With Kathryn Freeman, Laura James and Alison May all in contention for the Romantic Novelists’ Association’s Joan Hessayon Award for new writers, we caught up with our lucky Choc Lit Three in advance of the awards party to see how they’re feeling.
All three are ‘graduates’ of the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme, through which unpublished authors receive feedback on their manuscript from an experienced writer.
So firstly how did the New Writers’ Scheme help you develop your debut novel?
KATHRYN: Too Charming was the second novel I’d submitted to the scheme. When I look back now, I believe that reading this second report was probably the turning point for me in terms of understanding the difference between writing a collection of words and writing a story. Specifically for Too Charming, the main feedback was to develop my heroine further – to show more of her internal struggle. I also had a habit of changing point of views at the drop of a hat, which confused the reader – oh and I used far too many cliches!
LAURA: ‘Truth or Dare?’ went through the scheme two years running, receiving two reads on the second pass. That provided me with three reports in total, and all raised pertinent points, some to do with the actual story, others of a more technical nature. I took the time to read and absorb the comments, and made the necessary changes. I had and still have great respect for the readers’ knowledge and experience, and I took their suggestions seriously. I confess, I didn’t agree with everything within the reports, but the fact the questions were raised meant I gave the manuscript further consideration. The reports were encouraging, positive and helpful, and I always felt supported.
ALISON: Like Laura, ‘Sweet Nothing’ went through the scheme twice. At the time I thought the first reader was evil and the second was completely lovely, but that essentially was down to the fact that the first reader found a lot of faults with the book, and the second really liked it. With hindsight, I realise that the first year I submitted Sweet Nothing it simply wasn’t ready. After a lot more revision and work I re-submitted it in year two. Much as it pains me to admit it, the first reader wasn’t evil; she was right. Damn her and her cleverheadedness.
2. What advice would you offer to anybody receiving their New Writers’ Scheme critique report at the moment?
Laura: The readers are experienced in their field, and they are willing us to succeed. The advice they offer is there to nurture us as writers. Read the report, set it aside for a week, and let the ideas percolate. You don’t have to agree with the reader’s suggestions, but why not give them a try? I did and ‘Truth or Dare?’ improved no end. It was published by Choc Lit under their Lite imprint, in October 2013.
Kathryn: First, take a deep breath before you open it. Once you’ve read it, allow feedback to settle in for a while before launching straight into revisions. My first instinct was to defend my manuscript – after all, I wouldn’t have submitted it if I hadn’t thought it was the bee’s knees (oops, cliches again – sorry). It is only when I re-read the manuscript months later, through fresh eyes and with the feedback next to me, that I started to see what the reviewer meant. I didn’t change everything – but they are scarily wise. Lastly, and most importantly – make a conscious effort to highlight the positives. There will be many, but they can be overlooked in the face of all the other suggestions. It is those positive comments that will inspire you to tackle your story again with a renewed sense of purpose and optimism.
Alison: Yes, absolutely, everything that Kate and Laura have already said! And simply remember that rejection and criticism and suggestions for change are part of the career you’re working towards. It’s too soon for me to tell you whether they get easy to deal with, but they do get easier. Try to think about everything your reader has said. Whether you act on their advice or not is absolutely up to you, but try to resist the urge to get defensive and reject ideas simply because you didn’t think of them (which is just the sort of daft immature thing I would do!)
3. And how are you preparing for the big night? Frock? Hair? Shoes? Acceptance speech? Practising the magnanimous loser face in the mirror?
Alison: I had my frock picked months ago. Then about six weeks ago I accepted I was never ever going to fit into it in time, and picked a different frock from the back of the wardrobe. Then last week I accepted that I’m really not going to fit into that one in time either, so I bought a new dress in the size I actually am, and it was only £9 in the sale so that’s totally fine, isn’t it? I shall head mirrorwards right now to practice my magnanimous loser face. For the full party effect I might just pour a glass of wine to hold while I’m doing it.
Kathryn: I have the ‘frock’ – I bought it last week for a wedding I’m attending in June, and think it might just do for this evening as well. Of course on the day I’ll try on many more outfits, discard them all, tell my husband I have absolutely nothing to wear. And then settle for the first outfit I tried on. I still need to buy some shoes that will not only provide some glamour, but will also take me across London on the tube. No speech, no mirrors – I’m just delighted to be amongst such amazing company.
Laura: I bought two dresses last time I went shopping, so my frock is sorted. It’s silver and black. I haven’t seen it since before Christmas, and all I can imagine is chain mail. It’s not chain mail, but if I found a dress I really liked in chain mail, I would wear it. Shoes are another matter. I struggle with footwear as my feet have been affected by Rheumatoid Arthritis. Sadly, my Go-Go boots don’t suit the dress. Finally, I shall be checking the integrity of my hold-ups, following a let-down at the 2013 Festival of Romantic Fiction. In fact, I’m tempted to not wear any, so as to avoid the Nora Batty look.
I’m now reconsidering the Go-Go boots …
Alison: And finally, Congratulations from all three of us to ALL the Joan Hessayon Award Contenders, and a huge thank-you to Melanie, the RNA and all the New Writers’ Scheme readers for their hard work supporting new writers. We salute you.