01 October 2015

Author Q&A: Lisa O’Donnell

Lisa O'Donnell, author and tutor
by Rufus Purdy Author Interviews, Our Courses

Our next Online Novel-Writing Course, taught by Commonwealth Book Prize-winning author Lisa O’Donnell, closes for applications on Wednesday 7 October. Here, Lisa – whose debut The Death of Bees and second novel Closed Doors are both published by Windmill Books in the UK –  tells us about changing careers, getting an agent and her own writing process.

When did you start writing?
I’ve always been a writer. Even when I was little, I’d bash out stories. I remember starting each story with the line ‘This is a true story’ and getting into trouble with the teacher because my stories were invariably about wizards and witches.

You were a screenwriter for many years. At one point did you decide you wanted to be a novelist?
I was a screenwriter largely working in television. I worked for the BBC and I wrote for Hollyoaks for a while. I enjoyed that experience – storyboarding, working with other people. I didn’t really give up screenwriting, there just weren’t any jobs; so I turned to novel-writing. But even when I wrote my first book and started writing the first lines of the prologue, ‘Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved’, I wasn’t sure whether these words would lead me to write another speculative script or a novel. I decided to write a novel in the end, but I must admit I was a little afraid of the medium.

Was The Death of Bees your first attempt at novel-writing – or are there other unfinished manuscripts in your bottom drawer?
I wrote a novella called Isabel’s Window in my early thirties which I sent to Conville & Walsh. The literary agent Patrick Walsh called me at home and told me I had a voice but I should write something bigger. I did and it was The Death of Bees. I sent it to Conville & Walsh, who offered to represent me immediately.

Tell us about how your book deal with Heinemann happened.
My agent and I submitted The Death of Bees to around 30 publishers. It was an exciting time. We received positive feedback from most but some felt the novel was a little too ‘out there’ and were afraid to embrace the concept. Windmill Books were excited by the concept and the editor Jason Arthur picked it up. It took a year to work on the book beyond my own draft and we all worked hard on it at Windmill. I learned so much about the process from editing to book covers. Windmill were an incredible support to me and remain so.

How would you sum up your debut novel in one sentence?
The Death of Bees is a dark fairytale set against the background of urban Glasgow.

Once your first novel had been published and you began work on the second, did the writing process feel different to you?
I couldn’t wait to get going on my second novel. I was facing some personal challenges at the time and the distraction was welcome. I wrote Closed Doors very quickly as a result.

Could you give us a short summary of Closed Doors?
Closed Doors is a story about secrets, the consequences of telling them and the consequences of keeping them.

Other than teaching the CBC Online Novel-Writing Course, what have you got lined up in the next year or so?
I’m writing my third novel The Charmer. It’s more challenging than my other novels, but I’m working hard and hopefully will have something to show my efforts soon. I also work on the Women Mentoring Program, supporting new female voices that wouldn’t otherwise get the support they need. I have four mentees and they’re all amazing.

What’s your top tip to those working on their debut novel?
I’ve noticed that writers who are starting out can preoccupy themselves with thinking about marketing before they’ve actually written anything. Get your story out first and worry about marketing later.

As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.

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