A Look Behind The Book With Jen Mouat.

JenMJust a few years after visiting the Wigtown Book Festival for the first time, Jen Mouat found herself speaking in front of an audience about her own novel, Summer At Bluebell Bank.

It was especially significant because Scotland’s National Book Town also inspired part of her debut, which follows the story of two childhood friends, Kate Vincent and Emily Cotton, who reunite to make the rundown bookshop Emily has bought a success.

I loved it (you can find my review here) and couldn’t wait to go Behind The Book to find out more.

Currently writing her second novel (as well as working full time), Jen very kindly took some time out to answer my questions.

Where did the idea for your debut come from and how did you develop it?

In 2010 my then boyfriend took me to a beautiful holiday cottage in Dumfries and Galloway and proposed, overlooking Rigg Bay – the location which really inspired Summer at Bluebell Bank. Rigg Bay becomes a special place for Kate and Emily in the book. It was on this trip that I first discovered Wigtown. Dumfries and Galloway was an important place for me, thanks to very special childhood holidays there, but I fell in love with Scotland’s National Book Town, and with the location of one bookshop in particular. I started writing some scenes featuring an unlikely book proprietor, seeking refuge in her new bookshop from everything life has thrown at her, but with no clue how to actually run a business, and also playing with the idea of a girl returning to a childhood haven to find the place and people are not as she left them. This is an important theme running through the book. There was always tension within Emily and Kate’s friendship – I loved exploring their secrets and the idea of good friends being the family you choose, but not being perfect.

Quite a few secrets come out during the story, did that require a lot of planning? How long did it take to write? 

I probably should have been more thorough and organised as I ended up planning retrospectively a lot, rewriting and tying myself in knots with the plot far more than I would have liked. In total the book took me about four years to complete, but I kept taking breaks to write bits and pieces on other projects too because I had several ideas and just couldn’t decide which idea to run with. In future, I’ll definitely take the time to do more thorough planning from the outset.

How did you know it was ready to submit to publishers and what was that like? Was it an immediate hit? How did you find out it was going to be published? 

I definitely knew I wanted to take the route of finding an agent – I think I needed the support of a professional on my side and wasn’t confident enough to approach publishers unsolicited; I also felt that whilst I might be able to write a bit, I knew nothing about how to turn my scribblings into a fully fledged novel and needed lots of help. I don’t know that I ever consider my work ‘ready’ and that is still a bit of a problem for me. I’d previously never shown my writing to anyone at all and I was terrified of it being read – I still am to be honest. However, I am lucky to have an incredibly supportive best friend and I let her read a few chapters of the book in 2014; she kept demanding more so I finished it, but looking back it was still extremely rough around the edges at that stage. About the same time, my friend spotted an opportunity to pitch to the agent I’d been desperate to represent me, Jenny Brown. Jenny’s list was closed at that time, but she was offering short pitch sessions at Wigtown Book Festival. I knew right away this was an amazing opportunity and I jumped at it. Although Jenny loved the premise of the book, it still took several rewrites – including cutting 50 000 words – before she signed me up and considered it ready for publishers. I had several publishers reject the manuscript before it was accepted by HQ Digital – one very lovely rejection, a few polite disappointments and one that was rather brutal! It was just a week or so before Christmas 2016 when I got the offer from HQ. Jenny had left me a message which I managed to completely miss and I received a email from her asking me to call. She told me an editor at HQ was really enthusiastic about the book and wanted to publish. She thought I was just being really cool about it by not responding, but in truth I had missed her message and was then was running about the school screaming (I’m a teacher, but thankfully the children had left for the day!)

cover115657-medium-2It’s had a very positive response from readers, how did you feel when that first review came in? Were you worried beforehand? 

Like I said, I was always extremely nervous about people reading my writing – my husband didn’t even get to read a word until after I’d been accepted by my agent and sent it off to publishers. It felt very personal and scary to open myself up that way, but it definitely helped having the positivity and support of a great agent and editor. When the first reviews came in I had to have various family members read them first before I could bring myself to look. It is so incredibly thrilling to get great responses from readers, I’ll ever get complacent about that, no matter how many books I write and I am so appreciative for each and every review. I knew very little about the book blogging world before I got published, but book bloggers have been so instrumental in creating a buzz around the book and giving me confidence about putting my baby out there. Several of them even reduced me to tears – in a good way! I don’t think I’ll ever top the excitement of publication day for Summer at Bluebell Bank, and seeing those five star reviews popping up on Amazon.

I know you studied illustration and printmaking and now work as a primary school teacher, where does writing fit in? Was it always a dream to publish a book?

My background is in art and I’ve always enjoyed a variety of creative pursuits. Although I still love to draw as a hobby, writing has been my dream from a very young age. The earliest I can remember imagining being an author I think I was eight. I’d discovered Anne of Green Gables and everything I wrote was essentially Anne fan fiction back then. I learned my craft by reading avidly and writing loads – inspired by whatever I was reading at the time. My agent describes it as working my apprenticeship in my bedroom, which is totally true. There came a point when I realised if I didn’t do something different nothing would change. I got serious about writing about seven years ago and started dreaming with more determination. Being a teacher is a massive privilege, but it obviously keeps me extremely busy so I have to fit writing around a full time job. I’m a deputy head teacher at the moment, so I fill my weekends and holidays with writing. I also do a lot of plotting on the commute to work and whilst walking the dog. I think having different facets to my life is important for balance as it helps me to be a better writer.

Would you like to own a bookshop like Emily? 

I suspect I would be a terrible bookshop owner – like Emily I would just create my own personal library and customers would get in the way! I do like the idea of books and tea tasting, like in Summer at Bluebell Bank, although I also think beer and books would be a great combination.

What about your own reading habits? Are there any particular genres you really enjoy? 

I’ve always described myself as a bookworm and that’s become quite an important part of my identity I think. However, with all the editing and writing and publicity recently, on top of a full time, full-on job I’ve found in the last year I’ve definitely had to carve out reading time for myself. I read every day, even if it’s just a few pages and my colleagues know to ignore me if I turn up in the staffroom with a book. I go through stages, but my current favourite genres are probably Crime Fiction – I grew up reading every Agatha Christie I could find in my Dad’s collection – YA – a recent obsession I can’t seem to get enough of right now, and anything about books and bookshops. As a teenager I read a lot of historical and women’s fiction – often picking up books that were a bit too grown up for me – and I’ve always loved stories that explore friendship and family.

Have you got any writing rituals? I’m assuming you write on a computer but do you need a new notebook to plan a new story? Or have you got a special pen you use? 

I do the hard graft on computer because it’s fast and I can really get into a rhythm, but to get inspired I love a notebook. All my books start out with ideas and scenes in longhand. I’m utterly obsessed with stationery, so there are always several new notebooks waiting to be used. I’m quite particular about design, feel and paper quality and I consider myself something of a connoisseur. My family buy me a lot of notebooks and pens. I like the idea of a special pen – again I’m fussy about how they feel to write with – but my bag is invariably filled with about twenty different ones in every colour you can imagine, so it’s usually whatever comes to hand. I find I write best in the morning, and if I exceed a four hour stretch my husband reckons I go a bit loopy. After a stint at the computer I find a walk with the dog or a spot of yoga helps me switch off and unwind.

Wigtown is obviously a very important place for you and this year you got to speak at its festival about your book, was that a dream come true? 

Speaking at the Wigtown Book Festival was an amazing experience. It was something I set out to achieve from the first time I visited the festival in 2014. My best friend and I sat in the audience listening to an author talk about her book, then she turned to me and said ‘that will be you next year.’ Of course, it wasn’t the next year, but it did happen three years later. That was definitely a turning point for me, because we stopped talking about ‘if’ I got published and spoke instead about ‘when.’ It helped me to really believe that it would happen and get serious about my writing and my intention to be an author. Wigtown has been massively important to me, not only because my book is set there, but also in terms of shaping me as a writer. Speaking there, about my debut novel, with my friends and family in the audience felt quite miraculous!

Can you talk about what you’re working on now? Is a second novel as difficult as they say? 

Yes! I think for me it’s always been difficult to focus in on one thing. I always have lots of ideas for books, but one thing I’ve learned is that it’s a long road from an idea to an actual book. Since my time is so limited it’s really important that I focus on the right thing. I met with my agent recently to suggest two possible ideas for my next novel – one a sequel to Summer at Bluebell Bank – and the other a bit of a departure in that it has a younger protagonist and is inspired by my love of mysteries. My agent’s advice to me was to write what I was most excited about, and I’ve settled on the latter. I think the sequel will be written at some point, but for now I’m enjoying the change of pace and liking dipping my toe into a slightly different genre. I’m loving writing the second book and it definitely gives me confident to already have been published.

Any top tips for getting a book published? 

You have to be prepared to put in the hours. Books don’t write themselves and much as you might love writing, the editing process is proper hard work for little immediate reward so you have to have that drive to write, the conviction to keep going.

For me, it’s been really crucial to develop self belief and having a friend to read my work and encourage me was really integral to that. It’s scary to tell people you’re writing a book – there’s always that scepticism, so it’s important to have someone in your corner. I’d definitely recommend finding an agent too – they really know what makes a book come together and what publishers are looking for. Find out about the agent you want, get to know the other authors on their list and what they like.

Jen Mouat quote real

 

Finally, I think it’s about the small goals – I now set myself simple targets, even if I write for fifteen minutes on a work day I count that as a achievement. I don’t think in terms of the finished book, or sometimes even a chapter; a decent paragraph can be enough to make me give myself a pat on the back.

~

Always lovely to meet a fellow stationery addict and what fantastic answers. I love that Jen got other people to read her reviews first. If I ever get that far I would be exactly the same. Sending best wishes to Jen for her second novel – although I also can’t wait for the follow up to Summer At Bluebell Bank (let’s hope she writes fast).

You can keep up to date with Jen’s progress by following her on Twitter and liking her Facebook page. You can also buy her debut from Amazon here.

I’ll be back with another Behind The Book post for you later this month.

 

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A Look Behind The Book With Jen Gilroy.

Jen Gilroy author photo - Golden Network retreat 2016In just over a week, Jen Gilroy’s second book in her wonderfully heart-warming Firefly Lake series will be published – she is, officially, Living The Dream.

How she got there is a fascinating tale – at one point it involved a daily target of 250 words so that she satisfied her need to write while also meeting the demands of a hectic full-time job and family life.

I am a big fan of her writing (a review of Summer On Firefly Lake is coming up. Edit: here it is) and I’m delighted to introduce Jen as my latest Behind The Book interviewee. She very kindly shares some of the details of her route to publication and offers great encouragement for others starting along what can be a long and winding path.

When did the dream to become a writer start? And how did you keep that dream alive?

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in words and using them to tell stories. However, my dream of becoming a published author started in junior school when, as an avid reader, I imagined seeing my name on a book on a library shelf. I was also influenced by Canadian author L.M. Montgomery’s ‘Emily’ trilogy about a young girl who sought and achieved writing success.

As life intervened, my dream dimmed but never truly died. After several turning points and significant birthdays, though, I began writing seriously again. Despite rejection and personal and family traumas, I kept the dream alive because I was too stubborn to give up!

In one interview, you said that when you first started to write more seriously you not only had a full time job, which required you to travel internationally, but also a young child AND a husband who travelled too. When on earth did you find the time/energy to write?

When I look back on those years before publication, I sometimes wonder how I fit everything in. Yet, I did because I had a dream that I believed in and wanted to give everything I had to try and realise it.

I wrote in snatched moments—a few words here and there at lunch during my day job, while my daughter did sport and slept, and in hotels on business travel. I set myself a daily word count target of 250 words and little by little, the words added up to become books. I also reassessed what was most important in my life and since writing followed family, I gave up other things (like watching television) to prioritise it.

At difficult times, writing also provided temporary escape and emotional solace. Just after I’d started writing the book that became The Cottage At Firefly Lake, my mum was killed in a road accident. Brief forays into my fictional world helped me through those very dark days and, for that reason, the book is dedicated in her memory.

How long did it take to write The Cottage At Firefly Lake? How soon did you start sending it off to publishers? Was it an instant hit with them? And did you always envisage it as a series?

I started writing The Cottage At Firefly Lake in 2012 and worked on it on and off for several years. It also went through the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) New Writers’ Scheme (NWS) for critique twice.

I sent the manuscript to agents first and, after many months on submission, signed with Dawn Dowdle of Blue Ridge Literary Agency in July 2014. Dawn began querying the manuscript with publishers early in 2015.

It was not ‘an instant hit’ and was rejected many times, even after it was a finalist in Romance Writers of America’s 2015 Golden Heart® contest for unpublished writers (under a previous title). I owe a great deal to Dawn who didn’t lose faith in the story (or me) and worked with great persistence to find it a home until it sold to Hachette Book Group USA, Grand Central, Forever that August.

Although I didn’t envisage the book as a series initially, once I finished the first draft and, as often happens for me, some of the secondary characters had taken on a life of their own and ‘demanded’ their own stories. Nick and Mia, the hero and heroine of the second book, Summer On Firefly Lake (which comes out at the end of this month), were two of those characters.

Luckily, the publishers my agent intended to query also wanted a series proposal.

SummeronFireflyLake4_RGB300What was your reaction when you found out you had a three-book deal? Did you immediately call your boss and quit your job?

Disbelief, joy and shock. Having worked for so many years towards a dream, all of a sudden it had come true. It was a life-changing, never-to-be-forgotten moment.

My book deal also came at a time of personal and professional upheaval. Two months earlier, there was a restructuring at my day job and I’d opted for voluntary redundancy. In parallel, and after much soul-searching, my husband and I decided to uproot our lives in England and return to Canada so our daughter could start senior school there.

The news that my book had sold coincided with an international move, and what (unexpectedly) turned out to be a protracted period of single parenting until my husband was able to join us in our new home.

The moral of this story? Life—and dreams—often happen in ways you least expect.

Your first book was published in January and has been well received with comments including “thoroughly absorbing” and “heart-stirring”. How does it feel when people connect with your story?

It’s so special to know that know that my story has touched readers’ hearts. It’s a bit like someone complimenting your child.

It’s also truly humbling when readers have contacted me to say that my book has provided solace, escape or much-needed distraction at a time of serious illness or other life crisis.

I’m grateful that I can give readers something of the pleasure and comfort my favourite authors have given me over the years.

What about the odd person who doesn’t enjoy it as much as you’d hope? How do you deal with that?

There will always be readers who, for whatever reason, won’t enjoy what I write. Although negative reviews sting, I remind myself that there are some popular books that don’t appeal to me, either, and all of my favourite authors have received their share of damning reviews, too.

If the comments are constructive, I consider if there’s something I can learn from them to help me become a better writer but, at the end of the day it’s only one person’s view.

Ice cream is also excellent consolation!

Setting seems really important to your books. I know you lived in the UK. Would you consider setting a book in England?

Yes, setting is hugely important to me as a writer, and I suspect that stems in part from how certain places have shaped my own life. Several areas of England—the Lake District and north Norfolk coast in particular—are special to me and would be lovely settings for books. In fact, I have several such story nuggets in my ‘writing inspiration folder.’

However, and despite spending so many years of my life in England, I haven’t yet developed a believable English writing voice, particularly when it comes to dialogue. I’ve tried and, as members of one of the writing groups I belonged to in the UK would undoubtedly attest, the result is awkward. Never say never, though!

How do you feel about social media? And how much effort do you put into it? Does it help you connect with your readers? Is that a positive?

I have active profiles on Twitter and Facebook and usually post on both platforms daily. Since I’m a new author, I’m still growing my audience but it’s lovely when readers reach out to me via social media.

I put a lot of effort into my social media work and to me it’s positive and time well spent. When I share bits of my life with readers, and they share bits of their lives in return, we build the kind of relationships and community that characterises the places I write about.

Social media is also how I connect with other authors and, alongside reader engagement, it’s a learning and professional development tool.

In addition, I maintain an active blog and post fortnightly on Fridays. Since it’s reader-focused, posts are about life and not writing craft or industry.

Are you already thinking ahead to what comes after book three? A completely new series? A one off?

The third book in my Firefly Lake Series, Back Home At Firefly Lake, will be published in North America on December 5 this year.

I’m currently working on something new—the first book in a romantic women’s fiction series due to my agent later this month.

Although it’s been a bit of a wrench to leave the cosy world of Firefly Lake, I’m enjoying getting to know new characters and a new small-town community.

What one piece of advice would you give to a writer perhaps struggling to get published?

Something I’ve said before and that a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association (RNA) said to me when I was struggling in the unpublished trenches: The only difference between a published and unpublished writer is that the published one didn’t give up.

Yes, you will get rejections, many of them if you’re like me. You’ll also question what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, also like me. But if the dream of becoming a published author is important to you, don’t stop believing in yourself even if others do.

jengilroyquote

Thank you so much to Jen for sharing her journey. I loved all of her answers but her final words are especially stirring. I’m sending her all my best wishes for a happy publication day (on July 25) and I’m already looking forward to the final instalment of Firefly Lake (a place I would quite happily move to in a heartbeat).

Keep up with all Jen’s news by visiting her website, where she writes an entertaining blog, following her on Twitter and Facebook. With thanks (again) to Susanna Bavin for introducing us.

I’ll have two more interviews for you next month.

Hot Pink Wellingtons

A Look Behind The Book With A Bogie.

_RD90748You would be hard-pressed to come up with a better name for an author of children’s books than A Bogie but is it a nom de plume?

In my latest Behind The Book interview, I quiz Anna about her surname and discover more about her popular series of Happy Hooves picture books – the most recent of which, Yuk!, was published last year.

The busy mum of three is fascinated by how children learn to read and is convinced that rhyming and poetry are a huge help in aiding language and reading skills. I love rhymes – although, having attempted to write a rhyming poem once, I know it is not as easy as it might seem.

Anna also offers a couple of great tips at the end, which I am sure are important for all authors.

Here we go.

First things first, A Bogie is surely the most perfect name for the writer of children’s books?

A Bogie is a brilliant name for a children’s author – unbelievably it is my actual (married) name and not just a nom de plume. It isn’t the easiest name in the world to have but at least this career makes the most of it.

Where are you from originally and where do you live now?

I was born and grew up in Norwich and I now live in Gibraltar.

Have you always wanted to be a writer? What made you decide to write for children? 

I have always wanted to write but my career post university was actually in marketing. Having decided that I wanted a change from corporate life, I tried my hand at writing for children. It’s my favourite kind of writing because it’s so much fun and a real break from everyday life.

Your debut picture book series, Happy Hooves, was inspired by your life in Spain. How much impact does your location (and other aspects of your life) have on the subject matter of your books?

Location does have an impact because the area you are in sits on your conscience. I used to live in natural parkland outside of a beautiful place called Tarifa, in the south of Spain. It is very rustic and the animals roam freely, I couldn’t help but be inspired by the area and so location played a big part in Happy Hooves. Another big aspect of my life is that I am a mum to three gorgeous kiddiwinks – Reuben, Amabel and Lachie, and they provide constant inspiration with their general chatter.

 

How did you find out it had been accepted for publication? What was that like?

I had two very small children when I found out Happy Hooves, Ta Dah! was going to be published, it was very exciting but also slightly overwhelming as I hadn’t expected it to happen at that time. A picture book takes a long time to come together and it all felt quite unreal until I actually held the book in my hands. Fat Fox Books is a brilliant publishers and they’re very supportive – I call Holly, the managing director of Fat Fox Books, my Fairy Godmother because she made my wish come true.

How much say do you have over the illustrations? Is it a team effort? What was it like seeing your characters as someone else sees them? Were they as you imagined?

The publishers had full control over the illustrations for Happy Hooves and I was absolutely thrilled that they chose Rebecca Elliott. She is incredibly talented and made Happy Hooves more beautiful than I could ever have hoped. If you ever visit Tarifa, you’ll see how well she has caught the essence of the place, even though she hasn’t been there.

During a creative writing course, years ago, we had an exercise to come up with a children’s tale (or the start of one). I remember people muttering about how “easy” it would be but the majority of the class really struggled. Have you come across this attitude before? If so, is it frustrating?

Writing a children’s book is very intense, every word has to be perfect because you are working with so few, there is absolutely no room for unnecessary details. Children are very harsh critics and won’t read a book unless it keeps them captivated and so there is a huge amount of work to make sure the story will not lose the child, even for a second. People may think writing a children’s story is easy but the writing is actually only one part of being an children’s author – it is hugely competitive and most writers have to go through a lot of rejections before anything is published so it’s all about the long haul struggle to be honest and whether you can stay in it for the long run.

How does it feel to know you’re engaging a younger audience? That your books could be among the first they have ever read? Do you feel any pressure? 

Now I do…! I love writing for a younger audience, but I don’t feel a pressure, just a privilege if mine is one of the books they read. All I can hope for is that they ask to read it again, and enjoy it. I especially love visiting schools where you get to engage with children directly, it is really rewarding and the questions can be brilliant.

What are you working on at the moment? And do you write better at set times or can you sit down whenever and get straight to it? 

At the moment I’m working on a book for a Scottish charity, which should be published as an ebook this year. I’m also working on a new series of books that unfortunately I can’t divulge upon yet.

Is there any advice you could give to would-be authors? Something you would have found useful when you started?

Firstly, it’s all about the editing and making sure that every word deserves its place on that page.

Secondly, an author has to do a lot of their own self-promotion and create their audience. I’ve found this very hard and I am working a lot on my social media so that I can get myself out there.

abogiequote

A massive thank you to Anna for answering my questions. I had no idea just how much authors, even ones with big publishers, have to peddle their own wares. It seems like a great idea to start building up your social media presence in advance.

Speaking of which, you can find out more about Anna via her website, which also has some great free colouring activities to download and print, and follow her on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

For more Behind The Book posts please click here. I’ve got two more fabulous authors lined up for next month. I can’t wait to post them.