The Penguin WriteNow event

A while ago, I saw on Twitter that Penguin Random House were running a scheme for under-represented writers (eg. BAME writers, LGBTQI writers and disabled writers). They were going to invite 150 applicants to events in London, Bristol and Newcastle and then choose ten for a year-long mentoring programme and possible publication. I wanted to apply, but I wasn’t sure whether my cancer counted as a disability. I asked a few people. And then I realised that the answer was simple. Part of the application process was to explain how you fitted the criteria. So all I needed to do was fill it in honestly and let the organisers decide.

A month later, I got an email inviting me to the Bristol event. I discovered on Twitter that 1700 people had applied, and I couldn’t believe I was one of the chosen 150. I sent Paul a text. Then, before he could congratulate me, another one, saying that I couldn’t go. I’d applied for the London event, but been invited to the Bristol one, which clashed with Paul’s family 40th birthday party. He said I should go anyway, and I truly appreciated that, even though it seemed all wrong. On the off-chance, I sent an email asking if it would be possible to swap to the London event. And Penguin said yes.

I’d had to send a one thousand-word writing sample with the application, and as the event approached, I sent a further five thousand words. With a few days to go, I was told the name of the Penguin editor I’d be having a one-to-one with. It all felt a bit surreal. The London event was taking place at Penguin’s offices on the Strand. I’d walked past the building a hundred times, when we lived in London. And when my friend Lara got a job there, I’d longed to get inside somehow. She told me once that everyone went a bit quiet and a bit crazy when Dave Eggers visited, and I thought of that building, those world-famous writers walking its corridors. And me, locked outside.

And then, just like that, I was invited in. My meeting with the editor was right at the beginning of the day, and we talked about the concept behind my new novel and where it was going. She explained how she would pitch it, said that she thought I wrote well. Twenty minutes was over oh-so-quickly, and I found my place at one of the big round tables in the main room. It was like all the work conferences I’ve been to, except that all the talks were about writing and publishing and I didn’t really want the breaks to come around. I learned a lot about the whole process, from writing to pitching to publication, and I met some lovely people who were writing about a whole range of fascinating things. Like me, they were hungry and keen and ready.

One of the highlights was hearing one of last-year’s mentees talk about the process and what it’s meant for her. She was humble and self-deprecating and warm, and I started to wonder about whether it could possibly happen to me. I looked around the room at all those eager faces. Someone has to be chosen. Ten people, in fact. I believe that, last year, they ended up choosing twelve. But the odds are stacked against me and, to be honest, that’s ok. If this is as far as I go in this process, that’s absolutely fine. I’ve made some contacts and got inside Penguin’s doors and been reinvigorated with enthusiasm and excitement.

I think the best thing of all was that, that day, all fifty of us were taken seriously as writers. That’s pretty rare, when you’re starting out. There are a lot of nos, a lot of closed doors. But that day, people who work in the publishing industry, from editors to agents to book buyers to authors, had given up their Saturday to help out a group of writers whose voices aren’t being heard. And that felt really special.

I headed home with a goody bag full of books and a feeling of great contentment. Since then, I’ve made some more big changes to my outline and got back to the writing. It feels like a long slog, writing a novel. Because it is. One day the words come easily and another they don’t. This morning, I struggled and stressed over a thousand words, and this afternoon I wrote another two thousand in half the time. All I can do is keep at it, one day, and then another. Word, after word, after word.

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