Reading these books taught me valuable lessons – #BookLoversDay

I’m so pleased that best-selling author Louise Jensen has included The Maid’s Room in this blog post: ‘The Books That Taught Me A Valuable Lesson.’

fabricating fiction

It’s Book Lovers Day! I’m always reading and there have been many, many books I’ve enjoyed but sometimes I’m lucky enough to take something from them that stays with me. These books have all taught me a valuable lesson and I’m grateful to have read them.

The Famous Five by Enid Blyton

At primary school I devoured books at such an alarming rate, I was given permission to take more than the allocated one book per child home each week. Long after I should have been asleep I was reading Enid Blyton books by torchlight under my covers, and The Famous Five was my favourite series. It was these books that ignited my interest in mysteries. Who was the baddie? Why did they do it? Would the gang figure it out in time? Always, one of them would be in peril towards the end and my heart would pound and…

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Just been Rejected by a Literary Agent? Keep the Faith . . . #writing #novels

I just pulled Stephen King’s On Writing off my book shelf. The shelf that’s only for my best books – the ones that inspire me to write.

I opened it up  and looked down at all the sentences I’d underlined. Here’s one:

‘You should have an agent, and if your work is saleable, you will have only a moderate amount of trouble finding one. You’ll probably be able to find one even if your work isn’t saleable, as long as it shows promise.’

Er, really, Stephen? Yes, I suspect there are writers who haven’t even finished the first draft of their books, and have still managed to get signed by an agent, but King makes it sound like a breeze, and let’s face it, for most of us it’s not.

If you’ve just opened a rejection email from an agent, you’ll probably be feeling a bit bruised. And the likelihood is that you might just have to read a few more of these before you find an agent who’s right for you.

It’s been a year since my wonderful agent Rowan Lawton took me on. Thanks to her, my debut novel The Maid’s Room is to be published by Hodder & Stoughton in November, and rights have been sold in four other territories.

But it took me years to get signed by Rowan. YEARS. My heart used drop into my shoes every time an email from an agent landed in my inbox. I’d curl my lip and say ‘Oh God!’ very loudly indeed. And that was even before I’d read the ‘thanks, but no thanks’. Invariably that email would ruin my day.

But the thing about putting yourself through all of this, is that if you take note, it can make your book better – I don’t mean the bog standard email rejections (they don’t offer you anything) but the ones where an agent has taken the time to point out things they liked about your book, and the things that they didn’t. Mull over, chuck bits away, rewrite. Let other people read it. When it’s the best you think it can be, find a good editor if you can afford one. And know this – as the rejection letters stack up, there might just be a genie lurking among them.

Rowan rejected an early novel of mine a few years ago. (Yes reader I kept the email.) Then in 2014, I was shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize for the first time and decided to go to the awards ceremony. (Do go,  2017 shortlisted writers; it’s fantastic.) Rowan was one of the judges that year and I ended up talking to her for quite a while. It was then that I realised that we got on really well, plus I loved her ideas about books. I could have chatted to her for hours.

So I kept on trying, kept changing and tweaking, and occasionally even got a bit hopeful. And finally, my biggest, happiest, most wonderful turning point arrived – and Rowan signed me. (Cue chin wobbling, and an enormous amount of gushy thank you’s). But that moment only arrived when the book was in a much more presentable state than it had ever been.

If you’ve had a rejection letter today, I hope this post might inspire you to keep going. Keep the faith and keep writing because getting your book published really can happen.

My Book Cover Reveal – #TheMaidsRoom

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I love checking out the covers of new hardbacks; so often they’re works of art.

When I visited Hatchards in London yesterday, the cover of recently published Yuki Means Happiness by Alison Jean Lester really stood out. The cover of the American edition of The Girls by Emma Cline is also a favourite – pop-arty and so eye-catching.

I’m drawn to covers that are bold, bright and colourful, but I didn’t have a clue what the cover of The Maid’s Room should be like.

When I was still submitting a version of the book to literary agents and feeling a bit glum, my daughter, nine at the time, got busy with her felt-tips and drew the picture below to cheer me up. I’ve still got it pinned over my desk.

Olivia pic

I collected a whole bunch of photographs to help inspire me while writing my book – pictures of smudged make-up, wedged shoes and a small dog called Malcolm among them. But none of those images were right for the cover.

So when my editor at Hodder & Stoughton, Kate Howard, showed me the cover of The Maid’s Room on Friday, I felt like I’d been given a beautiful gift. It has all the elements of the covers I most admire. What a massive honour it is to have this stunning design wrapped around my words.

 

 

My Book of 2015 – Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey

This book often sends me into raptures. Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey is an epic love story woven with astonishing skill. When dying World War II bomber pilot Dan makes a last-ditch attempt to contact the love of his life, vicar’s wife Stella, it is troubled singer Jess – squatting in the now abandoned love nest – who ends up reading the letter. Joined by her new friend ‘posh boy’ Will, they set out to reunite the lovers before it’s too late.

The characters in this book are so strong that you can practically see and hear their personalities in all their colourful glory. The crimson-lipsticked Nancy fizzes off the page, as does the hilarious, tousled and not-all-that-confident Will. And what can I say about Dan? Charismatic and kind, like Stella I fell completely in love with him.

Grey draws her villains perfectly too – I won’t give away any spoilers, but boy, I was rippling with anger towards one particular character. Grey stokes up the tension and the passion throughout, but no fear, the sex scenes do their job without once veering into cringe-factor territory. And as for emotion – well this book has valleys of it. But it isn’t all tear-sodden hankies, there are laughs aplenty too.

What a talent Grey is and what a perfectly formed, beautifully written debut. I will certainly be reading everything Grey publishes in the future. A heady mix of heart-breaking and feel-good, this is my book of 2015. I absolutely loved it.

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Recommended Book – Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

This incredible and memorable debut was my book of 2014.

When Peggy Hillcoat’s survivalist father takes her to a tumble-down hut in the remote German mountains, it feels like the start of an adventure, skinning squirrels to eat and making porridge from acorns. Then James tells Peggy that an apocalypse has killed the rest of the world including her concert pianist mother Ute. What unfolds is by turns enchanting and menacing. Where Ute has never allowed her daughter to touch her precious piano, James makes a silent piano by fashioning bits of wood into a keyboard. He thereby teaches his little girl to play.

It is told from two points of view – eight-year-old Peggy, and 17-year-old Peggy who has returned to Ute after nine years of living in ‘Die Hutte.’ Because we know that ultimately Peggy escapes, it makes her terrible ordeal a little easier to bear. As James descends into insanity, Peggy’s story takes an even more sinister turn.

While Peggy’s survivalist father turns out to be anything but, it is Peggy who is the ultimate survivor. She is endearing and unforgettable.

Fuller’s description of the forest is so evocative that’s it easy to imagine the textures, colours and smells of the place.

This is literary fiction at its best. Yes, there are sentences beautiful enough to frame, but you won’t find yourself tripping over any self-conscious prose. Neither will you find any ridiculous plot twists. The story is seeded with tiny hints and clues that will keep you staying up late and turning the pages.

Our Endless Numbered Days is an utterly compelling and haunting debut.51-+9JdFfJL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg

Have You Got More Than One Story in You? #writing

Suffering from a major book hangover after reading Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, I started a new book in a grouchy, this’ll-never-match-up kind of mood. My Name is Lucy Barton didn’t disappoint in the end, but it’s this line that has made a dent in me.

‘“You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.”

Do you have only one story? I think I might be guilty…

All my short stories, my debut novel, The Maid’s Room, and my second novel have things in common. Overseas settings. Tick. Writing about outsiders. Tick. And something else – all of them are an examination of the relationship between mothers and their children. I don’t just mean between the woman who gives birth and her offspring; I write about women who can’t give birth, the women who don’t want to, the connections they forge with other people which are just as deep and unbreakable as the ones they might have had with sons and daughters. I write about absent mothers, about father figures, about any parental set-up that isn’t 2.4 kids.

I’ve got an idea for a third book and it will be extremely difficult to pull off. Indeed I’ve told a couple of friends about it, and they’ve advised me to steer clear. Yet it’s an idea that I can’t stop thinking about, so perhaps it’s the one to go with. And yes – that too is about a mother and child.

For me, Elizabeth Strout is dead on – I am writing my story in many different configurations.

I once wrote a novel (I can’t even bring myself to say the title now, it was that pretentious) about an oil rig worker. I spent about a year on it, reworking it, and telling myself that this was the one that was going to get me an agent. It didn’t. It did have it’s moments, but it was the most deluded piece of writing I’ve ever produced. It was also the only time in the six and a half years that I’ve been writing fiction that I veered off my parental obsession. When I gave it to my husband to read, he fell asleep on the sofa with the pages fanned over his face. That will be the last time I write about oil rig workers.

So I’m going to stop berating myself about having a single story now. I feel like the brilliant Elizabeth Strout has given me permission.

The book I never wanted to end! The Maid’s Room

The very first review of my forthcoming debut The Maid’s Room is in. Massive thanks to best-selling author of The Sister and The Gift, Louise Jensen for her feedback.

 

fabricating fiction

I don’t often blog book reviews. However, The Maid’s Room has grabbed my heart and won’t let go and I feel compelled to share it.

This literary/commercial crossover novel is the debut of Fiona Mitchell although you would never think this is Fiona’s first book; each sentence is beautifully constructed, each word carefully chosen. The characters are rich and multi-dimensional. You can feel the love that has been poured into these pages. This is a real heart and soul book, and it shows. I never wanted it to end.

The story is based on Fiona’s real-life experience in Singapore. Shockingly there are 240,000 female domestic workers in Singapore and an estimated 53 million women working as domestic helpers across the globe. A quarter of these are afforded no legal rights at all.

I love books with an element of truth. Admittedly, it was uncomfortable at times, learning how modern day…

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How I Landed a Publishing Deal for My Novel

I’m bowled over that my debut novel The Maid’s Room is to be published by Hodder & Stoughton in November, but I’ve also been feeling reflective about the reasons why I started to write my book back in December 2010.

I was living in Singapore where more than 230,000 women work as domestic helpers. Many of them sleep in windowless cupboards and back then, they had no legal right to a day off.

As a freelance journalist, I began to research a feature about the women’s lives, but as I listened to their stories, another idea took hold. It was a story about all the different ways women can be mothers, even if they can’t give birth, even if they are separated from their children for years on end.

I went to the library, borrowed two beginners’ guides to writing novels and got to work. At that point, I don’t think I even knew what a literary agent did, and I certainly had no plans to get published.

It was only after I returned to the UK that the urge to get published arrived. I’d finished the book, so I might as well try, right?

And, oh, how I tried. I received piles of rejection letters (I really am going to count them one day); several requests from literary agents for the full manuscript that met with eventual no’s; I scrapped the book entirely then wrote it again from scratch. (And that’s not even mentioning the other novel that I wrote in between.)

Eventually, I employed a fantastic editor and ten days after reading my novel, literary agent Rowan Lawton agreed to represent me.

Together, we fine-tuned the book, and in October last year, Rowan began submitting it to publishers in the UK and overseas.

Days later, the book was pre-empted in Denmark, Norway, Italy and Spain. I whooped a lot, laughed; I cracked open a bottle of pink champagne.

I tried to keep my hopes low, yet I willed a UK publisher to take on The Maid’s Room too. I closed my eyes at random times and whispered, ‘Please.’

Then Rowan told me that two UK publishers wanted to meet me. One of them was Kate Howard, publisher at Hodder & Stoughton. It was surreal drinking tea and talking about my book with her at the Hachette offices on Victoria Embankment. To my relief, days later, both publishing houses made me an offer, and I decided to sign with Hodder.

The excitement still hasn’t worn off. Nor has my reflective state of mind. I’ve been thinking hard about the defining moment that motivated me to write the book. And it was this:

I met a 48-year-old woman in Singapore who had been working as a maid for almost twenty years. She told me how she’d left her sons, then ten and eight, back in the Philippines to get a job as a domestic helper initially in Hong Kong. She cried as she confided the pain of being separated from her boys – she wasn’t to see them again for another three years. Then almost in passing, the woman mentioned how her first employer had made her sleep under the dining room table at night.

Sure, I needed a hefty dose of luck to get my book published, but it was this woman’s story that set The Maid’s Room in motion and made me persevere.

From Rejection to Two-Book Publishing Deal with Hodder & Stoughton

I’m overjoyed that my debut novel The Maid’s Room will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in November this year.

The Maid’s Room is also being published by Penguin in Spain, Mondadori in Italy, Gyldendal in Norway and Rosinante in Denmark.

In addition to this, Hodder & Stoughton has commissioned me to write a second book.

I’m feeling so many things at the moment – excitement, relief (it’s been a long road) and such gratitude to the many people who have helped me get to this  place – the domestic helpers in Singapore who shared their stories with me, the wonderful editor who put her heart and soul into getting my book back on track, my formidable literary agent Rowan Lawton, and to Kate Howard, publisher at Hodder & Stoughton, as well as the numerous friends who’ve mopped up my tears along the way.

More from me soon.

 

 

Why This Writer needs Company (Sometimes)

I’ve been working on my own for years now. When you’re writing a book, you have to be alone much of the time – poring over the screen for hours, hoping some magic might descend.

As a freelance journalist, there was a lot of just me, the computer and the telephone. But over the past few months, it’s started to get to me.

I missed my days of working in magazine publishing where, stood beside the kettle, we’d mull over what we did at the weekend, all while trying to find a mug with an inside free of thick brown rings.

I missed the office banter – ‘Did you see Line of Duty last night?’ The birthday cake serenades. The ‘I’ve just bought these inedible toffees back from my holiday. Want one?’

Working on my tod was becoming too quiet. Sure, quiet has its benefits: the telephone didn’t ring all that much, and no one ever asked me to read yet another proof. And sometimes I even wrote some pretty good scenes.

But an emotion had started to chisel away at me. I tried to swallow it down, but it wouldn’t disappear. God, I was lonely.

I’d begun to drag myself through the day, lethargic and easily distracted.

A friend of mine, who’s doing a PhD, told me that she works a lot in the university library, so that she can be around other people. She finds it stimulating and as a result is able to focus more; she produces better work.

I tried working in a cafe for a while. Okay, so it worked for JK Rowling, but let me tell you, when you’re sat next to a man with a perma-tan and bleach white teeth who shares his travel itinerary at full volume, it’s pretty hard to tune out. (He was a regular.)

Then another friend made a suggestion. She invited me to take a desk in her office. She runs her own business and her office is at the end of her garden. Surely though, I’d be more productive if I just carried on sitting in silence and typed. I kept on going it alone, and I kept on getting through the day as if I was wading through glue. Something had to change, so I took that desk in my friend’s office for one day last week. It’s a grand desk too – tidy, with a glass top and a pot of pens perched in the corner. It’s set in front of a window that’s surrounded by trees.

It was difficult to concentrate for the first half hour, but then I was off, typing, squinting at the screen, muttering to myself. We had a natter over tea, not a stained mug in sight. We ate our lunch together, and my friend made lots of phone calls in the background.

It worked, I wasn’t distracted. I wasn’t lethargic, and best of all, I didn’t feel lonely. I was more focused and did some decent work.

So I’m going back to that lovely desk this week. Going it alone is okay some days, but I need my fix of people.