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.


  1. This looks like an interesting and challenging undertaking,Victoria. Looking forward to reading more posts. (And participating :) )

  2. Looking forward to following this over the coming year.

    I particularly like how this post highlights that once you're published (or agented) that isn't the end of the journey. Staying published can be just as much of a struggle as getting published to start with.

  3. 9 novels since 2010! Crikey, that IS fast. How do you keep going? I find when I approach the next book, I have days of "Oh heck, I've forgotten how to do it", followed by agonising weeks of ploughing on and thinking it's all rubbish. I think this is mainly because I stray off the "road map" synopsis fairly quickly. It usually works out in the end, though.

  4. Hi Victoria do you plot your novels out in details and stick closely do it? You must be very organised to be so prolific.

  5. Thanks, Vasiliki, good to see you here!

    Alison, I know, I've talked about this before, how being a novelist is an ONGOING struggle; it doesn't stop at the first contract and suddenly become easy. That's one of the problems I hope to explore this year. Thanks for commenting.

    April, what can I say? I am a quick writer, I cannot hide it. This may be because I plan most of my stories very meticulously (but swiftly too) so I know, most of the time, roughly where I'm going. Of course there is such a thing as OVER-planning, where a writer goes stale halfway through a new book because there are no surprises left to discover, or gets blocked because the plan doesn't fit the character they've created. I like to plan, but leave myself plenty of wriggle room.

  6. Hi Lisa D, I've commented above that I like to plan, as that helps my speed. I don't stick closely to plans. Indeed one or two of my books have been almost unrecognisable when held up against my original plan. But having a plan, even if you don't stick to it, is massively helpful in telling your brain it's okay to start writing, that you're ready to enter that world.

    The important thing is not beating yourself up about it if you stray from the plan. But if you do change things, remember it may change your novel fundamentally, so always revisit the plan after a shift and make adjustments where necessary.

    I use whiteboards for planning. Several for a big book. Plus multiple stickies that get plastered over my wall and desk and even my bookshelves when I run out of room. I'll get into planning in later posts, I'm sure. It's a big thing with me.


  7. This is a great blog, I'll look forward to reading more! As a first timer I'd love to hear about the non writing side of things too. There's a lot to learn!

  8. Thanks, Martha, and that's a very good point. Reading is a huge and integral part of the act of writing: not just writers reading back their own work, but exploring other fictions, seeing how other writers have tackled structural and thematic issues. So yes, I will be looking at books as examples and talking about reading. Thanks!

  9. And of course how to prepare work for agents and editors, and to network. Though that's the icing on the cake, really, and I'll mainly be looking at the cake. :)

  10. Thanks for such a great idea! I shall look forward to reading the rest of the posts throughout the year.

  11. I'm looking forward to this! ;-)

  12. A huge undertaking Victoria, it will be interesting to watch and hear your experience. I love reading about author's inspiration and journeys. I am just writing my second novel and like you say, it doesn't get any easier especially when you have deadlines, however, once the characters and story take a hold, it's like reading, you want to find out what happens, even with some planning!

  13. Thanks for coming along for the ride, Anne, Lesley and Karen! Just working on Week Two's post ...

  14. Hi Victoria, I'm looking forward to reading you blog posts. I'm interrested in author's relationships with their agents. I have a lovely agent who really seems to care about my writing and is extremely helpful. Do you think authors should have an agent? I appreciate they can open doors with the larger publishing houses and secure reasonable advances rather than us having to wait six months/a year for the possibilites of royalties, good or bad. Is this what new authors should be aiming for?

  15. Hi Elaine, good to see you here, and thanks for this question. Or rather two questions. Should authors have an agent? This depends on what kind of writing they are doing and how far they intend to go with their careers. Someone happy to write series and/or digital fiction, or literary fiction with smaller independent presses, are unlikely to NEED an agent. Contracts with such houses tend to be pretty standard for everyone, and unless the unwary author picks a bad publisher, they will get what everyone else gets, which is likely to be perfectly fair, given the restrictive parameters of their chosen sphere of writing. But if they have ambitions of moving into a larger sphere - a big mainstream publisher, a standalone piece of fiction - they will almost certainly need an agent to help them negotiate the shark-infested contracts they may face, and indeed to act as a buffer between them and the publisher. When an advance does not arrive, but you're busy on a new book, the last thing you want is to muddy your relationship with your lovely editor by bitching about the non-arrival of your money. So you ask your agent, and the agent bitches for you, while you smile innocently from behind your computer screen. But of course the agent is not infallible, and you need to make sure you've got a good one, or at least one whose occasional weaknesses you can accept because they do reasonable negotiating for you. Some agents take larger percentages than others, some are never available when you call or don't return your emails, some only handle certain kinds of writing and will push you in directions you don't want to take. So YES, if you are an ambitious or money-conscious writer, you need an agent. But new writers should do their homework, see if they can talk to anyone discreetly who is already handled by that agent. And of course it's a RELATIONSHIP. Agents are not a writer's best friend, it's a professional working relationship, but we're all human, and if you don't find the same things funny, this may become a problem in the future.

    But if you can handle your own contracts and know how to get your books considered without a middle-person, then no. An agent isn't necessary for that. And you save 10 or 15% by sidestepping them.

  16. And of course many larger publishers now simply will not look at unsolicited manuscripts that come straight from an author rather than through an agent. So if you have a book to pitch to the big publishers and no agent, you're in a dead zone.

  17. Thank you! I do like the idea of someone else chasing money that's owed to me. I'll have to practise smiling innocently though...

  18. I've arrived very late to this, but am reading through and catching up, what a great idea and an informative, inspiring series of posts Victoria, thank you so much for this.


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Many thanks, Jane Holland