t be shy, I only bite if there’s pizza in your hand.

8. What are your writerly forms of self- care?

I have three: pizza, tea (wine), and my doggo. If I have a bad writing day, which is often, I don’t sweat it anymore and move onto something else creative or do all the business crap I need to do as an author (marketing, taxes, social media, emails, more marketing, all the bloody marketing). That way I still feel like I am being productive in my “procrastination” and don’t fixate on how many words I didn’t write that day.

Ok, now it’s time for the ‘fun’ questions!

9. Your dream book birthday would take place at

  1. The Sydney Opera House with special song performed by Hugh Jackman

  2. Radio Hall in NYC with Baz Luhrman presenting a music video trailer of your book 

  3. A garden party in the Royal Botanic gardens with Gillian Flynn hosting the tea

No fair!! Sobs Fine, I’m going to say B because I love the visual medium as much as books, plus Hugh Jackman would totes be invited anyway because he is mates with Baz, and Gillian Flynn could be my plus one and we would ditch the tea for the snazzy cocktails Baz would have on offer and become instant best friends. (Yeah I cheated, sue me.)

10. Unpopular book or writing opinion?

Yikes. Most of them. Haha. You do you. Everyone’s journey is different. Everyone’s headspace is different. And if you don’t want to write every day, don’t. Most of writing isn’t writing at all. It’s all the walks, showers, listening to music, playing video games, watching horror movies, staring at walls etc… that helps get those words onto the page. I hang out with my characters for a long time before I even consider writing and sometimes they go away and new ones come and I have to pivot to the next project and it’s pure chaos. Do what works for you—chaos is optional.


Paula writes mysteries and thrillers for all ages, usually with multiple twists and complicated females at the helm. She is an award-winning filmmaker and nominated non-fiction writer. She lives just outside of Melbourne, Australia and is often found in her pj’s, drinking tea (wine), and watching horror movies snuggled between her doggo and a big cheese pizza. Her debut thriller, ORIGINAL TWIN, releases May 28th, 2024.

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