What It Was Like to Give my First Author Talk

Today I gave a talk to writers in Singapore via FaceTime and surprisingly, for someone who claims not to like public speaking all that much, I enjoyed it.

Hooking up via a wonky Skype connection, then reverting to FaceTime, there were about fourteen writers in the room making notes while I talked about the long route from starting my very first novel to landing a two-book deal with Hodder & Stoughton. Publication of The Maid’s Room is now only six weeks away and I can’t wait.

Hopefully I managed to relay some tips that the writers will find useful. The word ‘perseverance’ was uttered more than once.

I took me three years, three months and 29 days from receiving my first agent rejection letter to getting representation from my lovely agent Rowan Lawton. During that time I became an expert in rejection, so a large part of my talk was dedicated to surviving the submissions process.

My top survival tips include:

  • Logging onto Paul McVeigh’s brilliant website to keep you going. There were so many times I snivelled over my keyboard as I read one of the author interviews featured to make myself feel just that little bit better about everything.
  • Entering writing competitions. Being shortlisted in the Bristol Short Story Prize for the very first time buoyed me up. Some of the judges and authors who read my story liked my work and encouraged me to keep writing.
  • Watching TED Talks. On the days I felt particularly low, I’d watched a Ted Talk. There’s so much to inspire you here, from writers talking about books, to people who’ve overcome enormous obstacles to achieve their personal bests.
  • Using the anger. I did quite a bit of ranting about rejection, but then somehow I managed to turn that emotion into energy. Try it – you might just end up writing your soul onto the page.

Preparing this talk was a real eye-opener for me. It took quite a few hours to plan what I wanted to say, so a big shout-out to inspirational teachers everywhere. I had no idea teaching involved so much hard graft.

But the biggest revelation for me was just how much I loved doing a spot of public speaking – hopefully I’ll remember that in future.

Huge thank you to author Alice Clark-Platts for inviting me to speak, and the Singapore Writers’ Group, thanks for listening.

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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.

 

 

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.

 

 

The Bristol Prize Awards Ceremony 2016 – Here’s What Happened

The reading room at Bristol Central Library was packed with people when acclaimed short story writer Tania Hershman announced the winner of this year’s Bristol Prize.

Writer Stefanie Seddon stepped out from the audience to take her £1,000 prize, her face pale with shock. The moment she took the mic and started reading her story Kākahu, it was clear what a talent she is. I was among the runners-up in the front row who got to hear just a few paragraphs of Stefanie’s story, including the killer first line: ‘There are lots of ways to remember that day; the day I became a bird’. I’d say everyone in the room will read her story to the end though. I have and, oh, it’s a gem.

Afterwards photographs were taken, much wine was drunk and lots of people stood around talking.

‘Congratulations!’

‘Well done!’

‘Congratulations!’

Nobody was quite sure – apart from competition organiser Joe Melia that is – which 20 faces had their work in the anthology, so partygoers scattergunned congratulations. ‘Oh, no, not me, I’m not in the anthology,’ was said more than once.

According to one of the early readers, there were a lot of stories about birds in her pile this year. And there must have been a lot of piles since more than 2,000 people entered.

The room was furnished with some of those people. I recognised several from the supportive network of writers on Twitter.

We laughed, we enthused about writing, we even signed a few books. But when the room started to thin out, and the wine bottles had been drunk dry, it was time to say my goodbyes. I felt a bit sad because I’m pretty sure I won’t enter next year. After three shortlistings, it seems the right place to stop. For now at least. I’d like to focus on trying to write my next novel.

Since 2014, the Bristol Prize has been beside me through the ups and downs of this business called writing. The business where sometimes you think you can’t do it anymore, the business which is populated by more nos than yeses. But hold out for those yeses, please do.

I was signed by former Bristol Prize judge, literary agent Rowan Lawton in June this year, so I’m really pleased I persevered with my writing. And my Bristol Prize shortlistings encouraged me to do just that.

Getting into the Bristol Prize long and shortlist isn’t easy. You need a strong dose of luck to match your good writing. But at just £8 an entry, it’s definitely worth a punt, don’t you think?

Get hold of this year’s  anthology to see what makes a winning story, and pens at the ready, entries for 2017 open later this month. #KeepWriting

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Bristol Short Story Prize 2016, Bristol Central Library. ©Barbara Evripidou2016

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 was published in hardback in November 2017 by Hodder & Stoughton. The paperback will be published on 19 April 2018.

The Weekend Read – A Short Story

 

In the first week of December 2015, my story The Colour of Mud was featured as The Weekend Read on the For Books’ Sake website which champions women’s writing. It was originally published in the Bristol Short Story Prize Anthology Volume 7. Lots of people got in touch to say how much they enjoyed reading it online – and that’s always an energy boost.

Read the opening paragraphs below. The rest of the story is available for 99p on Kindle for a limited time only. Buy it here.

Submit your short stories to For Books’ Sake here.

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The Colour of Mud

I am never gonna be clean, even though I wipe myself down seventeen times a night. It’s the mud, see.

I pull my scarf around my face and jump puddles alongside the wall of trucks, grey ones, black ones, all blanketed by the dirt.

There are three men playing poker at a table they’ve set up in the middle of the drag. A standing man, his leg bent up on a chair, blows a tuneless harmonica. A jar on a table beside him is scabbed with ash.

I step forward and the mud sucks my leg down knee-deep. I grunt and slurp it out.

The lights of a bar flash on and off: The Good Times Saloon, the scaffolding on the roof a kind of skeleton. An open kitchen fogs oil and fried plantain. Further up the drag, the cooking mixes with the night stench. Petrol, tobacco, skin slicked in sweat.

There are echoes of laughter and the underfoot beat from a song on the radio.

I pass an island of scorched grass and stare down searching for remarkable signs of green. There’s no such thing as colour in this non-existent town. It’s not on no map, but the truckers know just where it is, halfway along the Western stretch of the Nakuru-Eldoret highway.

Bristol Short Story Prize Awards Ceremony – The Lowdown

It was my second time at the Bristol Short Story Prize awards ceremony last night. I was hopeful; I was in with a chance after all, among 20 other writers chosen from almost 2,500 entries.

There they were, faces I recognized from last year, organiser Joe Melia, judges Sara Davies and Sanjida O’Connell, and wasn’t that 2013 winner Paul McMichael over there? He’d made the shortlist again. I made a beeline for him and we began laughing in a slightly hysterical, scared kind of way. Still the fear was nothing on last year when – gulp – I could barely speak my mouth was that dry.

Bristol Short Story Prize Writers and Judges

Bristol Short Story Prize Writers and Judges

Us shortlistees sat in the front row in the glass-topped Reading Room at Bristol Central Library. And judge Sara Davies read out the names of the runners-up. Mine was among them.

I hadn’t won.

But so what – my story is in a book again – words that I’ve fussed over, changed and rearranged. A story that the early readers and the judges must have connected with somehow. It gets a mention in Sara Davies’ foreword.

‘We all liked….the restrained and powerful exploration of an illegal immigrant’s emotional trauma at the heart of Black Lines,’ she writes.

It was a good feeling reading that. I hope other readers connect with my story too.

BSSP photo

Anthologies galore….

Massive congratulations to Brent van Staalduinen whose story A Week on the Water won first prize, and to the other prizewinners too.

After the ceremony, I spoke to the other shortlisted writers, smiles stretched across their faces, bags bulging with anthologies. (They make very good Christmas presents, let me tell you.) Wine was drunk, woes were shared and successes were well and truly celebrated. I even signed a few books.

It was great to bend Joe Melia’s ear again. His encouragement last year helped steer me through a bout of writing self-doubt. When that strikes again, all I need to do is open up my brand new anthology and remind myself of the rewards for not being a quitter.

Joe also told me that no one in the history of the Bristol Short Story Prize has ever managed a hat trick, so maybe, just maybe I’ll throw my hat into the ring again next year.

https://www.bristolprize.co.uk/shop/

What it’s like to Win a Writing Competition

I started the year with a writing wish list. There were just two things on it: Win a writing competition and find a literary agent to represent my work.

The year’s gone pretty well so far; I’ve had several requests for the full manuscript of my first book, but still no offer. Yet. (I am manically rewriting.)

And then Frome happened – the Frome Short Story Competition. This year, lauded author Samantha Harvey was judging. Oh my, imagine that. I went into full-on dream mode. After much rejigging and rewriting, I entered my story about a migrant worker in Singapore called Plenty More Where You Came From.

Then I carried on redrafting my first novel. Weeks later, an email arrived saying I was in the Frome shortlist. I hadn’t even realised I was in the longlist. Fantastic – something else to say in a query letter to a literary agent.

On Sunday, I headed down the motorway to Frome. Then there it was, the library where the awards ceremony for the competition was going to take place. Other writers, other shortlisted entrants – there were 13 of us – would be there. Samantha Harvey would be there too, and the organisers Brenda Bannister and Alison Clink. There was a fair going on in the car park. A bloke in a mask was poking a rod at a metal head spouting fire, its ears belching steam. I wasn’t sure what that was all about, but my head felt furnace-hot too. God, I wanted to win.

Inside the library, the ceremony kicked off with Samantha Harvey talking about how much she’d enjoyed this year’s shortlist. Choosing first, second and third place hadn’t been easy at all, she said, the stories were that strong. She talked about how writing competitions have become increasingly important in publishing, but that really just writing is the most important thing. Don’t be distracted by not making a shortlist, by not winning, or even by winning – just write.  

Liz Gwinnell took third place with Under the Mango Tree. It was great to put a face to the name – I’d read Liz’s story, Where Hummingbirds Fly, which won third place in Frome back in 2013. That story helped to inspire me to enter Frome this year. I so loved its rich, distinct, voice. Kath Grimshaw won second place with Hotel Room.

Then Samantha described the winning story. An ugly story written with such beauty. Could it be mine? Set in Singapore. Hell, it was mine. Not knowing the names of any of the entrants – the whole thing is judged anonymously – Samantha said the title of my story.

‘It’s me!’ I squeaked and stood up.

I shook hands with Samantha and she handed me my 300 pound prize. And then I read my story out, all 15 minutes of it. And people clapped (thanks for that, people). I walked back to my seat and Samantha’s mum, who was sitting behind me, pumped her fists and said, ‘Well done.’

Frome Short Story Competition, Fiona Mitchell, writer, judge Samantha Harvey

Frome Short Story Competition. 2015 winner Fiona Mitchell and judge author Samantha Harvey

I’d done it, finally a winner.

We spent the next hour in an art gallery next door to the library where many chocolate brownies were chomped and much talk about writing was had. What happens to you when you write? When do you write? Have you written a book? And thanks Liz Gwinnell for wrapping me another brownie for the journey home. I got lost, so that brownie ended up being my tea.

So on winning: Well, it feels brilliant, it really does because someone who’s rated reckons I wrote something beautiful. And now back to the business of writing.

http://www.fromeshortstorycompetition.co.uk/plenty-more-where-you-came-from/

Confessions of a Writing Competition Judge

Last week, I helped longlist for a writing competition for teenagers.

I was given two batches of twenty prose and poetry pieces and asked to choose my favourite four in each.

I read, reread, pondered and scored.

All of my scores were on the Craig Revel Horwood side of stinginess, so when a piece of writing scored a SEVEN, well oh my giddy aunt, it was good. It was easy to choose the best two works in each batch. Sassy, original with beautiful turns of phrase, they stood out.

It was less easy to choose the third and fourth pieces to go through. There were so many pieces which each had different merits, a smack-you-around-the-face ending or an opener that shone, a dodgy first half followed by a magical second. I reread these pieces lots of times before I was able to make a choice.

Here are the two things that struck me most about this competition:

  • Originality is almost all. Lots of writers had similar ideas, but the entries that went through had a concept that was a cut above the rest.
  • Why use a big word when crisp simplicity works so well? As Stephen King says, “Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

I so enjoyed being an early reader in this competition and contributing to that bit of sparkle that writers feel when their work makes it through.

So to all early readers in writing competitions, thanks for tangling yourself in words.