Writing Tips

Author Q & A: Helen Cox


In honour of this week’s Winchester Writers’ Festival (happening now!), I’ve decided to do a few posts about the world of writing. Hundreds of fledgling authors and writers, myself included, have flocked to Winchester this weekend to learn the ins and outs of the publishing business, glean some tips from veteran writers, and network with fellow authors.

To wrap up our short series of posts, I caught up with Helen Cox, author of Milkshakes and Heartbreaks at the Starlight Diner, available 4 July. (Don’t worry – you can preorder your copy now, and if you can’t stand to wait, Helen has kindly offered three free short stories for us to enjoy in the run up to launch day!)

What is the single most important piece of advice you could give someone who’s nervous about approaching a publisher?

The odds are, unless it’s a small press, you won’t be approaching a publisher direct – ideally you’ll have an agent and your agent will handle that. If you are answering an open call for submissions, give yourself the best chance of success by getting some impartial, editorial feedback first. Preferably from somebody you don’t know. People advertise affordable editing services online and there are Beta Reader groups on Good Reads you could join.

I’d also recommend finding a writing partner with whom you can swap work with regularly. Doing all this, so long as you redraft your manuscript appropriately based on the feedback you get, will make your work the strongest it can be, which puts you in the best possible position for approaching a publisher.

What’s your favourite part of the writing process?

There are a couple – yes I’m going to weasel out of picking one because I’m sneaky like that. I love ‘being’ with my characters at their highest and lowest points. Understanding what they’re feeling and watching them strive, and claw and fight even though things have got really tough for them. Watching them get closer to who and what they want to be, while I transcribe that journey. Those are pretty priceless times to be a writer.

The other ‘best bit’ is the gratification of somebody telling you they enjoyed something you wrote. That those words meant something to them and made them smile or think or feel. To have that impact on a total stranger, well what could be better than that?

You seem to have quite the fascination with American culture. Tell us how it started, what you thought of New York when you went, and how this has influenced your writing.

When it comes to my fascination with America, I think it might be something of a generational thing. To kids growing up in the eighties, America was just the coolest place in the universe. Kids TV producers pandered to this and often inserted an American character into the storyline of our favourite shows, or hired a Brit who could deliver an almost-passable American accent. So in short, I thought America was cool from a very young age.

When it comes to New York City, it’s really hard for me to quantify what it is that draws me to it, which is perhaps a signifier of just how in-love with the place I am. I can count on one hand the places I have a real connection with; the places that feel like home, but New York is one of them. I certainly think the liberal attitude of the city is part of the appeal. People from so many different walks of life, living side-by-side, pulling together into one huge community and sharing pride in the place they’ve chosen to live. Obviously, the architecture in New York is awe-inspiring and it’s also surrounded by water. For a woman like myself who is drawn to cities close to rivers, this is definitely a plus point.

Helen, during her trip to NYC to conduct research for MilkshakesHeartbreaks

You’re published by Avon Books UK, a division of the household name HarperCollins. They seem like a fun bunch on Twitter. Tell us a little bit about how your manuscript was accepted, the publishing process, and what it’s like working with them.

My manuscript was accepted direct by the publisher which is pretty rare but essentially, after finishing my novel, I spent about six months being rejected by agents. Each time, I’d send out my first three chapters and a synopsis to three agents, get rejected and then re-edit again in the hope that whatever was ‘wrong’ with my MS was fixable.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

The average writer goes through this experience with several different manuscripts before being published. It’s sensible to move on when you experience this level of rejection. It’s a clear sign that market trends are not in your favour…

The thing is, I’m bloody minded and would not let go. I was so invested in this book. I talked about it to anyone who would listen, whether I knew them that well or not. I Tweeted about it. I blogged about it. I put so much energy behind it, I figured, at some point, someone would notice what I was doing and take a chance on an unknown kid.

And eventually somebody did. Gigi Woolstencroft, someone I knew who worked in publishing, listened to me talk about (alright bemoan) the soul-crushing rejection I’d experienced. She’d read the first draft and said she thought I would’ve had more success with agents.

To my surprise, and extreme gratitude, she went on to personally recommend my novel to Helena Sheffield at HarperCollins, who in turn read it and recommended it to commissioning editor Natasha Harding. At best, I was expecting an email with some feedback about why my work wasn’t getting published but they both loved my novel and offered me a publishing contract. Not just for one book, but for two.

The most important lesson I took away from this was that getting your work published is a bit of a numbers game. There are millions of people out there writing and there are only so many books that can be traditionally published in a year. Because I kept talking about my novel to anyone who would even pretend to listen, my work eventually wound up on the desk of the right person.

If I hadn’t been so lucky as to get a recommendation of somebody who really believed in what I’d written, I would have kept submitting to contests, open calls for submissions and to agents because I believed in the book. By all means start your next writing project, but if you’ve written something you believe in, never stop trying to get it in front of people who might be able to either recommend you, offer you editorial advice or give you the name of someone who can.

Speaking of Twitter, you have quite the presence there. You’re constantly interacting with fellow writers and showing gratitude to your readers. Any tips for newbie writers on how to use Twitter to build a network?

For a long time, the number of followers I had on Twitter baffled me. I have a sort of ‘I Tweet therefore I am’ philosophy by which a lot of my random thoughts get streamed direct to Twitter, and I honestly didn’t think this would be of interest to anyone.

Apparently I was wrong. A lot of people tell me I come across ‘very natural’ on Twitter. Which I guess is their way of saying I sound genuine and not like I’m trying to project a version of myself into the digi-verse. Who has time for that, I wonder?

The most likely reason I have such a wonderful following however, is that I really enjoy the ‘social’ element of social media. I want to hear from my readers and followers. I like to follow their journeys and be a part of what’s happening to them, just as they are a part of me. If you’re running the kind of Twitter feed on which you just spit out posts, if you never interact with people, then in my experience people won’t engage with you long-term. Nobody likes to be ignored either online or offline, and, unless you’ve got tens of thousands of followers, it’s pretty easy to keep track and respond to people who are reaching out to you.

Do you have any old dusty manuscripts sitting in a drawer somewhere, waiting on you to dig them out and bring them back to life?

Um. Not really. I know that’s not really the thing to say. But I only ever attempted one novel before Milkshakes (a gothic romance set in Yorkshire) and I gave up after ten chapters because the protagonist and I had something of a falling out. She was being sulky and self-indulgent and I needed her to snap out of it. She didn’t, so we parted ways.

Every writer has to pick a side – tea or coffee?

Rather controversially, I don’t drink either. As a Yorkshire lass, this bitter truth has brought much shame on my family. I get my caffeine from Diet Coke. If I was forced to drink one however, I’d choose tea because of the whole ‘Afternoon Tea’ scene. Cake and scones are made available, and this pleases me.

If you could share a milkshake (but no heartbreaks, hopefully) with anyone, dead or alive, at the Starlight Diner, who would it be and why?

A very thought-provoking question. Obviously, the temptation is to say the Dread Pirate Roberts. Who wouldn’t want to share a milkshake with him? But I’ll be sensible for once and say Maya Angelou. She is one of the most inspirational authors and poets I’ve ever read. From what I’ve understood through her writing, she was as courageous as she was wise. I’m relatively sure she could put my sarcastic, rowdy characters in order within a few minutes of sitting up to the Starlight Diner counter, and I know I could learn so much from her in person, just as I already have from her words on the page.

Thanks for the chat and phenomenal writing advice, Helen! May it serve every festival-goer well in their writing endeavours while they anxiously await your debut.


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