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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My Book Cover Reveal – #TheMaidsRoom

Maid'sRoom_HB6

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

5 Things to Know about Writing your First Draft

‘You’re an old hand.’

‘You must know what you’re doing by now.’

These are just two of the things my friends have cajoled me with this week while I’ve done everything in my power (and some things that were beyond my power – let’s not mention unscrewing the U-bend of that blocked sink) to avoid starting the first draft of my next novel.

You see, it’s been a while since I faced the dreaded blank page. Back in December 2010, I started typing my first novel only to get lost in a crowd of superfluous characters. Then there was that literary flirtation with the love story in 2014 (the one with the unmentionably pretentious title – breaks off here to delete all blog post references to it). And last year I began the first draft of my third book, The Maid’s Room, which, aided by a detailed plan, flowed well.

This next manuscript will be my fourth novel and I have to confess I’m a bit scared. To quell my concerns I’m reverting to what works best for me, writing a detailed plan on a piece of A3 paper. At the top of it, I’ve scrawled DRIVE and INTRIGUE and CHARACTER ARCS inside helpful squiggly clouds to urge me to stay on course. And yesterday was a good day, I finished with 3,074 words.

Whether you’re taking part in National Novel Writing Month or going it alone, here are some first draft nuggets to remind you (and me) how it’s done.

  1. Don’t stress about the future. If you’ve done this novel writing malarkey before, chances are you’re inhibited by what lies ahead. The agent rejections. Will this ever get published? It all comes tumbling in, so that you might end up shutting down your blank page and looking at Facebook instead. Well, don’t. Stop thinking big. Just plonk yourself in front of the computer and type. I’m aiming for 1,000 words a day. But if you’re taking part in National Novel Writing Month, you’ll be going 1,000 better than me. 2,000, ladies and gentlemen.
  2. Do write rubbish. The first draft can’t be anything else, can it? You don’t know your cast of characters yet. They’ll probably be acting in a way that will end up contrary to their later, more fully-formed selves. And the voices might be clunky. Just keep on tapping those keys though and the characters should eventually start to take shape.
  3. Don’t go back and edit. Not too much anyway. Let me just mention my pretentious novel again here. I ended up with 70,000 words that might have been coiffured and polished to the max, but that didn’t stop them causing a catatonic state in one of my liveliest friends. I’d wasted so much time titivating along the way that I hadn’t seen the glaringly obvious; the book was drivel. This time I’m going to leave the editing to the end. This draft isn’t about perfection after all; it’s about making it up the mountain.
  4. Do turn up. Tidy your desk. Pop a couple of inspirational books on top of it, so you can read some pages to spur you on. My chosen one is Letters to the Lost by Iona Grey. I’m not writing a love story, but reading Grey’s flowing and immersive narrative puts me in the right mood. Make a deal with yourself not to get distracted. I try to write for an hour before I allow myself to get up and make a cup of tea. I became absorbed in writing The Maid’s Room – I’d get up early and write late into the night. The more you write, the more you want to write, and the better the writing gets.
  5. Don’t isolate yourself completely. Because a) you’ll develop twitchy eye syndrome, and b) you’ll stop writing well. Go to the party. Attend that book launch. Listen to your friends talk their hearts out. Seeing people will energise you and make your characters sing. You might even find a new subplot.

Right, I’m going in again. Are you?

Word-ometer: (as of Thursday 17th November) 28,267.

From Rejection to Representation – 6 Steps to Landing a Literary Agent

Well, I have to admit my head is spinning. After more than three years of trying to hook a literary agent, Rowan Lawton is now representing me, and I am beyond delighted.

If you’re looking for representation, or smarting from yet another rejection letter, please don’t switch off. I’ve had some major disappointments since my first rejection letter in January 2013, but somehow I just kept writing.

I’ve kept most of my rejections in a folder called Novel. (It should really be called Novels, since I’ve written three of the things.) There have been highs – being shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize in 2014, for example, when writers and publishing bods including organiser Joe Melia said some lovely things about my work. (I tucked these away for dark days.) And there have been lows. At one point, five agents were reading a full manuscript, but all of them turned me down.

When I look back though, the extreme lows, the moments that hit me hardest were the turning points – not that I knew that then. My ego was battered purple, and just a tiny frazzle of hope remained – but I kept going and at the moment, I am so thankful that I did.

Here are my six wobbly steps to getting representation (I fell over several times):

Step 1: Write the Damn Book

I didn’t do a creative writing course; I got five books out of the library about how to write a novel, and started reading them. A shame then that I didn’t take enough notice of them. I scribbled down a theme and two flagpole events then started typing. I wrote 1,000 words a day. And two years later, in 2012, I had a book. It was riddled with telling instead of showing, and it had more tangents than the human circulatory system.

Step 2: Enter a Competition

I entered my novel, Out of the Cupboard, into a debut novel competition. And fist pumps and high pitched ‘yessing’ – it was longlisted. It went on to be shortlisted and read by a panel of literary agent judges including Rowan. I didn’t win, but to my amazement, Rowan wanted to meet me. A few months later in September 2013, we met up and Rowan gave me her editorial thoughts on my book. She read the book again after I’d made changes, and boom – she rejected me. I was never going to get another chance like this, never, I told myself. I buried the book on my computer and decided to write a second one.

Step 3: Write a Second Book

Clearly upmarket women’s commercial fiction wasn’t my genre, I thought. Inspired by Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing, I began writing a dark and moody literary love story. Meanwhile I was shortlisted in the 2014 Bristol Short Story Prize with a panel of judges, including Rowan. My story was entered anonymously and although it didn’t win, it was published in the anthology. I went down to the prize ceremony in Bristol where I pitched my second novel to Rowan who said she’d love to take a look.

However I then decided that this book didn’t make the grade. I excavated book one and started working on it all over again. Things began to look up when another agent requested the full, using words like ‘brilliant’ and ‘wonderful.’ Then two other agents requested the full. This is it, I thought. Trouble was all of them turned it down. One added that, for her, it was too bleak and one of the characters was too wet. Goddamn it, I’d failed again. Even my eternally optimistic husband was lost for words. However, this was a turning point.

Step 4: Write a Third Book

There was nowhere else to go with this book. I spent three days thinking about how unfair life was. And then, you know how it goes, an idea dripped in, followed by another and another. I got out a blank sheet of A3 paper and started plotting. There were columns and thought bubbles, and notes in the margin. I met up with my journalist friend, Lucy, for lunch, pulled out my A3 sheet and subjected her to the equivalent of a PowerPoint presentation while she chomped on her quinoa. She dabbed her mouth with a serviette and when she pulled it away, she was smiling. ‘I like it,’ she said.

I wrote The Maid’s Room, in a matter of months. To my delight, I was shortlisted again in the 2015 Bristol Short Story Prize and several literary agents contacted me through Twitter to request a look at my third book. One in particular seemed extremely interested in it. I contacted Rowan once again and was really surprised when she asked to see the full manuscript. There were five agents now reading it. One by one the rejections arrived. They all said much the same thing. They enjoyed my book, but the narrative wasn’t quite taut enough, the pacing wasn’t right. I was lost, and low, the lowest I’d ever been about my writing. (This was another turning point.)

Step 5: Find a Fantastic Editor

I was sitting on the floor with my back against the radiator writing a freelance health piece when I decided to open one of the rejection letters and read it again. There’s nothing like torturing yourself, right? In it, the agent said she could recommend an editor to me. I’d had my first and second book edited though and it still hadn’t got me an agent. Oh, what the hell?! I replied, saying that yes, I’d love a recommendation. And that’s when I met Sara Sarre. She read my book in two days, and said that she thought it was really strong then cut to the chase – I’d only started the story halfway through the book and two of my main characters had no arc. I wrote, and rewrote while Sara mentored me – going well beyond the call of duty. Sara read my book three times in all, and finally said the magic words. ‘You’ve nailed it and I think it’s brilliant.’

Step 6: Submit Only when the Book is Ready

I sent the full book to Rowan and initial submissions to three other agents. Two of them requested a full. Ten days later, an email from Rowan arrived. I read the last line first, but there was no brush off. Rowan wanted to meet me and talk about representation. My hands were shaking, and I said, ‘Oh my God!’ quite a lot. It was a blurry-headed moment. A few days later in a cafe close to the Furniss Lawton offices in central London, I met up with Rowan. She gave me some more editorial suggestions for my book then talked about her high hopes for it.

I’m realistic; I know this is just the beginning, but all those late nights and early mornings, all that rejection, well, it was worth it. Because finally I’ve found an agent who believes in me and my work. So please keep writing – because those dreadful down days really can lead to something good.

UPDATE – My debut novel The Maid’s Room will be published in November 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton.

Writing a novel: False Starts and Second Chances

To be or Not to Be?

Positive, I mean…..

My little old book is almost ready to be frisbeed out into the world of literary agents again.

So when you’re submitting, what sort of mental attitude should you have?

I’m writing a feature on the forthcoming Rio Olympics at the moment, and researching past and possible medallists. I could take the Usain Bolt stance. I’m going to win, no doubt. Or I could be more of an Adam Peaty. ‘It’s not yours until it’s physically around your neck.’ (Hmm, that probably works better with medals than books, although……..)

book necklace

 

Away from the sporting arena, I could go Victor Meldrew. Yesterday, a photographer pal of mine told me: ‘This may sound a bit negative, but I think you should expect the worst.’

Say, what?!

(Note to reader – he hasn’t read the book). ‘Erm, I just mean you should think negatively and then you won’t expect anything.’

Maybe I should adopt this approach.

But just now an email popped into my inbox.

‘I’ve finished reading your book and I have to say it’s looking absolutely brilliant.’ That’s my editor, Sara Sarre.

So, I’m about to walk up to the starting blocks yet again. Prayer position, and breathe….. and back to that feature…..

(Header image unsplash.com patricktomasso.com)

What it’s like to finish writing a novel

It’s almost time to send my first novel out into the world again. There’s nothing left to write on its pages.

There was the first draft. Then a literary agent met me and suggested changes. Next, came the second draft.

When the rejection came, I pushed the book into a drawer for a few months. Then somehow the book started niggling at me again. I found the will to push on with the third draft.

Another literary agent liked it, and what happened was this: a major rewrite and a new plot, resulting in draft number four. Cue good reactions from several literary agents, but still an all-round no.

Then one of the agents wrote back to me recommending an editor/mentor, and with her insights I’ve now completed the fifth draft. Let’s hope this draft is fabulous number five.

When Hannah Kent finished Burial Rites, she had a surprising reaction. (Admittedly this was her first draft, not her fifth).

‘I realised I no longer knew what to write. There was nothing more to write. I pushed my keyboard away from me, read the last line over and over, and then – unexpectedly – burst into tears. They weren’t tears of elation or disbelief. I was suddenly, profoundly sad.’

I can relate. Finishing feels like a loss. I’m glad that I’ve got this far, but all those obsessive late nights, all those burnt pieces of toast, all those half-listened to conversations, are gone.

I’m not sad. Neither am I elated; I just feel knackered. I’ve read my book that many times aloud that I sound like I have a forty-a-day habit. During warmer months, me speaking in my characters’ tongues has spilled through the open windows. ‘I don’t want this anymore.’ ‘It isn’t a marriage anyway!’ The neighbours must think I’ve got multiple personalities. Either that or I need a bit of marriage guidance counselling.

And I have to admit, I do feel slightly unhinged. A chapter of my life is now over. This book is just about as good as it ever will be; it’s do or die.

I’m stepping into some new place, some other writing project, something that might give me yet more oxygen. Because writing is like breathing to me: it’s the only way to live.

New Novel Resolutions: Things I’ll never do again

What did I learn about writing a novel last year? Well, quite a few things actually. How to have a normal conversation after writing for eight hours with no human contact whatsoever. A whole heap of responses to rejection letters that didn’t involve screaming expletives. (Deeper frown line accrued.)

But here are the three biggies, things I’m going to try hard not to repeat. I’d already been told these were no-nos, it’s just I chose to ignore the advice. Well not any more.

I’m turning myself into an advice sponge. I’m going to lap it up like a ladyfinger.

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1 Burn the Patois

God, I love Trainspotting. Brought up on a diet of Ayes and Help my Bobs, via The Broons and Oor Wullie, I throw in the old colloquials whenever I can. Well, that’s alright in dialogue, but the whole narrative? An editor from a major publishing company who gave me some fantastic advice a fortnight ago expressed a preference for bog standard English. Okay, so I know some writers do experimental narrative well, but it’s not working for my book. ‘The patois creates a distance between the character and reader,’ one literary agent told me. So adios, patois. Laters. Kapitche.

2. Make sure your characters have an arc

My characters are distinct – that’s one thing that all the agents who’ve read my book have agreed on. It’s just one of my characters has no internal arc. In my head, she was a put-upon angry young thing who’d eventually transform into a formidable business woman. On my computer screen, however, this character was as flat as a chapati with breeze blocks piled on top. Your characters need to change. They need a turning point in which they start to act differently. List the changes. Write them down, pin them to your wall. Your characters need to grow.

3. Start in the right place

My central character, the one that has the sharpest edges and spikiest tongue, her story doesn’t really get going until page 70. Cue major edit. Your character’s story needs to start on page one. There has to be an inciting incident to tip your reader into the narrative. It needs to be powerful enough to keep your reader turning the pages. Magnetize them. Draw them in. To do this, create conflict straightaway, things that are at stake.

So this is it. I’m going in. Here comes my first edit of 2016. And this time my novel’s going to be patois-free, bursting with provocative beginnings. No flatlining allowed.

The number one mistake NOT to make when submitting to literary agents

Unknown

So I finish the novel (for the *ahem* fourth time) and send it back to the agent who read the book once and told me that the concept was brilliant and that she loved my writing, but that changes were needed.

She replies. And there it is, that sting, ‘another agent might feel differently.’ Cue re-reading the email four more times (ok, let’s be honest, it was 10 times, analysing it word by word like Jacques flipping Derrida). It’s definitely a no then….

But this time I was so sure it was ready. The characters had sharp edges and bulgy bits. They smiled; they did the whole dramatic thing better than Sofia Helin. (Okay, so no one does it quite like her.) But they’re good people and I blooming love them, and so do my friends.

I pull off the Kleenex that I’ve Sellotaped to my cheekbones to mop up the tears, and get on with the day job. Besides it’s not that bad; other agents have requested the full novel too. Surely one of those will be The One.

Each of them replies and gives detailed feedback. (One sends me a standard rejection letter, but that’s a small detail.) All of them agree – I need to streamline the narrative; it needs more pace.

One of them suggests an editor. But hang on a minute, I had it edited two years ago, 700 quids worth of edits, I can’t keep throwing money at a project that might never see the light of day, can I?

Something persuades me, some deep belief that this book is beginning to be more than half-decent. Perhaps it just needs a little bit of help. After all, it’s a very different book to the one it was two years ago when it was shortlisted in a competition run by literary consultancy Cornerstones. I contact the agent who’s suggested an edit and she puts me in touch with a trusted editor – a specialist in narrative structure.

The editor reads the book in two days and hacks away at the narrative like it was one of those overgrown lavender bushes in my neglected back garden. Right there in the centre is the bones of the thing, all tangled up in subplot. The pace has been slowed by it, the main drive has been strangled.

Then something magical happens. The editor invites me to meet up. She tells me she likes the book really quite a lot. She agrees to be my mentor while I finish it.

Writing a book is a massive investment – your time, your sanity (occasionally) – but if you really believe you have something that could be good, it’s worth shelling out for an editor. It’s a false economy not to, I reckon. I’d become so embroiled in my novel that I just couldn’t see its faults.

So I may not be finishing the year with a literary agent, but I’m not on my own anymore. I’ve found a mentor who’s in my corner. And, this wannabe debut novelist is back in the ring.

 

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