In this guest post, Allie Burns tells us about how the advice and support of her network of women writers helped her reach her goal of publishing a novel with a major publisher. Her debut novel, The Lido Girls, will be published as an ebook on 2 October 2017 and her second novel (still in the works) will be out in 2018. You can also follow Allie’s blogging project, which investigates fictional heroines of the twentieth century, on her blog Heroines of their Time.
When I started writing, my ultimate dream was to secure a deal with a traditional publisher. I joined courses and signed up for magazines and the message that came through very strongly was that the path to publication would be a difficult one. Like many other writers, I didn’t let this put me off. I knew that if I worked at it and improved my craft I could increase my chances of success, and above all else I wanted to write anyway, I enjoyed the process, and I needed to write, even if I didn’t go on to find an audience for my stories.
The biggest challenge on this journey towards publication was making the switch from freewriting fragments of stories, or character sketches, in my journal to writing fully-formed stories. I’ve completed a novel now, but it wasn’t easy for me and I’m most definitely still learning and working away at improving the art of telling a compelling story.
What I do know is that without my writing friends I wouldn’t have finished my manuscript, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to submit it and I wouldn’t have even known about the imprint that signed me. There were many, many times when I felt like giving up, and my friends were there to convince me to try again, they graciously looked at the fifteenth draft of Chapter One and encouraged me to keep working at it until it finally came together.
At the moment, I’m arranging drinks to celebrate the publication of my debut novel as an ebook with HQ Digital – a digital-first imprint from HarperCollins – and when I look through the guest list I’m struck by how many of my friends I’ve made along the writing way, and how many different networks I’m part of where vital friendship, advice and moral support are on offer.
My closest network is my writing group; once a month, for the last seven or so years I have met with this small group of friends. When we first met we used to set creative exercises, and we always send around a piece of writing for feedback. We also have the odd writing weekend and trips to literary events. Things took an interesting turn when Sue Wilsher began submitting her novel to literary agents. We supported her through the process and then, when she got signed by an agent, we got to drink champagne with her and bask in her reflected glory. We saw too, that success in the industry isn’t just something that happens to other people. Sue is very talented, and she works really hard, but I could still see that it was actually possible to have a breakthrough and that it was worth me pushing on and finishing my manuscript.
Through Sue’s work on her debut novel – When My Ship Comes In – I learned about the revisions process and experienced the tension of submitting to publishers and the subsequent steps her manuscript went through. I also discovered things I hadn’t known about genre and distribution and the importance of reviews. Without getting published myself, through my writing group I had got an insider’s view, but more importantly it spurred me on. It brought into question my whole theory that book deals were the stuff of daydreams, I had real proof that they did, and could, happen if you worked hard and didn’t give up. I saw in Sue the determination that I needed to get there, and we’d started to get a taste for champagne by this point so we needed something else to celebrate.
And then of course, shortly after my two ebook deal, the third friend in the group Tanya Gupta, also went through the submission process and was signed by literary agent David Haviland at the Andrew Lownie Agency. At this point, we set up a direct debit for the champagne.
I’m part of other invaluable writer networks, many on Facebook with authors and readers who are incredibly supportive of one another. I met big-hearted Deana Luchia, whose book Happy as Harry is published by Headline on 2nd November, on my MA in Professional Writing at Falmouth University and in 2015, she set up a writer’s collective called The Author Lab. Deana describes her aims for the collective as wanting to have connections with other writers, to have somewhere each writer could share their experience through blog posts and also help each other by promoting each other’s work and passing on information.
There are two sides to the Author Lab; the first is the public face. We take it in turns to blog, usually about the writing process, and we follow one another’s journeys. The other side is the behind-the-scenes email group where we often discuss a group member’s post in more detail. As well as the creativity within the group, there’s a wealth of experience and perspective with an international spread of members; we have editors, a poet, teachers, ex-literary agent, successful self-published writers, traditionally published writers, all spread across two continents. Every member is generous in their support and enthusiasm and cheer each other along and help trouble shoot when things aren’t going so well.
‘It’s amazing really, how much I’ve learned from everyone on The Author Lab,’ Deana explains. ‘I’ve found out more about the process of writing and about the long and very winding road to publication (traditionally, or doing it yourself). People pass on tips about everything from cover design to writing workshops. Mostly for me, it has been about cheering each other on. I love that aspect of our collective. We read each other’s work, review it, champion it, motivate each other to keep going, offer suggestions on ways to improve – it’s all invaluable. I wish I could meet up with everyone, but we’re scattered far and wide, but this is a good way of still having that sense of being in a writers’ group.’
As is always the way when you say you write, you invariably find lots of other people who do too, whether blogging, writing for publication or for fun. Often, these people want to connect and meet with other writers and that’s why my writing group decided to start a bi-monthly writing salon. At the writing salon, we invite writers along at whatever stage they’re at to have some fun with creative writing. Everyone has a chance to talk about they’re latest project and then we get out the notebooks, create some characters and make something happen to them.
The value of all of these writer networks was reflected back at me when I wrote The Lido Girls. At the start of the story my protagonist Natalie feels quite alone, but she discovers the value of being a part of a community, and that her dreams can be reached if she learns from others. We all end up feeling stronger in the end if we’re part of a network because we know that we’re not alone, we’re all in this together.