Louise McCreesh was awarded the HW Fisher Scholarship in 2016, giving her a fully-paid place on our 3-month novel-writing course in London. Her novel stood out to the CBC team for its unique narrative voice, which powerfully expressed the mental frailty and anxiety suffered by many of us – and which deployed that voice in the telling of a compelling crime story. Now Louise has a deal with Hodder & Stoughton for Cracked, the novel she was writing on the course. She’s the second of our HW Fisher scholars to get a book deal – the first being Kiare Ladner whose debut, Nightshift, was snapped up by Picador last year.
Here, Louise talks to us about her journey to publication and beyond …
Your novel, Cracked, is a murder mystery story in which the protagonist is forced to revisit a dark phase of her past when she hears her psychiatrist has been killed. Tell us about the process of plotting your crime novel. And did you find it difficult to get it right?
I’ve always loved crime as a genre and thought I’d be a better plotter than I am — but I think a lot of people find plotting hard. So, that comforts me a little.
My first draft of this novel had three timelines, which was exhausting. During my CBC course, I had a meeting with Anna Davis and the first thing she said to me was to cut one of the timelines — and she was totally right. Even so, plotting has probably been the toughest part of writing this book because staging two different sets of events so that they unfold simultaneously over two timelines takes a lot of planning. I’m a more of a dive-in-and-see-where-I-end-up personality, so I worked myself into endless knots trying to smooth everything out, which was definitely challenging. It’s taken a lot of tinkering and structural changes to keep every reveal in order, but my thinking has always been that the book will work itself out eventually — and I hope it finally has.
Your novel offers compelling insights into past and present mental health issues. Was it important to you to tell the story of someone who has struggled with their mental health?
Cracked started with a metaphor I wrote during a bad mental health day. The metaphor isn’t in the book any more — it was essentially a woman eating a rotten apple after identifying with it — but mental health has definitely stayed the main theme of the story.
It was important for me to the tell the story of someone who has struggled with mental health, because it felt like the story I was most equipped to tell. The past timeline is set entirely within a psychiatric hospital called Hillside — which is based on an eating disorder hospital I visited for a university project (I trained as a journalist). I just thought it would be a great setting for a crime book. Even the staff were interesting and it just made my brain whir, as it’s a place where people from all walks of life come together and their one common bond is essentially that they have a part of their brain that — for lack of a better term — wants to destroy them.
I also feel like crime fiction and mental health have a natural correlation, as in many cases they both revolve around the notion of the past coming back to haunt you. The Secret History, Dark Places and Friend Request (by former CBC student Laura Marshall) are examples of that in fiction, and it’s also the very nature of mental health triggers and relapsing. So, it felt like a natural theme to explore over the course of the novel.
Your writing and your idea for Cracked instantly stood out when you applied for the HW Fisher Novel-Writing Scholarship in 2016 – what did the scholarship place mean to you? And what was the most important thing you learned on your Curtis Brown Creative 3-month novel-writing course?
When I applied for the CBC scholarship, I had just quit a full-on day job because I could not stop having panic attacks about it and was worrying about my future. I thought I had no chance whatsoever of receiving the scholarship – so when I did, it felt like permission for me to pursue this thing that I had loved for so long. Cracked isn’t my first book; I previously wrote a YA novel when I was 19 — but being on the course taught me to read like a writer for the first time and it really opened my eyes to the whole publishing process. Anna also helped me make a few key editorial decisions which, to an extent, made the book what it is today — and she knew my original title would have to go years before I did.
Tell us about the process of editing and rewriting that you’ve gone through with your agent, Rebecca Ritchie – and now with your editor, Eve Hall, at Hodder & Stoughton?
Cracked has a lot of characters and ideas so streamlining the plot and making it faster paced were the things I worked on most with my agent Becky, who was so insightful and made me realise a lot of elements the book was missing. My editor, Eve, keeps me honest and has the uncanny ability of troubleshooting problems before I even realise they’re there — and the book wouldn’t be what it is without either of them. I’m still editing now and we all message each other to keep up to speed, so it feels very much like a team effort.
Many of our students form lifelong friendships and writing support groups whilst studying on our courses. Are you still in touch with any of your course mates?
Yes. There is a group of us who still keep in touch pretty regularly and I attended my friend Rachael Blok’s launch for Under the Ice in November, where we had a reunion of sorts. It’s so nice and exciting to have a group of people who understand what you’re going through because writing a book and trying to get it published can be a weird and lonely experience. It’s hard to put yourself out there in a new industry – and having people you can share the journey with makes it a lot less scary.
Do you have any advice for writers who are just starting out?
I think reading a lot is essential and also being empathetic and/or having a good imagination. Then again, I also think, ‘who am I to give writing advice?’ If you want to do it, go for it.
What’s next for you? Any writing projects on the horizon?
I’ve written the first part — and actually plotted — a second novel that I am very excited about. I’ve had the idea for years – it’s a novel about twins that isn’t really about twins at all. The protagonist is a bit of a wild child, and whereas Cracked is a story about mental health, this book is ultimately a story about grief, with a big mystery at its centre…
Cracked will be published by Hodder & Stoughton in 2020.
The next HW Fisher Novel-Writing Scholarship is currently open for applications. One student of limited financial means will be awarded a fully-funded place on our upcoming Three-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Charlotte Mendelson.
Applications are also open for our next three-month online course which you can take anywhere in the world: Three-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Suzannah Dunn.
If you’re writing YA or children’s fiction why not take a look at our selective entry online course for Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson.
We also run six-week online courses designed to help writers at different stages of their novel-writing journey, enrol today: Starting to Write Your Novel (which next runs on February 20th, so hurry!) , Write to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel.