Why debut novelist Annabel Abbs has never taken a writing course

The daughter of two writers, ANNABEL ABBS decided on a more financially stable career. Fifteen years later, she sold her marketing and advertising to focus on her family and writing, creating her own “DIY MA” with a strong, wide reading list and structured writing timetable. Abbs’ first novel, The Joyce Girl was longlisted for The Bath Novel Award in 2015 and went on to win The Impress Prize 2015. She runs a successful blog about food and ageing which was featured in the Sunday Telegraph (www.kaleandcocoa) and lives in London with her husband and four children. The Joyce Girl, based on the life of Lucia Joyce – young talented dancer and daughter of the famous poet- is to be published by Impress Books on June 16th 2016.


Did being the daughter of two writers make it more or less likely you would also write?

Growing up with a houseful of books and seeing my parents scribbling away certainly made the process of writing less daunting.  They were always hugely encouraging.  But I also saw how pitifully little money one made.  I didn’t want to be that poor again, which is why I went into business as soon as I left university and only took up writing when I was much older.  My sister did the same thing and we often reminisce about our days of living off kidney soup and wearing hand-me-down knickers from other girls in our village.

JG 9781907605871You studied English Language at the University of East Anglia, but have never been on a creative writing course of any sort. If you were to do one, which would you choose and why?

If it was money-no-object, I ’d have to go for the amazing UEA MA in Creative Writing (Prose). Its alumni reads like a who’s who of British fiction.

Having decided against costly writing courses and MA’s, you created your own DIY MA, focussing on a strong, wide reading list and structured writing timetable. Any advice for other writers unable or unwilling to go down the MA route?

Read all the time.  Read widely.  Read debuts.  Read how-to books. Read how-to blogs.  Write – anything. Even in the busiest day, I would try and write a single line –  sometimes it was just a line of description on my iphone. Blog – about anything. Carve out writing time and stick to it.

You write for 2 hours every day before your family gets up and read/research during the evenings. If your days were freer would you have a different routine?

As the children get older, my days are becoming a bit freer.  I just read about Kate Morton writing her first novel while her baby napped.  But I have huge respect for people writing around full-time jobs. That’s really tough.  Writing as a woman with kids and a full-time job is the toughest of all (probably impossible if the kids are young). I’m lucky in that I don’t have to go out to work any more and I’m getting better at turning a blind eye to the housework, the dog, even the children!

You’ve had great success in competitions, treating them as deadlines for your writing. What is it about closing dates that you find more compelling than personal goals?

Firstly, competition deadlines are unmoveable.  If you miss it, you have to wait another year.  Personal goals are never that concrete.  I sometimes spent a whole night editing to meet a competition deadline and I’m not sure I’d have done that to meet a goal I set myself.

 Secondly – and this is even more important if you’re working alone – competitions give some indication of whether you have any writing talent.  If you’re given any sort of longlisting, shortlisting or commendation it means someone likes your writing.  It’s a very powerful incentive.  Particularly if, as I did, you work entirely alone and in secret.  The doubts can be very debilitating.  After I’d been writing for six months I decided to enter some short story competitions.  I told myself that if I hadn’t been long or shortlisted in three months I’d give up the novel and rethink my career.  Fortunately I won £100 and first prize in a small short story competition. I got back to the novel and never turned back.

We’re about to announce our 2016 shortlist. What advice would you have for longlistees who don’t see their name on the list?

It’s gutting, of course.  Every entrant dreams of making the shortlist.  But if there’s one thing I’ve learned on my writing journey it’s how subjective the publishing world is.  Someone on the longlist one year could be on the shortlist the next year – or a winner in another competition.

For me, getting to the longlist was always very helpful.  It meant my novel was good – but not yet good enough. After being longlisted by the Bath Novel Award, I edited my novel again and sent it to another competition, which it won.  My advice to longlistees would be to put their manuscript away for three months (use the time to think about your next novel or try some short-story writing).  Then get  it out and edit it – again! Alternatively, if you haven’t shown it to anyone, now’s the time to give it to some beta readers or even pay a professional reader.

You’ve very honestly said that one of the reasons, apart from the high cost, about not doing an MA was a fear that other writers would all be younger, more time-rich and more talented than you. Did your success in competitions give you confidence in the quality of your book?

Yes.  I was (still am) convinced everyone else is a much better writer than me.  Making headway in any competition (however small or obscure), provides a shot of confidence that nothing else can replicate.

Why do you think so many writers decide to write their first novel in their mid 40’s?

I think one of the reasons we’ve seen a surge in older writers is because the falling profits in publishing make it unrealistic for young people to consider writing as a career.  If you’re in a job that involves writing (like journalism), then the move is easier.  But for most people learning to write and then writing a novel takes a lot of time and sacrifice – which often isn’t feasible in your 20s. Once you’re in your 40s your emotional life is probably less turbulent and the financial strain may be less. Interestingly recent research shows that most people write their best books not when they’re brimming with angst but when their lives are fairly calm and settled.

Secondly, the reading market is now older.  And older writers probably better understand what older readers want.  Young people read far less (they’re busy on YouTube and SnapChat), or else they read for free on sites like Watt Pad.  I think the rise in the older author reflects this and publishers have tapped into it.  Twenty years ago, young writers were all the rage but now publishers are putting huge marketing budgets behind people like Janet Ellis, who’s 60.

The Joyce Girl is the story of Lucia Joyce – young talented dancer and daughter of the famous poet – and the deeply sad story of her mental illness. As the daughter of a poet, you have said you were intrigued by some of the similarities between her upbringing and yours. How do you think life might have been different for Lucia if she had been born a century later?

I like to think that if she was born today, Lucia would be a talented dancer, probably performing regularly at somewhere like Sadler’s Wells. She could have left home when she wanted to, earned her own money, and had access to decent mental health services.  No one should ever be left to languish in a mental asylum, as she was…

You’ve said that writing the book was rather like shining a torch into one of history’s darker cavities. Why do we know so little about Lucia Joyce?

She was effectively eradicated from history after most of her letters (to her, from her, about her), her medical notes, the poems and a novel she wrote, were either lost or purposefully destroyed.  Mental illness was considered shameful then and she was seen as a stain on the growing fame and status of her father.

In 2015, you won The Impress Prize (run by independent publishing house Impress Books and judged by a panel of industry experts) and a publishing contract for ebook and paperback. How involved have you been in the process of bringing your manuscript to market?

The team at Impress has been fantastic.  I worked with their editor on a further edit and had full involvement in the jacket design.  Now I’m working closely with their publicist on all the PR that goes alongside a launch. It’s also on submission in another ten countries at the moment so watch this space.

You set yourself a target of four months to draft The Joyce Girl, then put it away for 3 months before 3 months of edits and then sending out to beta readers. Did you follow the same pattern with book two?

Novel number two was so much easier. Yes, I followed exactly the same process, but it was smoother and more enjoyable and involved far less wrestling and grappling.  I gave it to more beta readers (people actually asked to beta read it which was nice!) and it didn’t need so much re-writing.

Who are your beta readers and what’s in your beta reader questionnaire?

I have two friends working on their own novels who read for me.  But I also ask people who love reading and are about to take a holiday!  My first ever reader was my Mum – I’m not sure I would have dared to show it to anyone else at such an early stage in my writing career.

In the questionnaire, I ask them for feedback on all the main characters as well as asking them to identify scenes they like and don’t like.  I also ask them to mark up pages they find too slow-moving. What I’m really trying to determine is whether they fully engage with the characters (and if not, why not) and whether the pace is sustained. I think a book should be compelling…

What’s book two about?

It’s the story of the original Lady Chatterley – the woman who left her three young children for DH Lawrence.  As a mum I wanted to understand how a woman could do that.  Leaving your children is the last taboo and as frowned on now as it was then.  I’ve tried to write about imaginary characters but they don’t really interest me.  I much prefer exploring the minds of real people.  It means vast amounts of research but I love the research almost as much as the writing.

Do you have a literary agent?

I have an agent now, Sharon Galant at Zeitgeist Literary Agency. She’s been responsible for selling my book overseas and signing me up with a book-to-film agent.  I would urge anyone to find an agent.

Your novels feature real-life authors as characters – Lawrence, Beckett, Joyce – who were all multi-rejected in their day. Did that give you comfort when you were submitting your work?

They inspired me.  They were rejected over and over again, but kept going.  Their self-belief was extraordinary.  Every time I had a rejection, I thought of them and got straight back to my desk.

You invested in a professional edit before sending The Joyce Girl out. Who did you use, what kind of input did you choose and was it money well spent?

I went to an author who also teaches, called Emma Darwin, and emailed her directly.  I’d read her books and loved them.  She also had a PhD in Creative Writing so I knew I’d learn a thing or two from her. I don’t think she reads manuscripts any more.  But she was great and made lots of suggestions.  I rewrote it and then she read it again and we had another session to discuss.  Then I rewrote it again!

When we read your book it was called My Perfect Mind. How did the final title come about?

It was always called The Joyce Girl.  But then I got nervous after all the Gone Girls etc and changed the title to My Perfect Mind.  But my publisher, Impress, preferred The Joyce Girl.  So it went back to that.  I secretly prefer My Perfect Mind, but The Joyce Girl says what is and is eminently more practical (in Google search terms if nothing else).

How has the book changed since we read it? How have you worked editorially with Impress and what have you learned about your writing technique?

It’s probably unrecognisable from the version I submitted to the Bath Novel Award.  The first chapter is quite similar but shorter.  But after that it’s very different.  Impress asked for extra scenes and  encouraged me to really tighten up the prose and iron out any inconsistencies. I was also asked to make the ending more explicit. 

What do you have planned for the launch on June 16th?

A big launch party at Waterstones and then blog tours, a bookshop meet and greet, and my first speaking opportunity a few days later.

Lastly, tell us about your blog at kaleandcocoa.com. And are you more kale or cocoa?

The blog’s been going for two years now and has two thousand followers.  I love cooking and I wanted to eat more healthily so a friend and I decided to blog our way to health.  We both lost parents and grandparents to dementia and cancer and we wanted to reduce our chances of going the same way.  It keeps me feeding my family properly when I’m deep into my writing and would otherwise grab a frozen pizza and forget those vital veggies! Some days I’m more kale and some days I’m definitely more cocoa…

Interview by Caroline Ambrose

JG 9781907605871 The Joyce Girl by Annabel Abbs, published by Impress Books on June 16th 2016, is available for pre-order now.

Follow Annabel on Twitter at @annabelabbs and kaleandcocoa.com