2021 WriteMentor Summer Programme

This year I am one of the Mentors for the WriteMentor Summer Programme. This is the first time I have been involved in WriteMentor, but I know several people who have benefitted from their mentoring partnerships, and I would love to help another writer to improve their craft and get the best out of their writing. If you’re thinking about applying to be a mentee, here is some more information about me, my taste in fiction and what you can expect from me as an editor and mentor.

I’m currently writing MG fantasy fiction and I am represented by Julia Churchill at AM Heath. I have a BA Creative Writing and I was the Managing Editor of a literary website for four years, which involved a lot of reading and editing submissions. I have also been involved at an editorial level in several anthologies of short fiction. I am part of a children’s writing group through SCBWI, in which we regularly critique each other’s work. I review books for Netgalley, Armadillo Magazine, and my personal blog, and I read 258 books last year—which gives me a good idea where your book might fit in the context of the publishing market. I am also a primary school librarian, which means I have first-hand experience of what children like to read. 

However skilful a writer you are, it is impossible to see your own blind spots—another pair of eyes is an invaluable tool in your writing process. As an editor, I will give you my honest opinion on the big picture, the foundation blocks of your story—characters, setting, plot, style—as well as the finer details. Though we all have our own individual writing style and narrative voice, as an editor I will look for the gaps and the bumps—the bits that stand out and don’t flow with the rest. 

I love to read fantasy and sci-fi. Some of my favourite authors include Becky Chambers, Holly Black, Cassandra Clare, Leigh Bardugo, Sarah J. Maas, Laini Taylor, VE Schwab, Katherine Arden and Samantha Shannon. (I have read the Hunger Games trilogy and Lord of the Rings at least five times each.)

When it comes to children’s fiction, I particularly love Frances Hardinge, Jonathan Stroud, Dominique Valente, Vashti Hardy, Rick Riordan, Jessica Townsend and Sophie Anderson. The best children’s book I’ve read lately is The Shark Caller by Zillah Bethell. 

I’d love to hear from you if you think I might be able to help with your WIP. Full details of the WriteMentor Summer Programme are available on the WriteMentor website and applications are open 15 – 16 April 2021.

Nine Years, Nine Books

9781912915057-e1557932493546I have always been a prolific reader, but I started writing fiction nine years ago. We had just moved to the UK, I had two small children and, inspired by the literary atmosphere of London, I enrolled in a BA Creative Writing at Birkbeck.

They say everyone has a book in them, but not everyone has what it takes to make a career out of writing. You need thick skin to cope with a lot of rejection, the confidence to pursue your own creative vision and the humility to accept guidance in shaping your writing. And, like any other career, it takes time to establish yourself. A lot of time.

People often ask me when my book’s getting published and I shrug and try to explain that publication is an extremely long, slow process. It’s easy to feel that I haven’t achieved much in nine years, I call myself a ‘writer’, but until I have a proper book deal, I don’t feel that I can call myself an ‘author’.

But this week I received my copies of Dragons of the Prime, an anthology of children’s dinosaur poetry edited by Richard O’Brien and published by The Emma Press. And I realised, even though I don’t have that elusive book deal just yet, I do have nine physical books on my bookshelf that I have contributed to or edited, and numerous other online publications. Nine books in nine years is not bad, really.

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The Mslexia Novel Competition

I started writing my first novel in January 2014 for the final dissertation of my BA Creative Writing at Birkbeck. As you might expect, it was a thinly-disguised autobiographical coming-of-age story set in the twilight years of apartheid South Africa and saturated with eighties nostalgia. (There had been another unfinished novel before that—a story told from the POV of four narrators living in a dystopian society that forced you to…wait for it…change your name every three years. There was a complicated excel spreadsheet just for me to remember which character was which. But the less said about that the better.) The first three chapters of this novel got me a first for my degree, so I thought it would be worth finishing. So, I finished it. By the time I had finished it, however, I’d thoroughly lost interest and was dying to start writing something else. But since I had finished it I thought it would be a waste if I didn’t at least try and get it published.

So in April 2016 I started sending the finished novel out to agents. I didn’t want to be one of these people who gave up too easily and I hoped that if I found someone who really liked my book then they would be able to talk me into liking it again. I sent it out to about thirty agents over the next six months. I got four requests for the full manuscript, but nothing further ever came of it.

I had several other novel ideas while I waited for the flood of agent offers—there was one about a cult, one about mermaids, one about eugenics. (Coming up with book concepts has never been my problem, persevering with the actual writing bit is the difficult bit.)

On 16 June 2016 I wrote in my journal:

Brother and sister live in a lighthouse. Alone.

And Ash and Ellyn walked into my head, fully formed, in a way the friends-and-family-members-with-their-names-changed never did in my first novel. I started to think about why Ash and Ellyn were in the lighthouse alone, where were their parents, what was going on the rest of the world? I let their world marinade in my mind until it began to take shape.

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I knew that this time I needed a solid plot, I didn’t want my characters just hanging around chatting—they needed to actually do something. I used a kind of pick n’ mix blend of novel planning tools from several online resources.

I made sure that I had a foundation based on the first four pillars of C.S. Lakin’s 12 Key Pillars of Novel Construction. (Still don’t know what the other pillars are, I’m sure they’re good, but these four seemed a good place to start.)

I based the plot on a simplified version of Aristotle’s Three-Act Structure (‘three disasters plus an ending’) that I found in this article on The Snowflake Method.

And I did at least the first four steps of Planning a Novel in Ten Steps.

In January 2017, when I knew roughly where it was all going, I started writing. And I tried to have fun doing it. I wrote about things that I thought were interesting. Lighthouses! Secret Passageways! Sentient Robots! Fibonacci Spirals! I wrote a piece of music with two different codes embedded into it. I wrote a fairy tale with a secret coded message in it. I drew sketches of symbols and hand signals.

I thought about researching current advances in robotic technology. I considered reading all the classic robot sci-fi. I decided instead that I would just make it up. My sentient robots aren’t supposed to be a realistic reflection of technology, I told myself, they’re a metaphor for the other – strangers, immigrants, aliens. They could be whatever I wanted them to be. But, as a nod to the genre, I included Asimov’s Laws of Robotics. And I named some of my robots after my favourite sci-fi authors.

At Easter I took my kids to the Isle of Wight to visit the Needles and the lighthouse that I’d used as a basis for my setting. You can’t actually visit the lighthouse itself, but we took a boat out to look at it from the sea and climbed up to the old battery on top of the cliffs to look at it from above. I wrote Ash and Ellyn’s names on a pebble and left it on the beach. It seemed an authorly thing to do. I set another part of the book in a National Trust-owned castle I’d visited with the kids the previous summer.

When I was in a writing phase I tried to write at least 1000 words a day, I would do this for a week or so and then stop and not write anything for weeks. When I was stuck I skipped the descriptions, the actions, the punctuation, and just wrote freeform dialogue until I was back with the characters in the heart of the scene. And then I would go back and fill in all the other details.

Mid-September I decided, at the last minute, to enter the Mslexia Novel Competition. I wasn’t going to enter. Philippa Gregory was the main judge—I wasn’t convinced that dystopian YA fiction about robots would be at the top of her to-read list. The previous winners all seemed to have submitted highbrow literary fiction. And technically my book wasn’t finished. I was about halfway through. But I figured it would take them ages to judge the first stage anyway, so I sent it off. A few weeks later I got an email saying that I had been longlisted and needed to post a hardcopy of the final manuscript in the next two weeks.

What followed was a marathon writing spree. It was half-term holidays, of course, so the kids were at home. But it’s amazing what a deadline and some momentum will do. I wrote 30,000 words in two weeks and finished the book with a day or two to spare for editing. I printed it, posted it off and received confirmation that it had arrived bang on deadline day. In December I heard, to my surprise, that I’d been shortlisted. January took longer than January has ever taken in the history of the world. Then, on Wednesday the 23rd of January I was writing my CV (and reflecting that writing a novel is easy compared with writing a CV) when I received a phone call from the Editor of Mslexia, Debbie Taylor, telling me I had won the Mslexia Novel Competition.

44 Square Fiction

Our final module for the BA Creative Writing was a publishing project and our task – to create three new literary journals (44 Square: Fiction, 45 Square Poetry and 46 Square: Creative Non-Fiction) with work submitted from all four years of the Birkbeck BA Creative Writing Programme.

44 SquareI was Editor of 44 Square Fiction and, as group projects go, it was a surprisingly pleasant experience. We generally agreed on most things, from selection of pieces to the front cover design, so our meetings were relatively stress-free. We were fortunate to have a number of illustrators in the group so we were able to supplement the writing with some lovely line drawings.

The most difficult part, I thought, was the final proofreading and copyediting. It seemed that no matter how many times I read a piece I would find (or worse, miss) errors and typos. I’ve always thought I had quite a good eye for typos but it was a much more painstaking job than I was prepared for. My favourite part of the process was the production of the print journal. We were only required to produce an eBook, but our editorial team decided to produce a limited number of print editions and I particularly enjoyed this. It was very satisfying to have a physical souvenier of all of our hard work to keep at the end of the process, and to present to our contributors and teachers.

DSC_1134The final publications were launched on the 4th of June at Stratford Circus. I was fortunate to have had my submissions selected for 45 Square and 46 Square and I was also asked to read an excerpt from my creative non-fiction piece, ‘The Birthday Cake’. The publicity team did a wonderful job of organising the launch and it was an enjoyable evening.

You can download pdf versions of the three journals for free from the following links:

44 Square Fiction
45 Square Poetry
46 Square Creative Non-Fiction