Broken Little Heart

The Roaring Girls are a Hull-based theatre company, comprising the best northern lasses you could hope to meet, actresses Jess Morley and Rachael Abbey, and also Lizi Perry, and for recent show – Broken Little Robots – composer and musical director James Frewer.

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Working as an usher at Hull Truck theatre means I get to see a mind-boggling array of shows, but some of my favourites have been performed – often as one-offs – in the intimate studio space. On Friday I saw in there a small show with a huge heart; Broken Little Robots.

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Credit to Facet Photography for picture

The Roaring Girls debuted the show at Assemblefest in 2015, where my husband and I caught it. I knew it was something special then; goosebumps never lie. Nor does the heart. Developed for Hull Truck from the 20 minute ‘skit’ into an hour-long show, Broken Little Robots deals with depression. Living with it. Laughing at it. Challenging it. Most of all, talking about it.

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Through song, honest and blunt monologue, and little scenes, the girls bravely lay bare their own experiences, and the result is emotional, powerful, and ultimately uplifting. My own mother attempted suicide when I was nine, so serious it resulted in a year-long hospital stay where my siblings and I went into care/to live with our grandmother. My mum – and other members of my family – have struggled on and off with mental health issues. So it needs to be talked about. Shared. Cried over. Laughed at. And the Roaring Girls are shining a hearty light on the darkness of such issues.

I hope the show gets another run. If it does, go and see it. You owe it to yourselves, to those you love, to the world.

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Photo credit to facet Photography

Bedtime Barbie

 

Cherry paper catches stars

from the Christmas tree by the

scratchy wicker basket.

Pink wrapping rips fast,

except where Sellotape tugs tight,

resisting, putting up a fight.

 

Bedtime Barbie sleeps

through jiggling and jerking and pulling

and slippers coming loose in the box

to smack her in the face.

She needs a kiss goodnight

but goodnight is a forgotten wish,

remember.

 

She smells of blanketed babies.

Lace nightie tight at the neck,

skin beneath not yet wrong.

Wavy hair is brushed and plaited and patted

and persuaded by a boyfriend to be kept long.

 

Discard cherry paper

in tangles of sheet and pillow and ribbon.

 

No, save the wrapping – it’ll get used again,

for something small.

 

But the stars are ruined.

 

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A Score of O.

According to the government, my daughter scores a big fat zero when it comes to Type 1 Diabetes, meaning she needs no more care or help than the average 16-year-old.  She is a zero.  Nought.  Nothing.  What she needs to score in order to qualify for Personal Independence Living Allowance (PiP) is outlined below, in the letter telling us Katy isn’t entitled.

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The government – and those who read the PiP application forms – obviously know what kind of care the average 16-year-old needs.  They know that Type 1 Diabetes – an incurable autoimmune condition that occurs randomly through no fault of the sufferer – is not remotely life-changing, life-disrupting, or life-threatening.  16-year-old Katy can simply get on with it all by herself.

Let’s look more closely at this.

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Katy scores 0.  Because of course ALL 16-year-olds collapse at the top of the stairs, calling out to their mum because a hypo has rendered their body completely incapable of movement, causing their eyes to roll into their head, and their words to be so slurred that only a carer with acute knowledge of what’s going on can help.  Because ALL 16-year-olds then cannot hold the can of Coke necessary to bring sugars up to safe level, and need a mother to put it to their lips until it’s been consumed.  Because ALL 16-year-olds wander into their parents’ room at night, barely knowing who they are, needing hours of insistence that they drink the Coke, eat the biscuit, do their blood sugars again.  Because ALL 16-year-olds suffer such extreme hypos that they change personality, fight you, swear, cry, and then remember none of it afterwards.  Because ALL 16-year-olds do multiple finger prick tests each day and then work out from the result whether they need to eat or not eat, move or not move, inject or not inject insulin, followed by how much and what ratio the dose at that particular time of day is.  Because ALL 16-year-olds have to inject insulin with every single meal or snack, working the measurement out to an accurate amount relevant to the time of day/amount of food/blood sugar reading, knowing that to get it wrong could be fatal.

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Katy scores 0.  Because ALL 16-year-olds must be forced – by whatever means – during a hypo to consume sugar until levels balance again, something requiring hours of monitoring and insistence.  Because ALL 16-year-olds splash Coke up the walls and over the sofa when they’re shaking so much they can’t even hold a child’s cup.  Because ALL 16-year-olds in the throes of hypo take two hours to eat a much-needed meal because they can hardly see their food, and you have to lift the fork like they’re a baby.

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Katy scores 0.  Because ALL 16-year-olds (when suffering low blood sugars and most particularly needing to eat but most vulnerable and unable to do so) should handle knives, gas hobs, naked flames and sharp tin openers.  Because ALL 16-year-olds have to carefully weigh their food and read complicated details on packets to work out the carbs so that they can then (using the ratio relevant to that time of day) work out the exact amount of insulin required for that meal, a technique that most mathematicians would find tough.

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Katy scores 0.  Because ALL 16-year-olds, when their blood sugars drop (or are very high), babble incoherently so that only a parent (or educated individual) knows what must be done or what they need.  Because ALL 16-year-olds stare blankly at your words when you tell them clearly and absolutely that they MUST drink this Coke, they must sit still, please don’t fight us, please don’t fight us.  Because ALL 16-year-olds go into such a trance-like state during a hypo that they don’t even know their own name.

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Katy scores 0.  Because ALL 16-year-olds do not lock the bathroom door when they bathe, and have their mum hovering close by, asking every ten minutes if they’re okay, lest they hypo and drown in the bath, something that has almost occurred numerous times.

And of course ALL 16-year-olds have annual eye tests, annual foot tests, and three-monthly weight/blood tests and consultations.  They ALL have a care plan in place at school or college, where staff must be thoroughly educated on how to respond to hypos.  They ALL carry glucose, lancets, insulin, snacks, Glucagon, blood meter and strips with them absolutely everywhere they go.  They ALL wear a medical emergency bracelet.  They ALL have to plan everything they do so very carefully in advance, think of every eventuality.

While the government cannot recognise and support the extra care and needs that Katy has, we do, and we will make sure it occurs.  We are not looking for handouts or attention, just the award that is supposed to support and help those with extra difficulties or disabilities.

Katy is not zero to us.  She IS a normal 16-year-old in many ways – difficult, challenging, wonderful.  Not nothing – everything.

One bag of light sandwiches, thirteen writers, buckets of tears, and an incredible coincidence.

Travelling with my mother is unlike any other expedition.  She is a whole destination without any sort of journey needed.  So when she texted me the night before one of my most looked-forward-to and nerve-wracking trips of the year and said she’d made a ‘bag of light sandwiches’ for the train, I felt both comforted and terrified.  What on earth did she have in mind if we needed ‘light’ sandwiches?

Having posted the sandwich ‘situation’ on Facebook, a frenzy of questions ensued – what on earth was IN the ‘light’ sandwiches?  It turns out, as we set off from Hull Paragon Station, they involved ‘best ham and Moroccan tomatoes, with a lick of butter.’

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A bag (okay, box here) of ‘light’ sandwiches…

And so the train headed for London, bound for two of the biggest book events I’d taken part in thus far – a talk about How to be Brave with the Royal Chelsea Pensioners, and the Orenda Roadshow in Waterstones Piccadilly with a host of esteemed and bestselling writers.

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All aboard for London…

At Selby a lovely couple got on and sat opposite us.  We got chatting (my mother will talk to a wall) and they asked about our trip.  As I told her about my book events the lady – Jean – began to cry.  Full on tears.

“I know this story,” she said.  I was speechless.  How?  It turned out Jean had known the other survivor from the lifeboat, Ken Cooke, and lived in the same village as his grandchildren.  It felt like a reunion with an old friend.  She bought a copy of my book – much to the curiosity of other passengers, who I told, “It’s on Amazon! Click now!”- and I happily signed it for her.  When we went separate ways at King’s Cross, having exchanged numbers, there were more tears; it was like saying goodbye to dear friends.  I’ve always felt there’s no such thing as coincidence.  That fate has a firm hand in such things.  And I knew we’d all been in exactly the right place at exactly the right time.

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Ken and Colin at their moment of rescue

It was on then to the Royal Chelsea Hospital, and the wonderful veterans who reside in the Grade I and II listed site.  They have served in Korea, the Falkland Islands, Cyprus, Northern Island and World War II, so it was an absolute honour to share with them the bravery of Grandad Colin, and read extracts from the book.  Emotional anyway from the surprise train ‘reunion’, I could barely keep it together as I shared the tragic death of Officer Scown, Colin’s guilt at losing it with another crew member, and the moment of rescue.

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“I’ll never be able to show my face in Yorkshire again,” I joked between chokes.  But these men and women have witnessed such pain, and they were wonderful.  They shared tales of their life moments, of journeys across sea, of lost friends.  I’ll never forget it.  Grandad Colin’s brother’s great granddaughter Lauren joined us and we met for the first time.  “Can’t beat that Yorkshire grit,” she said, and it was as though we’d known each other for years.

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With some of the wonderful Chelsea Pensioners

Finally, after a quick bite, my mother and I set sail for Piccadilly Waterstones, the last leg of our trip.  Here, the hard-working and passionate Karen of Orenda Books had rounded up thirteen of her writers to share readings and chat with a rapt audience.  I met again the delightful Amanda Jennings, whose book launch (and book) I’d loved, the doesn’t-look-a-day-over-forty-five David Ross whose Head in a Book I enjoyed last year, and Paul Hardisty who’d come all the way from Australia.  (Not just for me, you understand, for the event.)

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Orenda Roadshow – London

Then there were new friends to meet: lovely Yusuf Toropov who has championed How to be Brave endlessly and written one of the greatest literary works I’ve ever read; Steph Broadribb whose bounty hunter tales have me hungry for her debut; Michael Grothaus, whose font is quite different to mine; Matt Johnson who did the most moving read; gorgeous Kati Hiekkapelto who my mum said she ‘couldn’t take her eyes off’; Michael Stanley (at least the two lovely misters who are this one writer!); Su Bristow whose Sealskin sounds magical; and Michael J Malone who my mother asked, “What kind of writer are you?” and when he said, “A Scottish Writer,” she said, “A Sausage Writer?  Oh.  So what does that involve?”

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Yoko Ono turned up for the event.  Okay, she wandered into the store.  Same difference.  But that wasn’t as exciting as my meeting writers Jeanette Hewitt and Melissa Bailey.  Exclusion Zone and Beyond the Sea are two of my favourite reads this year, so to see them there was beyond incredible.  We hugged and I signed my book in a way Jeanette’s mum will truly love.  Also it was great to talk to Susi Holliday about the excitement of seeing bookshelves in stores and ‘knowing’ the writers.

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With Melissa Bailey and Jeanette Hewitt

And it’s always great to see those gems from the book blogging community.  “What’s a blogger?” my mum had asked on the train.  A lifesaver, I wanted to say.  I was touched to get a Pretty Woman-esque whoop whoop from Anne Cater and Nina Pottell during my introduction.  And to see Vicki Goldman (a writer also) and Liz Barnsley and Anne Williams (from Harroga- Wakefie- um, Wetherby!) and Steve Wright and Karen Cocking there too.  Always a joy.  Favourite writer Gill Paul sat on the front row with my mother and thankfully kept her in check.

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With lovely Gill Paul, and Karen Sullivan, publisher extraordinaire

Thank you to Karen Sullivan for steering her publishing ship so well, and letting me be part of its incredible crew.  I’ll never forget London last week.

My Aunt Jane (Grandad Colin’s only daughter) said quite profoundly, “It’s as though you’re steering your own lifeboat, collecting friends and memories along the way instead of provisions.”  She couldn’t be more right.  I’m just lucky enough to have a bag of ‘light’ sandwiches on my journey…

An Escape Route

Tomorrow, 7th May, will be seventy-three years to the day since the incredible rescue of my Grandad Colin took place on the South Atlantic Sea, a rescue all the more profound because many years later it saved my small daughter’s life too.  These events inspired my debut novel How to be Brave, a book I wanted to write for a long time and only found the courage to in 2013.

So today I’ve been thinking about how Grandad Colin must have felt when he saw that ship.  I’ve been thinking rescue.  Being saved.  It happens in many forms, not just on the sea.  Our ship might be a friend calling at the right time, a song that cheers us up, a sudden chance opportunity to do something we never thought possible.  With these themes in mind, I decided to share a short essay I wrote a few years ago.

 

An Escape Route

 

If a fire started tonight, I’d know exactly what to do.

I’ve known since I first clicked our house’s image on a website ten years ago. About to pick up the phone and put an offer on a place we liked enough to buy but weren’t in love with, a voice (the one that talks to me when I nearly don’t do what I should) suggested I check if anything new had come on the market.  It had – a three-bed semi-detached house with overgrown bushes and sad windows.  Number thirteen; my favourite.

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You should love a house, I told my husband Joe on the way to view it.  The balding man in that TV show goes on about location, location, location, and his sidekick Kirstie reckons size matters, but if you don’t walk in and love a place then chrome fittings and real wood kitchen worktops won’t cut it.

Our first house had just sold (harvesting a tidy profit in two years) and we needed to buy somewhere fast or risk sleeping with our two children and three cheap wardrobes in the local park.  I’d rung Joe at work, insisted we view this house during his lunch hour, promising if it wasn’t right we’d buy the other.  Approaching the street, before even seeing the place, I said to him, I know the house.  I’ve been to it already, a long time ago.

I had.  My mum’s closest friend – a woman she met while in a mental hospital after attempting (and almost succeeding at) suicide – had owned it in the mid-seventies and I’d played in its triangular garden, and carefully navigated the step that led from the kitchen to the lounge and caught you out because the floor was the same avocado green colour throughout.

You’ll trip up on the kitchen step, I warned Joe as we parked outside.  I bet you a fiver you do and then we’re definitely buying it.

He did.  The people who now owned the house said they’d been very happy there.  It was the only question I asked.  While Joe queried ominous stains and wonky walls, it only mattered to me if they’d loved it.  My mum’s friend hadn’t; she insisted it was haunted.  A man had hung himself decades before in the front bedroom and he wandered the landing at night.  My children saw him, she insisted, and my marriage ended and depression visited number thirteen.

But I loved it and put her dislike down to incompatibility.  Like when you have a crush on someone odd and no one gets it.  I loved the uneven stairs and the original windows and the devious kitchen step that has never yet caught me out.  If there were ghosts, they must be friendly or long gone.  Joe said it had great potential and we bought it half an hour later.

If a fire started tonight, I’d know exactly what to do.

The man who fitted our new windows five years later looked like a much younger – and non sight-impaired – Columbo from the American detective TV series.  He had skin as brown as seventies decor.  But that isn’t why we employed him to replace windows that were not only ugly but also a serious fire hazard with their inability to open more than a crack.  He’d done our neighbour’s and they looked smart and had large panels that opened like doors.

Windows matter.  They are both a means to escape and a vent to dispel smoke if you live too high up to jump.  Only if you’re on a ground or first floor should you attempt to flee this way, and even in this instance you should cushion your fall with any available bedding or cushions, and lower yourself rather than leaping.  I’ve tested our new windows – how wide they open – many times, and just to make sure (because things can get stuck, said the voice that talks to me when I nearly don’t do what I should) I have an old radio under the bed whose weight and angular edges will likely break glass if I need to.

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The house I lived in between the ages of nine and nineteen – with a couple of breaks to live at my grandmother’s and in an orphanage briefly and before permanently leaving home – had beautiful sash windows that lifted effortlessly.  I always had my bed right up against the glass, both to be away from unwelcome visitors through the door and to be seconds from escape.  Marilyn Monroe looked down on me from a black and white poster, her eyes like sad half-closed windows and her lips black as burnt wood.

I’ll tell you one day, my mum said during my fourteenth year.

One escape route isn’t enough; you should have a back up, like when you’re waiting to find a house or person you can love completely and you know if they don’t materialise you’ll consider one you ‘like enough to buy.’  If the main route is blocked you must call 999 and find the safest room to wait in until fire fighters arrive.  A safe room is one with the door closed, and damp towels stuffed beneath so unwelcome fires can’t invade, and its occupants lying close to the ground where the smoke is less dense.

I was in the bath when I realised, said my husband three weeks after we met, standing with wet hair on my doorstep, surrounded by snow, having ridden the five miles to my house to speak to me before turning and going right back.  I was just lying there and thinking about stuff and I thought, I love her.  And I thought I have to tell her, but properly, not like a phone call.  Like, right now.  So I got out and, well, here I am.  And I do.  I love you.

If a fire started tonight, I’d know exactly what to do.

My mum told me she’d attempted suicide six years after the fact, because at the time I’d been only nine.  Fifteen was old enough.  An all-night binge (hers not mine, I was quite the sensible teen then, busy planning schedules and writing stories and listening to voices) opened her up, a window letting smoky confession drift through in broken puffs of grey.  She’d planned her death quite meticulously, and I was kind of proud.  Planned that we four children would be safely in school and nursery, and counted all the necessary pills, and decided on a desolate location some miles away.  But a tramp blocked her escape route.  He found her in a disused building semi-conscious and called 999.  She survived; he disappeared.

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I think we should move her bed, I said to my husband yesterday, referring to our daughter.  I don’t like that it’s so high, and the ladder would be a bloody hindrance.  I want it nearer the door, so I can get straight up there.  I can’t sleep you know.  That bloody ladder.

If your clothes catch fire you should stop, drop and roll.  The instinct of course is to jump and scream and run, but this only fans the flames.  If a loved one is engulfed, wrap them in bedding or a coat and smother the heat.  When our son fries eggs or boils noodles I hover in the kitchen archway, on the devious step, reminding him to roll his super-flammable dressing gown sleeves up, lest the blue flames reach them and he flares up like a sparkler.

Stop nagging, Mum, he says.  I’m fine.

When water filled this house in 2007 the voice that talks to me when I nearly don’t do what I should was silent.  I closed all the windows.  It made no difference.  The rain that had steadily fallen for forty-eight hours, and risen above the gate and plant pots, spilled in over the doorstep, gushed up through the floor and trickled through the air bricks.  It hid the devious kitchen step, but I still never fell.

In our temporary accommodation – the Flood House as I venomously called it – the windows were painted shut and I warned the landlord (an obese, sweaty wastrel who wanted to charge a thousand pounds a month in rent because he knew the insurance company would have no choice but to pay it) that I’d smash every one of them if there was a fire.

At a family barbeque, when I was perhaps eleven, my aunt burnt the sausages.  We ate them anyway, coated in ketchup to disguise the taste.  My sister knocked the grill over, scorching the grass and inciting my mother’s wrath.  You’re a demon, she told my beloved but mouthy and wayward sister.  Later, with wine in her belly, my mum took me into her confidentiality, a warm place I craved.  She tests me the most that one, she said of my sister.  But if there was ever a fire in the house, and I could only save one of you, she is the one.  She is.  I’d save her.

If a fire started tonight, I’d know exactly what to do.

 

Amanda Jennings, Mona Lisa, the Universe, and Fishfingers…

Today I’m excited to welcome a writer who’s currently taking the literary world by storm with her incredible third book, psychological thriller In Her Wake – the lovely, quirky, talented Amanda Jennings.  Though until recently we’d only communicated via modern missive – Twitter, Facebook – her warm personality shone between the lines.  And when we finally met physically, at her recent book launch, it was like meeting an old friend.  So hello lovely lady, welcome.  Let’s start gently shall we, as all good relationships should.  A nice easy question for you.  Something light to warm us up.  Tell me, what’s the meaning of life and does the size of the universe scare you?

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AMANDA – What a question to kick off with! Right, I’ll pour myself a gin and then get to answering it… I was one of those children plagued by the Big Questions. I would lie and worry about what would happen if you got in a space ship and just kept flying in a straight line. What would you happen when you reached the ‘edge’ of Everything. I remember being momentarily calmed when somebody showed me that thing with a strip of paper that you put a twist in and then trace your finger around it and your finger arrives back where it started. The person who showed me this said this was what the Universe was like, that if you kept going you would eventually end up where you started. But the more I thought about it, the more I struggled to envisage it in three dimensions, so the headaches soon started up again.

Now I am a little more sanguine about it all. I know that it’s just too much for us to understand, but am reassured that Science is in charge and, like when we found out the world wasn’t flat, one day, in the distant future, we will have the answer and know what the Universe really looks like.

The meaning of life? Better pour myself another gin…

I am a big believer in life being given meaning with the relationships you make and with the attitude you harness when it comes to Nature and the animals we share our space with. When we’re gone we will be held in the hearts and minds of those we touched. Heaven, for me, is being held fondly in the memory of people I’ve encountered. I read something once that said something along the lines of trying to leave any person you meet just a wee bit happier than when you bumped into them and that if everybody did that the world would gradually become a more wonderful place. Far too idealistic, I know, but it stuck with me. I have no truck with unkindness. I am not a believer in the ‘saying it how it is’ school of thought (or lack of thought). Kindness, compassion, understanding, these are human qualities I aspire to, and I believe that spreading a little bit of joy in the short time we have on the planet is what it means to live. This, and a jolly good dance and a great kiss.

I should follow this up with a really important, deep question for you, now shouldn’t I…

So, tell me, Louise, if you had a superpower for a day, what would it be and why?

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Before I answer your question I have to say that I’m totally with you on being a kid plagued by the Big Questions.  (Might need to also pour the gin here.  What time is it?  Oh, after 9am.  That’s fine.)

I can clearly remember being in the school canteen, aged perhaps six, wearing a paper headband with colourful tassels stuck to it (we’d made them in class, though I don’t recall why) and being worried about the size of the universe.  I couldn’t imagine eternity.  It hurt my brain too much.  But I was worried that one small flaw or thing going wrong might unravel everything and end the world, like if one tassel had come off my headdress it wouldn’t be quite how it should be.

Oooh superpowers?  My instinctive and immediate response was to have the ability to read minds, but then I realised I really wouldn’t want to know.  I’m way too sensitive.  Then my nice side kicked in and I thought I’d love the power to heal, maybe by touch, but it just doesn’t seem quite right to have such a messiah-like quality.  What the hell – I wish I could get my thoughts on paper (or screen) just by thinking them!  Bypass the time consuming act of typing (I’m a two fingers girl, utterly pathetic!) and so write novels by the power of thought!

Since I’ve magically got us on to writing – which I happen to think is a superpower in itself, one with the power to heal and change the world – tell me what was the first thing you ever wrote?  Not as part of your education, but creatively, artistically, by choice?

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AMANDA – *Drifts off into dream world* Gosh, sorry, got distracted for a moment thinking about the power to write novels straight from the head. Mind you, for me, it would just be a load of rambling nonsense magicked onto the page, and probably far too many pages to wrestle with! I always wanted to talk to animals. I had this fantasy that if I could tell a wild horse that I wasn’t going to hurt her I could just jump on to her back, knot my fingers into her mane, and gallop along the beach through the shallows with no bridle or saddle and, of course, hair flowing and stirring background music playing…

The first thing I wrote? Well, like many fledgling authors I did spend a lot of my childhood making tiny books, illustrated stories about naughty elves and magic doorways, which was cut to size and crookedly stapled together. As a teen a dallied with poetry and forced myself to write ‘meaningful’ diary entries, but diary-keeping wasn’t a passion of mine, so it was very sporadic and fabulously self-absorbed, as you would expect from an idealistic fifteen year old. But the first piece of writing that made me think ‘my goodness, I love writing’ was a short story I wrote in the middle of the night at university. I used to get up sometimes and paint if I couldn’t sleep, but this time, not sure why, I picked up a pen and paper. It was all about people staring at the narrator, she wished they would leave her alone, or look at her for something other than her looks and her fame, and that when they looked they weren’t really looking, not at her, not the real her. At the end of the story it’s revealed that the narrator is the Mona Lisa. I imagine if I read it back now I’d be horrified by it, but at the time it was a piece of writing that took me to that special place where time flies past and you aren’t aware of it. There was a bit of fire in the belly.

Speaking of the first thing we write, I’d love to know how things are coming along with your next book. As you know, I adored How to be Brave, and was transfixed by your writing, and I’m extremely excited to find out more about your next one. Did you struggle with the infamous ‘second album syndrome’?

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I absolutely agree that in having the power to get novels straight from the head onto paper (or screen) it could be messy.  But I’d have so much fun editing that raw creation, shaping it into something special.

I so see you on a wild horse.  I bet you do have that power, secretly, you just don’t know it….

Oh gosh, I too wrote little notebooks full of stories and pictures.  There was always a contents page, a proper ‘posh’ prologue, and usually some sort of afterword too.  As a young teenager I wrote two full novels – one in first person present tense after my English teacher said it just wasn’t ‘done’.  It’s dangerous to tell me you shouldn’t do something, or that it’s not possible.  I just see that as a challenge.  I wish I still had those novels.  One of them made my friend cry and I absolutely knew this was what I wanted to do – not make people cry, you understand, but get a reaction to my writing.  Make readers feel something.  Also, writing is the most joyful thing in the world.  Can never imagine not doing it.

Oooh, the next book?  Well, The Mountain in my Shoe kind of existed before How to be Brave.  I had already written a first draft about three years ago.  But it’s changed a lot since then because I’ve learned so much more, both by reading and writing, and also by living.  Because isn’t living the most important part?  So yes, I’m still experiencing the dreaded ’second album syndrome’ in that I’m terrified it won’t be as ‘good’ as How to be Brave, which I’m so proud has received some great feedback.  The Mountain in my Shoe was inspired by my time volunteering with children in the care system.  Many of these children have a Lifebook.  This is a book where all the carers, absent parents, foster parents and social workers write up that child’s history so that when they’ve grown up they know what happened in their childhood.  I always thought what an amazing way that would be to tell a story.  So a Lifebook forms one of three narratives in the novel, alongside that of Bernadette whose husband has gone missing on the very night she planned to leave him, and that of ten-year-old Conor who has also disappeared.

Shall I let you into a secret about both books?  The titles in both cases are an actual phrase that a child in the novel says.  It wasn’t intentional.  It just happened that each child said something profound that I loved.

Tell me – do you think you’ve written your best work yet?  Do you feel there’s an even greater novel waiting for you – if that’s possible after In Her Wake, which I have a limited edition hardcopy of, signed with boobs drawn in, much to the chagrin of our lovely publisher Orenda Books!  Is there an idea for something you haven’t written yet that both terrifies and excites you?

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AMANDA – That’s so interesting about The Mountain in My Shoe, because it’s the same thing as In Her Wake. In Her Wake, was about seven years ago, called The Merrymaid and I. It’s the book that attracted my agent, but sadly we couldn’t find a home for it. But when I finished my second book I kept thinking about The Merrymaid and went back to it. I did exactly what you describe, rethought and rewrote it using the knowledge that I gained from the books I’d published. I’m so glad it wasn’t published back then.

I am in love with the idea of there being The One book I have to write, that I was born to write, and I’d like to think I will keep improving my writing and my storytelling. I think I’d like to write a sweeping, literary, duel timeframe book set in a culturally diverse place during one of the wars. My mother’s best friend, who I spent a lot of time with growing up, is Iranian and her father was a General who had to escape the regime. The way she described Persian culture and history when I was younger was intoxicating, and the feasts she would prepare were so exotic and delicious. So perhaps a book that has connections to 1950s Persia in some way. But having said all this, there’s a big part of me that would love to write a dystopian, post-apocalyptic book in which I could really let my imagination run free!

Is there something, other than writing, that frees your creativity and imagination, Louise?

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Amanda Jennings

I do think a lot of first novels aren’t first novels; they’re simply the first novel that was lucky enough to be published.  I really did get a strong feeling when writing How to be Brave that it would be the one.  The first novel I wrote (as an adult) is the one that got me an agent back in 2012, that sadly she – like your agent – couldn’t sell.  Then she retired.  That book too (called Maria in the Moon) is very different now and means a lot to me, so will hopefully be my third.  I’m so glad you went back to The Merrymaid and I (ha, such a quirky title!) and that we got have In Her Wake.

I agree with you that it might be exciting to write something completely out of my comfort zone.  I really fancy writing some erotica – something beautiful and literary, but absolutely filthy.  One day I’d love to write my memoir to, but very sadly my parents will have to be gone for me to do that.

Every single thing I try and think of that frees my creativity and mind comes down to writing.  I’ve written plays, short stories, the odd poem, newspaper columns, essays, travel pieces, diaries….  Ahhh, I LOVE to travel.  I’ve written some of my best things when away.  If money permitted, I’d go everywhere in the world.  I love being on the sea, or near the sea.  That frees my creativity most of all.  But then it’s my ancestry, isn’t it?

Okay my lovely Amanda, one more question for the cheap seats in the back.  Fishfingers or Viennetta?

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AMANDA – I have a sweet tooth (I love Viennetta, did you see the YouTube video of them being made in the Vignette factory?! Incredible) but on this occasion, and only if I’m allowed sliced white bread, butter and tomato ketchup, I’m going with a four-fishfinger sandwich!

It’s been lovey to chat. Thank you smooch for having me!

PS – WRITE THE EROTICA!

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Hahaha – I did write a slightly erotic short story called Notes from the Night which won the Glass Woman Prize and I’m sure it wants to be a bigger thing!  (Oooerrr missus.)  Who knows?

Viennetta for me all the way.  Half a one if I can get away with it.

No, thank you, Amanda.  I’ve had a blast.  Can’t wait for our next physical event together, which is May 12th in London everyone, for the Orenda Roadshow.  You bring the fishfingers and I’ll bring the Viennetta….

 

Bloggers’ Perfect Books…

Book Bloggers can quite literally make or break writers – mostly they make them as they’re such a lovely lot.  They often reveal – via their passion for all things literary – little gems of novels we’ve never heard of, great big fat magical debuts we’re curious about, and old favourites just when we need reminding.  So I decided to ask a few of them what, in an absolutely perfect world, they want from a book.  And if they could think of any books that actually achieved this, well, even better.  Feel free to sniff around their incredible blogs too, as I’ve included those for your pleasure.  Enjoy!

 

Victoria Goldman

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I love books that enable me to get inside the characters’ heads. I want to feel their pain, grief, anger, excitement and laughter, not just read about their emotions. This doesn’t mean I have to like the characters, but I want to believe in them as if they’re ‘real’ people.

If it’s crime, action or a psychological thriller, I want to gasp out loud, my heart to race and my head to spin. Two books that have recently intrigued me from beginning to end are All Is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker (out in July) and Sarah Hilary’s Tastes Like Fear.

Ideally I want to learn something when I read too, about the location or background to the story, for example. That’s why I love the Dark Iceland series by Ragnar Jonassen, who writes vivid descriptions of the setting, as well as fascinating plots. Snowblind is the first book in the series.

And finally I also love beautiful writing that leads me to read the book again and again. These books tend be those that have touched me in some way, so that I’m thinking about them long after I’ve read the final page (and I’ve usually shed some tears at some point too). One book that’s left me feeling this way recently is In Her Wake by Amanda Jennings, which is simply stunning – I’ve read it twice so far.

 Visit Victoria’s Website

 

Leah Moyse

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I like that total absorption you can get from a book. In a short space of time you can travel to so many places and times. I like a book that takes me away from day to day life and offers me something exciting. I also like characters that are challenging, that make me think and generally those characters would be the ones that I intensely dislike. In summary, I like a book that is a total escape, doesn’t have to be all beaches and margheritas though. I generally favour crime and thrillers. As somebody told me, life can’t be a wedding every day.

Visit Leah’s Website

 

Christina Philippou

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In an absolutely perfect world, I would want all of the below from a book:

– Something that makes me see things from a different perspective, be it a different point of view on a well-versed subject, or a completely new combination of topics that I’d never thought about together before.

– A sense of adventure. This doesn’t necessarily mean action, or travel, but more of a sense of being drawn into the book’s world, where things happen in a way I want to follow the protagonists on their (emotional or actual) journey.

– Pace. I like my reads to be pacy. Again, this doesn’t mean that they have to be action-packed, just that the reading has to flow quickly, whether it’s plot-based or character-based.

– Flawed characters. Nobody’s perfect, so I don’t expect my protagonists to be. In fact, there’s something exquisitely hopeful about things working out for the worst and most baggage-laden of characters.

– Tension. I want to keep turning the pages, and constant tension is key to this, whether it’s because of circumstances or relationships.

– Surprises, but not too many surprises. I like to have a bit of mystery involved, but am not too keen when characters I’ve invested a lot in emotionally end up dead (George RR Martin, I’m looking at you)

– A hopeful yet open ending. It doesn’t have to be happy, and I don’t like perfect bows and cherries on top because life doesn’t work like that, but I also don’t want to finish a book and feel both spent and miserable.

– Beautiful writing. This is a tough one to describe, but it includes evocative, original, and thought-provoking phrases and sentences and similes and metaphors at the right place and in amounts that are ‘just right’ for the type of book.

And here’s a diverse selection of some of the ones that gave this to me:

– Bedlam by BA Morton : A crime thriller written in both 1st and 3rd person, with twisted plotting and characters, this makes you question your sanity (as well as the protagonists’).

– The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton : Mystery encased in setting and a masterful approach to ‘peeling back the layers’ to reveal the characters and history beneath.

– The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler by Gene Kemp : One of my favourite stories as a child, still perfect on re-reading, this narration is a great play on reader prejudices.

– The Corpse Role by Keith Nixon : Two crimes, committed a few years’ apart, told from different perspectives, making you question your expectations.

– You Think You Know Me by Clare Chase : Romance, suspense and the thing that makes it unique – an interesting exploration of friendship and relationships.

– Half Bad by Sally Green : Brilliant and thought-provoking fantasy/adventure, with a lot of tough subjects approached from a young adult perspective.

– The Summer of Secrets by Sarah Jasmon : Raw coming-of-age that brings teenage girl self-confidence issues and first love to life with dark realism and pace.

Visit Christina’s Website

 

Emma Smith

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Important things for me generally are around the protagonist. If the main character is a woman she would be a strong feminist who doesn’t need to fall in love or get married to be happy. She should not need a man to define her, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be any romance. I love reading about strong characters (both men and women) who are determined to stick by their beliefs and I guess be someone to admire. Character driven literary fiction is a big hit with me as it helps explore and understand others. You really bond with the character and feel emotional about the story. You celebrate their successes and really feel their failures.

I find that historical fiction appeals to me more because it comes from a time of greater inequality and I enjoy reading about people who are looking for some kind of change in the world. The other genre that works well is dystopian fiction as the central characters are fighting to survive.

Two books I would recommend are:

A Place Called Winter by Patrick Gale envelops you in Harry’s emotions; the hard graft and loneliness of starting afresh, the love for his neighbours, disgrace, disappointment, betrayal, loyalty, pride, the devastation of war….  Review of A Place called Winter

The Help by Kathryn Stockett is uncomfortable, hard hitting and funny all at the same time. It makes a very difficult message come across with ease.  Review of The Help

Visit Emma’s Website

 

Sandra Foy

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I want a book to take me out of my comfort zone, I want to feel things that I haven’t felt before, to be challenged. The most recent book that did that to me was The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman, which was a book that was populated by good people making bad decisions and their tragic repercussions. This book consumed me because I could put myself in each characters position and see how they made their mistakes and why. It left me drained and thinking about it for days after and that’s what I look for in a book. Having said that it doesn’t have to be all sadness and hard to bear, The One-In-A-Million Boy by Monica Wood is filled with themes of grief, loneliness and old age, yet it is written with such a deftness of touch and humour that it is ultimately uplifting and filled with hope. So I suppose I want my emotions engaged by full characters (good and bad).

I also like a strong sense of place, whether that’s somewhere exotic or Bolton on a rainy night I don’t care but I want to feel the place and a good writer can do that.

Visit Sandra’s Website

 

Poppy Peacock

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I see books as an extra food group… they are vital ingredients to work my mind and nourish my soul.

I always want a good story… that’s the staple part of my book diet: well prepared – well seasoned – the fresher the better – in mint condition – and plated up with style; no missing ingredients or unsuitable added extras and definitely not rehashed lukewarmed leftovers cobbled together or smothered in sauce to hide flaws within…

But then depending on time, place, mood I want different dishes & flavours: the thrill of new experiences or the comfort of resonating ones;  ones that exercise my ability to laugh, to gasp, to cry… to imagine.

What books gave that and why?

 Skipped this as it would be like a War and Peace post… too many to mention!

Visit Poppy’s Website

 

Anne Williams

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It’s that “in a perfect world” part of your question that’s been giving me the most difficulty – and only because it’s probably at the core of why I read. Because life is so rarely perfect.  Even when there’s nothing majorly dreadful going on, there are still those little niggles, the ones that get ten times worse when you wake up at 3am and can’t go back to sleep, or those really silly ones like how to get the burnt food off the saucepan or where you put your Matalan card. So I read in order to live in someone else’s world for a while.

Their world doesn’t have to be perfect – in fact they’re often in a considerably worse state than I am – but I love that total escape you get with the very best books, those books where you feel a wrench when they finish, the ones that leave you with a smile on your face or a tear in your eye. That “other world” can be created by so many different kinds of books – I don’t want a fantasy world, not even a different time or country, just a totally different place I can live in for a while before closing the covers with a sigh and getting on with the washing up.

I know some bloggers like to escape through chick lit, thrillers, the historical detail or the beauty of some literary fiction – but I’ve never really stuck to a particular genre. There have been some really breathtaking reads across the board this year and last, but I’m going to pick out the one perfect example of a book that gave me everything I wanted – if I don’t, I’m in danger of picking a list of thirty. It has to be Letters To The Lost by Iona Grey, the book that made me cry with big sobs when I finished it because everything had been so totally perfect, and that made me cry again but with joy when everyone agreed with me and it recently won the RoNA Romantic Novel of the Year. I loved it so much I wish I had a way of wiping my memory and enjoying it again for the very first time – such a special book, that totally sums up why I love to read.

Visit Anne’s Website

 

Beth Webb

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I want a book to take me into its world so completely, I forget what is ‘real’. EG: ‘A Gathering Light’ by Jennifer Donnelly and ‘Spindle’s End’ by Robin McKinely. Why do these work for me? I guess the characters were so believable I sort of ‘became’ them in my head – and my heart.

Visit Beth’s Website

 

Shaz Goodwin

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I want a book to hook in my emotions and provide an escape from everyday life.  I want to believe that I’m living the life of the characters and that this is my world, no matter the genre. I’d like to have new experiences but also for collective experiences to be shared so that I know I’m not alone in my thoughts and emotions.

Recent books that I was emotionally invested in, identifying strongly with the characters and walking hand in hand with the leads.

Flawed by Cecelia Ahern

The Speed of Darkness (Chronoptika Quartet) by Catherine Fisher

The Silver Tide by Jen Williams

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

The Last Kiss Goodbye by Tasmina Perry

The Silk Merchant’s Daughter by Dinah Jefferies

Where the River Parts by Radhika Swarup

The Birthday That Changed Everything by Debbie Johnson

Visit Shaz’s Website

 

Linda Hill

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What I want from a book depends on my reading mood. I love a cracking plot with lots of twists and turns that makes me think ‘Oh. I wasn’t expecting that.’ I enjoy being taken out of my usual sphere of experience into a world I wouldn’t otherwise inhabit. Sometimes I want a light romance that I know will end happily and not take too long to read.

But what I really want from a book is an emotional pull. I want writing that touches my soul and often makes me sob. It’s about recognising humanity in others, about feeling their pain and their joy and achieving a cathartic moment.

There are many books that have given me that feeling  – including your own How to be Brave but I’m selecting just three that have stayed with me every moment since I read them.

The first book I ever read that gave me that feeling was Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy. I read it in the glorious carefree teen time between O and A’levels (showing my age here) and I empathised so much with poor Tess’s suffering. It was the first time I’d heard quoted ‘As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.’ and the first time I think I really understood the vagaries of life and the uncertainties humans face. It was a coming of age moment I suppose. If it hadn’t been for the impact of Tess I don’t think I’d have gone on to do an English degree and teach English for a career. You could say I owe my entire adult life to that one emotional response to a book.

Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men also has this effect. The intense loneliness of all the characters and their unachievable dreams make me feel for them intensely. I must have read this novella around twenty times for teaching purposes and I still can’t read the ending without a tear in my eye. Reading it aloud with students used to be so embarrassing as I couldn’t get to the end without a catch in my voice and a tear rolling down my cheek. I recently went with my book group to see a screening of the National Theatre version starring James Franco and Chris O’Dowd and if you’d looked along the row you’d have seen 12 middle aged and elderly ladies all reaching for their tissues. There’s true universal suffering in Steinbeck’s words.

However, the more recent book that has really impacted on me because of its emotional pull is Lindsay Hawdon’s Jakob’s Colours. I can’t stop thinking about it. I think I began to cry quite early on and simply sobbed my way through the rest of the story. I reviewed it on my blog here Jakob’s Colours. There is something about the quality of writing, the sense of colour, the hope amidst the suffering, that resonates with me completely. I think the author Lindsay Hawdon is beginning to wonder if she has a stalker as I keep mentioning how wonderful Jakob’s Colours is all over social media. Lindsay was kind enough to grant me an interview for the first anniversary of my blog earlier this year and which you can read here too Interview Lindsay Hawden. My signed paperback with me quoted in it is one of my most prized possessions.

And to finish – and I know this is a fourth book when I said I was going to mention three – lest you believe I’m totally miserable and morose, I’d just like to mention The Finding of Martha Lost by Caroline Wallace. I adored this read as you can tell from my review The Finding of Martha Lost and it did make me cry, but this time with sheer, unadulterated joy. I found it utterly uplifting and heartwarming. It’s not a book I’ll be parting with.

Visit Linda’s Website

 

Liz  Barnsley

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I want to feel something. Strongly. Be that any one of a range of emotions from sad to happy to angry. Book that achieved that? Well, How to be Brave of course! But The Dark Inside particularly because it just had that indefinable *something*. Anything John Connolly writes usually gets me – Girls on Fire this year I had all the feels for.

Visit Liz’s Website

Finally, my ship…

Like main character Grandad Colin in 1943, How to be Brave is crossing the ocean today. I hope it fairs a bit better on its journey than he did. Right now, seventy-three years ago, he was about halfway through his lifeboat ordeal, with another month until rescue. Daffodils and lighter evenings were brightening home while he and his sea brothers drifted in unbearable heat. The book he inspired has a much shorter and easier trip to reach foreign shores.

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On this wonderful spring day How to be Brave is officially released in America and Canada. I feel very distant from it in some ways but extremely close in others. Even though nothing will physically happen to me today, I feel like I’m standing on a pier waving off my baby, my debut, my book.

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I love the US and have visited there numerous times over the years, most recently to New York last year. Apparently if you make it there you can make it anywhere. Does this go for books? We will see. I took my original very first copy of the novel there with me so she has had a little taster of far flung places already. Canada holds a special place in my heart too, even though I’ve not yet visited. My cousins are Canadian and my lovely publisher – Karen Sullivan who made my dream come true – hails from there also.

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At the top of the world with daughter Katy (New York)

So How to be Brave is being shipped now farther afield, across water. Back when I was receiving rejection after rejection for the book my husband said quite profoundly to me, “That rejection wasn’t your ship. Your ship is still coming. I know it.” And just as it did for Colin after a long time on the ocean, it did for me after a long time on a sea of words, thanks to Orenda Books.

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My very first copy of How to be Brave against the morning skyline

Now my book belongs to the world. Bon Voyage!

Buy How to be Brave here (USA)

Buy How to be Brave here (Canada)

How I Got a Book Deal – Part Two

Last week I posted part one of How I Got a Book Deal, intending to give new writers an insight into how some of today’s fantastic authors got their novels published, and to hopefully encourage others not to give up. To show that the road will likely be long and full of rejection, but that it’s all part of the journey. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Many people contacted me to say how inspirational it was to read these accounts and how they will definitely keep at it.

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So this week another group of incredible writers share with us their path to publication – it’s a passionate and emotional read, folks. And it teaches us that it’s all about rewrites, self-belief, patience, time, a bit of luck, hard work, and never ever giving up. Thank you to Amanda Jennings, Jason Hewitt, Katie Marsh, Brian Lavery, Cassandra Parkin, Ruth Dugdall and Claire Douglas.

 

Amanda Jennings – Sworn Secret, The Judas Scar, In Her Wake

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I got my book deal in a fairly traditional way. I wrote a book and then trawled the Writers and Artists Yearbook for a list of suitable agents. Chapters and synopses were packaged up and sent out with fingers crossed. I signed with an agent and thought this was it, that I was there, that it wouldn’t be long before we were celebrating the imminent publication of my debut novel. How wrong I was! There was a lot of rejection and in the end I had to put that novel aside and write another. But I was determined to get published. So I went away and wrote another book. Two editors showed an interest in this one. The first asked me to makes some changes, so I rewrote it, which took three months. She rejected the book. Then a second editor did the same. And I did the same, I went back to the manuscript and made the changes she suggested. Once again it was rejected after all that work. I was devastated. But a few weeks later I answered a call from my agent, which began ‘are you sitting down?’ The second editor had been back in touch saying she couldn’t stop thinking about the book and she’d like to sign it. An amazing moment, filled with excitement, joy, gratitude and relief – one that I will never forget!

Buy In Her Wake here

Amanda’s Website

 

Jason Hewitt – The Dynamite Room, Devastation Road

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I did an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa and at the end of that volunteered to be the editor for the annual anthology produced for each year group. It was a huge amount of work and included not only producing the book from scratch but also sending copies out to prospective literary agents. Lots of my fellow students found agents as a result, but no one was interested in me. The following year though an agent at Janklow & Nesbit contacted me out of the blue to ask if I could send her the latest anthology. She’d received the one I’d sent out previously which had my details in the front as the editor. I politely replied and told her that I’d been one of the students and had now gone back to my ordinary life, and that I’d pass her details on, but also that I’d also finished the novel I’d been writing on the course. Could I send it to her? She said yes and ended up taking me on. That said, after four years of writing and editing (including a change of agent at J & N), we still didn’t manage to sell it. One editor at Little Brown told me that it showed all the tell-tale signs of having been written by a Creative Writing student and that, if I wrote another and found my voice, she felt quite sure that it would sell. In the meantime my new agent, Will, had said that the only thing to do was to pick myself up and write another. I was incredibly depressed about it but I knew that he was right. The Dynamite Room took another four years to write, but in the end it sold over night in a pre-emptive two-book deal. So my journey to publication was a long and tortuous one but I believe that everything happened for a reason. My lesson? Don’t give up.

Buy Devastation Road here

Jason’s Website

 

Katie Marsh – My Everything, A Life Without You

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If you ignore the nine years and two ‘near miss’ novels that went before it, my book deal happened very quickly. I submitted my third book to agents in spring 2014 and got signed by Hannah Ferguson of Hardman & Swainson within a couple of weeks. Then we worked together on a new edit, which involved cutting out 30,000 words, deleting a plotline and a major character, and completely changing the ending. In August she then submitted the manuscript to nine publishers while I bit my nails a lot and refreshed my email approximately every three seconds.  Luckily, the response was very quick, and we had offers from two publishers within ten days. The book was sold at auction to Hodder & Stoughton and ‘My Everything’ was published in August 2015. Seeing it on the shelves is every bit as wonderful as I imagined it, and my second book – ‘A Life Without You’ – is out in July this year.

Buy My Everything here

Read more about Katie Marsh

 

Brian Lavery – The Headscarf Revolutionaries

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It was somewhat circuitous route to a book deal for me. I have been writing since I was a kid. I had more than 25 years as a national and regional journalist in print and broadcast, here and abroad, before returning to higher education to the University of Hull, my adopted home town for the past three decades plus, where I completed an undergraduate degree in English Lit. & Creative Writing. My book, a creative nonfiction, The Headscarf Revolutionaries (Barbican Press, 2015) derived from a funded PhD thesis, supervised by the English and the Maritime History departments respectively of that university. It tells the story of the 1968 Hull Triple Trawler Disaster, in which three trawlers, the St Romanus, the Kingston Peridot and the Ross Cleveland sank in as many weeks with the loss of 58 men, and the subsequent fishwives’ uprising led by safety campaigner Mrs Lillian Bilocca. It also recounts the incredible survival of Harry Eddom, mate of the Ross Cleveland, the only man to survive the disaster. In the course of my research I wrote and presented a piece for BBC Radio 4’s Four Thought series in late 2013, based on the biography I had been commissioned to write that year by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on the life of Mrs Bilocca. There were a few inquiries after that. So I was very lucky in as much as I did not have to send the manuscript to an agent or publishing house. Other than tons of journalism, my ‘other’ writing was mainly short fiction, poetry and some academic publications. I had a few options to check out after the Radio 4 broadcast but was in no real hurry as such. Had it been 20 years earlier, I’d have signed the first thing put under my nose! I even considered a self-publication route. I had great faith in the story. Then I was approached by Barbican Press (London and Hull), a director of which was that city’s University’s Professor of Creative Writing Martin Goodman, who had also been the principal supervisor of my doctoral thesis. I knew he loved the story, I respected his work and his own track record as both a nonfiction and fiction writer. But most importantly of all, I trusted the man to do the right thing with my work, and as Polonius said, ‘if you find an honest man bind him to your heart with hoops of steel.’ So I signed up with the small, feisty, indy house and became their best seller. Now a film and TV production company have optioned my book, and I am under way with a second nonfiction due out later this year, alongside a novel in its early stages. I am aware of how lucky I am. I am also aware that the harder I work, the luckier I become.

Buy The Headscarf Revolutionaries here

Brian’s Website

 

Cassandra Parkin – The Summer We All Ran Away, New World Fairy Tales, The Beach Hut

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My first book deal came via a competition that I only submitted to because everyone I knew told me I had to. In 2011, I wrote a collection of short stories as Christmas presents for a group of close friends. Then they all ganged up on me and told me I had to get them published, so I entered “New World Fairy Tales” for Salt Publishing’s 2011 Scott prize. I was so convinced I wouldn’t get anywhere that I wasn’t looking out for the winners announcement. I discovered I’d won when my lovely friend and fellow author Louise Beech messaged me on Facebook saying, “By the way, do you know you’ve won the Scott Prize?”

I’ve always loved Legend Press’s superbly-curated list of commercial literary fiction, and they’re also one of the very few publishers who take unsolicited and un-agented submissions. So after a lot more persistent nagging gentle encouragement, I submitted the first three chapters of my debut novel, “The Summer We All Ran Away” to Legend. I was expecting it to languish in the slush pile for months before receiving a polite form rejection, so it was a fantastic surprise when they called in the manuscript within two weeks, and signed it within another three. My second novel, “The Beach Hut”, was published by Legend Press in 2015, and my third novel “Lily’s House” will be published, also by Legend, in October 2016.

In hindsight, my biggest hurdle to publication was a lack of self-belief. I’m eternally, abjectly grateful to my lovely friends and family for making me send my work out into the world. My best advice is to skip the I’m-not-good-enough-let’s-not-bother phase – I’m speaking from painful experience when I tell you that it’s pointless and unnecessary. Just take a deep breath, and get submitting.

Buy The Beach Hut

Cassandra’s Website

 

Ruth Dugdall – The Sacrificial Man, The James Version, The Woman Before Me, Humber Boy B, Nowhere Girl

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Before I was published I thought it would go something like this: find agent. Agent finds publisher. All is well in the world. Then I discovered it was more like this: find agent. Book gets rejected. Ruth hides under duvet for a while then writes new book. Book gets rejected. The world is a cruel, harsh place. Things changed for me when I entered the Luke Bitmead Bursary. After four years of scenario two, winning that award (which included a publishing deal with Legend Press) was life-changing. And, strange though it may sound, I’m glad it happened the way it did because I take nothing (not one reader, not one review, not one invite to talk) for granted.

Buy Nowhere Girl

Ruth’s Website

 

Claire Douglas – The Sisters

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I submitted my first novel to an agent when I was 24. It took me another fifteen years before I’d find an agent and publisher.

The Sisters was my fourth attempt at a novel. I started writing it with a view of sending it off to agents and publishers but then a good writer friend alerted me to a competition that Marie Claire Magazine were holding. The prize was a one-book publishing deal with HarperCollins and an introduction to an agent – Juliet Mushens of United Talent Agency, who was also a judge.

I emailed Marie Claire the first three chapters of the unfinished novel with just an hour to go before the deadline. I never expected to hear anything further about it. In the meantime, I carried on writing the rest and put the competition out of my mind. Three months later I received the phone call from Marie Claire to say I had won. It was the most surreal, amazing feeling. After so many years of submissions and rejections somebody actually wanted to publish my novel! It was the kind of thing I’d read about happening to other writers, I never thought it would happen to me.

I went up to Islington to meet Juliet and felt so lucky when she said she’d represent me. Because I only had a one book deal I was worried about what would happen after The Sisters was published but Juliet sent my second novel out to publishers and it went to auction. It was all so exciting. I spent a day in London meeting the four different publishers and I was thrilled when Michael Joseph, Penguin won the auction. My new novel Local Girl Missing will be out in August 2016.

Buy The Sisters here

Read more about Claire here

How I Got a Book Deal – Part One

Before I finally got my book deal – I did it, did you know? – it was the one thing I googled and researched and asked about the most while working on my novels. How did other writers manage to acquire that elusive, golden prize of actually having a publisher say yes. Yes, they love the book that’s been your life for the last so many months (years even). Yes, they think it’s actually fit for human consumption. Yes, you can write. Yes. Yes!

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My first book signing in Waterstones

So I decided to dedicate today’s blog to that very question; and not only to ask it of myself and share the answer here, but to ask it of others who also managed to achieve that dream. So many wonderful writers responded and agreed to share their experiences that this will definitely be a two-parter, and possibly even three. I hope their responses will inspire, drive, confirm, and give hope to other writers striving to get their work out there.

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So – how did I do it? Here we go, in one long sentence, in one tumble of excited words, my book deal journey…

A book deal took me fifteen years, two weekly newspaper columns, ten short stories, one novel, countless rejections, thousands of travel pieces, another ten-plus short stories, countless rejections, another novel, three-and-a-half plays, one agent, countless more rejections, a few more short stories (that win prizes!), another novel, one retired agent, a handful of ‘almosts,’ novel number four, countless more rejections, one shortlist for big novel award, countless more rejections… and finally, in 2015, one incredible, magnificent, life-saving publisher, Karen at Orenda Books, saying yes.

Now over to those incredible writers and their tales. Thank you so much to them for taking the time to do this. Today Claire Fuller, David Young, Jane Isaac, Nick Quantrill, Sarah Jasmon, Gill Paul and Rebecca Mascull join us. And a few other very exciting writers will join me in part two…

 

Claire Fuller – Our Endless Numbered Days

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I sent my submission out to twelve agents – selecting them on the basis of whether they had an open list, were interested in debut authors and literary fiction, and whether I thought they looked friendly. I was lucky enough to get a couple of requests for a full submission, and then asked to come to a meeting in London with Jane Finigan from Lutyens and Rubinstein. I signed with her a week or so later. Jane and I worked on editing Our Endless Numbered Days for about six weeks and then she selected twelve editors in publishing houses to send it to. Within a few days we had offers from three, and so the book went to auction. It was the most amazing thing. The auction went on for a couple of weeks, and then two days after I got married, when I was sitting in the back of a car surrounded by empty bottles and bin-liners from tidying up after the wedding, Jane phoned me and told me that Fig Tree, an imprint of Penguin had won.

Claire Fuller’s Website

Buy Our Endless Numbered Days

 

David Young – Stasi Child

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To get any deal – certainly to get a decent deal – you usually need a literary agent. I came close to landing one when I first tried writing a novel some fourteen years ago. After several rejections, my second manuscript got called in by a leading crime agent who compared the sample chapters to bestseller Robert Goddard. But in the end she didn’t like the book enough. Ten years on, I decided to have another go, but was determined to do it properly. That rejected manuscript was useful because it earned me a place on the inaugural Crime Thriller MA at City University, tutored by leading crime writers. Stasi Child was conceived in the first term, initially as an exercise in setting. I was then one of the prizewinners when I entered the opening chapters in the Yeovil Literary Prize in 2014 which gave me the first indication that perhaps, this time, I might have more success. In the end, I didn’t have to endure another round of rejections. At the shortlisting stage for the City University course prize, sponsored by literary agents PFD, an agent there – Adam Gauntlett – snapped me up before I’d submitted anywhere else. Even then, a deal wasn’t instant. The first round of submissions resulted in a French deal and an option for TV rights, but it wasn’t until a second round some months later that Adam secured a three-book deal for World English rights with Bonnier publishing’s new UK fiction arm. PFD have since sold foreign rights to Poland and Israel, with others in the offing. Stasi Child entered the official UK Top 20 fiction chart soon after paperback publication in February 2016, and was made Crime Book of the Month by The Times, and Pick of the Week by the Daily Telegraph.

David Young’s Website

Buy Stasi Child

 

Jane Isaac – Before It’s Too Late, The Truth Will Out, An Unfamiliar Murder

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Like many writers, I’ve had rather a roller coaster ride to publication. When I finished my first book I was still studying creative writing with the Writers Bureau, and my tutor read the sample chapters and recommended that I send it to a small publisher called Crème De La Crime who accepted submissions from unpublished writers. They responded within a week to say that they couldn’t accept new submissions, having just been taken over by a large publisher, but they enjoyed the piece and suggested I send it to a couple of agents who were interested in new crime writers. I really didn’t expect to hear anything, you get so many rejections in this industry, so I was stunned when they both wanted to sign it! To cut a long story short, after a lovely day at their Kensington offices I signed up with one of the agents and they submitted the novel to the big publishing houses. The result was disappointing: We had lovely feedback, they all seemed to like the work, but nobody offered to sign the novel. My agent suggested I submit to the independent publishers and I signed with US based Rainstorm Press within a month. Rainstorm were only able to distribute books online in the UK, so when I finished my second book, The Truth Will Out, I decided to throw myself back into the slush pile and try for a British publisher. Luckily I signed with Legend Press who released my third book, Before It’s Too Late, last year and will be publishing my new title, Beneath The Ashes, on 1st November 2016.

Jane Isaac’s Website

Buy An Unfamiliar Murder

 

Nick Quantrill – Broken Dreams, The Late Greats, The Crooked Beat

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When I completed my first novel (second, really), I had no idea how to find a publishing deal. I didn’t know anyone in the business and I certainly didn’t know anything about how it worked. My gut instinct, though, told me a crime novel featuring a Private Investigator in Hull would sit better with a small press, preferably a specialist in the genre. I set about researching online, networking and talking to people. Rather than sending out submissions blindly, there was some logic in the process and I was fortunate to quickly find Caffeine Nights.

Nick Quantrill’s Website

Buy The Crooked Beat

 

Sarah Jasmon – The Summer of Secrets

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Back in 2013, I’d finished my first novel as part of my MA and had it rejected by the only agent I’d sent it to. I knew it needed editing, but didn’t have the time and space just then to deal with it. On a writing retreat, the subject of elevator pitches and approach letters had come up, so I’d done a bit of work of them. My boyfriend was on the shortlist for the Terry Pratchett First Novel Award that year, and I went along to the award ceremony. An evening in a room full of publishing professionals was an absolute gift, though I was actually more focussed on making contacts to get books to review on my blog than in selling my own novel. But one thing led to another, and I ended up with two editors reading the manuscript. One sent it on to Carrie Plitt at Conville & Walsh, who is now my agent, and the other ended up commissioning it for Transworld. Lucky timing, yes, but I also had a completed manuscript and a pitch ready to go when I was asked what my book was about. Lesson: be prepared, and make the most of any opportunity that comes up. You just never know…

Sarah Jasmon’s Website

Buy The Summer of Secrets

 

Gill Paul – Women and Children First, No Place for a Lady, The Affair, Titanic Love Stories

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My first book deal came about the old-fashioned way: I wrote a novel, sent it to half a dozen agents, and one of them agreed to represent me. She then sent it to half a dozen publishers and one agreed to publish me. There was no high-stakes auction, no six-figure advance, but after getting the call I curled up in foetal position on the rug, heart hammering so hard it was half an hour before I could calm down enough to call my mum. I don’t think it would have been so easy today. When brainstorming ideas for new novels now, I try to think about how they could be marketed: centenaries, film releases to tie in with, topics on which I could pitch articles to the press. A sales director once told me you need to be able to condense your idea into a compelling soundbite that can be delivered in less than 30 seconds – the average time they have to pitch it to book chains – but I’m utterly, pathetically useless at that.

Gill Paul’s new novel The Secret Wife, about the fate of the Russian royal family in 1918, will be published in September 2016

Gill Paul’s Website

Buy No Place For a Lady

 

Rebecca Mascull – Song of the Sea Maid, The Visitors

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I spent twelve years trying to get published before I finally made it! I wrote three novels before THE VISITORS, each of which got an agent but nothing further. Then I wrote THE VISITORS in a state of complete what-the-hell, devil-may-care, I’ve got nothing to lose, kind of thing. I sent my agent the manuscript on May 21st 2012. On June 21st, we heard from Hodder and Stoughton that THE VISITORS had secured a deal. One month to the day since the novel was finished and sent off, seven years give or take a month or so since I left full-time teaching to become a novelist, and twelve years since I’d decided to try and get published. Some people do it quicker, for some it takes longer, and some give up or never achieve whatever their writing dreams happen to be. For me, I wanted a novel of mine to be published by a publishing house, not by myself, and that is what happened for me, after years and years of trying. After that, I wrote my next novel in more or less complete isolation; I had a one-book deal for THE VISITORS and no kind of guarantee that my publisher would like my next book. I didn’t know what they were going to think when I sent it off. It was bloody terrifying! But luckily, Hodder made a two-book offer for that novel – SONG OF THE SEA MAID – and a further book (of which I’ve just finished the first draft). And only then did I begin to feel a little bit more like a real writer.

Rebecca Mascull’s Website

Buy Song of the Sea Maid