Jenny Quintana has become the 20th Curtis Brown Creative student to land a publishing deal, just days after her book was sent out to UK publishers by Conville & Walsh’s Sophie Lambert. On the eve of the London Book Fair, UK rights were bought at auction by Mantle Books, an imprint of Macmillan. German rights were snapped up by Goldmann after a hefty pre-empt, and Italian rights have also been sold already. Jenny workshopped her novel on our creative writing courses in Spring 2014, and we’re thrilled with the news of her success.
When Birds Forget to Sing (a title which we’re told may yet change) is the story of Anna, whose sister Gabriella disappeared years before as a teenager. When her mother dies, Anna returns home, reigniting her questions – and her quest to uncover the truth – about what happened to Gabriella. Sam Humphreys, Associate Publisher at Mantle, who bought Jenny’s book, has called it, “… a wonderful, wonderful novel: part whodunnit, part account of a life interrupted – not just Gabriella’s, but also Anna’s.”
Jenny is a teacher and mother of three who taught English in England, Spain and Greece before turning her hand to novel-writing. We’ve asked her to tell us about her experiences, the novel, and her life since Curtis Brown Creative:
When you started your Curtis Brown Creative course, how much of your novel had you already written?
I’d written around 70,000 words. I was fairly confident about the story I wanted to tell and how it would end, but I wasn’t necessarily clear how to ‘get there’. During the course I deleted at least half of those words and wrote completely fresh material.
How did the novel change during the course and how has the finished novel changed from your original idea?
The idea itself hasn’t really changed, but at the start of the course, I was telling the story not only in the past and in the present, but also from two points of view. I knew it was complicated, but it hadn’t occurred to me to change things. Then Anna Davis suggested during our tutorial that I axed one point of view completely. At first this sent me into panic and thinking how on earth I was going to get my story across, but when I calmed down, I realised she was right. This was one person’s story and it was important to only be inside her head. After this, I made plot changes to accommodate, and then when I was working with Sophie Lambert, I made further changes: shrinking the cast of characters, the different locations, making the whole more claustrophobic and most importantly about one character.
What would you say was the most helpful aspect of your writing course?
There were so many helpful aspects to the course, it’s impossible to name just one. Our tutor was Erin Kelly and her insightful comments were invaluable, as was her encouragement. She knew each of our novels thoroughly and made reference to them in every class. As well as this, the challenge of workshopping material was incredibly helpful – both when listening to views on my work and having the courage to speak honestly about the work of others. Accepting criticism is such an important (and difficult!) part of the process. And I loved getting to know everybody’s novels. Oh yes, and William Boyd’s visit was amazing too!
When Birds Forget to Sing is a hugely emotionally charged novel. Where did you take your inspiration from?
Like most people, when I hear news stories not only about lost children but about other senseless and unexpected tragedies, I find them impossible to understand; ‘normal’ life changes in an instant. It seems especially terrible when the truth is hidden; when no one knows what happened or why. Often the focus is on the parents, but I wanted to explore the effect loss can have on a younger sibling; how they might deal with the void left in their lives.
How did you approach writing a novel with a strand in the present and a strand in the past? Was it difficult to switch between the two?
I wrote my first draft alternating between the past and the present, trying to keep the whole story in my head. Eventually, this became complicated and I realised I was making too many mistakes in the narrative, so I divided the two strands and wrote past and present as stories in themselves. This way, I was able to immerse myself in each strand more effectively, living each world separately. When it came to merging them, I used my instinct rather than any particularly plotting device, although it took a few attempts at working out exactly where to make the different breaks.
How did you come to sign up with your agent, Sophie Lambert? Tell us a bit about how the two of you worked together to get your novel ready to be sent out to publishers.
Sophie came to speak to us during the course. I’d already looked at her author list, listened to what she had to say, and knew that she was someone I would love to work with. About six months later, I’d written a draft I was happy with, and sent it to Sophie and a few weeks after that she emailed me to offer representation. I was hugely excited, but the first thing she did was to talk to me and give me a set of notes to work from which brought me back down to earth. After this first rewrite, we looked at the manuscript more closely. Sophie was very honest and clear headed about what still needed changing and I took every bit of her advice. After a further couple of months of working together, the novel was ready to submit.
What was it like when Sophie told you a publisher had made an offer for your novel?
It was a very exciting time, but deep down, despite the interest from publishers, I didn’t believe it would really happen. When the final offer came through I felt a mixture of relief, excitement, gratitude and complete happiness.
What advice would you give to writers working on their first novels?
Being a novelist has been my dream since I was a child, but as with so many other writers, life, lack of self-belief and knock-backs got in the way. And yet, despite the near misses and the low moments, the hours of writing words that I thought no one might ever read, I never stopped dreaming. So my advice would be don’t give up, but also don’t think too far into the future. Writing a novel is so huge that if you think about anything other than the next chapter, page or paragraph, self-doubt creeps in and threatens to knock you off your writing perch. Complete the novel and then take the next step. And then the next. And one more thing: Consider every piece of advice you’re offered even if you don’t like it!
For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:
Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Wed 17 January).
Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Wed 24 January).
For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for:
Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sun 28 Jan).
We are offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:
Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).
Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).
Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).