01 June 2016

Author Q&A: Catherine Bennetto

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by Eli Keren Author Interviews

We’re delighted to announce that Catherine Bennetto has become the 21st alumnus from our creative writing courses to achieve a major publishing deal. Catherine studied on our online novel-writing course in autumn 2013 with tutor Chris Wakling. Her debut novel How Not to Fall in Love, Actually, has just been sold to Simon & Schuster in the UK by Curtis Brown agent Alice Lutyens. Alice also represents former students Kate Hamer, bestselling author of The Girl in the Red Coat (Faber & Faber)and Jane Harper, whose novel The Dry is to be published in the UK by Little Brown in January 2017.

How Not to Fall in Love, Actually tells the story of pregnant 27-year-old Emma, who quits her job on a medical soap opera, breaks up with her money-squandering boyfriend, and – after the sudden death of her grandmother – moves in to her charming cottage in Wimbledon (complete with crazy Rottweiler-owning purple-rinse neighbour). Once there, Emma takes on a very handsome lodger, finds herself a new job and begins to build a new life for herself. Before long she’s locking horns with her family and embarking on a misguided infatuation with a married cameraman – but all the while, her baby bump is getting bigger… We caught up with Catherine to ask her about her experiences writing her novel and studying on our course:

How much writing had you done before you started your Curtis Brown Creative course?

I’d written an entire novel. It was a heaving mass of 140,000 words with a meandering plot and too many characters. But I’ve been writing since I was young. I stopped for a chunk of time to focus on parties, boys and clothes then picked it up again in my early 20’s.

How did the novel change during the course and how has the finished novel changed from your original idea?

Chris, our tutor, said it read as if I’d embarked on the story without a firm plot and was just seeing where it led me. And he was spot on. He suggested I go back through the manuscript with a plan and edit accordingly. I cut out a lot of blabber. The original idea is not vastly different to what I started with. The main characters and their journey are still the same but how they get there and who with has taken some adjusting.

What do you think was the main benefit of studying this course online as opposed to in-person?

Time and anonymity. Being online allowed us to do the course work around our jobs and families – wherever we happened to be in the world at whatever time suited us. And it meant that when giving feedback we had the time to construct quite detailed comments. I felt we got thorough and honest responses to our submitted work.

The anonymity of being online meant people could give criticisms they may not necessarily give to your face. Those criticisms, the positive and negative, were invaluable. And submitting your work, something I was quite nervous about at first, is easier when you know the reactions to it come via a computer screen. If an opinion stings a little you don’t have to smile politely across a boardroom table and say ‘thank you for your input’, you can stomp around the living room in your pyjamas and call them a %*$*%$ – #$^*@$ till you’ve calmed down and realised they have a point. (Having said this, my fellow students were incredibly supportive of each other. Many of us are still in touch and I never call them any of them a %*$*%$ – #$^*@$.)

What would you say was the most helpful aspect of the online writing courses?

Honest feedback from Chris and 14 other writers. And the one-on-one phone tutorials with Chris. And the homework. All of it.

Where did you find the  inspiration for How Not to Fall in Love, Actually? Did you draw on any of your own experiences?

Yes of course. Plenty! The main character has the same job I do  – she works behind the scenes in film and TV. She starts out on a crappy soap opera and ends up on a horror movie. So I certainly drew from my own experiences there. She’s also pregnant and I’ve done that twice. But I made up a lot too.

You’ve got a very colourful cast of characters. Are they based on real people? If so how do those real people feel about being fictionalised?

Ha! Yes, some of them have similar traits to people I know or have met. I once read a quote from a writer saying people only recognise the good in themselves, never the bad. So that’s good – I’m safe there then.

How do they feel about being fictionalised? Well, my mother thinks it rather funny the main character’s mother drinks too much whisky at times … And there’s a part about someone vomiting while watching Fear Factor and the dog eating it. That too is my mother. And her dog. Sorry Mama.

How did you come to sign up with your agent, Alice Lutyens? Tell us a bit about what happened once you were signed.

When I finished the course I asked Anna Davis who she thought I should send my novel to – and she emailed to tell me about Alice. I’d already gone through the CB agents’ page, had honed in on Alice’s biog and decided I’d like to send it to her – so the fact Anna recommended her sealed the deal. I sent it to Alice and about a week later she emailed back with suggestions for possible changes and an offer of representation.

Once I’d signed with Alice I did a further two drafts, with her excellent guidance and notes. Seven months later it was ready to be sent out – and now I have a publishing deal with the excellent Simon & Schuster.

What advice would you give to writers working on their first novels?

The best piece of advice I received when I started writing my novel was this: You don’t have to write it all in order. When you get to a bit where you just don’t know what happens type ERKGHASFKJASRFKJA and move on to a part you do want to write. You’ll go back to the ERKGHASFKJASRFKJA bit later and the scene will be much easier to write. You won’t necessarily feel inspired in a linear manner so why force yourself to write that way? And if you do know what needs to happen at that point in the book but can’t be bothered writing it just type MUM VOMITS. DOG EATS IT. DOG VOMITS. and move on to what does inspire you. This small piece of advice enabled me to move on from a 10,000 word impasse.

Also, just get on with it! Write crappy sentences, spell it all wrong, don’t use the right indent rules, bollocks to the title – it’ll get changed anyway, lose the plot (literally and literarily) but just get it down. You’ll have a first draft. And then you can edit yourself into perfection (or a passable mass).

For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:

Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Wed 17 January).

Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Wed 24 January).

For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for: 

Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 28 Jan).

We are offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:

Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).

Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).

Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).

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