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  • Writer's pictureHelen Lederer

One is not boasting – just sharing what it’s like to win a prize from CWIP

If anyone is suffering from doubt, sofa bottom and a slightly increased interest in afternoon TV  – read the (true) story below and get re-connected -  Helen lederer

Hello CWIP readers…I’m Abigail Mann and up until very recently, my journey writing The Lonely Fajita was, well… very lonely indeed. Ever in need of a deadline, I set myself a year to finish writing the manuscript, using the deadline of the ‘Unpublished’ category of the CWIP prize to get my first few chapters polished up. Up until then, I was either working on it at home, at the local library, or inside a café nursing a flat white for as long as it took before I got asked to buy something else or leave.

Writing a novel is a brilliantly weird thing to do. You tell people you’re going to do it and everyone is very excited for you, but the actual sitting your bum down to tap one word after the other is akin to stuffing a squid in a jam jar; you know it’s possible, but it’s so bloody hard and you frequently want to chuck it in the sea. So, let’s wind back a bit. The summer I left teaching I set about planning a historical novel set in the mid-1800s. Doesn’t sound so funny, does it? THAT’S BECAUSE IT WASN’T. I researched, plotted a whole book, and… couldn’t write the bloody thing. Every time I tried, the words didn’t come. Cue existential crisis: I’d just told everyone I was going to be a writer and the most I had written was a shopping list that exclusively contained wine, gin, and a family bag of crisps.

That’s when ‘free writing’ came in. For a few days, I stuck on a ten-minute timer and wrote without thinking. I read it back and DIDN’T hate it: progress! I showed it to my mum and she laughed. I showed it to a friend and she laughed too. Three weeks later, I’d plotted out a contemporary comedy novel and five months after that I’d finished my first draft. Huzzah!

During those days and nights of initial word wrestling, I realised two things:

I could only read books within the same genre as what I was writing. A brief foray into crime made for a handful of bleak and moody chapters that were deleted in the editing stage.I had to get up and move at least once every hour so that my Fitbit didn’t think I was clinically dead.

One Sunday evening in March (honestly, it should be ILLEGAL for the CWIP judges to contact you with such exciting news just before Countryfile comes on) I got an email to say I was longlisted and it blew my tiny mind. I then spent a week editing and polishing like crazy. To my shame, the only time I have applied comparable focus is during the lake scene in BBC’s Pride and Prejudice.

Then… another wait. THIS IS BANANAS, I thought. Of the handful of people who have now read my novel, Susan Calman and Jenny Eclair are amongst them! By this point, my heart raced every time an email came through, which was useful, in some ways. My Fitbit now falsely believed I was exercising, when in fact I was just getting exciting messages.

One week in May saw the shortlist announcement (wahoo! I’d made it!), an email from an agent asking to read my full manuscript, and an appearance on BBC Look East. My Nan was WILD with excitement! It was around this time that I consulted my spreadsheet of potential agents that I’d been curating over the past few months. I pinged off seven queries, got five replies, and met with two. Out of these, Hayley Steed at the Madeline Milburn agency became my literary lobster and I went to the CWIP awards night already feeling like I’d hit the jackpot.

When I was announced as the runner-up, I was motioned towards a microphone and it was then that everything intelligent I had ever thought fell out of my head. The fact that Jilly Cooper and Marian Keyes were an arms-length away might have had something to do with it. The rest of the night was a wonderful blur. I had a gold envelope, lots of sparkling wine, and managed to stay upright in my heels. Result!

Soon after, my agent sent off The Lonely Fajita to a bunch of editors and thus ensued The Wait. Right at the beginning when I started the book, finishing it was the only goal I had in mind. Now, nearly a year on, I was allowing myself to consider the possibility that it might, mightget to be a real-life novel.

They say that altitude makes you emotional, but I’d add a caveat to that: when you’re about to take off and read an email with the subject title ‘Offer for The Lonely Fajita’, that’s when the waterworks burst. By October I’d met my editor Tilda McDonald (she totally understood my book and was wonderfully lovely) and a few weeks later I’d signed a two-book deal with One More Chapter, an imprint of HarperCollins.

Since then, I’ve gone through three more edits and waved goodbye to my manuscript for the last time at the beginning of December. Now it has a beautiful cover, which is now the wallpaper on my phone. I gush about it and thrust it under the nose of anyone who will look like it’s a picture of my first born. Now for the sentence I can’t believe I get to say: The Lonely Fajita ebook comes out in May, with a paperback to follow. You can pre-order it here. I also have a monthly newsletter featuring all sorts of news and updates.

If you’re reading this and STILL umming and erring about whether to send your manuscript in, BLOODY DO IT. It’s the best decision I have ever made and the community of CWIPers who emerged from the 2019 prize continue to be a hive of sisterly support.

Now I’ve bashed that out, back I go to my writing cave like a hunchbacked gremlin to work on book two… wish me luck!

The Lonely Fajita ebook publication date: 14th May

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