Abigail Mann was a student on our Staring to Write Your Novel course back in 2018. Her debut novel The Lonely Fajita was shortlisted for the Comedy Women in Print Prize 2019 and went on to be published by HarperCollins in 2021.
We caught up with Abigail to find out about the inspiration behind her debut, how to make fiction funny and her advice for aspiring authors…
You took our online Starting to Write Your Novel course in 2018 – what was your experience of studying online with us like?
It was absolutely the right course for me at the right time. I’d been plotting and researching a different novel for around a year, but it was the fear of the blank page and a lack of structure that held me back. About a week before the course was due to start, I realised that I was writing in a genre that I loved but that didn’t suit my natural voice. Without the course, I would have been umming and ahhing for far too long! One of the tasks asked us to write the same extract from two different points of view, which was instrumental in me deciding to write my novels in first person, present tense. The course helped me make formative choices for my book in a really decisive way, made easier by the cohort of writers who were studying at the same time.
You have a deal with HarperCollins for multiple novels. How did it feel when you found out about your publishing deal?
I was on a congested runway in Italy and decided to check my phone before we took off. They say that altitude heightens your emotions, but either way I feel sorry for the passenger next to me who had to deal with a strange, sobbing woman beside him for the best part of two hours. Writing a comedic book is daunting because what readers find funny is inherently subjective. It was wonderful to know that an editor had read my manuscript and wanted to publish it without changing the tone. Their confidence in my writing was hugely uplifting and helped me take ownership of my voice.
Can you tell us a bit about your debut The Lonely Fajita and the inspiration behind it?
After university, I took on internships in London to figure out what I wanted to do, most of them in the tech world for little to no pay. I couldn’t keep them up for long before my savings disappeared, so I began thinking about what someone’s last resort might be if they wanted to stay in the capital but couldn’t afford their rent.
In the same week, I was scrolling through news stories and came across a co-living scheme that matched young people with older residents who might benefit from companionship at home. The idea of two characters (Elissa and Annie) facing similar issues of loneliness really struck me, so I wanted to explore it more. I like the idea of contrasts – the modern tech offices of Shoreditch crossed with a Victorian residential home in Hampstead, and modern dating vs old-fashioned courtship. What would happen to a pensioner and a millennial if they become unconventional housemates?
That’s how The Lonely Fajita emerged.
Your debut was shortlisted for the Comedy Women in Print Prize 2019. Comedy writing can be a fine art. Do you have any tips for people trying to incorporate humour into their novels?
Your kind of funny might not be someone else’s kind of funny, and that’s ok. If your writing makes you smile, there’s a very strong chance that it will make someone else smile too. Hone in on your voice and use that to carry the humour. Something I’ve found useful after I’ve read all the funny out of my manuscript is to ask friends or beta readers to take a look and add ‘haha’ comments in the margin where they found something funny. It’s also useful for identifying phrases or jokes that don’t quite land – editing becomes much less painful!
Who is your favourite fictional character?
That’s such a hard question! I have different favourites from different times. Mrs. Weasley from the Harry Potter series was a favourite growing up because she was homely and warm but could switch to fire breathing fierce – all whilst buttering sixteen slices of toast. I adore Mrs. Bates from Jane Austen’s Emma because she has a gorgeous naivety about the people around her but is so uncompromisingly genuine. I can’t leave Bridget Jones off the list, either. There’s so much about her voice and outlook that I relate to and which has ultimately influenced my own writing.
What does a typical writing day look like for you?
In summer I find it very easy to get up early, but in winter I hit snooze at least four or five times before I’m tempted to slide out of bed. Recently, I’ve been writing from 8-9 each morning whilst my brain is still foggy and that’s done a lot to combat my Fear of Starting. I write in chunks of 50 minutes with a ten-minute break in between. When it comes to first drafts, I’m motivated by racing word count targets as I have a tendency to edit as I go, which can make things painfully slow. Editing has to be done in silence at home with a big space for notebooks, post its, and inevitably lots of empty mugs, but I love writing first drafts in cafés (ordinarily).
If you could only pass on one piece of advice to aspiring authors what would it be?
If you want to write a book, no one else is going to write it for you. Give it the space it deserves by carving out just ten minutes a day and you’ll soon find that your desire to write will grow and grow until it fuels itself and you can’t stop thinking about it. It’s like being lovesick – in a good way!
Finally, what’s next for your writing journey?
My next novel is coming out in ebook in March and paperback in June. It’s called The Sister Surprise and follows the story of Ava, who goes to a remote part of the Scottish Highlands to locate the half-sister she discovered through a home DNA testing kit. After that, I’ve got two more novels lined up, so I better start typing!
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