We found out more about Lisa’s time on the course – where she learnt to follow the writing ‘rules’ and know when to break them – and the inspiration behind Paper Dolls, an adult thriller that centres around two missing teenage girls.
You were a student on our Writing YA and Children’s fiction course back in 2015 – how did your time on the course impact your approach to writing?
I have been writing all my career as a journalist, but all throughout my childhood and teens I also wrote creatively. This got a bit knocked out of me when I was in newspapers, and news writing is a very defined skill. But after a while I really started to miss the freedom and the imaginative side, and it was my childhood dream to write a novel. But I was under no illusions how tough the publishing industry was going to be – and just like I trained to be a reporter, I knew I would need to train how to write in the most compelling way possible. I was actually so surprised that the theories were very similar – strip out the excess, less is more, every word needs to count.
What’s the most memorable piece of advice you received from your tutor Catherine Johnson?
She told me ‘Make it authentic.’ I was deliberating on how gritty a book aimed at teenagers really could be, but she convinced me that young adults don’t want to be patronised. That the worlds I was building needed to reflect their reality. So I stopped second guessing and had more confidence in taking risks after that. Yes, there are rules to writing – but sometimes you have to rip up that rulebook. I was lucky enough to be offered representation by seven agents for the book I wrote from start to finish on the course. Unfortunately it didn’t sell, and in a way I’m glad, because it led to me to write Paper Dolls.
How does it feel now that your debut novel Paper Dolls has been sold to Quercus in a two-book deal?
INCREDIBLE. I was on holiday with my kids and inlaws in Norfolk in this creepy old farmhouse when I found out. I ran screaming out into the garden and it felt like a movie moment! I couldn’t believe it was real. I was offered a three-book deal as well by another publisher but Quercus and my new editor seemed to have such a clear vision for the book that I knew it was meant to be. Funnily enough, Paper Dolls is an adult novel. It was my first attempt at writing for that market but everything I had learnt on the course just made it that much stronger, especially in terms of plotting.
Can you tell us a bit more about Paper Dolls and the inspiration behind it?
It’s based on my time working in newspapers and the split decisions you sometimes make that can have life changing consequences. The book is about two young girls who go missing on the same day. One is white and from a wealthy family, the other is black and from a council estate. The editor, Leah, puts the white on the front of the paper and gives the other girl less coverage. The next day the white girl is found, but the other girl is never seen again. Her decision comes back to haunt her in more ways than one. It explores the themes of missing white woman syndrome, guilt and redemption. Although I have never made that particular call myself, now I teach journalism at the University of Sheffield, I can cast a much more analytical and critical eye over the processes of new production and the untold stories that even the press cannot touch.
Many of our students find writing friends for life on our courses – are you still in touch with any of your course mates?
YES! We have even all been on holiday together. After my family they were the first ones I told. We have a facebook group that we set up during the course and we all chat, literally every day. We have all been there for each other through the highs and lows, getting agents, losing agents, almost getting book deals, getting deals that have fallen through… We are each other’s cheerleaders and quite frankly I’m not sure I would have had the confidence and sheer determination to get this far without them.
What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Controversial but actually I don’t agree with writing what you know. You can become too biased, too close and too precious about your world building. In Paper Dolls I drew on my experience of newsrooms but that’s really just the back drop. It’s more about the untold stories behind the headlines. Also, if you’re not a plotter, don’t let anyone sit you down with post-its and by numbers curve chart. It absolutely works for some writers, but not for me. I always have the skeleton of the story before I start, but I let the story guide me in the right direction.
Are you able to give us a peek into your thoughts on book two?
Sure. The Lesson is set in a British university and explores the themes of abuse of power and manipulation. It centres around sexual harassment accusations against a senior lecturer and the intentions of the whistleblower. I was inspired to write it after the Me Too movement, but also after numerous headlines this year of darker side to some institutions preoccupations of reputational damage. I would like to add NONE of it is inspired by my own university!