WriteNow is a mentoring programme for writers from marginalised or under-represented communities on the UK’s bookshelves, run by Penguin Random House. It gives 10 writers annually the opportunity to work one-on-one with an editor, through a year-long mentoring programme, who will help to shape their work and really bring out their voice.
One of the writers currently on the programme is Katie Hale, a poet and novelist from Cumbria. We spoke online recently about the scheme and despite a series of technical hiccups that I’m going to blame entirely on Skype, ended up having a really interesting conversation.
Like me, Katie is a fan of Margaret Atwood and the recent feminist novel The Power, by Naomi Alderman. In fact, she cites it as the book she would have loved to have written.
“I think I ended up reading it until about six in the morning. I would love to have written The Power or anything that Margaret Atwood has written.”
I confess that I wish I could have written The Handmaid’s Tale, which has been a favourite of mine since college.
“It’s funny you say that,” Katie tells me, “because I only got round to reading it this year and couldn’t believe it had taken me so long. And then I ended up reading more and more of Margaret Atwood’s stuff. I just think she’s got such a beautiful lyrical style to the way she writes. And yet some of the things she’s saying through that lyricism are so brutal.”
Katie too has a lyrical writing style that comes from her background as a poet.
She first heard about WriteNow from Jacob Sam-La Rose, her editor at flipped eye publishing. “I ummed and ahhed about applying just because I wasn’t sure I could write prose or I should write prose,” Katie says. “I felt I should maybe focus on my poetry and was I just getting side-tracked writing fiction? In the end I think applied because you only had to submit 1,000 words and I thought I can chance it, if I get good feedback I can carry on writing the novel, if I don’t get good feedback, well, then I’ll make that decision at a later date. And obviously I got good feedback so I wrote the first draft.”
Her debut novel tells the story of a woman who believes herself to be the last person left alive on Earth. Hale describes it as a ‘post-apocalyptic literary novel’.
“It’s called ‘My Name is Monster’ and it’s really a power play about relationships and control and language, and how we control each other through language.”
Her fiction came out of the poetry that she’s been writing for years, winning a number of prizes along the way, including the Ver Poets Young Writers’ Prize in 2010 and more recently, the Ware Poetry Prize.
“I tend to write quite sparsely, and poetry tends to be at the root of everything I write in some way. That’s what I always had written before applying for WriteNow. I just had a pamphlet out in June this year called Breaking the Surface, which was published by flipped eye, who are an independent London based poetry publisher.”
Even before working with WriteNow, Katie had plenty of experience of working with a mentor. She spent a year studying for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews, where the writing workshops led to a mentor-like relationship with tutors Jacob Polley and Don Paterson.
“I also had a mentor for my poetry through the Wordsworth Trust. They’re based in Cumbria and used to run a mentoring programme with their poet in residence who would mentor a number of local writers during the course of their residency. I worked with Zaffar Kunial and he was really helpful in helping me shape my poems into what eventually became the pamphlet.”
But working with WriteNow has been a brilliant opportunity for Katie.
“It’s been so good. We’re only about halfway through the yearlong mentoring programme, so I guess there’s still a way to go, which is good because I feel there’s still a way to go on my novel.”
Having the chance to work with a mentor has been a huge confidence boost. “It’s been amazing to be treated as a quote ‘proper writer’ and to have someone giving my manuscript that attention and really looking at it in a very constructive, detailed way. My first session with Tom was actually on the insight day in February in Manchester and he was very complimentary about my manuscript and my writing style. He made a couple of suggestions, constructive suggestions that were so on point that I thought ‘How didn’t I see that before?’ So yes, it’s really great to have someone who absolutely gets what I’m trying to do.”
She adds, “I think having someone say that I can write well and I can write prose, that’s opened so many doors for me. And for that person or organisation to be someone like Penguin Random House is just such a great point to be at in my career and such a great thing for me as a writer.”
After receiving feedback from her editor and mentor over the summer, Katie is in the process of redrafting her novel. “It’s actually harder editing than writing it,” she observes, “which is the opposite of what I expected; I always find it the other way round with poetry. But I think because a novel is so big you have to hold the whole thing in your head at once, which is quite challenging. You move one thing and suddenly realise you have to move 10 other things, it’s like Tetris or Jenga or something.”
WriteNow has not only given Katie a mentor and a support network in the other writers on the programme, it’s also helped her to change direction and see herself as a novelist as well as a poet.
And while she’s still working on her manuscript, she does plan to return to poetry. “My immediate plan is to finish the novel and hopefully secure a publisher for it. Then I plan to go back to my poetry as I’m working on a full collection. I also have hints of an idea for a future novel, so it’s good to know that my brain is providing another piece of prose, not just one. I want to build on what I’ve got at the moment and just keep writing.”
Asked what advice she would give to any writer thinking of applying to a mentor scheme, Katie is adamant. “Do it.”
She continues, “Don’t not go for it because you’re afraid of not getting it. The worst that can happen is that you don’t have something you didn’t have anyway.”
With that we’re back to the magic of Margaret Atwood, as Katie lets slip that one of her proudest moments was being tweeted by the Canadian author. I’m more than a little jealous.
But perhaps this post-apocalyptic poet and novelist will be making a splash of her own soon enough.