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No. I wrote three full novels before this, all of them unpublished…and countless bits of novels and opening chapters!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