Interview: Debut author Lorraine Brown

“It’s been a long journey to get here… I had to go in the wrong direction to find everything I’d been looking for.”

Happy publication week! What have been the key moments from first draft to winning your publishing deal for Uncoupling (Orion Books, February 2021)

Competitions really have been a key part of my journey. When I entered the Bath Novel Award in 2016 I was still in the very early stages of writing my book and had had my confidence knocked by all the rejections I’d received for my first novel, which I’d started as part of a novel writing course at Birkbeck in 2012.

I’d had the odd piece of promising feedback, but the manuscript had ultimately been rejected by every single agent I’d sent it to! So in mid-2015 I started plotting and planning a new story – then called The Paris Train – and had written about 40,000 words when a friend from work suggested I enter the Bath Novel Award.

I was nowhere near finished and knew I needed a full manuscript at the longlist stage and thought it would give me the push I needed to finish it ‘just in case.’ When I saw my novel on the list I couldn’t quite believe it, and it was probably the point at which I started to have a tiny bit more confidence in my writing.

The next week was a whirlwind of late nights and sneakily writing at my desk at work and panicking, basically, before finally pressing the send button with one minute to spare before the deadline!

Being longlisted gave me the reassurance that I could at least write, even if at the time the story wasn’t well-enough thought out. It also made me feel part of a writing community for the first time and I loved connecting with people on Twitter and hearing about the journeys of those writers who had moved forward to the shortlist.

Likewise, being one of 11 winners of the 2017 Penguin Random House WriteNow competition made me feel part of the publishing industry with live events, face-to-face mentoring and regular contact with a team of people who were so supportive and enthusiastic about my work. I think that by entering a competition you’re signalling to yourself that you’re serious about your writing and whether you get longlisted or not, it gives you a deadline to focus on and can help push you forward to finish that first draft.

Uncoupling is about how the moments in life where taking a wrong direction leads us to the right path. If you could go back ten years give yourself one piece of writerly advice what would it be?

Ten years ago I was trying to be an actor and only getting the odd audition and spending the rest of the time temping and generally feeling frustrated. I wish I’d started writing then (instead of leaving it another year or so) because I would have discovered the joy of being able to be creative without relying on somebody to cast me in something, and without being in constant competition with other people for the same role.

When I did my first writing course at Central Saint Martin’s in 2011 it was such a relief to be able to think about character and plot and all the things I’d learned at drama school but to be able to do it anytime and anywhere, as long as I had a notebook and pen.

It’s been a long journey to get here, with lots of highs and even more lows along the way, and whilst it would have been nice for success to have come sooner, I also think that the experiences I’ve had have allowed me to write a book with more depth and emotion than I might have been capable of otherwise. Essentially, I suppose, like my main protagonist in Uncoupling, I had to go in the wrong direction to find everything I’d been looking for!

As a Penguin Random House mentee you had the opportunity to work on your novel with an editor for a year. What did you learn and how did your manuscript evolve?

I learnt such a lot from my editor at Penguin Random House, and received my first ever editorial letter with lots of suggestions for how to shape the novel and improve it. I’d written the book in what I thought was a very subtle, naturalistic way, and some of the scenes that made sense in my head weren’t coming across on the page at all! So it was a lot about really pulling out those moments of tension and conflict and romance, and making them bigger and more emotionally charged.

One thing my editor suggested which I found really helpful was to go through the manuscript and make notes in the margin about what I wanted the reader to feel at a particular moment. I also learnt loads about pacing – I had several quite long flashbacks in the manuscript initially but some of the feedback later on was that this really slowed the pace down and took the reader out of the main action. Instead, I’ve weaved some of the backstory throughout the novel, which I think helps keep the story moving forward. Saying that, I have just had a note from my editor about Book Two telling me to keep the pace up, so I don’t think I’ve mastered that skill completely!

How many agents did you query along the way and how did you deal with rejections?

For my first book, about 25 and about 20 for Uncoupling. I tended to send them in batches of four or five, and then would send out another batch once I’d received a couple of rejections. I remember refreshing my emails frantically for weeks after submitting and then coming crashing down when I received the standard rejection letter. My advice for dealing with rejection would be to acknowledge it’s painful and accept that you’re not going to feel great for a day or two, then get back to it and push on. For me, getting an agent was the most difficult part of the process and although I never felt like giving up writing, I certainly felt like giving up on the book – I’d say that my last round of submission letters (which included the one to my now-agent, Hannah Ferguson at Hardman & Swainson ) was probably the last chance I was going to give Uncoupling before putting it aside and moving on to something else. I’m so glad that Hannah saw something in my writing and the story!

What happened from first approaching Hannah to accepting representation?

I’d followed Hannah on Twitter for a while and had always wanted to submit to her, but I suspected that an agent with such an established list of authors would be less likely to take me on. Together with the support of my mentor at Penguin Random House, I sent my first group of submissions out to four agents who were a little bit newer to the industry and just starting to build their lists. I think from that first batch I had one standard rejection, one very nice, more detailed rejection and heard nothing at all from the other two. This was a particularly heart-breaking time, as I’d been working so hard on my manuscript and everyone at Penguin Random House had been so encouraging and hopeful about the book.

I then submitted to four more agents and the same thing  happened. At this point it felt as though something wasn’t quite right. Penguin Random House very helpfully arranged for me to meet with another editor who was able to look at the story with fresh eyes. I also sent my opening extract to Joanna Barnard (who won 2014’s Bath Novel Award with her novel Precocious) for critique and she suggested some tweaks and small changes that I think made all the difference.

I then attended two festivals, The Winchester Writers’ Festival and the Romantic Novelists’ Association Annual Conference, as well as the London Book Fair, and at all three of them I had one-to-ones with agents and/or editors. I think, if you can afford it, attending festivals is a brilliant thing to do for all sorts of reasons – you get to hear from industry experts, you meet other writers and for me, the one-to-ones were a valuable way for me to make connections with agents. Three of the agents asked to see my full manuscript, which felt like a huge step forward. I had read that this scenario could create a bit of buzz around your book, so I thought about which agents I really wanted to submit to but had been too scared to, and Hannah was at the top of my list.

I sent off my submission and a couple of weeks later I had a message from Hannah to say that she was enjoying the novel so far and that she would be in touch shortly. I went away on holiday and was desperately trying to forget about my book and possible imminent rejection, until one day I was sitting by the pool and absent-mindedly checked my emails. There was a message from Hannah, which I didn’t read until much later because I assumed it was going to be a ‘no’! When I did eventually pluck up the courage to read it, Hannah said she thought the book had something, that it needed some work (but that was normal) and that she’d like to meet.

I met with her at Somerset House that August, during which she talked about her thoughts for the book, where she saw it being placed and about her take on the story. It was obvious straight away that she understood both what I was trying to do with the book and what I wanted to achieve with my writing career, and I found her very easy to talk to and not at all intimidating, which is how I’d always imagined my dream agent to be. She offered me representation there and then, which felt like the strangest and most amazing moment. I remember floating down The Strand to the tube afterwards!

Hannah went on to sell Uncoupling in a four-way auction. Did that make up for all the years of craft and graft?

Yes! I was used to getting to a point where I almost got the thing I wanted but then it fell through at the last minute. I was an actor before I started writing, and there was lots of rejection and disappointment there, too, so it was very strange when I started getting calls and emails about actual offers. I first heard about my UK deal while I was at a ceilidh with my Scottish friend, Alex, and basically spent the evening being whirled around the dance floor at nausea-inducing speed in a complete daze about my book deal!

The readers’ voting comments especially praised your strong commercial voice, sense of place, pace and the emotional conflict of the situation…

Much of the feedback I received on my first novel was along the lines of: you can write, but the story isn’t strong enough for us to sell. Because I write commercial fiction, they all mentioned the elusive ‘hook’ and basically, in my first book, there wasn’t one! So when I started Uncoupling, I gave this a lot more thought and came up with a one-line elevator pitch before I’d even started writing. Listening to feedback from professionals, be it agents, editors, or judges in a competition, is so important and it made a huge difference once I started to take it on board.

Reading other people’s work while I was writing was also very helpful for me. At the time I was reading lots of psychological thrillers, and the sense of tension and pace in those stories was something I tried to replicate to a lesser extent in my own book, even though the genre itself is very different. I also discovered Save The Cat, which allowed me to look at plot in a more visual, filmic way, and I spent much more time planning and thinking about story structure than I had for my first novel.

Alongside writing Uncoupling, I had also started training for a post-graduate diploma in psychodynamic counselling. I found that everything I was learning on my course was feeding through to my writing and I was beginning to really understand why we are the way we are and why we find ourselves in certain relationships. Each time I did a new draft, I was able to deepen my characters’ back stories and add more layers.

In terms of a sense of place, I chose to set the book in cities I’d already been to and knew reasonably well. I also watched myriad YouTube videos of vloggers walking around Paris, and lots of French TV! In 2019 I was lucky enough to be awarded a grant by the Society of Authors which enabled me to go on research trips to both Amsterdam (where the final few chapters are set) and Paris. Afterwards I added in all the authentic details and locations I’d discovered, little snippets about the food I’d eaten, or the patisseries I’d stopped at; the sounds I’d heard when I was wandering around the city.  

You wrote your next novel during lockdown. What was your process for this book? 

I was really lucky in that there were lots of online festivals and workshops going on in spring/summer 2020 and I took full advantage of them! I did workshops on plotting, I attended the Jericho Writers Summer Festival of Writing, I did a 6-hour live Save The Cat course, during which I plotted my entire novel.

I had an initial idea – that it would be a love story about two people who live opposite each other in a block of flats – and I had some vague thoughts on character. I then took everything I’d learnt on these workshops and festivals, plus everything I’d picked up from writing Uncoupling and managed to write a first draft pretty quickly, in around two and a half months.

This time I have the beauty of being able to send it to my agent and editor rather than trying to polish it and shape it myself without any direction – I’ve always found it almost impossible to decide what isn’t working completely by myself! I’ve just received structural edits back, which are notes from my editor about changes she suggests and feels the manuscript needs – they feel more manageable this time around, so hopefully that means I’ve learnt something from writing book one after all!

Lorraine lives in London with her partner and their 8-year-old son. She previously trained as an actress and has a postgraduate diploma in psychodynamic counselling. 

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Could one split second change her life forever?

Hannah and Si are in love and on the same track – that is, until their train divides on the way to a wedding. The next morning, Hannah wakes up in Paris and realises that her boyfriend (and her ticket) are 300 miles away in Amsterdam!

But then Hannah meets Léo on the station platform, and he’s everything Si isn’t. Spending the day with him in Paris forces Hannah to question how well she really knows herself – and whether, sometimes, you need to go in the wrong direction to find everything you’ve been looking for…

Uncoupling is available now from: AmazonWaterstones | Hive

Praise for Uncoupling:

‘Fresh, charming and wonderfully escapist’ BETH O’LEARY, author of The Flatshare

‘Utterly charming, you’ll be yearning to hotfoot it to Paris!’ NINA POTTELL, PRIMA

‘A magical modern love story, I’ve fallen head over heels for Paris again!’ HELLY ACTON, author of The Shelf

‘A wonderfully engaging tale of love and self-discovery’ MIKE GAYLE, author of Half a World Away

‘A charming, romantic read, which gave me a real hankering for croissants!’ SOPHIE COUSENS, author of This Time Next Year

‘The lovely descriptions made me want to take the first post-lockdown Eurostar to Paris!’ KATE EBERLEN, author of Miss You