All posts by Fran Benson

What a year!

It’s been a funny old year. I last posted on 1st January and my aim for 2018 was to waste less time on social media (which I achieved) so that I’d have more time for the important things. And that kind of worked.

There were some pretty huge distractions going on for most of the year. Things that sucked up a huge amount of time, money and energy and my health and personal objectives took a hit. I’ll spare you the details but as a result I will be very glad to see the back of 2018.

However, it was also a year when great things happened.

I continued writing features and websites and took on some part time work for a charity which I love.

I’ve long dreamed of setting up a reading group at the local primary school but was never very sure there would be much take up for it. How wrong I was. The club has been running for three terms now and it is oversubscribed going into 2019 with a waiting list for the following term.

We’ve read three brilliant books: The Last Wild by Piers Torday, Dream Snatcher by Abi Elphinstone and Flight by Vanessa Harbour and I’m looking forward to introducing the children to the quirky world of beetles in M G Leonard’s book Beetle Boy in January.

I’ve also redrafted my novel twice and am getting closer to the moment where I will feel happy to start subbing it out to agents. Still a few months of editing and tweaking to go but the end is in sight.

And the best bit? I entered it into the Bath Children’s Novel Award in December and out of nearly 800 entries mine was one of the longlisted books.

Right now as I’m writing this, one of the junior judges could be reading my novel as part of the shortlisting process.

It’s an awesome feeling to think that the story I’ve laboured over is being read by its intended audience and I can’t wait for the 15th of January when the shortlist will be announced.

Even if I don’t make it on it, I’m still super proud of the achievement and feel even more enthused to get it finished and out into the big wide world.

So as I bid farewell to 2018 I am looking forward to carrying on with all my projects during 2019 and hoping to nudge the book a bit further towards publication.

Happy New Year!

Easy New Year’s Resolutions

I love the 1st January. There’s this sense of starting again and that a whole new year of possibility is opening up to me.

I also know that by mid-January all those feelings of optimism and resolve will probably have ebbed away. Heck, they can sometimes be gone by the end of the week.

I long ago gave up on grandiose resolutions such as writing a novel in six months or undertaking a massive fitness programme. Don’t get me wrong, I think these are all admirable goals. It’s just that I’m not sure that Jan 1 is the time to be setting them.

I’ve learnt over time that setting small goals is much more achievable and rewarding and that over time small goals lead to bigger ones.

So here’s my resolution:

  1. To be more productive or to put it another way: to faff about less

Now that’s not very precise aand I think all goals should be measurable so that you know whether you’ve achieved them or not. So what it really means is to spend less time on social media and distractions so that the first two hours of my day are spent on meaningful tasks that will get me closer to the things that are important in my life.

To this end I have begun unsusbscribing from marketing emails that land in my inbox each day. You know the ones I mean – the two for one pizza deals and the promotions for my favourite store? They are already dust. It takes just a few seconds to find the unsubscribe link on each email and click through and remove myself from the list. I’m already feeling quite virtuous that I’ll be receiving less email.

The second thing which I’m about to do is to download an app that will allow me to switch off all social media before 11am each day.

And that’s it.

Hopefully with a bit more focus I will spend more time on writing so that the bigger goals of finishing a novel, writing more features, running with the dog and so on will slot into place more easily.

Here’s to a happy and productive new year.


How I wrote my first published novel – Emily Barr

Emily Barr author
Emily Barr author

I met Emily at a Faber author chat last year and she was incredibly helpful and with lots of good advice for us writers wading through our first drafts. I will always remember her saying to me: “Just remember that the first draft is the worst state that your novel will ever be in,” which I found to be a really useful way of looking at it.

Shortly after, I ready Emily’s book, The Sleeper. If you want an example of how to build up tension and suspense in the first half of a novel this is a brilliant example of how it should be done (I’ve popped a link to this book at the bottom of the post if you’d like to read more).

She’s written many novels now and made the leap into YA too. Here are her thoughts on writing that first novel.

How long had you wanted to write a novel for before you began?

I think I’d always wanted to write a novel! My dad is an academic, and I remember his books (about film) appearing in the house from time to time, so as a very young child I knew that writing books was something people did. As a teenager I was a voracious reader and longed to write a book but was pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to because it felt impossible to keep so much in my head at once.
The book Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood somehow changed my perspective. I wanted to write a book just like it. I was so inspired that I made copious notes for a book that would no doubt have been a pale imitation. It gave me an extra determination, but it was still about a decade before I seriously started writing a novel.

 What stopped you from writing a novel?

For a few years I worked at the Guardian, and everyone wanted to write a novel. I thought I couldn’t really do it, that it was just a dream everyone had. I was always thinking about novels, but I never really got very far because I didn’t have the confidence, and also, until I started writing my first book I didn’t have a story I was burning to tell.

 What was your first published novel?


Is this the first novel you wrote?

Yes it is. It’s not the first novel I started, but it’s the first one I finished.

How did you write it?

I’d been travelling for a year, and I’d started Backpack while I was away. So at that point I had the huge luxury of time and absolutely no commitments whatsoever, beyond a fortnightly travel column I was writing. When I got back with a load of scrawled notes, it was a bit of a crash down to earth, as I had to work (mainly doing freelance journalism) and pay bills and things. However, I carried on writing. I was lucky enough to get an agent at an early stage, and he helped me immensely. I did lots and lots of drafts of the first 20k words, and worked hard on a synopsis, and my agent, Jonny Geller, got me a deal with Headline on the basis of that (which is something far less likely to happen these days than it was back then, in 2000). So I had to write the other 80k words very quickly, under immense pressure, following my own synopsis. It was intense.

And what was the most difficult part about writing it?

As above, it was was knowing that I had to write the other 80k words in a matter of months, when the longest thing I’d written before that was a 2,000 word article. I had no idea whether I could do it or not, but I had to either way, so I did.

How did you overcome that?

Just by writing through all the horror and terror.

How did you find your agent? Was that an easy process?

It was. A Guardian colleague put me in touch with Jonny Geller. He took me on. I was extremely lucky (and times were different). I’m still with Curtis Brown to this day.

Once you had an agent/publisher what did you learn through the editing process?

That when you think the book’s finished, the editing process has barely begun. You have to be incredibly unprecious to get through it all.

  What advice would you give to any aspiring novelist?

Just keep writing. In my experience, everyone gets stuck at about 30,000 words. There’s only one way through that, and that’s to keep writing. If you give up, actually no one but you will really care (harsh but true). If you write the book, people are going to read it and enjoy it. So do it.


Emily Barr is the author of The One Memory of Flora Banks and The Truth and Lies of Ella Black, both YA books published by Penguin Random House. She has also written 12 novels for adults and a novella for the Quick Reads series. She lives in Cornwall with her partner, their children, and two guinea pigs, and spends a lot of time looking out of the window at the rain, planning the next ‘research trip’.



How I wrote my first published novel – Barbara Copperthwaite

Barbara Copperthwaite author
Barbara Copperthwaite author

This month’s author chat is with a psychological thriller writer who started off self-publishing before she got a publishing contract based on the success of her novels.

I particularly loved what she had to say about first drafts – it resonated with me and I can tick off every one of the items she mentioned! In fact I might just print out her final comments and stick them somewhere to keep reminding me that all the problems in my draft are fixable.

I hope her story and advice give you a bit of encouragement to carry on whatever draft you’re on.

How long had you wanted to write for before you began?

I’d spent almost twenty years working as a journalist, so had always earned a living through my writing. But it didn’t enter my head to try to write a book until I got an idea that simply wouldn’t go away.

Over a period of about two years, it developed into a storyline, but I didn’t honestly think I’d ever get round to writing a book as I was too busy in my job until one weekend I bought a laptop, and started writing my book during snatched lunchbreaks, and on my commute on the train. It still wasn’t about writing a book, though, it was more about doing something I loved, and that stubborn idea for a book seemed as good a thing as any to work on.

Within six months, though, I’d written enough to know I really wanted to finish the story. I still didn’t know if I could, as I’d never produced such a large body of work before, but the desire to type The End became all-consuming

What was your first published novel? 

The novel I had been working on during lunch breaks and on my commute started to become more and more important to me. Eventually, it became my first published novel, Invisible,  which became a bestselling psychological thriller in the UK and US.

Writing it had been hard work, but so much fun. First, I’d written a very simple outline of the plot. I’d also picked the title early on – choosing  Invisible because it helped consolidate in my own head what the theme of the book would be:  the twisted journey of a woman who starts out feeling ignored and unnoticed in her own marriage and friendships, and later becomes one of the most hated women in Britain. She is the invisible victim of a series of horrific crimes; someone everyone sees but no one cares about.

After eighteen long months, I finally finished it. It had gone through various drafts and revisions. After years of being able to write features that were published in national magazines unchanged, it was a culture shock to suddenly have to go over and over and over (and over) my work to get it right. I didn’t bother with writing forums. I know this may draw shocked gasps, but I was so certain of my idea that, right or wrong, I felt other people’s input would simply confuse me.

Then I contacted agent after agent. Though rejected by them all, the vast majority went to the trouble of saying they had enjoyed Invisible; that it was well-written, different, imaginative…it just didn’t fit in with what they were looking for at that time. I could have got hung up on the rejection but instead I took it as a great sign. The experts liked it, I liked it – if I published, hopefully others would like it…

I’d read about self-publishing from magazine articles. I chose Amazon as it cost nothing and has global reach. My partner is a professional artist, and I’d spent years working on magazine covers, so together we created the striking image for the book’s jacket.

Invisible wasn’t an overnight success, but after a few months it hit the charts. I built on its success by writing a second novel, Flowers For The Dead. This second psychological thriller was also a genre bestseller here and in the US.

How did you find your agent? Was that an easy process?

The success of my self-published novels had been noticed by a publisher, Bookouture. They expressed interest in seeing the next manuscript I completed. When my third novel was finished, I sent it to them and a few other publishers, and a handful of agents.

Several got back to me. But I loved Bookouture’s innovative, modern approach and its friendly persona. I’d read and enjoyed a lot of their authors’ works, and knew it was where I wanted to be.

At the same time that I signed with them, I was taken on by my agent, Jane Gregory, of Gregory and Co. Jane has an incredible reputation, particularly in the crime genre, as she helped found Harrogate Crime Writing Festival, and represents the likes of Sarah Hilary, Belinda Bauer, and Val McDermid. As soon as I met Jane, we clicked.

Once you had an agent/publisher what did you learn through the editing process?

I had employed an editor for my previous books, so I’d already learned an awful lot about pacing, structure, characterization, etc. But my new editor at Bookouture, Keshini Naidoo, is brilliant. It’s so important to have a good relationship, and trust your editor, so the two of you can work together to make the book even better. She’s always so upbeat, positive and energized that her suggestions never feel like criticisms.

What advice would you give to any aspiring novelist?

The thing I probably hear most when people are writing their first book is that they get disheartened because it’s a mess, so they give up. Or they spend ages going back over that beginning, rewriting it, honing it, but never doing anything else.

My advice? Don’t worry about editing as you go, just push forward and get the plot down.

The first draft will be a mess. There will be bits that make no sense, characters who change name halfway through because you decided you didn’t like their original moniker (or forgot it), and plot holes big enough to drive a bus through. That can all be fixed – but at least you will have a story entire to fix. If you keep polishing those first few chapters you’re unlikely to ever get to the end of your book.


USA Today bestseller Barbara Copperthwaite is the author of psychological thrillers INVISIBLE, FLOWERS FOR THE DEAD, and THE DARKEST LIES. Her latest book, HER LAST SECRET, was published on 13th October.

With over twenty years’ experience as a national newspaper and magazine journalist, she’s interviewed the real victims of crime – and also those who have carried them out. That’s why her novels are dark, realistic and tackle not just the crime but its repercussions.
When not writing feverishly, she is often found hiding behind a camera, taking wildlife photographs.

To find out more about Barbara visit


Twitter: @BCopperthwait


SCBWI Agents’ Party

I only got around to joining SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) a few months ago after attending the local SCBWI critique group a few times and my first event took place last week.

I wasn’t sure at first whether to go to the Agents’ Party as my manuscript is in early draft stages and it will be a few more months before it’s finished. However on the encouragement from other SCBWI members I booked a ticket.

I also booked a space on the Pitch Perfect workshop run by Book Bound in the lead up to the party. I thought it would be good to work on my pitch ahead of time. And I’m glad that I did.

Book Bound also ran a webinar the evening before the party and whilst there was a lot of overlap between the two I learnt things from both.

The party was held at the Royal Overseas League just round the corner from the Ritz. I planned everything meticulously. I sorted childcare, I arranged back ups and timetabled my leaving the house with military precision.

The train being cancelled was sadly out of my control. However, there was just enough time to get there on the next available train.

Also out of my control was the horrible cold virus that one of my children and my husband went down with in the week leading up to the party. “Just don’t give it to me until Saturday,” I pleaded.

But no, I woke up with a scratchy throat on Friday morning. I sucked lozenges on the journey and as I ran up and down the escalators racing to catch up lost time. (I’d forgotten how deep down the Jubliee line is).

I had arranged to meet another SCBWI member outside and I texted her as I ran. “I’m late!” followed by, “I’m nearly there” and “Where are you?” and we finally found each other as I queued.

We’d never met before but it was lovely to feel like I knew someone as we went in and found somewhere to sit.

The evening kicked off with two panel discussions with the agents. This was really interesting – lots of insight into the market, what agents want to see in a submission and just as importantly what they don’t want to see and so much more.

It was the first time I’d sat still all day without having to get something done or be somewhere else and perhaps that’s why a fog of weariness descended on me now.

But there was no time to worry about that as next came the exciting bit: networking and chatting to the agents. So with a deep breath, I grabbed a glass of wine in the hope that it would cure rather than kill.

And it did the trick. I navigated around the five agents I wanted to see. I had lovely chats with them all and all five said to send the manuscript in when it is finished. Fantastic result!

I did go into a swift decline after that and made a slightly earlier exit that planned. But I’m so pleased I stuck to my aim of chatting to as many agents as possible.

The evening isn’t just about seeing agents though. It’s also a great chance to meet up with fellow writers and illustrators – some published, some not – and make new friends.

Aside from the things that were out of anyone’s control this was a brilliant evening and particular thanks must go to the SCWBI organisers Kathleen Isaac and Terri Trimble as well as all the agents who attended.

If you missed it and are thinking about going next year, then here’s my advice:

  1. Even if your manuscript isn’t finished – don’t let that hold you back. It’s a great evening for talking to agents about what you’re doing and making contacts.
  2. If there’s a pitch workshop you can attend – either in person or online – attend it. (It is more geared for writers than illustrators, but that may change).
  3. Practice your pitch. Yes you may feel silly talking to your cat/dog, into the mirror or recording onto your phone but it’s a good way to practice and you’ll feel less self-conscious when you come to pitch in person.
  4. If you don’t know anyone then find someone to buddy up with before you go. The SCBWI facebook page is a good place to shout out for this.
  5. Get a good night’s sleep the night before.
  6. Have a glass of wine – but not several. You’re aiming for the relaxed approach rather than the sozzled one.

The event is only open to SCBWI members so if you’re a children’s writer or illustrator and you’d like to find out more about joining SCBWI then follow the link through to the SCBWI web page.

How I wrote my first published novel – Clare Swatman


Author Clare Swatman
Author Clare Swatman

This month’s author is a journalist whose debut novel was published by Pan Macmillan last year. Before You Go is a poignant love story that made me laugh and cry.  I was so pleased when Clare said she would love to answer a few questions from me and particularly interested to hear how she fits her writing in with her journalism and a young family.

How long had you wanted to write for before you began?

I’ve always wanted to write and have actually been a writer since I started my career in women’s magazines back in 1997.

What stopped you from writing a novel?

A number of things. I always longed to do it, it was my dream, but it felt like a pipe dream. Part of the reason was that I spent most of my day writing, so the last thing I felt like doing after that was writing in the evening. But the truth is also that I spent my 20s enjoying myself in London, and then my 30s having babies, so there never seemed to be the time, and more importantly it never seemed like the right time.

Before You Go is the first novel you wrote – how did you write it?

I decided one New Year’s eve that I just had to do it – that the next year was going to pass whether I started writing my novel or not – and so I just got on with it. I’d had the idea bubbling away for a while but had been unsure what to do with it so I sat down and tried to work out where I wanted it to go. I plotted out chapter by chapter (it changed during the writing process but it was a great place to start).

At the time my children were only five and two, so I didn’t have much time to put aside. I’m no good at writing in the evenings so instead I decided to ring-fence every Thursday when my youngest was with his childminder. It meant I earned less money as I only had two or three days a week to work anyway, but it was important to me. And so every Thursday I went to my local coffee shop and sat and wrote. I wrote as much as I could before I had to go and pick the kids up, and then I tried not to worry about it until my next writing day. And amazingly, by the end of that year, I had a whole first draft written!

Of course it’s changed a lot since that first draft, but it was the basis of what became Before You Go and I was very proud of myself! That first draft then sat on my computer for a few months before I came back to it and started trying to edit it. The trouble was, I wasn’t really sure what to do with it. So I paid my friend and fellow writer Katy Regan to read it and give me detailed feedback. It was a good way of finding out if it was actually any good at all. Luckily, she thought it was great and after incorporating a few of her suggested tweaks, I finally had the courage to send it off to some agents.

What was the most difficult part about writing it?

The middle bit! People always say the middle bit is the hardest as you lose the excitement of the first few chapters and the adrenaline of nearly reaching the end, and it’s true. And of course, being so limited on time, it meant I had to produce something every time I sat down to it. Some days it flowed and some days it just didn’t want to come. They were the days I felt like giving up.

How did you overcome that?

I’m very stubborn, and don’t like to give up on something once I’ve set my mind to it! I’m also a firm believer in just writing through it. It’s better to get something down on the page and then move on to the next bit when you’re struggling, and then go back and edit it or even completely rewrite it later. But sitting waiting for inspiration never works for me. You could sit there forever!

How did you find your agent? Was that an easy process?

I did it in a very traditional way. I sat down with the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook and marked all the agents who accepted manuscripts like mine. Then I went through them methodically and looked at their websites for more details, as well as submission guidelines. I then whittled my initial list down to about 12 agents that I thought were the best fit and took a deep breath and sent it out. I was very careful to follow their submission guidelines because they’re there for a reason. And then I tried (and failed!) to forget about it for a while. It was two days later that I was asked for the full manuscript, and a week later Judith Murray had taken me on and I got on with more edits. It was VERY exciting!

Once you had an agent/publisher what did you learn through the editing process?

Loads. Judith knows far more than I could ever know about how to sell a book, but she also trusts her writers to know how to make the changes in the best way. I went away and took on board all her advice and did my very best to improve it. As a journalist I learnt a long time ago not to be too precious about anything I’ve written – and so I was happy to accept constructive criticism from her and trust that she knew what she was talking about. And I’m glad I did because the book sold to a publisher a week after she sent it out for auction!

What advice would you give to any aspiring novelist?

It sounds obvious, but just write something. I spent far too long thinking ‘one day I’ll write a book’. It doesn’t matter if your first draft is a load of nonsense. You’ve started, and you have somewhere to go from there. But do make sure you’re realistic when working out when you’re going to fit your writing in. And just do it! What have you got to lose?


Clare Swatman is the author of Before You Go which has been translated into 21 languages, and her second novel, The Mother’s Secret, is coming out in February 2018. She has spent more than 20 years working as a journalist for women’s magazines. She lives in Hertfordshire with her husband and two boys.

To find out more about Clare’s work visit her website.


Next month’s interview is with Barbara Copperthwaite who writes psychological crime thrillers. She has self-published and is now traditionally published. Her books sell internationally and she is a USA Today bestseller.

Learning novel structure through film


In the summer I was gutted to miss a workshop on novel structure. Sadly it was too far away and clashed with my son’s birthday party so no matter how hard I stared at the train timetables I was never going to make it happen.

The workshop was with an Alexandra Sokoloff – a Hollywood screenwriter and novelist – and it was about applying some of the techniques from films to novels. It all sounded brilliant and the bit that really had me hooked was that she was also going to explain it all with the help of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Now I’m quite a visual person and this was the bit that I wanted to see the most. It’s a film I know well having watched it countless times with my children so exploring structure by watching that would, I thought, be a really helpful experience.

I was very interested to read some of the social media chatter about the workshop afterwards. Everybody was raving about it and one very helpful person mentioned that Alexandra had a book that her workshops were based upon. (Here’s a link to it on Amazon if you want to have a look:Screenwriting Tricks for Authors (and Screenwriters!): STEALING HOLLYWOOD: Story structure secrets for writing your BEST book: Volume 3)  and not only that, that there were film/story breakdowns in the back of it.

I ordered that book as fast as my fingers could type.

Now this post isn’t a review of the book as such as I have barely read it. It looks good and I intend to read it in a couple of months when my workload has died down. However, I fast forwarded to the end of the book and settled down with a cuppa, the Harry Potter DVD, my remote control, a notebook and the book.

It was two hours well spent. (Actually it was more like five as I stopped and started and thought about it in relation to my story and made notes).

She talks about structure, theme, genre conventions and so much more.

Perfect for me writing an MG fantasy story.

But don’t worry if you’re writing something else. She does story breakdowns for many different genres. From Romancing the Stone to Sense and Sensibility.

If you want to get your head around structure and like learning more about this business of writing a novel then I really recommend taking a look at this one.

If you want to “Look Inside” or buy a copy – just click on the image below and it will take you straight through to Amazon.

If you do buy it I hope you find it useful and do let me know what you think either in the comments below or on twitter @journalistfran.

How I wrote my first published novel – Anna Jacobs

Anna Jacobs author
Anna Jacobs author

I’m in awe of this month’s author, Anna Jacobs. She writes novels, a mixture of historical sagas and modern day family/relationship stories,  with the same frequency that some of us have holidays. She’s the fourth most borrowed author of adult fiction from UK libraries and next month, her 80th novel is published. I’m so pleased that out of her busy writing schedule, she took some time out to answer some questions on how she got started and what she’s learned along the way.

How long had you wanted to write for before you began?

I’d been wanting to write ‘stories’ since I was 10 years old and wanting to write proper novels since I was 20.

What stopped you from writing a novel?

Life! Finishing my first degree, starting work, falling in love, getting married, having two kids, moving round England and later emigrating to Australia. I wrote a lot of bits and pieces of stories during the truly wanting to write years after I was 20.

Instead, what I wrote and got published were French textbooks. As a teacher I found the books we were given to read with teenage boys impossible, so I wrote my own. I had nine French textbooks published before I turned seriously to writing.

What was your first published novel?

Persons of Rank – a regency romance in the style of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer whose best novels are, I believe, better than Austen’s. In a sense Heyer taught me to write because I was copying her style. After a while I developed my own style, but I’m still grateful for the things I learned from her books and her wonderful characterisation.

Is this the first novel you wrote?

No – the sixth. It’s the first novel I wrote in one fell swoop though, during long service leave, three months’ holiday given to Australians for working ten years for the government. I entered Persons of Rank into a big Australian writing competition, and came second out of over 800 entrants, winning $10,000 and publication.

How did you write it?

I had tried various ways of writing and had found by then that I can’t plan a novel. Once I start writing, the story unfolds bit by bit inside my head, like a TV serial really. I only know the background and setup scenario when I start a book.

I write organically and the characters carry me through. They know better than me what works.

I did a lot of drafts in those days. I’d read one or two how-to books, attended some talks at conferences, but mostly I practised by doing it ie writing stories. It’s how sports people train, after all. They do it until they’ve developed their skills. Thank goodness I didn’t go on a university creative writing course! I was able to develop my own style freely, and I wanted to write popular fiction not literary novels.

What was the most difficult part about writing Persons of Rank?

There wasn’t a difficult part to this sixth story which sang to me all the way through. For the first five novels though, there were indeed difficulties, as I learned my craft. Middles sagged, endings weren’t good enough and tension wasn’t gripping enough. Rewriting helped, and rewriting after some time had passed helped some more. But with Persons of Rank, it flowed smoothly from start to finish.

How did you overcome your earlier difficulties?

Practice makes perfect. They used to say when I started learning that writing half a million to a million words was necessary to become a good writer. I still believe, for most people, that’s true.  I wrote, and wrote, spending every spare minute on my passion for writing. I was working full-time and raising teenage children so started getting up at four in the morning to get in a couple of hours’ writing before work. I had become very addicted to story-telling by writing novels by then.

Once you had an agent/publisher, what did you learn through the editing process?

Not a lot technically. I learned a lot more from readers writing to me about what they liked and didn’t like in my stories. I learned most from my first proper editor, which happened with my second book, which was taken up by Hodder & Stoughton.

What advice would you give to any aspiring novelist?

First, read a lot, write a lot, read a lot more. You can learn so much from other writers about what works and doesn’t work when story-telling. If you don’t like reading you’re at a big disadvantage trying to become a novelist. Oh, and don’t read ancient authors like Dickens. His style wouldn’t work today.

Then, write a whole novel, polish it as much as you can then set it aside. Write another whole novel, repeat the polishing and set that aside. Then go back to your first novel and you’ll see how to improve it.  Well, you will if you’ve been reading a lot as well as writing.

I know you can self-publish these days but one novel doesn’t usually teach a writer enough, so hold back till you’ve learned your craft.


Anna Jacobs is the author of 80 novels and is addicted to storytelling. She grew up in Lancashire, emigrated to Australia in the 1970s and writes stories set in both countries. She loves to return to England regularly to visit her family and soak up the history. She has two grownup daughters and a grandson, and lives with her husband near Perth and the Swan Valley, a tourist/winegrowing area. She’s addicted to reading as well as writing, so her house is crammed with thousands of books. Her website contains a lot of information, including list of books and which series each belongs to, plus first chapters to read:

Anna’s books are available on Amazon. Links to her three latest paperbacks published last month are below.

Anna’s 80th novel, Saffron Lane, the third in the Peppercorn series, is published on 21 September 2017 and can be pre-ordered using the link below.

Next month’s interview is with author Clare Swatman. Clare’s debut novel, Before you Go, was bought at auction by Pan Macmillan in a two book deal and it has been translated into 21 languages.

How I wrote my first published novel – Helen Dennis

Helen Dennis, children's author of The Secret Breakers and River of Ink series
Helen Dennis

I’m so pleased to be kicking off this new blog series, where I’ll be talking to authors from a variety of genres about how they wrote their first novel. It always fascinates me the different approaches and methods a novelist takes. There isn’t one right or wrong way to do it but the common thread seems to be, not surprisingly, hard work and lots of reading. Today’s interview is with award winning children’s author Helen Dennis. I met Helen at Winchester Writer’s Festival this year when she was running a workshop on writing for middle grade readers. She was full of energy and enthusiasm for her passion and this spills over into her interview below.

I hope you enjoy it and the rest of the interviews that will appear over the next few months. I’ll be promoting them on twitter, so do look out for them.

How long had you wanted to write for before you began?

I have wanted to be a writer from the age of about six when I first realised that books just didn’t appear out of nowhere! I did get a ‘proper job’ when I left university, but I never lost sight of the dream that one day I would be a published author.

What stopped you from writing a novel?

Time. But I have learnt that you have to make time for something that you really want to do and see the craft and the learning that goes with it as valuable in themselves. The other thing that stopped me was ideas. Not the lack of them…but the deluge of them. I still find it hard to decide which idea is the best one to focus on and give my time to. So I had lots of beginning of novels…and very few endings!

What was your first published novel?

Secret Breakers: The Power of Three

Is this the first novel you wrote?

No. I wrote three full novels before this, all of them unpublished…and countless bits of novels and opening chapters!

How did you write it?

I did several courses. A correspondence course and two courses at University…one of them an MA in Creative Writing Education and the Arts. Having to produce work to a deadline for a course was really helpful…and also putting yourself out there as someone who wants to write helps make you more accountable. I spent years planning the Secret Breakers series. And there were many full drafts as I tried to work out the age group I was writing for and the scope of the story. I love to plan and so I spent hours researching and plotting story arcs.

I was very lucky that I attended the Winchester Writer’s Conference and met an editor who loved my first chapter. Her input in crafting the novel and series was invaluable but it certainly helped that I had so many notes and plans about what would happen! Secret Breakers is a six-book series and I had to get all six written before the first book was published.

What was the most difficult part about writing The Secret Breakers? 

Finishing it. I was so excited about all the ways the story could go and so keen to use all my research that actually sitting down and getting a finished draft completed was tricky.

How did you overcome that?

There came a point when I understood that what didn’t work I could fix later and that it was important to get the story down on the page. I had so much fun with the world building and the research that it was hard to trust that the reader did not have to know everything right away. For me that is the beauty of writing a series and actually having to write all six books first was quite freeing. I knew I could come back to each one and change and edit it when the whole series was complete.

How did you find your agent? Was that an easy process?

I didn’t get an agent until after I had signed a six-book deal. I had met my editor at the Conference and we worked so well together that there was no way that I would have offered my idea to someone else. She was the first person in the industry to see it…and she bought it! Friends I’d made in publishing helped me find an agent later when all six books were out and I was about to launch a new series.

Once you had an agent/publisher what did you learn through the editing process?

That pace is so important. And that everything you write has to drive the story onward. I thought I knew this…but my editor taught me how to strip back work and make it much sharper.

What advice would you give to any aspiring novelist?

On a practical level, write as often as you can. And read lots.  I try to ‘close read’ books to work out what an author has done and why. And I read about writing and still go to courses about how to write.

Put lots of hours into working out what you want to do and looking round at examples of how to do that.

I’d also say on an emotional level that it is vital to try and enjoy every stage of the journey and to see every completed chapter or scene as a victory in itself. Publishing is a tricky business and the work doesn’t end with that first publishing deal.


Helen Dennis is the award winning writer of the Secret Breakers series and the River of Ink series for middle grade readers, both published by Hodder Children’s. Her books have been translated into seven languages and River of Ink was chosen as a Book Trust Book Buzz Choice for 2016/17. Helen worked as a teacher for 20 years before leaving to write full time. She spends her days creating adventure stories for children and making school visits to celebrate the power of reading.

To find out more about Helen’s books visit her website.

All of Helen’s books are available on Amazon. Links to her latest series of books are below.

Next month’s interview is with prolific author Anna Jacobs. Anna writes historical sagas, has published over 80 books and is the 4th most borrowed author of adult fiction from UK libraries.

Enter #WriteNowLive 2017


Penguin Random House staff at Write Now London

Penguin Random House is running its hugely popular Write Now event again this year. In case you missed it, this is an opportunity for writers from under-represented communities to submit an idea and up to a thousand words of a novel or a non-fiction book to win a place on one of three insight days to be held in London, Bristol and Newcastle. From there ten writers will be chosen for a year long mentoring programme.

I entered this last year and was one of fifty chosen out of 1,100 to attend the London event. It was a great experience and a huge boost to my confidence and I made friends with other writers who I’m still in touch with today.  Although I wasn’t one of the ones chosen for the mentoring programme in the end, I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to attend.

If you’re not sure whether to enter or not, I would say just do it. Write up your idea in the most concise way that you can, focusing on what’s original about your story.

Prepare your submission thoroughly.  Check it for typos and stray adverbs. Ask someone else to read it through.

It is up to you to determine if you are from an under-represented group. Typically you could be from BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) or LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer) communities or a writer with a disability or from a socio-economically marginalised community. You will need to explain what group you belong to as part of your application.

The deadline is 16th July 2017.

You can read the full details here on the Penguin Random House website. Make sure you read the terms and conditions fully.

Good luck.