Sunday 30 July 2017

Guest Interview with Sara Gethin
You may remember my blog post back in June when I attended the launch of Not Thomas, an exciting debut adult novel by Wendy White, writing as Sara Gethin. At the time, I promised you an interview with Wendy. It's been a very busy few weeks as readers have taken her book and little Tomos to their hearts so I am especially delighted to be chatting to her today.

Wendy, welcome. Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your writing.
Thank you for inviting me to chat about my writing, Jan – it’s a real pleasure to be here.

I live in Kidwelly, in West Wales, and moved there 23 years ago with my husband, Simon, and my two children, Rebecca and Jonathan. I grew up in nearby Llanelli and studied Theology & Philosophy at Lampeter University – a strange choice of course for someone so interested in English!

Since college, all my jobs have been child related – I worked in Mothercare, I’ve been a childminder and also an assistant in Llanelli’s children’s library. I loved that place when I was growing up, and working there was a dream-come-true. I left the library to train as a primary school teacher and I absolutely adored teaching. Sadly, I had to give it up ten years ago due to a heart problem and now I write full time. I’ve written three children’s books and a novel for adults.
Your children’s books are very well received in schools and with your child readers. In fact, I understand your first book Welsh Cakes and Custard won the Tir-nan-Og Award in 2014. What made you begin writing for adults?

I suppose it’s fair to say that writing for children was my first love. I studied creative writing with DACE (the Department of Continuing Education) at Swansea University back in 2001. It was a ‘Writing for Children’ course, and while I was studying there I wrote what would become the basis of some of my children’s books.

But I was also writing other stories, too, about a little boy called Tomos who was being badly neglected by his mum. I’d first started writing them in response to a ‘homework’ request from our tutor and they were meant to be for children, but these stories didn’t fit the brief, they were too dark. I’d had a particular story about a neglected child at the back of my mind for years, and the ‘Writing for Children’ course helped me to unlock it.

I'm fascinated to know how you manage to write for children and for adults? Do you write separately or do you have WiPs for both genres? 
I compartmentalise! I was writing my novel for adults, Not Thomas, in dribs and drabs for years while I was writing my children’s books. I would set aside a few days from writing for children to allow myself to read through parts of my adult novel and get back into the mind-set of little Tomos.

When I decided to start working seriously on Not Thomas, I set aside time purely for that. I did find myself editing St David’s Day is Cancelled, my latest children’s book, one day and editing Not Thomas the next, but editing is a different process to being creative. I couldn’t have switched between them so easily if I’d been using my imagination.

Why did you use a pseudonym for your adult book?
My children’s books are light-hearted and fun and suit the alliterative qualities of the name Wendy White, but my novel for adults is quite dark, so I decided to use a pen name I’d had in mind for years. In that way, I keep my two styles of writing very separate – and I always wanted an excuse to adopt a nom de plume!

Can you tell us what was the inspiration for Not Thomas?
I began with an image. It had been in my mind since my very first teaching post back in the late 80s. A fellow teacher told me about a little boy who always got himself ready for school while his mum stayed in bed. He was five and couldn’t tell the time, so he’d stand in the window for hours waiting for older children to pass on their way to school, and then he knew it was his time to leave too.

That image of the child in the window became my starting point for Not Thomas and the character of Tomos just grew from there.   

I know you’ve worked as a primary school teacher, Wendy, and you've just said about the image of the little boy in the window. But is the character of Tomos and the detail of his desperate situation based on a real pupil?

He’s not based on any one child in particular – not even that child who waited in the window. He’s a mixture of children I taught and heard about when I was a teacher. My first teaching post was in a very deprived area and sadly there were many families living in poverty, and there were cases of child neglect too. I’ve pooled the problems of children I knew and heard about and I’ve created a character that embodies them all. Poor Tomos!
In spite of what Tomos sees and experiences, the stability of school and the care and kindness of his teacher shine through. How important was it for you to balance the harrowing story-line with the compassion and hope illustrated in the relationship between Tomos and Lowri?
I’m so glad you found compassion and hope in Tomos and Lowri’s relationship, Jan. With hindsight, it seems extremely important to balance out all the despair of what was happening at home with what happened to Tomos in school, but I’m not sure I set out to do that. I did want to portray how important school is, and also to flag the other teacher who wasn’t so sympathetic to Tomos, but it somehow happened naturally in the story.

I know school is often the only place of solace for neglected children, and school holidays can be a living nightmare for them. My own teaching experiences taught me that we sometimes expect the impossible of children like Tomos. We expect them to sit quietly in class, to behave like every other well-cared-for child and to be able to learn. What real chance do they have of achieving any of that? 

That's such a good point, Wendy. 
Can you say which came first the characters or the story you wanted to tell?
It was totally character driven. I started with the child and then the story fell into place.
How do you view the character of Tomos’s mother, Rhiannon, and the possibilities of the reader’s conflicting reactions to her?
Oh, how I’ve struggled with Rhiannon! At the start I didn’t want to think about her at all. I wrote Tomos’s story first and foremost. Of course, Ree was always there in the background, but she was simply someone who made Tomos’s life so much worse. I knew she had a story too, and I had it all ready in my head, but I didn’t thread it into the novel until the very end.
I knew if I gave her too much lee-way, the novel could shift towards being about Ree and I wanted it to be about Tomos. Ree has had a terrible childhood and she’s damaged. A child who has a child. Tomos still loves her despite everything. I hope my readers don’t blame her too much.

I certainly felt conflicting emotions towards her because of her damaged past. 
Perhaps, you’d like to tell us how you got the book published.
I so enjoy telling this part of my story. A friend from my wonderful writers’ group in Llanelli suggested I approach Caroline Oakley of Honno PressNot Thomas had been turned down by one publisher at this point, and I know one rejection shouldn’t have been too off-putting, but since the novel is written in such an unusual style and I already believed it was unpublishable, I was despondent.

The day after our circle’s meeting, I received the Honno Press newsletter email which said there were places left on their ‘Meet the Editor’ scheme with Caroline Oakley. It seemed like a fortunate coincidence, so I rang immediately, before I could chicken out, and booked a place.

I met with Caroline in Aberystwyth. She’d read the first 30 pages of my manuscript and when she asked to see the whole of it, I was pretty shocked as I was certain she wasn’t going to be interested. From there the process was very quick, and Not Thomas was published more or less one year after that meeting. So I would always say: if you’re a woman, are Welsh or live in Wales, do try Honno with your manuscript – you may be very pleasantly surprised too.

I'm so glad Caroline did publish Tomos's story, Wendy. Telling the story through the eyes of a five-year-old little boy is quite different, or as you say'unusual', for an adult novel. How important was it for you that the publishers kept that feature?
It was very important to me that the story was told in the voice of Tomos. It would be a totally different novel if it was told from another character’s point of view. I had written the very first story about Tomos, back in 2001, in the third person, but I instantly realised that it didn’t have the effect I was looking for. Making it a first person viewpoint turned it into a more powerful story. 

Anyone who has had dealings with young children would relate to the authentic language and the intonation in the dialogue used by Tomos. Were you able to do this by direct observation in the form of research or by remembering your time with young children as a classroom teacher ?
I didn’t research the language I used, but Tomos’s voice was always very clear in my head.
How much planning did you do for the novel?
I planned the whole book before I started writing it – that’s to say, I had it all in my head as a complete story before I began. I wrote it in a random order, as the mood took me, and the very last line was one of the first I wrote.
On a more general note, do you have a particular routine when writing and where do you write?
I write at the kitchen table, unless I have a pressing deadline and then I have a little upstairs office I use with no windows or other distractions. I don’t have a particular writing routine, although I often wish I did. I’m not creative in the mornings and find afternoons and evenings best for writing something brand new, but I can edit at any time.

Do you have plans for more adult novels as Sara Gethin?
I have another adult novel complete in my head at the moment. I just need the opportunity to begin writing it down.

I'm sure there'll be many other readers like me hoping that opportunity comes very soon!  
You must be very excited about the response to Not Thomas.
I am – thank you, Jan. It’s so odd to send a book out into the world without knowing what reaction it will have, especially when it’s in the voice of a child. I had many sleepless nights over it. But I’ve been delighted with the reviews Not Thomas has had so far, and people seem to have taken little Tomos to their hearts, which is particularly rewarding.

Thank you so much for taking time to chat to me, Wendy. I wish you good luck with your debut adult book.
Thank you, Jan – it’s been an absolute pleasure to chat with you.
Not Thomas is published by Honno Press 
Links as Wendy White
Twitter: @Wendy_J_White
Links as Sara Gethin
Twitter: @SGethinWriter

My thoughts on Not Thomas: 5 stars *****
Wow! This book is one that pulls on your heart strings. Told in the voice of five-year-old Tomos, the story takes the reader on a roller-coaster emotional journey ranging from absolute despair, anger at the shocking human depravity to delight in the na├»ve innocence of a five-year-old and hope in the form of his teacher’s love and compassion. We are taken right into the world of Tomos where he is neglected by his young mother. He observes things no child should ever have to witness and has to fend for himself. Sara Gethin has created very believable characters and I was particularly impressed by the multi-layered character of his teacher, Lowri. My attitude to Ree, his mother, Rhiannon, ranged from intense outrage at her actions to sympathy for her background and plight at various stages in the book. I kept asking myself, ‘how can Tomos’s situation be allowed to happen?’ but sadly, we know that it does happen all too often. Beautifully crafted, this book is a must read and should be dedicated to all children like Tomos. I was pleased that there was a satisfying conclusion to the story in the form of hope for him. That little boy stayed with me long after I’d finished reading the book. I can’t wait to read more by this author and cannot recommend Not Thomas highly enough.

I do hope you've enjoyed hearing about Sara (Wendy)'s unique book. Has the plight of a book's main character ever affected you so much that you can't stop thinking about him or her after you've finished reading?

Thank you for reading. You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.

Wednesday 19 July 2017

RNA Conference 2017
Over the next few days, I'm sure there will be many blog posts about the RNA Conference that took place last weekend. Many will be more eloquent than this one. However, as this blog is about my progress as a writer, I wanted to tell you about the wonderful few days I spent with fellow writers at Harper Adams University, Telford. 

The programme for the weekend was excellent and varied. It had been difficult to choose between the workshops and speakers but I'd tried to select those which were most relevant to the situation I'm in at present. I'm submitting my first novel to agents and publishers and currently about a third of the way through my second. These were some of the excellent sessions I attended:
  • The role of an agent and how to write the perfect submissions letter - Felicity Trew of the Caroline Sheldon Agency. This was particularly useful as Felicity gave us a letter checklist about setting the right professional tone, giving a sense of who you are and why you write. She requires a three line pitch at the beginning of the letter and reminded us that the letter is the first example of our writing the agent sees.
  • Plotter vs. Pantser - Alison May and Bella Osborne. In this session we were given the traits of both ways of writing, together with the advantages and disadvantages of each. Alison the Pantser and Bella the Plotter spoke passionately about why their styles work for them. We had to decide where we were as writers. I'm definitely a plotter to start with but once I start writing, I sometimes veer away from what I'd planned when ideas just appear. I suppose that means I am somewhere between the two. 
  • Building characters from the inside out - Fiona Harper. This was an excellent session where Fiona talked about deciding on the Goal, Motivation and Conflict (both internal and external) of the characters before you start writing. In order to 'dig deep', she recommended ten character questions that will show the character's journey as he or she changes. This will be particularly useful as I have two stories and two protagonists again in novel 2, 'Whispering Olive Trees'.

  • How to sell a story in two lines - Catherine Miller. In this session, Catherine talked us through how to make our books stand out from the rest. Titles need to reflect the story and genre and where possible provide a Unique Selling Point. Succinct details should give insight into the story and including names can reflect era, class and place. She showed us how the two line pitch can extend to the blurb and how the synopsis should answer the questions created in the blurb. Congratulations to Jane Cable whose pitch was chosen by Hattie Grunewald, agent at Blake Friedmann. Hattie will now read Jane's synopsis and full manuscript.  Congratulations, too, to Georgia Hill and Sue McDonagh whose pitches were also shortlisted. 

All I have to do now is remember everything I learned and put it into practice! If only it was that simple. :-)
As well as learning a lot and taking loads of notes, I was fortunate to attend 1-to-1s where professionals in the industry gave me very helpful advice on the synopsis and chapter 1 of novel two. Armed with their positive suggestions, I can't wait to get back to the WiP. 

For me, meeting up with friends made last year at Conference as well as making lots of new ones is what is wonderful about the RNA events. Established, successful authors mix with debut and unpublished writers and are generous with their time and advice. Here are a few photos of the socialising (or should I say, networking!) I did:
With Sue Cook (Susanna Bavin)
With Jane Cable
Jackie (Jacqueline) Farrell, Kirsten Hesketh, Jane, Sue, 
Sue McDonagh, Eva Balgaire, Kitty Wilson, Alison Knight, me
Sue, me, Sue, Eva
Jackie, Kirsten, Jane, Sue, 
Sue, Eva, Kitty, Alison
With Sue and Vanessa Savage 

A big thank you to the organisers especially Jan Jones, Nicola Cornick and Alison May for making the conference such a success and to Elaine Everest for arranging the Industry Appointments. I'm already looking forward to Leeds 2018. :-)

Thank you for reading. What have you gained by attending a conference such as this? If you were at Telford, what was the highlight for you?

You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on my Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.

Tuesday 11 July 2017

Debut Novels
It's only two days until I leave for the RNA Conference 2017 at Telford and I'm looking forward to catching up with lots of writer friends whom I met in person for the first time last year at Lancaster. It made me think about how many of these have now published their first novels and the list is growing weekly. I can only imagine the excitement they feel as publication day looms and they send their books into the big wide world. Every time I read the news of another debut novel, I'm delighted for the writer; it motivates me to work harder and get back to the WiP. Not all the debut novels I read are of the romance genre but as a member of the wonderful RNA New Writers' Scheme, it's so inspiring to know that many of debut novelists started out on that, too. Over the summer, I'm hoping to invite writers onto the blog to talk about how they got their first novels published. Two debut novelist interviews have already been arranged so look out for them over the next few weeks.

'Not Thomas' is the debut adult novel of Wendy White, writing as Sara Gethin. Her book was published by Honno in June and is already receiving excellent reviews. I wrote about attending the launch of the novel in my last blog post and told you that book is told through the point of view of five-year-old Tomos. Since then, I have read the book and was blown away by the writing which takes the reader on a roller coaster of emotions. The character of little Tomos stayed with me a long time after I'd finished reading it. I won't say anything else but let you find out more from the interview in a few weeks' time.

The second interview will be with debut novelist, Susanna Bavin. Her novel, 'The Deserter's Daughter'was published on June 22nd by Allison and Busby. I met Sue for the first time last year at Conference after enjoying her friendship and support on social media for a long while before that. I'm well over half way through her family saga set in 1920s Manchester and loving it. Sue is a graduate of the NWS and I'm looking forward to hearing all about her first few weeks as a published novelist when we meet up at Telford.

No post about debut novelists would be complete without a mention of the news that broke this week about writing friend, Vanessa Savage. Her novel, 'The Murder House', a haunting psychological thriller, will be published by Sphere and I can't wait to read it.

- What debut novel has impressed you? What genre is it? Please leave your recommendations as comments and I'll add to my To Be Read pile! 
- Are you a debut novelist? How did you feel when you saw your book in print for the first time?

Thank you for reading my blog. You may also follow me on Twitter @JanBayLit and on Jan Baynham Writer Facebook page.