A couple of weeks ago, we blogged about James Hall and Maria Realf – our 36th and 37th students to get a book deal – both of whom studied on our Autumn 2012 novel-writing course in London. We caught up with Maria in this blog post, but now it’s the turn of James to tell us about his novel The Industry of Human Happiness and how his time on our London writing courses helped him finish the book and find a publisher.
Had you done much writing before signing up to the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course?
I had, but not fiction. I’m a journalist by trade, so writing is my thing. But writing fiction is a craft that involves so many aspects: voice, language, pacing, character, plot, dialogue. There was plenty to learn.
When did you first say to yourself; ‘I want to write a novel – I want to get published’? And what turned you onto the idea of applying to the Curtis Brown Creative course?
I think I’ve always wanted to try it, but it was in June 2012 when I actually bit the bullet and wrote the first sentence. I remember the exact moment. I was alone in a house in Scotland, my cursor blinking at me for what seemed like an eternity. I guess I love a challenge, and I wanted to see if I could do it. I wrote a whole prologue set in India that never made it into the final novel. In terms of Curtis Brown Creative, I’d heard good things so I applied.
What sort of shape was The Industry of Human Happiness in when you began the course?
On paper, it was in no shape at all, really. I think I’d written fewer than 10,000 words. But in my head, I knew what I wanted to aim for: to write a cracking historical story about the birth of the recorded music industry that resonates today. I had the protagonist and a plot outline.
How did the novel change during the course and how has the finished novel changed from your original idea?
Despite what I’ve just said above, it ended up changing a fair bit. Over the course itself, it didn’t change too much because there wasn’t a huge amount to change. However, after the course, it went through various iterations, in terms of plot and characterisation – and tone too. I simplified things story-wise, boiled things down. At the same time my protagonist, Max, became more complex and obsessed. I made London more of a character in itself. And I amped up the romance, which was always there but in a slightly more subtle way. It’s now probably my favourite part of the story. But this is the whole point of sticking at it and constantly refining your work: every new draft thickens and improves your book.
How useful was the workshopping process – when you would submit extracts from your novel to be critiqued by your fellow students?
This was extremely useful. So useful, in fact, that seven of us from the course have met every other Monday since 2012 to carry on critiquing each other’s work (although I stopped going earlier this year as I had various other things on my plate). It’s a commitment, but so worthwhile. I think this support network has almost been as useful a part of the process as the lessons themselves. It has been invaluable as writing is a solitary activity. And you celebrate each other’s successes (and commiserate over the rejections). At least three of us are now published, or soon-to-be-published, authors.
And how did you motivate yourself to finish the book?
Eyes on the prize.
Could you give us a brief run-down of what happened between finishing the course and getting the book deal?
I just kept writing. The first draft was finished within a year of the course ending, and then I kept working on it. It took a while as life (and my actual job) obviously took up most of the time. I got an agent in 2016 – the brilliant Alice Saunders at Lucas Alexander Whitley – in 2016 and we got this deal this autumn. And now The Industry of Human Happiness is being published next May. I’ve spent the last few weeks doing really fun stuff, like signing off the cover and picking the fonts. My publisher, Scott Pack at Lightning Books, is so passionate about it, it’s thrilling to see.
and we got this deal this autumn. And now The Industry of Human Happiness is being published in May. I’ve spent the last few weeks doing really fun stuff, like signing off the cover and picking the fonts. My publisher, Scott Pack at Lightning Books, is so passionate about it. It’s thrilling to see.
What would you say to a budding novelist who has either finished (or is part way through) their novel, is uncertain of their next step, and is considering whether to apply to a creative-writing course?
Firstly, and sorry if I’m repeating myself, keep writing. Get your vision down. It’s a Herculean task but do it. Then refine it. And things will flow from there. As they say, you can’t win the lottery if you don’t have a ticket. And make sure you enjoy it. Also, celebrate every milestone: from finishing a draft or giving it to a friend to read to sending it off to agents, getting an agent and – ultimately, hopefully – getting that book deal. Each step is a massive achievement. You did this.
The Industry of Human Happiness by James Hall will be published by Lightning Books in May 2018.
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 Sunday 21 January).
Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Sunday 28 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 Sunday 4 February).
We are also offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ online courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:
Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 5 February).
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).