Opinion Process Story

On being mentored by Jo Unwin.

When I was five and had just moved to a new infant school, I remember not being brave enough to put up my hand and ask to go to the loo. I remember the warmth and shame, and the stretchy nylon knickers—navy blue with red and white—they sent me home in. I kept them. When I was eleven, I remember going to a swimming competition one night after school. My mum was to pick me up. I remember realising that I’d told her the wrong venue. I remember being too scared to tell the teacher, and my mum turning up, frantic, after working it out herself. When I was twenty, I remember blacking out at university when I was supposed to be giving a physics presentation to a small class.

And yet, my friend Claire and I used to do stand up comedy at juniors. I was in school plays. I once won a talent contest with my impression of Margaret Thatcher. I used to get up on stage and teach a fitness class.

If you’re shy, and quiet, it isn’t always all-consuming. It’s not the case in every situation. Sometimes, under the right circumstances, the fear loses out to passion. Sometimes.

So when I decided I was writing a book, it was inevitable that my heroine should be…well, a little bit like me. I didn’t actually know anything about writing books, although I’d always wanted to. It was one of those mysteries, like soufflé or black holes. There seemed to be an impenetrable club populated by confident English Lit graduates who wore their permission slips around their necks like giant medallions. They knew about things like plot and character and tension. I had a GCSE in English and a bit of experience writing for the press. I knew how to write a 200 word article about Red Top Wheelie Bins but had successfully got thus far without ever having to do anything longer than 3000 words.

And if I hadn’t applied to the miraculously good WoMentoring project, there I would have stayed.

But instead, I had the unimaginable fortune and privilege of being mentored via the project by the utterly brilliant literary agent Jo Unwin. She’s nice as well as being brilliant. I was mostly attracted to her sense of humour. I didn’t think I had a hope in hell of being chosen.

We met over Skype in the late winter of 2015. I felt myself flushing, short of breath (please don’t faint please don’t faint please don’t faint in my head) as I babbled my story idea: a novel for pre-teens about a shy girl who is desperate to save her local library from closing.

It sounds good, and also a little quiet, said Jo. But she liked my voice (writing voice, not actual voice), and was keen to mentor me. I picked myself up off the ground. I don’t know how to do this, I said. Just keep going, she said. Keep going until you have a first draft, and we skyped a few more times that spring until I did.

It resembled the big black bin bags Mum used to bring home from jumble sales: bulky and full of every imaginable bit of crap. It had too many ideas and was iffily schizophrenic in style. Don’t worry too much, said Jo. That’s quite normal for a first draft. Just do it again.

So I did it again, and again. I had the brand new experience of throwing out tens of thousands of words. My husband politely enquired as to when I was going to stop being quite so mad. My children tiptoed around me (mostly). My writing buddy held me up. And I kept at it. Again, Jo fed back to me with a careful, considerate, detailed editorial letter.

I knew I was lucky beyond belief: there’s no way I’d ever have been able to get this level of input and feedback under normal circumstances. I would never have got to the end of a first draft (> 50,000 words) let alone trashed and revised it again and again without this opportunity.

I sent Jo another draft in April this year. (Are you still writing that book? When’s it coming out? – All my friends and family). I knew she was impossibly busy and it would take a while for her to have time to read it. Of course I hoped that she’d jump on the phone and tell me it was a masterpiece and did I want her to represent me and she was going to send it out to twenty editors immediately.

She didn’t do that, of course. What she did do was send me a wonderfully kind email saying that I’d done a brilliant job, and that my book was a ‘quiet, quirky, literary read,’ and that I was ‘a really natural writer, with natural creative intelligence, a lovely sense of character and very genuine prospects.’ But that you could only be a debut writer once, and that this book didn’t have enough of a hook, enough Bigness to risk debuting with. It might, ironically, be too Quiet. Jo also pointed out that other agents might disagree, and did I want some more contacts, but of course I had fallen head over heels for her already by then.

And for a while I couldn’t get the thought out of my head that perhaps the publishing industry is pushing away quiet books, because by definition they’re not shouty enough to appeal, and was this a Bad Thing, and what about all those quiet children who aren’t seeing heroes in their books who look and sound and panic like them? And then I thought that books are like self-levelling compound in a way, or so they should be. They’ll find their own level. They’ll reach the people they need to. And I thought that I’d better get on with writing and stop wasting time worrying. So that’s what I’m doing.

I’m glad there are people like Jo Unwin in the world. I am glad there are projects like WoMentoring to help those of us without the cash or the voice or the means or the confidence to believe we can do it.

I reckon we can.

Thank you, Jo, so much x

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By Jo

Writer, artist, builder

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