An open letter to the writer who told me I’d likely NEVER be published

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Hello,

While I was going through some papers I found a report you’d written on my first novel and as I read it I felt incredibly sad. You probably won’t remember it, or me, but in 2015 you almost crushed my dreams.

Almost.

I’d longed to be a writer much of my life but, always lacking in confidence, being published seemed unachievable. I didn’t have a degree, any A Levels. I didn’t have the courage to sign up for a writing course.

In my 30’s an accident left me with a disability and my life radically changed. I then spent several years struggling with chronic pain, and my mood until I started writing a story, then entitled ‘Dear Grace’ about best friends, Grace, and Charlie.

For the first time in a long time, I felt I had something to get up for. A purpose. Often I was awake throughout the night, lonely and uncomfortable but now I had my manuscript – a world I could escape to and I escaped often.

I felt a feeling of immense pride when I finished my first draft but then came a bereavement, one of the people I loved most in the world suddenly gone. My depression came crashing back and I didn’t write for a long, long time.

In 2015 I reread my story and a tiny ember of hope began to smoulder. I thought it had potential but I was plagued with self-doubt.

Could I write?

Who could I ask?

It took much courage, several glasses of wine and all of our savings to send my manuscript off to a well-known organisation who offered critiques. When I heard you would be reading my story – someone who reviewed books for a living – I felt delighted.

Until I received your feedback.

Your report started by saying Writing fiction is a long hard slog for anyone and the chances of getting published are very slim.

Immediately I felt deflated, stupid for ever thinking I could achieve my dream. Assuming that for you to have told me it was unlikely I’d ever get published when I hadn’t asked for your advice nor was it something the agency listed as including in the report, must mean my writing was bad.

Very bad.

After your feedback on my story which you weren’t keen on, you ended your letter with ‘you show some flair but I think, bluntly, you need to face up to how difficult it is to get published. You may want to consider self-publishing. Traditional book deals from publishers are increasingly hard to come by. I’m sorry not to be more encouraging and I wish you the best.

Tears rolled down my face as I packed away my manuscript and my dreams for another six months as I spiralled back into depression.

I am writing this to let you know that dreams are fragile and hope easily extinguished. I googled you before I began writing this post and you still critique for the same agency. Please, please think twice before telling someone how impossible it is to be published if they haven’t asked you for publishing advice. You just might make them feel they aren’t good enough to write. Not everyone has an endgame of seeing their words in print and if they do not everyone is chasing a traditional deal. You never know what led them to the story they want to tell and what it means to them. I overcame depression largely because of my characters and it was something I enjoyed. You made me think I was wasting my time. That I shouldn’t. I couldn’t.

But I did.

‘Dear Grace’ became ‘The Sister’ and it went on to spend several weeks at No.1 in various countries, quickly sold well over half a million copies, has been translated into 25 languages and nominated for an award. Three other novels have followed, all with huge success. My fifth is due to be published this October.

Publishing is so subjective and although you thought I couldn’t, I’m so pleased I found a publisher who thought I could.

And for any writers reading this, don’t let anyone lead you to believe that you can’t and if they do, prove them wrong.

From Louise

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What’s a writing mentor & why would you need one?

 

When I began writing my debut, The Sister, I was lucky enough to secure a place on the fabulous WoMentoring scheme which pairs fledgling female writers with experienced mentors. My experience working through my first few chapters with the super kind, and endlessly patient Louise Walters was hugely beneficial and I blogged about that here and here. Now, with four novels under my belt I’m paying it forward by mentoring through the scheme. Although I’ve been drawing on my own experience as a mentee I wanted to make sure I was offering my mentees the right help and support, and so I signed up for a ‘Learn to Mentor’ course with Cathy Grindrod via the amazing Writing East Midlands. I got a huge amount out of the course, both personally and professionally, and am delighted Cathy is joining me today for a chat about mentoring.

Cathy, when I first applied for a mentor via The WoMentoring Project, I wasn’t really sure what one was or what to expect. How would you explain it?

A Mentor is someone who is skilled in and has good experience of whatever area the mentee needs help with. There are a few definitions, but in essence, it’s guiding someone to achieve their own goals and to overcome whatever obstacles they feel are in their way.

And everyone must have different obstacles?

Exactly. It’s a different process for each mentee, because each person has unique needs and ways of working. Mentoring usually has a specific focus – in my case, writer progress, but progress in the context of the writer’s wider life balance, rather than centred just on the work on the page.

My initial hope was that Louise Walters would help me write my book! That said she was very hands on with editing. I learned a lot from her feedback.  Do you feel editing is part of mentoring?

To my mind, editing suggests that the relationship is about the mentor helping the writer to restructure a piece of work and focuses on the words on the page. Mentoring can include an element of helping a writer to shape work and discussing their concerns. It can also include feedback on specific pieces of work if required, but is only a part of the process, if involved at all. If a writer wants my opinion on a piece of work, we discuss more about what is actually needed from me and my goal is to move the writer towards having confidence in their OWN editing process, so that they can become a better writer and editor of their own work.

And that makes a better writer?

Exactly. A mentee learns far more about writing in this way, than someone imposing a structure on their work without looking at what the writer is really seeking from the process.

Do people also get confused between mentoring and manuscript assessments?

They can but at the start of their sessions we set up a joint contract so we’re both clear about what they expect from the process. This can include looking at work if the writer wants it, but this will become a much wider discussion than a simple assessment (as I would give in a writer surgery, for example) and will be short pieces of work  I read in between sessions, rather than, for example, a whole manuscript assessment, which for me, is a different process from mentoring.

My heart sunk during the course when you said those dreaded two words – ‘role play’ but being the mentee and talking through my frustrations with writing led me to completely overhaul the way I work. I’m more focused and productive and am much better at time management than I was. Before this, I’d have thought mentoring was better suited to new writers but this isn’t the case, is it?

 No. It’s common to be approached by people who have been writing for some time, often attending writing groups and workshops/courses, before they seek mentoring. This means they know the territory, something of how the writing world works, and are at a point where they want to progress further but don’t know how or don’t feel they are able to without help. This isn’t always the case, though.

Do you think mentoring works better when the mentee has some experience?

I think it works best when a writer has a good grasp of the basics of writing technique and understands that writing is a continuing apprenticeship and has a realistic view of where they might pitch themselves and what success constitutes for them (success as a writer is a different concept for every writer, and does not always involve wanting publication. However, I have recently mentored people who are much more at the beginning of their journey, in one case simply wanting to find a way to edit work better and to enjoy editing rather than always dreading it. I have also mentored people who are writing in isolation, where signposting and supporting as they join others to write and gain feedback becomes a large part of the mentoring process. Often mentoring works best when people reach a point of change or ‘stuckness’ and want to move forward but need guidance to do so. I think rather than being at a ‘stage of your writing life’ when you can most benefit from mentoring you need to be at a ‘stage in your thinking’ where you have formed a good idea of what you want to achieve as a writer and what your goals might be before you start the mentoring relationship.

 That’s great. So if someone has decided to look for a monitor, what questions should they ask?

Beyond the obvious – charges, length of sessions, process etc – you will need to know something about the mentor in terms of their writing, their experience and their approach. You should check that their idea of ‘mentoring’ is the kind of mentoring you want – particularly that it is goal oriented and not completely focused on your work on the page. Finding the right mentor is crucial to your development – do meet first. Often mentors are able to offer a ‘getting to know you’ free initial meeting. Your instincts often tell you what is right for you. I would always be happy to be asked by a potential mentee ‘tell me about what you do and about your writing’.

 Once you’ve found the right mentor, how is it structured?

I can’t speak for everyone but mentoring normally takes place over a period of months, typically a six session package over 6-12 months with a free initial chat about what is required, to gain background and an idea of how you might work together. I largely prefer to offer one to one sessions in person of up to 2 ½ hours each time, but other mentors also work by skype and telephone.

I mentor because I’ve been a mentee and it changed my life, giving me the tools and confidence to write a publishable book . Why do you mentor and have you ever been a mentee? 

I was offered a series of sessions with a mentor as part of my early career as a Literature Development Officer. I was also a writer. It was about life balance and achieving my own goals as well as helping others and how to approach this. It was the single most useful intervention I have ever received – specific to me, delivered by a person who knew the territory well, and made me focus on myself and my own needs, sometimes challenging me to look further, and causing me to change the way I thought about myself and my writing. When Mentor Training was offered by National Association of Writers in Education, I jumped at the chance to learn more about mentoring others, as I believed in it so totally as a process.

I can tell by the way you taught our course so passionately, how much you enjoy it.

I do! Mentoring work suits me because I have always enjoyed meeting and working with different people and working alongside a mentee for a sustained period of time is always a privilege. The worlds of writing and emotional health are the worlds I am most interested in, and although I am in the guiding role as a mentor, I also learn a lot from the people I am mentoring, and this feeds back into developing my process.

Lastly, Cathy. What’s the most common obstacle you see writers face?

It’s keeping faith in their writing and themselves and because I know this territory well in my own practice, I can use my own experience to inform the conversation.

Haha – me too! Thanks so much for your time.

Find out more about Cathy, or contact her via her website.

Cathy Grindrod is an experienced Creative Writing facilitator, mentor and life coach. She is a former University of Nottingham Creative Writing Lecturer and was awarded an Honorary MLitt by Derby University in 2014 for her work to promote wellbeing  through writing across Derbyshire communities. She runs The Writer Highway™ –a programme of writer support for people who love creative writing, wish to progress and want to give themselves and their writing more time and space. After 25 years as a successfully published and broadcast writer of poetry, plays and memoir, including a term as Derbyshire’s Poet Laureate, she has experienced all the joys and pitfalls of the writing life, and now enjoys sharing all she has discovered about writing and wellbeing with other writers.

 

 

 

What REALLY happens at an author Christmas party… #HQmasParty

Authors are often solitary creatures, introverted. Much of our days spent alone with only a laptop (and in my case a cat) for company.

B A Paris & Louise Jensen

Every so often there’s a chance to get out, a literary festival, a bookish event, a party. Today, was my publisher’s author Christmas bash and it felt odd to be discarding my pyjamas in favour of real, actual, normal clothes (if you can call tinsel, Rudolph earrings and a present fascinator normal clothes.)

Darren O’Sullivan

Alice Feeney, Louise Jensen

An author party isn’t just an excuse for drinking (okay it is a bit). It’s a chance to catch up with old friends and make some new. To connect. To realise that however alone we can sometimes feel, we all have the same fears, not matter what stage of writing we are at; that we’ll run out of ideas; that our current book won’t be as well received as out last. We all have the same love/hate relationship with our current WIP.

Louise Mangos & Roz Watkins

After a civilised start to the evening, with a gorgeous meal in the London Bridge Hotel, we headed over to the News Building, which houses Harper Collins. On the 17th floor we were met by caterers with glasses of prosecco and canapés and gazing out across the stunning river views I felt a million miles from home.

Lisa Hall, Louise Jensen, Darren O’Sullivan

The writing community is super supportive and one I’m very grateful to be part of. Tomorrow even though I’ll be back in my editing cave, back in my pyjamas, I’ll know I’m not alone.

Louise Jensen & Darren O’Sullivan

Vicky Newham & B A Paris

Louise Jensen & Roz Watkins

Darren O’Sullivan, Lisa Hall, Louise Jensen, Alice Feeney, Mel McGrath, Louise Mangos

Phaedra Patrick & Lisa Hall

B A Paris, Phaedra Patrick, Louise Jensen, Diane Jeffrey, Sally Gardner

How many authors can you fit in a lift..?

5 reasons why I LOVE book bloggers

 

It upset me greatly recently that there was a flurry of scathing posts on Twitter regarding book bloggers.  Partly because I loathe any kind of negativity (my Twitter bio states ‘In a world where you can be anything, BE KIND’) but mostly because I’ve got to know many book bloggers over the past couple of years and they are honestly amongst the nicest people I’ve met.

Here are five reasons why I LOVE book bloggers.

1) As a reader, I often found myself browsing book shops feeling confused and overwhelmed.  There are SO many books (and I’m incredibly indecisive) it was almost impossible to make a choice. I’m a slow reader, averaging two books a month and with such a low quantity, quality is imperative. I’ve a selection of book bloggers now I always turn to when looking for recommendations. They have similar tastes to me and I trust their judgement completely. If they say a book is brilliant, I buy it. I’ve never been disappointed.

2) Pre book-bloggers I was stuck in a bit of a reading rut. I knew the genre I most enjoyed and was hesitant to step outside of it. My trusted book bloggers have opened my eyes, raving about stories I’d never have found on my own. I now adore young adult fiction, historical and I’ve even read some dystopian books which I’d never have bought without such glowing reviews. I don’t think I even knew what dystopian was…

3) I’m a writer, so I’m going to be honest and say how much bloggers have helped me gain visibility. I signed a book deal for my debut with a small, but fast growing, publisher with a limited budget for marketing.  The publicity manager arranged a blog tour for me and soon, to my utter delight, my cover was prominent on all social media channels. Even if not everyone read the blog posts, although I know many do, seeing the same image over and over is hugely beneficial when a reader is scrolling through Amazon and instantly recognises a cover.  My sales grew through word of mouth. I really don’t think I’d have sold over a million books if it wasn’t for the support of book bloggers and for that I am hugely grateful.

4) Book bloggers have helped me improve my writing. I’ve never had much confidence in myself and I’d never been in a position where I could afford to do a writing course but I was so eager to learn my craft. Looking through some of the Amazon and Goodreads reviews can be soul destroying but I’ve found reviews from book bloggers to be really beneficial. Not everyone who blogs about one of my stories loves them, and that’s okay. What I’ve found is the majority of reviews are fair and constructive. I’ve welcomed that constructive criticism and used it to tighten my writing, develop my characters. To make each book better than the last.

5) Lastly, but by no means least, I love the sense of community and friendship there is within the blogging world. As a blogger myself, although I rarely now review books, I’ve made some life long friends, many of whom I’ve now met in real life (usually at a bar…) Most book bloggers don’t get paid for reviewing books, they give up massive amounts of time because they are passionate about stories. As a child I thought there was something wrong with me. I was the only one in my family who read. I was so utterly absorbed in stories the characters became my friends, their world became mine. To discover there are a multitude of readers who love stories as much as I do has made me feel I fit it. I have found my tribe. That tribe are book bloggers. Leave them alone!

When book events are about SO much more than books

A few months ago I was asked by Ian Loveland if I’d like to participate in an event to both raise money for, and awareness of my local library. It’s been heartbreaking to hear of the planned closure of so many libraries in our county and I was thrilled to be able to do something, however small, to help. Three other authors Sue Moorcroft, Darren O’Sullivan and Mark West also agreed to give up their time.

Tentatively we hoped if we all spent lots of time promoting the event we could sell enough tickets to bring in a decent crowd of people, more than the library could comfortably seat. The Core Theatre, who shares a building with the library, offered us a room. Corby Radio said they would market the event for free and helped us record an advert they played regularly leading up to the evening.

Last night, us authors arrived with boxes of books and mountains of hope that we’d have more of an audience than just my mum who was the first to arrive. We needn’t have worried. The event was sold out. The atmosphere electric.

Joe Flavin, Director of The Core chaired our panel and asked his first question about writing. As I scanned the room I was overwhelmed with gratitude. With emotion. A lump rose in my throat and I felt tears prick the back of my eyes. I knew this evening wasn’t solely about our stories or how we construct them. It was about people. Our community.

The seed of an idea from the library had sprouted thanks to the support of the theatre, both organisations supporting local writing. In turn, writers supporting the theatre and the library. Corby Radio supporting us all. Many of the theatre staff had volunteered their time. The people of our county buying tickets, nurturing both local talent and the wonderful resources our town has to offer.

As a community we share more than a geographical location. As human beings we all crave contact, a sense of belonging. Forming connections is essential to mental health and well being. It is through our communities we can seek comfort through difficult times. Find a light in the midst of the dark places.

The theatre, the library, hearing that familiar voice come through your radio saves us from alienation and isolation. Helps us to find each other.

Last night there was a real sense of coming together in a world that is pulling apart.

It wasn’t just about books.

It was about love and friendship.

It was about home.

The BIG editing lesson I learned writing The Surrogate #WritingTips

Today is the UK paperback publication of my third psychological thriller, The Surrogate (US paperback publication will follow later this year).  Although I’ve learned from every book, it was this one in particular where my editor gave me a piece of advice that has always stayed with me.

When I shared with my sister that I’d be writing a book about surrogacy she told me that she though the subject was too limiting. That the story would be predictable. I was determined to prove her wrong.

The Surrogate features Kat and Lisa, childhood friends, and Kat’s husband, Nick. They are all keeping dark and damaging secrets. I never plan when I write. I had a vague idea of who might be bad and who might be good but as I got deeper into the story the characters pulled me in unexpected directions. The plot became more complex than anything I thought I was capable of constructing.

As the ending gathered pace I layered twist upon twist, they tumbled onto the page as they tumbled out of my head, until finally the story reached its dramatic conclusion.

Nervously, I sent it over to my editor.

‘This is a phenomenal story’ her feedback began, ‘but…’ my heart sank ‘you’re not giving your twists time to breathe.’

I wasn’t entirely sure what she meant until I reread my manuscript. There wasn’t time to process each revelation before another one hit. It had been exhausting writing it. It was equally exhausting reading it. Rather than the pacy, hard hitting ending I thought I’d written it was confusing, lurching from one reveal to another.

She suggested taking out several twists which I was reluctant to do, so I set about rewriting the end.

For the twist she’d classed as ‘the big one’ I ensured I had no other reveals in this chapter. For other twists I moved a couple so they were away from the end. For most I lengthened the chapters so they weren’t so crammed together, particularly the epilogue which contains several.

Rereading it, I could see the difference. There was time to rest back, to process the turns of the story before it once more turned on its head.

There’s nothing I like more than pulling the rug from under the readers feet. To lead them to think they’ve got it all figured out when they haven’t. My stories always contain multiple twists. Now I’ll always give them time to breath.

You can read the opening of The Surrogate here and buy it on your local Amazon here. It is also now available in Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s & all good book shops.

The valuable lesson I learned on my writing retreat

In 2015 I nervously went on a ‘How to create a submission package’ retreat at Wentworth Castle. I’d finished my first novel and although I didn’t feel quite brave enough to send it out into the world, I wanted to explore my options if I one day I drank enough wine to actually sum up the courage to share it.

Ali Harper and Anna Chilvers were the tutors and after reading the opening for The Sister, felt it would glean much interest and after running through the pros and cons of agents, publishers and self-publishing, encouraged me to craft a query letter and gave me tips on writing the dreaded synopsis. I went home believing, not that I could, but that I might, and I held tightly onto that kernel of hope until the day came when I did drink enough wine to press send on the submission emails that had been languishing in my draft Hotmail folder.

Fast forward three years, four books published, nineteen translation deals and a million sales later I was delighted to be invited back to Wentworth Castle to talk to Anna and Ali’s new students on their ‘Writing Fearlessly’ retreat about my bumpy journey to publication. I spoke about the group I was part of in 2015. How the 15 other students and I were passionate about writing but never believed it would happen for us. How being an author always seemed too far out of reach.  I shared my experience  – how extraordinary things can happen to ordinary people if you can pick yourself up after the inevitable knock backs, always be willing to listen to constructive criticism and never, ever stop writing.

It was in the bar afterwards (where else would you find a bunch of writers) a lovely lady shared with me that she never wanted to be published and had no intention of ever trying to be. ‘I write for myself’ she said ‘for the love of it, because it brings me so much happiness.’

I paused. Lowered my glass and remembered how it felt to write The Sister, with no hopes or expectations, just the pure joy of spending time with my characters. How writing lifted me out of clinical depression and gave me a purpose. I still love writing, of course I do or I’d choose another career but sometimes caught up with the deadlines, the marketing, the accounts, everything else that comes with the job sometimes, just sometimes, it’s possible to lose sight of what drove me to write to start with. The passion, the drive, the possibilities.

The desire to tell a story.

I do hope the retreat participants got something out of my visit, I know I took something valuable away too.

In 2015 I was unable to stand unaided so it was super special that this time I was up to having a little mooch around the grounds, checking out Stainborough Castle and the beautiful countryside. As gorgeous as it was, alone at the castle I was seeing crime everywhere, plots spinning around my mind, picking out potential hiding places for someone to spring out, bodies to be buried. Can we ever entirely switch off the writer side of us?