Ella Dove studied on our 3-month London-based novel-writing course, back in the Spring of 2015. She was a lively, funny, self-deprecating student – very sociable and always smiling. She was also a very talented writer, though I think she won’t mind my telling you that she hadn’t yet settled into the right novel at that time … Usually, when our courses finish, a few students emerge from a cohort to be key figures in driving the group to continue to support each other with their writing. Ella was very much one of those student – she encouraged her group to meet up once a month to workshop together, she even helped to arranged several writing retreats – and she blogged about it for us
But in May of 2016, Ella suffered a terrible accident: While out running on a canal tow-path with her sister, she tripped and fell – dislocating her right knee, severing an artery and cutting off the blood supply to her foot. Horrifically, this resulted in amputation.
This was, of course, a tragic and life-altering event for Ella. But we at CBC are utterly in awe of her guts, determination, energy and spirit. After a long and painful phase in hospital and rehabilitation – where she was frequently visited by her fellow CBC writers – she got her life back up and running again (quite literally) and returned to work (she’s a magazine journalist). I know there was darkness for her in private, but in public she continued to be upbeat, irrepressible, and, as you’ll read in this blog she wrote for us in 2017, even staged an amazing star-studded comedy show to raise the money she needed to buy a high-quality prosthesis.
And Ella kept writing – not the novel she was working on when she took the course – but a new novel, informed and inspired by her own very painful experience. She gained representation from our lovely colleague Richard Pike at C&W, and I’ve never been more thrilled to announce a publishing deal for one of our alumni:
Ella’s novel has been snapped up by the fabulous Sam Eades, the publisher of Trapeze (a Hachette Orion imprint) – making her the 53rd CBC student to get a deal. And, as I write, C&W are preparing to pitch it to international publishers at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
This must be the longest introduction to a CBC blog that I’ve ever written – but hey, it all had to be said. Here we talk to Ella about her very difficult path to publication – and about how it feels to arrive at this moment:
Ella, can we start by asking you about the novel? Can you tell us a bit about the story?
Hello! Of course. My debut novel is called Five Steps To Happy. It tells the story of Heidi, a struggling actress who suffers an unexpected and horrific accident that changes her path completely. It’s her recovery journey and her search for happiness, the story of how a fall along one path can set you upon another.
Was it difficult to write a story that touches – more than touches – on your own very difficult recent experiences? When and how did you decide to write it? And what were your writing highs and lows?
On the day of my accident, after I fell, there was a man on the canal path who phoned for an ambulance. However, he then hung up, saying he had to go because he had a train to catch. I’ve often wondered since then what was so important that he’d leave an injured person there on the ground – and so I decided to explore this through fiction.
It’s definitely been a journey – and like any journey, there have been highs and lows. I very much enjoyed thinking back to the amputee rehab centre – the quirky and brilliant characters I met and the people who helped me along the way. I used humour a lot to get me through the dark times, and Heidi definitely does the same. The harder parts to write were the deeper emotions – really digging back through memories I’d previously shut away. However, ultimately I think it was a cathartic process.
Do you have any advice for new writers on how to make use of difficult life events and to draw on experience in writing fiction?
Firstly, you have to be ready. Drawing on dark times and painful memories can be very tough emotionally, and if you’re not psychologically ready to explore those feelings, I think it will be even harder.
Some of the best advice I ever received on this was from former editor of Good Housekeeping, Lindsay Nicholson, who has written a searing memoir about her own experiences and her journey through grief. She told me early on after the accident to make notes in hospital, in rehab and throughout the recovery process, because however strong or painful the emotions are at the time, you forget exactly what happened or how you felt at different moments. She also told me to take my time, to remember that it didn’t matter if I wrote the book one year, two years or five years after the accident. The important thing was feeling like it was the right time to do so. When I came home from hospital, she gave me a copy of her book, Living On The Seabed. ‘For Ella,’ she’d written inside it. ‘From one survivor to another.’ I’m eternally grateful for all her wisdom and support. I strongly recommend talking to someone who ‘gets it’ before embarking on that writing journey.
We know you’ve stayed in touch with other writers from your CBC group. Can you tell us a bit about how you’ve worked together and supported each other, and the importance of trusted readers?
My CBC intake have remained firm friends. It’s so great to have a group of like-minded people on hand, who can discuss ideas and offer advice and support. A few of us have agents now, and we still meet up every month to workshop our writing. Each time, two or three of us will submit an extract, which the others then critique when we meet. It’s so useful to hear different opinions, and I always come away buzzing, plot problems solved and fresh ideas in my mind. We’ve been away to Devon a few times on writing retreats too, where we write all day and then come together in the evening to socialise. Whilst we’re very different people of varying ages, doing different jobs and from different backgrounds, we’re bonded by our love of reading and writing. And that, for me, is a truly special connection.
What made you decide to set aside the novel you were writing on our novel-writing course, and was it difficult? How do you know when a writing project has what it takes and when it doesn’t? – any advice for new writers on this?
The realisation that a novel you’ve been musing tirelessly upon for months or years isn’t working is tough. In a way, it’s like abandoning your child! And yet, whilst I received positive feedback about certain elements of the book I was writing during the CBC course, ultimately, I think I always knew deep down that the plot was weak. I was having so much fun crafting the characters and allowing them to run away with me that I didn’t really think about the overall structure – and I realised during the course that this was the case. It was more of a gut instinct than anything, which was then confirmed by my one to one sessions with the course tutors.
My best advice would be to ask yourself, what is the overall message of this book? What are you trying to achieve, and where do you want to end up? The importance of planning can never be underestimated. I’m not saying everyone needs to plot out their entire novel, and of course, different things work for different people. However, for me, I needed to flesh out key plot points to give me a sense of direction. That’s the difference between Five Steps and my original CBC novel.
C+W’s Richard Pike is your agent – how did you come to work with him?
After my accident, I knew I wanted to write a book. Originally, the plan was non-fiction, about trauma recovery. I contacted CBC’s Anna with my idea, and she recommended Richard. The fiction idea developed after I’d already signed with Richard, and he has been an instrumental part of the process, working with me at every stage, always with brilliant ideas and suggestions. It definitely hasn’t been a conventional route to publication!
And how did you come to land your publishing deal with Trapeze? We’d love to know the story …
It all started in Sam Eades’ kitchen! I was at a dinner party with a group of journalists for the book launch of one of her authors, Luke Allnutt. Halfway through the meal, Sam went to prepare the next course – and I saw an opportunity. I effectively cornered her in her own home, telling her I’d had an idea for a novel and giving her the ‘elevator pitch.’ The next day, I had a email from Richard. ‘What did you say to Sam Eades last night?’ It said. ‘She loves your book idea.’ Moral of the story? Never underestimate the confidence a few glasses of wine can bring!
What’s it been like to work with the brilliant Sam Eades (publisher) on editing your novel and preparing it for publication? Tell us about that process …
Sam is an incredible editor – and a brilliant person. She’s warm, intuitive and she knows exactly what makes a good book. When I’d written my first draft, she came back with overall comments, major and minor points for improvement and then chapter by chapter edits, which were invaluable. However, she was keen to stress that her suggestions were ultimately just that, and she’s always maintained that it’s my book and I need to be happy. I have to say though, I didn’t vehemently disagree with any of her edits! I trust her judgement completely.
What was the most important thing you learned on the Curtis Brown Creative 3-month London-based novel-writing course?
I distinctly remember one session we had about plotting – which has always been my weakest area. Our tutor told us to think of it like beads on a necklace – each bead being one key plot point. When writing, the author needs to get from one bead to the next. As someone who struggles with plotting, I found this a really useful way to think about it.
And finally, what comes next writing-wise? We’d love to know …
I’m starting to think about my second novel, and I’m of course very much hoping there will be one. At this point, I’d say watch this space!
If you’re interested in taking part in an intensive selective-entry novel-writing course like Ella did why not apply for one of our upcoming 3-month course, in London (scholarship place available) or online.
Or, you can enrol today on one of our 6-week online novel-writing courses for different stages of the writing journey: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel or Edit and Pitch Your Novel.