Ann-Marie Howell is our 50th former novel-writing student to get a major publishing deal. Her debut middle grade novel, The Garden of Lost Secrets, will be published by Usborne in 2019. Ann-Marie was a student on our online Writing YA and Children’s Fiction course back in 2015 (check out this blog about her time on the course). Here we find out more about the inspiration behind and research that went into her debut novel as well as her time on the course and her top tips for aspiring authors …
Your debut middle-grade novel, The Garden of Found and Lost, is to be published by Usborne in July 2019, followed by a second stand‐alone novel in 2020. What was the first thing you did when you heard the news?
A glass of champagne followed by the best night’s sleep I’d had for a while! I was lucky enough to receive two offers, so the week before everything was confirmed was exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measure. Ultimately, I was overwhelmed with Usborne’s passion and vision for the book, as well as their amazingly gorgeous pitch, and knew without any doubt I’d found the perfect home for The Garden of Found and Lost.
The Garden of Found and Lost is a historical novel that was partially inspired by the discovery of a 100-year-old gardener’s notebook at the National Trust’s Ickworth house in Suffolk. Can you tell us more about your inspirations for the novel and the research that you undertook whilst writing it?
I’ve spent many hours wandering around Ickworth’s walled kitchen gardens and the now dilapidated pineapple houses. I began to research the history of the gardens and learnt about the incredible discovery of a century old gardener’s notebook, wedged behind an old filing cabinet. On my next visit to the gardens I couldn’t stop thinking about the notebook and the secrets it might hold, which seeded the beginnings of the plot. I then began to explore the central themes, pineapple growing in the U.K. and the impact of the Great War on country houses. This involved reading online archives and personal accounts of life during the war, visiting hothouses which are still in use, and the dissecting and eating of many pineapples!
You were a student on our 2015 Writing YA and Children’s Fiction course tutored by Catherine Johnson. You were working on a different MG novel at the time and secured an agent shortly after the course. What would you say to an author who has found their audience – yours being MG readers – butis still working on finding the right story?
The book which secured me a place on the course and an agent – a contemporary MG about a girl whose doctor mum has signed up to a one-way mission to Mars – couldn’t be more different to what I am writing now! When my first book, and a couple of subsequent books in the same genre, didn’t secure me a publishing deal, I began to wonder if it was time to try something new. I’ve always loved reading historical fiction for the MG age group (Emma Carroll and Katherine Rundell being two of my favourite authors) but had never felt confident enough to try writing in this genre. I decided to bite the bullet and out of all of the books I’ve written I have found this one the most rewarding and fun to write. My advice is don’t be afraid to try something new, you might just surprise yourself!
Is there any advice from the CBC course that you carry forward into your writing after finishing the course?
The CBC course gives you all the tools you need to hone your writing to the best it can be and navigate the path to securing an agent. But this is only where it starts! If you’re extremely lucky your first book might be the one to get you an agent/book deal, or you may be like most other writers I know (and me) and it might take you a while. I think it was on the course that someone said, ‘it is only those who stop writing who will never be published’. I carried that thought with me throughout the course and all of the subsequent ups and downs. I truly believe persistence is half the battle in this industry (along with a sprinkling of luck).
You’re the 50th former CBC student to go on to get a book deal. Do you have any tips for aspiring authors that are thinking of joining a novel-writing course?
Don’t hesitate – just go for it! The course provided a friendly and secure forum in which we could critique each other’s work, which taught me a lot about my own writing. My number one tip would be to go into the course with an open mind, as while you might not initially agree with all of the comments you receive, the feedback will allow you to view your book with fresh eyes. I reworked the text of my manuscript based on my course mates’ comments and the book that finally went out on submission to agents was a lot stronger for it.
What’s next for you? Any chance of a sneaky hint at what book number two might be about?
I can’t say too much, but it’s another Middle Grade mystery about a clock winder’s daughter set in Edwardian Cambridge – a time of invention and social change. It’s full of colourful characters with shadowy secrets and clocks galore!
If you’re currently working on a novel middle grade novel of your own, or if you’re writing YA why not take a look at our dedicated selective entry online course for Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson. (There’s one scholarship place available for a talented BAME writer.)
Our selective entry novel-writing course are also currently open for applications: Three-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Nikita Lalwani or Three-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Charlotte Mendelson.
We also run three short online courses designed to help writers at different stages of their novel-writing journey: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel.
And we have three brand new online children’s picture book courses: Writing a Children’s Picture Book or Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book, and for those who want to do both there’s Writing and Illustrating a Children’s Picture Book.