While currently searching for a home for her debut novel, Jan Baynham is already hard at work on her second.
It could be that she’s making up for lost time – having only really been bitten by the writing bug since she retired.
I was so inspired by Jan’s story that, while I normally feature authors who are either about to be published or already in print in my Behind The Book series, quizzing Jan about her experiences seemed like too good an opportunity to miss.
Here’s what she had to say.
Can we start by talking about how you got into writing? Has it always been a passion? When did you start to write for publication?
I’m always full of admiration for people who are so passionate about writing that they have always written and found time to write while working full time. My writing journey has not been like that. Other peoples’ writing has always been a passion for me, in that I’ve loved reading from as long as I can remember. As a teacher, it was teaching pupils to write stories and poetry that gave me the most pleasure. Often, I modelled the writing and you could say that was when I first began to write stories. This continued when, at the end of my career, as a teacher adviser for English, I trained other teachers in the art of teaching writing.
When I retired, I joined a local writing group and began writing short stories. I was hooked. Very soon, I took a Telling Tales short story course at the university, followed by one on novel writing. The tutor for both the courses was a published author and it was after these that I began to submit my writing for publication.
I know you write novels, short stories AND flash fiction (I think you have also written some non-creative work for teachers, too). Do you have a favourite? How difficult is it to switch between them?
I think my choice of favourite has changed over the time I’ve been writing. At first, I loved the fact that in a short story you can complete a story in relatively few words and feel the satisfaction of having achieved something. However, my stories tended to be becoming longer and longer and I often found it difficult to keep to the word counts specified by a competition, for example. Certainly, after the novel writing course, I began to think that maybe I could attempt something more involved. I’d have the opportunity to write a more intricate plot and develop more characters to interact with one another. My tutor, Lynne Barrett-Lee, instilled that confidence in all of us. So, now, I think my favourite has to be the novel. I love getting immersed in the story and thinking about my characters all the time. However, in between writing and editing, I still like the freshness of writing shorts, especially flash fiction,
You are currently looking for a home for your debut novel. Can you tell us about it? How long did it take to write?
My debut novel is entitled A Mother’s Secret and took me a number of years and several drafts to write. It had a major re-vamp after an editor I met at the Romantic Novelists’ Association Conference in 2016 kindly sent me some suggestions for tightening the structure. It is a dual narrative family saga set in rural Radnorshire in 1946 and 1965. The novel follows three generations of Jenkins women, who are part of a family torn apart by secrets of Black Market dealing, forbidden love, illegitimacy and prejudice. When one of those secrets is exposed, Angela Jenkins’s life is thrown into turmoil. A year long journey to find her true identity takes her to Sicily and an Italian family she didn’t know existed. Only when she knows who she really is can she move on with her life. I hope the novel is a reflection of the social history of both eras and explores the role of women for whom the conventions of the times meant family secrets were deeply buried for fear of disgrace.
Are you able to talk about the experience of submitting it? Do you try and find a publisher who you think fits? Have you considered self-publishing?
I’m in the process of submitting directly to publishers who are looking for family sagas and to agents, especially those who are looking to build their list of authors or are open to new writers. I haven’t considered self-publishing because I don’t think I have the confidence to be in charge of every stage of the process. With a very limited experience of working with an editor or a critique partner, I don’t know if I could make all the critical edits myself. I know there are people that you could get to do that with you and I very much admire those writers who do self-publish successfully.
I submitted one of my stories for publication, it was rejected and it felt like someone had trampled on my dream. I was a proper drama queen about it. Have you experienced rejection and, if so, how do you handle it?
Yes, I have experienced rejection many times and you never get used to it, do you? However, last week, I received what I like to call a ‘positive rejection’. Last month, I took part in a Twitter pitch where writers were invited to pitch their novels in 140 characters. Along with novel number two, both pitches were ‘liked’ by the publisher and I was invited to submit the first three chapters and the synopsis of each. Novel two didn’t get any further but the publishers then asked for the whole manuscript of The Mother’s Secret. I was delighted!
When the rejection came, the email contained a number of very positive comments – they liked the dual-narrative structure, the strong characterisation, the way the women’s experiences differ so markedly makes their linked tales all the more gripping for readers with a suggestion of how it could be improved further. The novel’s complete manuscript is currently with two other publishers so I’ll have to see what they say.
What about that all-important synopsis? I’ve read so many “how to” posts and they all seem to say different things about length, style and detail. How did you decide what to do?
I find writing synopses hard. I follow the synopsis guidelines for each submission as what each publisher or agent asks for may be different. Generally, getting the synopsis down to one side of A4, single spaced, is what I aim for.
You joined the Romantic Novelists’ Association New Writers Scheme in 2016, how useful has that been? What do you get out of it?
I’d heard from various writing friends what a wonderful scheme this is and I’m now in my second year. My first critique of the completed draft of The Mother’s Secret was very detailed and helpful, and I was able to undertake a full edit with the readers’ points in mind. This year, I was only in a position to submit a partial manuscript of my second novel, Whispering Olive Trees, (46,000 words) but I added a detailed outline of the second half. I have recently received a very positive and encouraging critique from my reader. The main advice is obviously to finish the novel but she has given many helpful suggestions and ways forward when I come to the editing stage. So a big thank you to her.
What about social media? I know you’re connected to other writers. How important has that been to your personal journey?
Social media has played a vital part in my writing journey. It’s through FaceBook and Twitter that I’ve ‘met’ other writers who have been such a support to me. Several of these I have now met in person, too. I’m thinking especially of Susanna Bavin, Susan Jones, Judith Barrow, Carol Lovekin and Wendy White. I started a Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page to keep anything ‘writerly’ away from my personal FB page and my Twitter following has increased considerably since it started, too. I also run a blog about my writing journey and although the comments are often from a very loyal band of writer friends who regularly comment, I’m amazed to see how many people read the blog from all corners of the world. Just as I appreciate their support, I try to reciprocate when other writer friends have some exciting news to share by tweeting, re-tweeting and inviting them onto my blog.
Lastly, do you have any tips for writers?
Just to keep going. Enjoy your writing and keep writing. I also recommend finding a writing group or, as we did, forming your own. I love meeting up with a few writing friends and we’ve become very close. After every meeting, we all go home enthused, ready to get writing again.
Thank you very much to Jan for answering my questions. I love how she is inspired by her friends’ successes. I’m the same. I have everything crossed that soon we will be raising a glass to Jan. A Mother’s Secret sounds like a gripping story to me.
Thank you also to the wonderful Susanna Bavin, author of The Deserter’s Daughter, which is getting glowing reviews, for introducing us.
Next up I will be chatting to Isabella Davidson about her novel, The Beta Mum: Adventures in Alpha Land.
And, just in case you’ve missed any, you can find all my previous Behind The Book posts here.