Lisa Williamson, who attended our creative writing courses back in 2012, saw her debut Young Adult novel published on 1 January this year. The Art of Being Normal is the thought-provoking tale of a teenage boy who wants to be a girl and his unlikely friendship with another outsider, and it’s already creating a lot of noise among readers due to its stylish writing and controversial subject matter. Like fellow CBC graduate Jessie Burton, Lisa is an actress (you’ll recognise her as the mum from the John Lewis penguin Christmas advert), and she wrote the book in between jobs and at weekends over several months. Here, she reflects on her road to publication and what she gained from her time at Curtis Brown Creative.
What convinced you to take one of our creative writing courses?
I had done several courses, which focused on the craft of writing but offered little in terms of how to actually get your manuscript to the next level (ie, onto the desk of a literary agent or publisher). What attracted me to Curtis Brown Creative was the balance of quality lesson content with talks about the industry from publishers, authors and agents.
Had you done much writing before applying?
I’d done a few creative writing courses and had actually completed a novel (now languishing on my old laptop). The knowledge that I could write something with a beginning, middle and end gave me the confidence to apply to the course with my new novel idea (which eventually became The Art of Being Normal).
How useful was the workshopping process – when you would submit extracts from your novel to be critiqued by your fellow students?
It was probably the most important part of the course for me. Once I’d got over my initial nerves, I came to really trust my classmates and look forward to and value their feedback. I still meet a group of my former classmates every fortnight for workshop sessions, demonstrating, I think, just how helpful this aspect of the course is.
What sort of shape was The Art of Being Normal in when you began the course?
Almost non-existent! I had a couple of non-sequential chapters and a handful of character sketches, but very little else. It was the course that really helped me focus and decide exactly what sort of book I wanted to write. In fact, it was CBC director Anna Davis who suggested I try writing for young adults. I now can’t imagine writing for any other audience.
And how did you motivate yourself to finish the book?
On the last day of the course, I set a deadline for completion. It turned out to be entirely naive and I took a further nine months to finish the book. It was an often frustrating process and some days I never thought I’d figure out how to weave the various plot lines together. I went down quite a few dead ends and have the deleted word count to prove it! I ended up seeking help and was fortunate enough to be offered mentoring by the wonderful Bella Pearson (editor of such books as The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Before I Die). A few simple suggestions later, I was able to finish the novel.
What’s your writing process?
I usually have breakfast and a workout first thing before sitting down at my desk, ready to write by 10am. I don’t finish at a certain time. If things are flowing I might keep going into the night. Although I’m writing full-time now (alongside occasional bits of acting work), I regularly write on the weekend if I have nothing else on. I like to write every day if I can, even if it’s just a few lines.
What inspired you to write a story about a transgender teenager?
Back in 2010, between acting jobs, I found myself working as an administrator for The Gender Identity Development Service – an NHS service for under-18s struggling with their gender identity. I’d been there for over a year before it dawned on me that the experiences of a transgender teenager could provide a very intriguing starting point for a novel. During my time at the service, I found myself really relating to these young people, despite the fact I have never questioned my own gender identity and on the surface have very little in common with them. However, as a teenager, I struggled with working out where I fitted in and feeling ‘different’ (as I think most people do at some point), and it was this that convinced me there was a readership for the book.
There is a total lack of trans characters in fiction, especially in books specifically aimed at young adults, and I feel this absence is wrong. Every young person, whatever their race, gender, sexuality, social class, etc, should be able to walk into a bookshop or library and find a book they can relate to.
How are things going with your second novel?
Good, I think. It’s a contemporary novel for young people again, exploring a group of teenagers dealing with the fact the world is due to end in a week’s time. I was convinced the second novel would be about a thousand times easier than writing The Art of Being Normal, but if anything it’s harder. I’m enjoying it though and hoping to have a first draft by Easter (fingers firmly crossed!).
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our selective three- and six-month novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.