Monday, 28 April 2014

Week One: How I Began Life As A Novelist

My name is Jane Holland and I'm a novelist.

Put like that, being a novelist sounds like an addiction, like alcoholism or compulsive shopping. And perhaps that's not a bad analogy. Writing a novel is so hard, such an exhausting long haul, a back-breaking labour of love, that to embark on it - and finish - the writer must be obsessed with their subject. Or with the idea of writing a novel, at least.

To kick off this series of discussions how novel-writing, I thought it best to discuss how I got into the field myself. Not simply to lay out my credentials for droning on about fiction for the next 51 weeks, but also to demonstrate the often shocking vagaries of the profession.

Being the daughter of highly literate writing folk, I have written more stories than I can remember, starting at the tender age of about twelve with a novella about a time-travelling caveman that I called A Wild Magic or something similar. My efforts then were all children's fantasy, the genre I knew best, with a healthy dose of Tolkien thrown in. My parents read my books, but did not hugely encourage me, I'm unsure why. Perhaps because being a novelist is such a precarious profession, or because they held the view that children who are going to become novelists generally have to be stopped from constantly writing - instead of, say, doing their homework - rather than prompted to write more.

My debut (Sceptre)
Beyond these amateur efforts, and some poetry, I did little else of note fiction-wise until my late twenties, when I wrote a diary piece for the London Review of Books called Diary of a Hustler, via a circuitous route of poetry and snooker playing. It was spotted by various literary agents, and I was flatteringly head-hunted. I chose Curtis Brown as my first literary agency, and published my first novel about two years later under my real name of Jane Holland with the Hodder imprint Sceptre: Kissing the Pink.

A sports novel for women from the school of Nick Hornby, it was marketed as chick-lit and not surprisingly vanished without trace.

My agent retired, and I had fallen out of love with Curtis Brown - despite them selling the film rights for Kissing the Pink several years running - so I looked about arrogantly for someone new. Writers, take note: I did not manage to sign with another literary agent for ten years. During that time I published five books of poetry and wrote a fair number of novels, five rather disreputable ones published under a pen-name to scratch a living, the rest odd literary efforts sent on the merry-go-round of London agents.

No one wanted them. Or rather, no one wanted me.

My mother having died, I tentatively approached her agent. He was not interested in the first novel I sent and kindly suggested someone else, but I felt too despondent to chase that lead. I had some more children and brooded for a few years, picking at various stories, then was offered a job editing romantic fiction at a small independent publishing house. I did that for a year, and got my mojo back. I decided to take my fiction career in hand, wrote some historical romances - my favourite reading matter at the time - and approached my mother's former agent again.

The Queen's Secret, my first novel sold through LBA, went into both Asda and Tescos.

We met in London for a drink. I was horribly nervous. He wasn't interested in the novels I had written, but asked if I could write something else historical, in a more ambitious style, as fast as possible. I said YES, probably baring my teeth like a soldier going over the top, and my extraordinarily fruitful association with Luigi Bonomi Associates had begun.

Witchrise, the final book in my young Adult Tudor Witch Trilogy with Random House.

That was in 2010. I have just finished my ninth historical novel sold through LBA to my two publishers Random House and Hodder, and am starting a tenth with high hopes of finding a publisher for it. (I didn't, in fact, but self-published it and it became a bestseller! See GIRL NUMBER ONE on Amazon.) I also self-publish short stories and novels under various pen-names - such as Beth Good - when between manuscripts under contract.

In this series of blog posts I intend to wander loosely about the subject of novel-writing, and hope someone out there finds it helpful. I'm not a 'rules' person, so you are unlikely to find many prescriptive posts about the strict How-Tos of writing. My approach is more discursive, exploratory, questioning. That is, I may ask open-ended questions about fiction, and not necessarily expect to find an answer. Or I may look at how other novelists have done things, and of course consider my own thoughts and challenges as I edit and write my novel(s) over the course of the year.

I am particularly hoping for dialogue with readers and writers, so please feel free to use the comment box below, and/or engage with me on social media. Ask me questions, suggest issues I can consider in a future post, put your own views across on novel-writing.

Find my main writing account on Twitter at @janeholland1

I'm Victoria Lamb Author on Facebook and @VictoriaLamb1 on Twitter. 

This is my main website: Victoria Lamb Books.