My Writing Journey – by Vanessa Harbour
My writing journey has been a long one. When I was young I wanted to be a doctor or a writer. My sister sent me photos of a ‘book’ we think I wrote when I was 5ish and sent her when she was away training to be a nurse. You might notice I’d a few issues with spellings (and still do!). I was obviously rather precocious too with wild ambitions to be a poet or rather a ‘powit’ [sic]. It took nearly 40 years before my next poem was published.
My journey back to writing was rather circuitous as was the story of everything in my life. I never take the easy route. I was always a vociferous reader and I wrote a lot when I had my own company, however, it was things like press releases and articles. My life changed when I had some health issues that had a major impact. I started writing poetry and fiction to help deal with them, but it was all adult fiction. It hadn’t occurred to me to write for children at this stage. I had three children that I constantly read to and I loved children’s books but never thought about writing them. Not until I did a degree in English at the University of Winchester. I wanted to do it for various reasons, but the main one was because at that stage they had various creative writing modules and I fancied myself as the next Joanne Trollope! (At that stage they didn’t do the single honours in Creative Writing that they do now) While on the course I had various opportunities to write for children with Judy Waite and Andrew Melrose. It was a revelation as it felt so natural.
Andrew Melrose once said to me ‘If you can write for children you can write for anyone, it’s hard.’ This was a piece of advice that I have held close for a long time. Following my degree, I did an MA in Writing for Children and then eventually achieved my childhood dream, well, sort of, I became a doctor…of writing. I got a PhD in Creative Writing. As part of it I wrote a young adult novel. My third novel by then.
While doing my PhD I started to lecture in Creative Writing at the University at both undergraduate and postgraduate level which I loved. It was during this time that Imogen Cooper came to talk to the students. Sometimes people walk into your life and it is like you have known them forever. This is what it was like with Imogen. We started talking and we have never stopped!
After a little while she came to me and said, ‘I have this idea, would you be interested in being involved.’ That was the Golden Egg Academy and I certainly was. It allowed me to work with aspiring writers. Imogen also offered to mentor me, working on getting my PhD novel out there. It seemed to me a win win situation.
We spent some time working on that novel, but it never felt right, and I went over to see her one day where we had one of ‘those’ discussions. It must have been tough for her and I can imagine she was dreading it beforehand. She suggested I walked away from the PhD novel and started something brand new. Imogen felt the same way I did. It was too much of a ‘PhD’ novel and we just couldn’t get away from it. Half of me panicked as I’d spent four years working on it and wondered if I could remember how to write a story? The other half was thinking, thank goodness, now let’s write something I want too. I will be forever grateful to her for making me do that.
I spent the next couple of weeks worrying. I could write anything I wanted to, yet no story would come. I know this often happens to students they panic when I offer them a chance to write whatever they want. Deep down I’ve the faith that an idea will appear when it’s ready and so it was. It was the August Bank Holiday weekend and I was messing about with Google asking a lot of ‘What happened to…’ questions. In particular, I’d been thinking about my parents who were both alive during the Second World War and I remembered the stories they told. It suddenly came to me ‘What happened to the Spanish Riding School during the Second World War?’ Google took me on a journey including telling me about Operation Cowboy. Suddenly a nugget of a story began to form, and the first line of the story was written. ‘If Jakob sneezed he could die.’ That line has never changed.
I played with it a bit more than emailed Imogen and said what do you think of this idea. She loved it and so Flight began. That was in 2013. There was a total sense of freedom writing this story. It involved a lot of research as it was historical fiction, but I loved that aspect of it. I immersed myself in the world.
I write cold and edit hot. What this means is I get the bare bones of a story down and then go back in and fill in the detail. It also means I can write quite quickly working this way. I typed ‘The End’ on the first draft on the 31st December 2013. Or perhaps that was draft zero as Terry Pratchett suggests, the one where I am telling myself the story. Then started the really hard work, the editing process. A process which I thoroughly enjoy as I bring the story to life.
In 2016 Imogen had another one of ‘those conversations. This time it was to say, ‘let’s start submitting!’ It is always a lot harder than you think. It is never easy to accept rejection, though they were always positive ones. I was at a Golden Egg Academy Retreat where I read a bit of Flight, but more importantly Penny & Janet Thomas of Firefly were there. I knew Penny well having worked with her on various occasions. This time I heard them talk and I fell in love with the pair and the way they worked. Penny had expressed an interest in Flight at the LBF previously but then it wasn’t quite ready. Afterwards Imogen said to me Penny really wants to see Flight and I said “yes, definitely.” Quite quickly (in publishing terms) during a lecture I was giving I could feel my phone vibrating madly. When I’d finished I looked, they were all calls and messages from Imogen. My immediate concern was what had happened to her. I rang her, and she informed me that Penny wanted to meet with me to discuss Flight…and so started me living my dream. See you are never too old. I was 55 this year when my debut novel will be published. Never give up.
Thank you so much for sharing your journey with us, Vanessa.
Flight sounds amazing!
Be sure to check back into the village next week when we will be hosting the cover reveal for this amazing book!
Annaliese, Jarrett, Kathie and Corrina x