06 June 2019

Ella Berman: ‘I always try to find the humour wherever I can’

Ella Berman, author
by Katie Smart Author Interviews, From Our Students

Ella Berman studied novel-writing with us in London on a 3-month course in 2016. Now she’s our 63rd former student with a book deal! Her debut novel The Comeback will be published in the US by Berkley in 2020. We caught up with Ella to find out more about her time on the course and her journey to publication …

You took our 3-month London-based novel-writing course back in 2016. How did your time on the course impact the way that you approach novel-writing?
I have always loved writing and believed that I would write a novel one day, but I never seemed to get round to starting one. The first day of the course felt completely surreal. I was surrounded by writers who were somehow taking me seriously when I said I wanted to be one too. All I had was the 3000 words I had written as part of the application process, so I was slightly behind everyone else but it also meant I could absorb the advice we were being given on a general level, without tying myself in knots about my book.

Along with the confidence boost of getting on the course, the structure and discipline of having to submit every couple of weeks changed everything for me. I also learned a lot about the practical aspects of publishing (e.g. summarizing, pitching and submitting a novel), and I think that in itself made the course invaluable.

Here at CBC we’re big believers in finding your writing tribe – do you keep in touch with any of the writers from the course?
We are all still in touch, and we share updates and extracts with each other when we can! Rachael (Blok, author of Under the Ice) from my course was actually the first person to read The Comeback, and she always gives me the most astute advice. She sent me her second book, Scorched Earth, recently and it was so gripping that I read it in a day. We are all very supportive of each other – it was particularly inspiring when Rachael and Louise (McCreesh) got book deals, as it felt within reach for the first time.

Your debut novel is a different novel to the one that you worked on with us during the course – it can be tricky to set a novel aside and start something new – how did you know it was time to try something different?
I had never attempted a novel or even completed a short story before CBC so I look at the YA novel I was writing on the course as a protonovel (David Mitchell’s word!). I knew nothing about genre distinctions, or the importance of being able to pitch something succinctly, and it quickly became apparent that my writing fell between a number of things. By the time I had taken various agents’ advice, the book no longer felt linear or authentic to me. It was like a patchwork quilt made up of random, well-intentioned advice I’d tried to implement over the months. I learned a very important lesson about losing sight of my own vision (as obnoxious as that sounds), so I stole the best lines and set the book aside. I don’t see it as a waste of time at all because I learned so much about both the writing process and the submission process, and I knew I’d found a handful of agents who liked my writing

I started writing The Comeback in early 2017, and I applied everything I had learned both from Louise Wener and Anna Davis, but also the submission process first time around. I work quickly and instinctively (code for I’m awful at planning), but I tried to slow down and prepare more this time. I still write in intense bursts, losing track of everything around me for hours, but I am much more aware of things like genre and the pitch, and I try to balance the amount of existential millennial malaise with actual plot.

If you could share one piece of advice with writers who are just starting to submit to agents, what would it be?
It would be to take a moment to appreciate the little wins. It’s human nature to want more and more, but if you think about where you were before you even started the course, you’ve already come so far. Having an agent request a full manuscript or tell you they like something about your writing is an accomplishment in itself, and it’s important not to feel jaded if you don’t hear back from someone or if they end up passing. Every time an agent said something positive about my writing I wrote it down, as I knew I’d need it over the next few months of submissions!

How did it feel when you received the offer for your two book deal with Berkley?
It was the most incredible feeling. I tend to wildly over-think everything and worry that things will be an anti-climax but this absolutely wasn’t. It was just pure happiness mixed with an intense relief that I’d found such a perfect team in Julia (my UK agent), David (my US agent) and Jen (my editor at Berkley), who each understand exactly what I’m aiming for with my writing, and want to make it the best it can possibly be.

Finally, can you tell is a bit more about The Comeback ?
The book follows Grace, a former child star, returning to her life in LA after a year in self-imposed suburban exile. As she attempts to piece her life back together, Grace circles ever closer to the man who controlled her life for eight years, discovering that revenge is complicated and redemption can come in unforeseen forms.

Although Grace lives a life of seeming privilege and success, her experiences are universal and relatable, with a focus on the complexities of female friendship, family ties and mental health. I always try to find the humour wherever I can to show that life isn’t always one thing or the other – dark or light, since it’s often the nuances and grey areas that interest me most. As a result, we see the world through Grace’s eyes but The Comeback isn’t a classic revenge story by any means. While it has never been important to me that readers like Grace, I do want them to understand her, and to understand more about the mechanisms of trauma, abuse and control in the process.

If you’re currently working on a novel and are interested in studying with us in London like Ella did, our Six-Month Novel-Writing Course with Simon Wroe is currently open for applications.

Or, you can take a look at all of the creative-writing course we currently have available for enrolment or application (in London or online) here.

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