We opened the doors to on our Writer Mentoring Scheme in 2009, matching successful applicants with professional writers who then guide them through their writing projects – whether that’s a novel, collection of poems, spoken word or creative non-fiction – during a relationship that can last up to a year.
Since that first scheme, we have received applications from hundreds of writers across the region, and every year the level of the writing we receive reiterates how much talent we have in the East Midlands.
Of the 23 writers who have been awarded mentoring relationships as part of the scheme, 90% have progressed to have their work published, matched with an agent or have had their plays or shows produced, and many have cited the scheme as being pivotal to their journey.
We caught up with one of our mentees, Philippa East, who publishes her debut novel Little White Lies with Harper Collins/HQ in February 2020
How long have you been writing?
I used to write little stories, plays and poems as a kid, but it wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I began writing regularly again. One day, pretty much on a whim, I decided to write a novel, and spent about 18 months having a lot of fun with it. I then joined a few writers’ groups and forums and realised just how much I didn’t know (ouch!). I spent the next five or so years developing my craft through writing and submitting short stories. All in all, I’ve been writing seriously for about 10 years – a pretty standard amount of time for a debut author…
Is Little White Lies your first attempt at getting published?
I did write another novel at the very start of my writing journey – but that one lives firmly in the file drawer and (honestly) will never see the light of day! I also wrote short stories for many years, and worked hard on developing my craft through these shorter pieces. I received many, many short story rejections and this really helped me find out what I needed to do to bring my writing up to publishable standard. Overall, I’ve probably had about a dozen short stories published to date. I then wrote and submitted Little White Lies (technically my second novel). Luckily, my years of graft before that paid off!
How did the story for the book come to you?
Little White Lies first began when I caught a snippet on the news about a family whose daughter had returned home after being missing for some weeks. There were so many question marks over what exactly had happened during that time… even whether she had been abducted at all. The news footage showed the family sitting in a courtroom, and I remember thinking, “what on earth are these people feeling right now? Do they trust each other at all?” The second inspiration came as a visual of a parent getting separated from their child on a Tube train, as the doors accidentally closed between them. I had seen something similar happen on a London bus and the image stayed with me, vividly. Both of these ideas contained themes (family, trauma, trust) that resonated deeply with me, including in my work as a clinical psychologist. When the two ideas “bumped into each other” in my head, I realised there was a novel waiting to be written…
Can you tell us a bit about the Writing East Midlands Mentoring Scheme?
The WEM mentoring scheme was a huge part of my writing journey. I applied for the scheme in 2016 with the first chapter of Little White Lies. At this point, the book had already gone through about nine drafts – I still had a lot to learn about writing a full-length novel! I was so delighted when I got shortlisted, and absolutely thrilled when I was selected in the final round. This was a huge boost of confidence for me: maybe I was getting something right after all! I was paired with Judith Allnatt as my mentor, and she was absolutely brilliant. Judith was so generous and thorough with her feedback, while also being incredible encouraging and supportive. Over about five meetings, Judith taught me so much about novel writing and storytelling: everything from story structure and character archetypes, to graphing out the dramatic tension of your novel and how to compose a synopsis. In between our face-to-face meetings, I worked on thoroughly editing the novel following her guidance. The book probably went through at least another three drafts, but I could feel it getting stronger every time. What I learnt with Judith in the space of a few months would probably have taken me years to learn on my own, so it was a huge gift and privilege to work take part in the scheme.
How did you find your agent and publisher?
In 2015, I attended the Jericho Writer’s Festival in York, and had one-to-ones with two agents there. One of the agents, Sarah Manning, asked for the full manuscript, which was very exciting… but the book was nowhere near ready! I spent the next year continuing to re-draft, with Judith’s help, as described above. By the time the Festival rolled around again in 2016, I was finally ready to send the full MS (draft 12!) to Sarah. Around the same time, I also sent the book out to a handful of other agents. I got another couple more full requests (which in the end came to nothing). Then I got an email from Sarah Manning: “There is a lot I like here,” she wrote, “but I think at the moment it isn’t twisty enough for me to offer representation. I would love a call with you though to discuss some of my editorial thoughts as I do think it has real potential, but I think it would take a lot of work.” (Eek!) We arranged a phone call, and when we spoke, I could quickly see that Sarah shared my vision for the book – it was potentially a massive re-write but I knew her editorial suggestions were spot on. So I went back to re-writing… I sent Sarah an early sample of my re-write a few months later, at which point I was thrilled when she offered me representation. I then continued to re-draft, with her editorial help, over the next nine months or so. Sarah pushed me hard to make the book the very best it could be, and although it was painful, it was worth it. Sarah submitted the book to editors across a range of publishing imprints in November 2018, and we had our first offer within a matter of days. This led to an auction(!) and after a visit to London to meet the two publishers we’d narrowed it down to, I was thrilled to choose HQ – a fantastic new imprint of HarperCollins.
How does it feel to now be a published author, and with such a big publishing house behind you?
Mostly it feels as though I am blundering my way through a lot of uncharted territory! Emotionally and practically, this is all very new to me. It is incredibly exciting to have realised my dream and to have my book out there in the world. I feel so proud to have achieved this, and to have the backing of a publisher like HarperCollins. Receiving message from readers who have enjoyed or been touched by Little White Lies is also really incredible. At the same time, it’s amazing how easy it is to chuck the goalposts into some random new position: “How many of my friends have bought the book like they said they would?” “How many five-star reviews do I have on Goodreads?” “How many books would I need to sell to get on the Sunday Times chart?” That stuff can quickly drive you completely mad! So day to day, I’m mostly trying to stay focused on the ordinary joys in my life: reading a good book, writing a decent scene for my WIP, getting out in the fresh air for a walk, and spending time with the people I love.
Are you working on a second novel?
Yep! I am lucky enough to have a two-book deal with HQ (with a delivery deadline for book two of 1st March 2020!). The next book is a brand new story, but in the same genre: touching on a (sort-of) crime, but focusing on how that event ripples out into people’s lives, families, and relationships. It has been strange to let go of all the characters from Little White Lies and begin again from scratch. But I am slowly falling in love with this new book and enjoying the journey of discovery I’m on as I write it.
Lastly, what’s the best bit of advice you got as an aspiring writer?
If I had to boil it down, I think there are three practices which are essential for any writer who wants to be published: read widely, deeply and discerningly; study as much as you possibly can about the craft of writing; and be willing to seek out and use robust and constructive feedback on your work. But above all of that hard graft – keep the love and enjoyment of writing! That’s the only “goal post” that really matters in the end.