08 June 2018

The road to success: One writer’s journey from first page to major publishing deal

Rachel Marks and Lisa O'DonnellFrom left, Rachel Marks and Lisa O'Donnell
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students, Novels by CBC Alumni, Student Successes

Rachel Marks took our 3-month online novel-writing course taught by Lisa O’Donnell back in 2016. Now her debut novel has been sold at auction to Michael Joseph (part of the Penguin Random House group) via Curtis Brown agent Alice Lutyens, who represents more former CBC students than any other literary agent – including Jane Harper, Kate Hamer and Catherine Bennetto. 

Rachel’s novel, The Spark is a funny, warm-hearted and profound love story, with an autistic child at the centre of it: Jake and Emily meet on an anger management course: He’s there in a last-ditch attempt to save his failing marriage. She’s attending under court order after responding to unwanted male attention with a glass bottle. Sparks fly between the two at the course – and not the good kind! But when Emily meets Jake’s unmanageable yet amazing 6-year-old son Alfie – and instantly wins him over, they’re forced to put aside their intense dislike of each other for Alfie’s sake … 

We’ve talked to Rachel, Lisa and Alice about their journey together – from Rachel’s arrival at CBC with the beginnings of her novel – to gaining representation with Alice and signing with her publisher. In the first instalment of this two-part blog, here are Rachel and her tutor, Lisa, on how it all started … 

Rachel, What was it that initially led you to apply for the Curtis Brown Creative course?
I liked the idea that I could study online and it would fit around my young children. I also loved the idea that it was so connected to the industry. When I applied, I never thought I would be selected. I received the e-mail offering me a place on the course as I was driving to an author event at the Cheltenham Literature festival so it felt very ‘meant to be’.

Lisa and Rachel can you tell us how the novel changed during the course? What stage was it at when the course began? And how did it develop through workshops and tutorials?
RACHEL: It changed quite a bit during the course. I had written about half of it when I started, but kept giving up through lack of self-belief, which has always been my biggest hurdle. Big changes I made whilst on the course include switching from a third person to first person narrator, and the addition of Alfie’s voice – the little boy with PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance is a condition on the autism spectrum). Originally it was a dual narrative between Jake and Emily. His voice came from one of Lisa’s writing exercises (given out to us weekly) where we were given images of hands to use as a prompt. My son (who greatly informs the character of Alfie) went through a really high anxiety period where he couldn’t touch anything without becoming severely distressed so I wrote my 500 word homework about that using a child narrator and one of the course members said ‘his voice HAS to be in the novel’ – so it really went from there.

LISA: Rachel had a clear idea of the story she wanted to tell and she’s a strong writer. She is also hard-working and took feedback on the chin, though it wasn’t always easy for her. Like a lot of talented writers, she was plagued with doubts, but through tuition and a brilliant writing group, she found her voice. This story is quite personal, and finding the voices of her characters was a big challenge for her in the early days – also deciding on the right point of view to bring those characters to life. She nailed this about half-way through the course, and then rolled her sleeves up and did some radical editing – which impressed the hell out of me. And she read. That’s the other thing about Rachel. She read every first-person book suggested to her, and somewhere along the line a light bulb went on in her brain and she knew exactly where to go with her story.

Was there a point during the course where things ‘clicked’, where you could see where the novel needed to go?
RACHEL: I think there were two key points. As previously mentioned, the addition of Alfie’s voice was a key moment- and I think also after my second submission to the writing workshop, things really started to flow. Having some really positive feedback and stirring up quite a lot of debate made me feel more confident that my characters were leaving the page and having an effect on people. It also took a while to find Emily’s voice – but with Lisa’s fabulous tutorials, we got there in the end!

Lisa, at what point did you really have a sense that Rachel might be writing something with a lot of potential?
LISA: I always knew she was writing something with potential. It’s something I’ve thought about lots of students who come to Curtis Brown Creative, though not all of them go on to get published. Rachel’s story is strong, and she has written characters that are hard to ignore – their voices are truly unforgettable. I know the hard work she did to create those voices and I know what it cost her to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I guess that’s when I knew she was a writer: because she was willing to turn herself inside out and occupy the skin of her characters. And it’s why the book is getting published.

How does it feel when a student of yours goes on to get a book deal?
LISA: In the last five years I’ve seen a lot of my students win prizes, get agents and get published and that makes me incredibly proud. But I’m also proud of the student who finishes writing their book, even if that isn’t the one which gets published. I’m proud of all my students, to be honest!

What would you say is the core message you try to hammer home to the aspiring authors that you work with?
LISA: The starting point, when I’m working with students, is that we figure out the story they want to tell. Then we seek the right point of view and the voice that will tell that story. That sounds easy, but it’s not. Sometimes a students arrives with a story and discovers it’s full of holes; or that their opening isn’t quite selling the story they came to tell. In the first few weeks we work hard to  establish a strong opening – and there’s a lot of rewriting. It can be frustrating, but it’s always worth it. I want to help the writer to produce believable prose that compels the reader to keep turning those pages. The writer who’s committed to that process will be prepared to rip their work apart to achieve this if necessary – and when you see a writer who’s prepared to do that, that’s when you’ve found a real writer. Rachel is a real writer.

Next week we find out how Rachel hooked her agent and publisher …

Our next 6-month online course will be taught by Lisa O’Donnell, who taught Rachel Marks. Applications are now open – and there’s also a fully-funded scholarship place available.

We also have three 6-week online courses for all-comers, costing £200. Enrol now for Starting to Write Your NovelWrite to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel – all three courses start 14th June and are the last courses before autumn …

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